CALVIN KLEIN AND CALVIN CLUB

CALVIN KLEIN AND CALVIN CLUB

Ever heard of Oliver Twiss, Nickelas Nickleberry or Martin Guzzlewit? You’re right, they sound like a cheerful drunk challenged at 3am to name any 3 works by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). But no, thanks to my writer friend Christopher Burns’s intriguing weblink, I can tell you they are in fact bestselling titles of bona fide novels produced in the 1840s by one Edward Lloyd, who from his off-Fleet Street printing press later went on to produce the first UK newspaper to sell a million copies. Lloyd was the same doughty publishing entrepreneur who first featured Sweeney Todd in print, and paved the way for the market in penny dreadfuls, those aimed at a burgeoning working-class readership, including ‘Varney the Vampire’ which is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker and his Dracula. Dickens was of course justly incensed by the plagiarism or piracy or whatever one might call it, but was unable to get any 1840s judge to do anything about it. Some Victorian literary specialists charitably see it as an early form of fan fiction, meaning on one level Dickens might have been theoretically flattered to have been plagiarised. But no, the great man felt robbed. At this point I need to extrapolate sideways to one of life’s great joys, namely vintage rock music, and ask myself do the original musicians (including those who are busy enjoying the Afterlife) feel flattered to have tribute bands with doctored names doing their very best to scrupulously imitate their treasured idols. Does for example Jimi Hendrix up in Heaven feel deeply moved to hear a faithful albeit plodding rendition of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by the tribute Northumbrian band from Hexham, known as ‘Jimi Hexham’, or does he feel something like incredulous disdain? I know what I would feel…

But now to fancy booze and rip-off labels. It doesn’t happen nowadays, but back in 1986, when Annie and I were holidaying near Ag Nikolaos in Crete, the bar of the villa complex where we were staying, sold white rum with the label Ron Bricandi, at about half the price of genuine Bacardi. Thirty years later there are no pirate labels in any Greek bars, and there is a standard dual system where local spirits like ouzo and tsipuro sell at 2 or 2 and a half euros, while imported whisky, brandy gin etc sell at a minimum of 6, up to an impudent maximum in one glamorous island bar, where they demand a  larcenious 12 for the posh malt, Cardhu. When you point out the same thing can be got in the port for 6 and even in smart areas of Athens for 8, instead of doing the appropriate thing and blushing, the amiable if earnest bar owner shows a genuine tragic grief for those other purveyors who are suicidally giving the precious nectar away.

So far novels and rum, but now to the lowly bum, to lowly and quotidian knickers, that is, or at any rate to male underwear, which you might have thought the last thing to plagiarise, given that it is most often seen in the revelatory intimacy of the bedroom. There all but the doziest or most myopic of doting partners would know that a Calvin Club on a male backside (£3 for 3 pairs off any UK market stall = 50p per economy buttock) is not to be confused with designer brand Calvin Klein, which you buy in single quantities, not in bargain bucketloads. Meanwhile here on Greek markets as seen in mainland Lavrio and Athens, the cheap male knickers nearly always have a fancy foreign name, often an English one, which is printed in Roman script, never in Greek. Sometimes these names can sound decidedly odd to an English ear, and I can think of quite a few male and macho Brits who I know could never be tempted by the bargain underpants I saw in Lavrio market last year. They sported the jaunty name of Uomo, which is of course Italian for ‘man’, but many a wooden monoglot and assertively manly Brit might instantly decide it was an ambiguous declaration of being gay…a road of no return perhaps.

Last week I happened to see my downstairs neighbour’s underpants, a lone and faded black pair, woven of the scantiest material and wanly blowing on his washing line. The neighbour Alex is single, shy, about 30, and is Rumanian, meaning that he is used to Roman script, and that his language is a Romance one, for when written down it looks rather like Spanish crossed with Italian. His underpants are interestingly called ‘Joker’s’, with the apostrophe of possession that is, as if to say these knickers and/or this particular backside (should an inquisitive lover ever be in his bedroom) belongs to a joker. Joker is a term open to broad interpretation, no doubt, and is often used in the pejorative sense of clown, idiot or buffoon. More flatteringly, in the bedroom context, does it mean he showers his lover with a string of brilliant one liners, to get her hiccupping with merriment, or does he pull comically hideous faces until she squeals with mirth, or does he play impish tricks on her, and hide a joke shop spider on her side of the bed?

