Written and directed by Léos Carax

Aug 25, 1999 at 4:00 am

Roundly criticized when it was first released in France back in 1991 — less on artistic grounds than for what the French viewed as director Léos Carax's unbridled egoism (egregious even by French standards) and profligate attitude toward other people's money — The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont Neuf) in recent years has been re-evaluated by French critics and wildly embraced by American reviewers who managed to catch it either in Europe or at one of several North American film festivals. Some admirers have gone so far as to hail the film, which follows the amour fou between two grim and grimy young vagabonds, as a masterpiece. Now, eight years after the picture's Gallic premiere, American moviegoers are finally getting the opportunity to see what all the fuss is about — and many, if not most, will walk away disappointed.

Set in the year 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the film marks one of Juliette Binoche's early roles. She plays Michèle, a homeless art student suffering the effects of both a devastating love affair and a degenerative eye disease that has already claimed the sight in one eye. Seeking a place to sleep, she stumbles onto the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, which has been closed for extensive repairs.

Michèle's arrival on the bridge offends its resident wino, Hans (Klaus-Michel Grüber), who roughly demands that the interloper depart. But her presence is welcomed by the Pont Neuf's other inhabitant, a young, battered and bruised derelict named Alex (Carax favorite Denis Lavant) who earns a few francs as a fire-eater and steals whatever else he and Hans need.

Alex falls hopelessly in love with Michèle, who, in grief and despair over her failing eyesight, embarks on a frenzied affair with the soulful but Neanderthal-like vagrant. Together they drunkenly explore Paris, dancing in wild abandon across the Pont Neuf during the city's spectacular July 14 fireworks celebration, stealing a boat and waterskiing down the Seine, and drugging café patrons and stealing their money to pay for a brief holiday at the seashore.

It is only when Alex spies a missing-person poster in a subway tunnel that he learns his ragged girlfriend is the estranged daughter of a well-placed bourgeois family, which is desperately trying to locate her. Afraid of losing his love, he goes to great lengths to keep the news from her.

Presumably viewers are supposed to see Alex and Michèle as star-crossed lovers, struggling to survive in a cold, insensitive world. And that might have been the reaction if we were permitted some glimpse into Alex's past or more insight into Michèle's. But with no explanation for how or why Alex drifted into a life of dissipation and misery, or why Michèle ran away from a loving family (her tragic medical condition doesn't provide a complete answer), it is nearly impossible to embrace the two emotionally. Halfway through the film, the equally dispossessed Hans reveals the facts of his own sad life to Michèle, and only at that point does he become a sympathetic figure to whom we can relate — not because we feel sorry for him but because in revealing his scarred past and the deep emotions that spring from it, he becomes a more fully drawn character.

The fault lies not with the actors, all of whom excel. Lavant, who also starred in Carax's first two films, the well-received Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), brings a touching soulfulness to his role, and Binoche, also a Carax veteran, captures a sense of both crazy delirium and utter hopelessness.

"Delirium" is a word that will no doubt figure prominently in reviews of The Lovers on the Bridge. But what some will find intensely delirious, romantic and enveloping about this story and its characters, others will find tedious and uninvolving. Perhaps only two things about the film are beyond dispute: the dazzling, lyrical camerawork by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier and the magnificent production design by Michel Vandestien, who re-created the bridge, a wide swath of the Seine and acres of Parisian city blocks on swampy farmland in the south of France. Permission was initially granted to shoot the movie on the actual Pont Neuf, but an injury to Lavant forced a delay in the start of production. By the time the actor had recovered, the bridge was no longer available. The set is a wondrous — even mad — feat and accounts for much of the film's runaway cost (originally budgeted at 32 million francs, $5.6 million, it reputedly cost five times that amount and took three years to complete).

But the achievement in art direction and cinematography, as impressive as they are here, cannot compensate for uninvolving characters and a tortured, tedious storyline. The Lovers on the Bridge is obviously a very personal film for Carax, who approached it with great passion. But his attempt to marry stark realism to a surreal style — to, in effect, present an intimate love story against a stylized, larger-than-life canvas — falters on the most basic and important level: the viewer's ability to connect with the characters.

Opens Aug. 27 at the Kirkwood.