Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
Whenever the light is low and a bad smell wafts in from the garbage on the street, I remember one of my favourite grunge movies: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, by the punk wunderkind Leos Carax. He’s a filmmaker who knows his grunge history of art, and is unafraid to display that knowledge. This history pours out of his film like blood from an open artery. All the French poets who wandered the streets and yearned for the mud are here, including the Surrealists. The ghosts of those delightful, anarchic tramps and eccentric outsiders of 1930s French cinema are here, too, like those that Michel Simon played in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) and L’Atalante (1934) – Carax has joked that he would cast Simon if he was still around. All of our contemporary screen icons are here, as well, the ones who loved and lost, smirked and struck a pose as they hit the pavement in their closing scene: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), Hanna Schygulla in R.W. Fassbinder’s films, Pedro Almodóvar’s camp queens following their melodramatic desires unto death. Plus Charles Bukowski and Jean Genet and Leonard Cohen, somewhere evoked or echoed or in Carax’s rich flow of images and sounds; it all ends with the glorious anthem of Les Rita Mitsouko, “Les Amants”.
The initial trick of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is simple but astonishing. It starts right in the gutter, looking like a documentary on homeless people in Paris. We see them rounded up in vans, put in showers, fed and then thrust back out onto the streets. At a certain moment, Carax flicks a switch: his main bum, Alex, played by his favourite, acrobatic, fire-eating actor Denis Lavant, sees a magnificent woman (Juliette Binoche as Michèle) living by her wits on the Pont-Neuf bridge. So he falls in love, and starts floating on air. Poetry fills the soundtrack; fireworks, literally, fill the screen. There’s dancing and swimming and snowflakes; all kinds of rapturous events happen in the lives of these two streetwise nobodies.
All the while, naturally, we know better; we know that they are star-crossed romantics, and there are dreadful hints of sickness and madness shadowing their impossible love story. But it doesn’t matter; the film has proven that it can transport you back and forth between the gutter and the stars, between reality and dream, in the blink of an edit; and it has found a perfect way of combining the most hopelessly pining, sentimental innocence and the grungiest decadence and decay. This is an intoxicating mixture for all us modern, underground lovers.
When Philippe Garrel was asked at the dawn of the 1990s why he made films, he replied: “I make them for Jean-Luc Godard, for Leos Carax”. Godard, the ageing Nouvelle Vague icon, is a familiar culture hero. But who is Carax? In Europe, he is – or was, for a time, given the fickleness of fashion – a phenomenon. The movies he made in the ‘80s, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais sang (1986), are vibrant, stylish and confronting. Critics could not decide whether he was merely the most bombastic artist of the rock video generation – lazily clasping him to the cinéma du look associated with the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson – or the rightful heir to Godard’s bold cinematic modernism. But Carax’s potent combination of punk nihilism, flamboyant romanticism and audiovisual pyrotechnics immediately struck a chord with authentically cult-seeking audiences.
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf arrived with a behind-the-scenes production legend that threatened to be almost more spectacular than the film itself. Like Francis Ford Coppola with One From the Heart (1982), Carax gave birth to a monster, a “folly” that he fought hard to control. (It is duly included in Stuart Klawans’ colourful 1999 book Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order.) Shooting was halted twice over a three-year period, and at one point the Pont-Neuf bridge (on which most of the story is set), when the real thing was no longer available for the shoot, had to be reconstructed as a set – with its surrounding vista of Paris included. Having finally chalked up the highest budget in French cinema history to that date – and then failing to conquer the international arthouse market – Carax haughtily announced that he would never work in his home country again. It took him the better part of a decade to return to the screen with the cryptic, badly received, extremely intriguing Pola X (1999, reconfigured in 2001 as a TV mini-series titled, as per Herman Melville’s source novel, Pierre ou les ambiguïtés). His career then went into limbo again for the better part of a decade.
Beyond its gossipy legend, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is a truly amazing film, and in retrospect one of the key films of the ‘90s – an epic of love, art, death and crazy camera angles that recalls the similarly grand folly of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) – an extravagant, unforgettable testament. Yet its subject is not one of the grand events of history such as Gance tackled; taking a populist path, Carax focuses on a tortured love affair between two anonymous, battered outcasts. Michèle is the artist fleeing from a bourgeois home and a broken relationship; Alex is a vagrant and street performer, seemingly without any past.