Alex looks too nice a guy to play tricks on anyone, and too shy to be a stand-up comedian. Brand names, to be sure, don’t always tell the truth, nor come to that do they always flatter. Just as I am writing this, it occurs to me for the very first time, that there is an ambiguous and worrying semantic association when it comes to the name of the doyen and costliest of male underwears.  That designer brand rejoices in the sonorous, but perhaps we should add treacherous name of Calvin Klein. The word ‘klein’ is of course German for ‘little’ or ‘small’, and in the context of what you see inside a man’s underpants, there is at least one item that few men would choose to describe with either of those adjectives…

I am going to be busy over the next few weeks, and the next new post will be on or before Sunday July 21st

IN THE PINK WITH BORIS AND BREXIT – a short story

IN THE PINK WITH BORIS AND BREXIT – a short story

What I am about to say will, I promise, shock you to the core, but I can no longer keep it to myself. I have to confess that I, an educated, liberal, middle-class, heterosexual Englishman of wondrously mature years, cannot stand the sight of grown men (meaning those over the age of eighteen) if they are wearing anything that is pink…which is to say sporting shirts, ties, trousers, jackets, neckerchiefs etc, should any of those be of a rose (with a French accent) hue. There, I bet you recoiled in incredulous outrage at once, and didn’t know where to start in fulminating against and excoriating the likes of an evident sexist, macho, patriarchal, intolerant enemy of hard-won personal freedoms, whilst inter alia just possibly employing your favourite searingly pejorative term ‘judgemental’ against a pointlessly provocative old bastard like me.

I am talking about visceral instincts, not calm reasoning nor ratiocination, and I would add that I think it better to speak my controversial feelings, than cowardly hiding them from the universe, idly pretending  that I don’t give a damn what colour of tie or poplin shirt anyone offers to the world of sartorial display. Nevertheless, I need at once to brush off the accusation of notional homophobia, and on two solid grounds. Firstly, and most cogently, and courtesy of my particular job, I have numerous gay friends all over the globe, and not one of them, of whichever gender, ever sports pink, and in my broad experience it is strictly straight males who decide to be free floating when it comes to chromatic aka roseate latitude. The fact is I run a one-man literary publishing house, and two of my leading authors are gay, one an American male just turned 60, and one an Englishwoman ditto. Both of them when we were recently sipping coffee at a lively litfest in an exhilarating northern UK town turned to me independently, and more or less said the same thing.

“Joe,” said Dave Henthoff, with his innocently puckered grin, “as far as I’m concerned you are an honorary homo, man. I can’t put it any other way.”

“Joe, “added Maggie Brownson. “You seem to me to accept absolutely everyone, whoever and whatever they are. Even though you can diagnose people who are pains in the arse faster than else anyone else in the world…”

What might perhaps clarify my extreme allergy to pink, is to add that that there is one particular species of male, invariably clad in the colour of Portuguese Mateus Rose (I went past the extensive factory near Vila Real in the remote Tras Os Montes in 1981) a masculine species who gets my goat more than any other. Have you guessed who I mean? I am talking about British Labour politicians and especially the male cabinet ministers, who at their annual conferences instead of singing the socialist anthem Keep The Red Flag Flying, if they had any trace of honesty would be warbling Keep Our Admirably Pink Flag Aloft. There they are all in pink shirts and pink ties, their faces pinked and pinking from the copious lunchtime wine and the rare beef steaks that are of course pink, their unflinching pinkness signifying a lack of red-blooded meaning visceral passion for everything under the sun. One thinks with sadness of the founding fathers and mothers of the Party, who were steaming angry and with scarlet faces to match, when it came to the ambient rank injustice, the monstrous unfairness of inherited and moneyed privilege, the pampered drones who lived in their London villas on their steady dividends while the factory workers repined in insanitary cottages with the solaces of blood-flecked TB and communal outside lavatories. They were very angry red-faced founding fs and ms, many of them aristocrats themselves, whereas their pink-visaged grammar school and comprehensive 2019 counterparts, in their pale pink duds and spats, are piously peevish, virtuously vexed, not raging nor incandescent with righteous anger. At this point I can inform the whole bloody lot of them for free, that they need to be very angry before they can make the stone-deaf Brexiteers and for that matter the ardent Remainers,  stop in their tracks and really listen, their facial capillaries urgently need to dilate and their voices need to come from their guts and especially their spleens, not from their fluttering and flabby vocal chords. The truth is the Labour Party for the last 80 years has been ruled by an assortment of clapped out, feebly mumbling and stumbling strictly masculine physics and geography teachers, variously called Clement, Hugh, Jim, Neil, Michael, Gordon, and currently Jeremy….the only notable star celebrities  being those beamingly pragmatic egotists called Harold W and Tony B who would do anything and beyond to stay in power, luxury weekend junketings with cosmopolitan fascists included. There was also I dimly recall a fizzy adolescent called Ed who had the cheek to grin as he said he was perhaps way too far to the left, but he squeaked like a twelve-year-old as he said it, and turned pink not red, and nobody believed a word of it, not even his wife. He had a cabinet pal also called Ed whose surname splendidly means testicles, an ironic inversion if ever there was, as the notional seat of all hot-blooded male passion seemed at an unbreachable existential remove from both or our Eds, certainly when it came to the world of executive politics.