The punk side of Carax’s sensibility leads him to inflict enormous physical handicaps and hardships on these little lovers. Michèle is going blind; Alex suffers from drunken bouts of self-mutilation. Their love, born in the gutter, is aimed at the stars; it is as if they are frantically trying to store up all the world’s sensual and sensory experiences before the cosmos blinks out. As pure spectacle, the film boasts several extraordinary sequences – particularly a lovers’ dance on Bastille night, music and fireworks filling the sky. Dwarfing his characters with a stunning barrage of images and sounds, Carax ultimately transforms Les Amants du Pont-Neuf into a declaration of both love and hate for the city of Paris.
But I need to dig deeper into this monumental work. So: there’s an old film that’s very precious to me, a very odd and singular masterpiece titled Peter Ibbetson (1935), starring Gary Cooper as the titular seeker-hero. In its ethereal quality of mystical innocence, it could almost pass as a film made for children – except that it also trembles with intimations of mortality, menace and erotic attraction. It’s basically about a man and woman (Ann Harding as Mary), deeply connected to each other from early childhood, but separated in adult life; they then manage to meet up at nighttime, in a shared dreamspace. Not surprisingly, it was beloved of the artists and writers of the surrealist movement. There’s one special scene in this sublime movie that I try to keep close to me – and close to my vocation as a film critic.
It’s a scene in which Peter has almost died from a violent back injury inflicted on him as jail punishment; the pain has plunged him into bottomless despair, causing him to doubt the superior reality of his nightly wanderings with his beloved in dreamland. So Mary (aka Mimsy) manages to send Peter (Gogo) a little token – a ring – that will prove to him that their mystical connection is true. Subsequently, in a close-up of Cooper that is as softly focused and sweetly lit as any close-up of a man or woman in Hollywood cinema, Peter opens his eyes, gazes at the ring, and begins to speak a monologue. He explains that this ring is more than a ring:
It looks like a ring, but it isn’t. It’s the walls of a world. Inside it is the magic of all desire. Inside it is where she lives. And everything inside leads to her – every street, every path, and the eight seas. It’s a world. It’s our world.
Those are marvellous, heady, romantic words for an American film of 1935 – in fact, for any film of any time. For me, they express one of the greatest properties of art: poetic mystery. Inside every object, inside every small thing – if you invest that thing with enough feeling, enough mystery, enough of an aura – there is the potential for a whole world. It’s a properly surrealist idea, later given a fine, materialist twist by Walter Benjamin: poetic art can work as a communicating vessel, a kind of switching exchange or alchemical centre that can take us from the ordinary things of the everyday to the ecstatic realms of visions and intense feelings … and back again. Thus the fascination that attaches itself to the depiction of everyday life in movies, and the transformation or intensification of that mundane life through various processes of screen magic (including the most seemingly ordinary, like a close-up).
This is something I love in cinema: it sends you off, but it can you bring you back, too – to the richness of your own world. The Australian writer George Alexander expresses this kind of apprehension of art’s poetic mystery of art well: “Poetry makes a quiet feast of moments of which every day is constructed. So things in the humble kitchenette can be epic, and your backyard worthy of an archaeologist”.
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is a movie that seizes and overwhelms me in way that very few films do - putting me into a state of hyper-tension that is both scary and exhilarating. The fact that it rockets so often from décor to reality, from sheer artifice to brutal documentary-type footage, from set-pieces worthy of a Hollywood musical to intimate details straight out of a minimalist, avant-garde opus by the likes of Garrel or Jacques Doillon – all that is what places the film, in my world of cinema, alongside a special bunch of surreal and magical movies ranging from L’Atalante and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953) to The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Walerian Borowczyk’s Goto, Island of Love (1969).
Every time I see Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, I think about film as worlds, as microcosmos; and I think about what Pier Paolo Pasolini pondered to be the cinema of poetry. Such cinema is a problem for some, to the extent that a poetic film is not necessarily strongly narrative. But so what? There is a story, a plot, in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf – a sketchy kind of story, broadly drawn, which trawls though its various acts, movements or sections the way Godzilla trawls through a Big City. As the multimedia artist Marcus Bergner remarked to me, the Caraxian narrative here is like a game of ping-pong between blocks or sequences as they unfold, one against the next: there’s a dream scene, a reality scene, and then something in-between dream and reality; the film is more like the arranged pieces of a possible story – scattered sketches or propositions for a story-line – than anything resembling a conventional tale.
But let’s at least try to approach some elements of this would-be story in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf a little more directly and conventionally. As I’ve already indicated, it is essentially the love story of two bums, two displaced people. Alex is a seasoned tramp; as a street performer, he does amazing things with a fire-blowing trick. Alex shares “his” bridge with an older, larger, gruffer guy named Hans (Klaus-Michel Grüber). Hans is a pure figure of a grunge-punk Romantic myth: he once worked as a guard (as he tells us) for all of Paris’ major buildings and museum institutions, and managed to keep a spare key to all of them, on a big brass ring – so this bum has the run of the city. One day, Alex and Hans – who make an odd couple, a strange father/son team – find themselves, their male world of the bridge, rudely rearranged by a female interloper, a refugee from the sheltered middle-class: Michèle. Alex and Michèle eventually become a couple of swells, as the old Fred Astaire-Judy Garland number described it – filthy freaks in love, boozing and laughing raucously, trying to create some physical warmth between them in this harshest of settings. There are big melodramatic moves to follow: moves involving desertion and betrayal, sickness and miracle cures, fire and water, sex and death.
But Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is, for me, more the experience of a world, a sensual world, than an ordered plot. What does it mean to say that a film conjures a world? Sometimes this means that it labours to give you the sense of the physical expanse and make-up of some real or imaginary place: think of futuristic or fantasy films like The City of Lost Children (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Blade Runner (1982). Carax’s work, with its ambition to map a poet’s view of the city, has this kind of physical expanse; its Paris is a labyrinth of Métro tunnels, a lattice of tiny apartments, a great passageway of water and a night-sky full of the most glorious fireworks. But, more intensely and intimately, the film gives us its own crowded world of swiftly changing and colliding experiences, moods, temperatures, big or little zones of time and space, image and sound tightly configured. It’s not a substitute built-world, a “second nature” as we see in video games or much digital art; rather, it offers a world of experience for the viewer, a solid, endlessly revisitable container for sensations and impressions, which is something quite different.
Characters figure here mainly in a phenomenal, sensual kind of way: they’re not really three-dimensional people, more like pure presences. You can hardly say where they’ve come from or what really drives them deep inside; but you can know, at every moment, what assails their bodies, what wounds or dazzles them, what sticks to their skin or tickles their toes. Carax is an intensely physical filmmaker - physical in that grotty, slightly Gothic, grunge-punk tradition I´ve been evoking. Few films give me such a heightened sense of the rapture of the body in motion: doubled over in laughter, dancing wildly, running or jumping or walking dementedly with a stick. And also the poignant frailty of the body, consumed by weakness, disease and biting cold.
When the French critic Serge Daney, in the diary kept the year before his death, greeted Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, he described it not as a world or even a poem, but a sensorium – and my handy dictionary tells me that sensorium means “the supposed seat of sensation in the brain”. So much of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf hinges on an acute loss of sensation, especially the loss of vision, since (as you’ll recall) Michèle is going painfully blind in the course of it. So it’s as if sensation must be sought and stored up through other means: through hearing and, particularly, through touch.
That’s another thing that makes this film so intensely physical: everything in it, from a Rembrandt self-portrait in the Louvre to the trembling, diseased, filthy body of another human being, must be touched in order to be truly taken in and appreciated. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf gives me that kind of fiercely imaginary, almost palpable, haptic relation to surfaces: the surfaces of a city, and the surfaces of skin. Carax gives us a full world, a world bursting with phenomena, sensation and feeling – and it’s a world you can visit, explore and live inside, for years and years to come.
Postscript: Leos Carax is a director whose work has never stopped inspiring me; it is truly inexhaustible. And he has so far added one further masterpiece to his collection: Holy Motors (2012). In collaborations with Cristina Álvarez López subsequent to my writing solo about Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in the ‘90s, we have returned often to Carax, and will again: see our “Screen and Surface, Soft and Hard: The Cinema of Leos Carax”, which exists in a live performance version, a bilingual Spanish & English 2013 published version (with screenshots & video montages) in Transit and, in its longest version, in the German-language book Oberflächen und Interfaces. Ästhetik und Politik filmischer Bilder (2018); as well as the 2016 audiovisual essay “Water and Stone: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf”, which can be seen in its original, integral version (with accompanying text) here and, in a slightly altered version (and without text) on the Kino Lorber DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film in 2017. This latter audiovisual essay draws material from Cristina’s 2013 Transit text “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf: A Drama of Water and Stone”, in English and Spanish here.