NB. There was once an American TV comedy series featuring a talking horse, called Mr Ed. Had he been called Mr Edward, no one would have watched it, if only because diminutives are reassuring whereas full-length adult names are so daunting. Had the two effervescent teenage Eds called themselves the grown-up name Edward, they might have been taken far more seriously. For Edward Balls has a certain august and unmockable ring about it, would you not agree? Need we say more at this point?

Yes, we bloody well need. The Tories, however they might think of themselves, are in fact all Fallen Angels to a man and woman, and I am talking in the strictly scriptural not metaphorical sense. Nonetheless they have one or two orators who can talk a passionate streak, and who sound as if they believe in their Melodramatic Mendacity (all melodrama is a lie by definition) that is their autopilot birthright. Let us at this point scrutinise three paradigm Tory cabinet Brexiteers, all of whom dress in pink, hence are almost indistinguishable from their Shadow Cabinet counterparts. There is the one who looks exactly like Pinocchio, who was once Minister of Schools, and who insisted on the rote learning of the Genealogies of English Kings and Queens and ditto the Nine and Two Sevenths and the Seventeen and Three Sixteenths Times Table. There is also a tall, completely hairless one, who by his critics is unkindly nicknamed Tablespoon, an acronym for ‘Tall Bald String of Piss’ (so cruel, so utterly and needlessly unkind). Tablespoon’s fulsome contribution to the annually published and defiantly titled Tory Chapbook of Melodramatic Veracity is often to repeat the statement that ‘Britain Is the Greatest Country in the World’, a devastating mantra he learnt from the late Margaret Thatcher, she who had a full head of hair and who was an Iron Lady, not a Tablespoon made out of alloy steel. Then there is Mr Fluffy, so named because of his singular tonsure, and he is also called Boris, and he is destined for great things, as he is nearly as fluffy and blond as the fluffiest and blondest and most powerful man in the world, who as everyone knows is called Donald. Mr Fluffy and Donald both like to dress in pink, both admire each other enormously, and sometimes joke about outfluffing the other as a means of raising money for charity, and even moot a competitive if jocular IQ test.  Boris in a pink shirt once asked Donald in a pink shirt (off the cuff that is, haha) what was the capital of Liechtenstein to which Donald earnestly answered Liechtenstein City, and when Boris modestly put him right with Vaduz, Donald snorted hilariously, That is such Fake News, Boris, man! and added that he Boris was The Enemy of the People! for contradicting the fluffiest and most powerful man in the world, and the two of them were helpless with merriment for the next half hour…

Fluffy read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford in the 1980s, but his take on Modern Greek was always a trifle shaky, so that when he once holidayed in the Cyclades with his wife, and kept overhearing the word ‘boris’ all the time, reasonably enough, he thought it must be a touchingly respectful homage to the blond and amiable English celebrity. It was only when he dipped into his Berlitz phrase book one day, that he recalled ‘mporeis’ or ‘boris’, actually meant ‘you may’ or ‘you might’ and lo and behold that quaint fact seeped into his subconscious with remarkable speed, so that the same night he had two hideous nightmares in succession. One featured an olive-skinned middle-aged Greek male who was of course not an Anglo-Saxon, but a European, and worse still a member of the EU, meaning that noisome, swamplike lethal morass that Boris the minister was so keen for his country to escape as soon as possible.  In his bizarre dream, a leering ill-shaved Mykonos barman of about fifty leaned over the Balliol man, who was startlingly just a little gurgling baby Boris with a dummy in his mouth, and shouted at him with a comical albeit threatening grimace.

“Borish! Pay attenshoon! Your name mean, You May! Lissen, my Borish, bebe! It mean, You May!”

There was only one May with a capital in Boris’s capacious subconscious, and she was called Theresa and she was Head Girl amongst the English Tories of the Brand New School, and a woman at that, and she hadn’t a single  friend nor any allies within the Parliament, and nobody of any political hue, including the Labour Pinks or Tory Pinks, agreed with anything she said or did. You or me or even Fluffy Boris, would have had a crippling nervous breakdown in her cruelly isolated position, with the weight of the intractable world upon her shoulders, but the Head Girl’s remedy was to go to church once a week, where she begged the Anglican vicar to reassure her she wasn’t really a Fallen Angel but a Responsible and Infinitely Dutiful Head Girl of the Brand New School. The vicar not only rushed to confirm she was all of that, but assured her it was all the dandruffy Labour chaps all dressed in unmanly pink who were the Fallen Angels, and would get their comeuppance when as in Thessalonians at the end of all things you would hear the sound of the trump = trumpet, and  it might even be the apocalyptic trump in human form, meaning Donald the One and Only, who would start off (by a nifty tweet of course, not a noisy trumpet) the eschatological proceedings.

Baby Boris gurgled at the huge Greek barman in horror, “But me not Treesa May, mister forren He Hugh fellah! Me instead am de fluffiest, blondest, nicest ickle boy in de worrld!”

Cue offstage, or rather in the baby’s delicate left ear, where could be clearly heard: ‘That is the Very Worst Fake and Phony News, baby Boris! You really are the snake in the grass Enemy of the People, lil Boris in your British diapers! Aha aha aha… ‘

The second nightmare you may imagine yourself, or rather no you mayn’t, as instead of a hissing olive-skinned Greek, we have massive avuncular Donald himself looming over the baby Boris’s cradle and jovially hallooing:

“Didcha know, buddy, that your name in Greek means, ‘you might’, kinda hypothetical in terms of your uncertain future, Boris, you geddit? But listen, because you’re an ignorant and innocent little baby, you actually think I’m saying ‘you mite’, just like your Mom did when she leant over your cradle and said, Boyish, Boyish, my ickle shweet mite!”

Poor Boris pulled a tearful face and groaned, “But me not mite, Uncle Donald! Me vewy big boy and I am ve vewy fluffiest person in de worrld!”

At this point, reasonably enough Boris thought Donald was going to hurl Fake News and Enemy of the People at him, instead of which the most powerful person in the world seemingly distorted his earlier maxims and began to croon in a strange falsetto:

“Faint of heart, you are baby Boris! You’re an anemone of the purple!”

“What!” said a suddenly adult Boris as he flung out his dummy and sat up angrily in his cot.

“Foul poo poos, you are baby Boris! You are the enema of the people!”

Boris turned as purple as a violet anemone, as he snarled, “You what! How dare someone like…like… someone like you… insult an… a… top drawer English gentleman of such impeccable waddyacallit… like such as me? Why you… you…”

But no, let’s stop, and forget Boris and his horrible dreams for a while. For there is also the mighty Najj, Nadge, Nadgie, Call me Mr Brexit, and Najj has so much phenomenal energy and quite unearthly drive, we can hardly get him down adequately on the page. Najj, though a dyed in the wool pinko when it comes to his shirts and ties and Rotarian cummerbunds, to the uninitiated is not remotely fluffy-haired, much less blond. But if you have anything like an ounce of intuition, and have sharp unfoolable x ray eyes to boot, you can see that Najj is as fluffy as they come, and like Boris is a born Rotarian: which is to say jovial, jocose and jocund to the core, an expert at kissing babies, opening jumble sales full of obsolete video tapes and broken VCRs, shaking hands with those who touch their modest brows and drop their aitches, and making faithful old ladies laugh to excess when he mocks the ridiculous Brand New Head Girl and the clapped out Mr Corbyn…

Suddenly one of Najj’s audience, a man of about sixty with bulbous ears and thick rimmed spectacles, says to the world at large, and especially to the nearest ITV camera:

“In my opinion we are a great little country, a nice little tight little country, and that is why we’ve always done best on our own. You see, whatever the world atlases say, we really aren’t part of Europe, never have been and never will be. Added to which the consumption of garlic by an Englishman is invariably an immature Johnny Foreigner Dago affectation. Shoot me down if I’m wrong, of course…”

Najj, the modest hero of the garlic hater, like Donald Of The Myriad Tweets, speaks for the common man, rarely the common woman, and in doing so has craftily inverted and thus subverted the accepted linguistic rules. While Donald coyly parrots his robust mirror image Josef Stalin/Dlugashvili, whenever he talks about the ‘enemies of the people’, so Najj the breezy sexpot of the libertarian right, declares that he has completely ‘revolutionised’ politics, as if he is another Trotsky fighting the fakes, the compromisers, the totalitarians, and the power mad. Najj is a fervent Rotarian if only because the splendid word breaks down, qua his beloved cryptic crosswords, to yield ‘rote’, ‘rota’ and ‘hairy uns’. Najj firmly believes in learning by rote in schools (arranged in alphabetical order the following: Great British Admirals, Great British Generals, Great British Inventors, Great British Vice-Roys and Florence Nightingale as his sole Justly Celebrated Female of British History). He also frets over precise rotas for the Brexit jumble sales with Mrs Poges on coffee, Mrs Biss with the raffle tickets, and Mrs Bux on the kiddies’ face painting. That said Najj teasingly refuses to explain precisely what he means by ‘hairy uns’, though we take it his sprightly rugger-loving bawdiness, if that is what it be, is both manly and broad, rather than obscure and offensive. Actually, the explanation is much more banal and innocuous. At times he has taken severely injudicious political risks that were decidedly hairy to the nth.

Meanwhile, three days ago, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, received a handwritten letter from a twelve-year-old boy from Camden Town which his Mum had sneaked a read of, and then had photocopied multiple copies on the sly. She sent one of them to a campaigning journalist, an acquaintance of mine who showed it to me in a Kentish Town pub, and which I have transcribed in toto below. The journalist intends to send copies to numerous printed and digital sources, for he believes at long last he might have a possible exemplary foil to the ubiquitous and by now insane Brexit fever. The boy is called George Salmon and his letter speaks for itself.

Camden Town, London

June 2019

Dear Mr Jeremy Corbyn

First of all I should tell you that my Mum, who with very little money brought me up single handed in a tiny council flat, often refers to you as Jimmy Tarbuck, not Jeremy Corbyn, as she thinks you are an out of date and unfunny comedian, rather than a true political leader. You need to know that my mother, aged 45, is very angry at you, for saying that the proper democratic thing is for all of us to respect the Referendum result, where 51% wanted to leave the EU and 49% didn’t. This is because she says it will obviously produce 100% unhappiness for both the 51% as well as the 49%, if the nightmare of Brexit should ever happen. She adds that if you were to ask the Great British People in a similar Referendum should we bring back Capital Punishment, 60% would say yes, and they would also suggest it might be a good idea  to have all executions live on YouTube, if only to deter potential wrongdoers, though of course you’d have to be over 18  to watch them. My Mum tells me that is why we have democratic first past the post politics, and not referendums, which she says are ammunition for envious folk, and those she calls the infantilised, meaning the grown-ups who behave like spiteful little babies. She says the considered opinions of the Great British People really don’t mean shit (excuse me) as most of them spend all their time watching TV’s Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off, though my Mum uses a different gerund and noun from ‘dancing and ‘bake’ and they are both very rude and both start with ‘w’ (I know what a gerund is because they make me do Latin at school when I wanted to do Arabic, but they said that option is  too controversial and also disloyal and not really British). My Mum also reckons that if Nigel or Najj or Nadgy Brexit, as she calls him, ever becomes Prime Minister, he will immediately pass a law that will jail single mums, overweight people and all those who stutter, as in his opinion they seriously let down and embarrass the country, which Najj says is the envy of all other nations in the world.

My Mum says the truth is you will say whatever you think might get you into power, and that respecting the will of the people, even if they are ranting bullies and spiteful Rotarians, is tantamount to saying you have no real moral principles of your own. Her conclusion is you clearly have no Centre of Gravity, Mr Corbyn, that you both look and talk like a clapped-out physics teacher (so you ought to know what C of G means) and she also sometimes calls you Mr Carbon, as she believes you are a carbon copy, not an original version of a flesh and blood man with a beating heart and a sensitive soul.

That’s it then. I thought I would just run all this past you, as you never know what might change someone’s mind, and in doing so even change the world. Just possibly a letter from the heart from an unknown and very ordinary schoolboy aged 12, might lead somehow to something happening in this world that really matters. Because surely if films on the internet of kittens playing with a ball of string can go viral, maybe what my angry and passionate and hardworking Mum says can also go viral too? Who knows?

Hoping this finds you as it leaves me, Mr Corbyn.

I remain your obedient servant

George Salmon

PS The valediction (remember my compulsory Latin at school) is what we are now ordered to put at the end of our letters, by our Civic Studies teacher, Miss Petunia Byng. She copied some handouts from a very old book from her grandmother’s bookshelves, called Essential Social Etiquette For All. As a result, I now know the proper way to address a Bishop or a Right Honourable, or a Commander of the British Empire. If ever I should need to write to one of them, that is

( I am going to be busy for the next few weeks and the next post will be on or before Tuesday 2nd July )

JULIETTE BINOCHE AT HER BEST

The next post will be on or before Sunday June 9th

JULIETTE BINOCHE AT HER BEST

The Lovers of Pont-Neuf (1991) is an extremely powerful and very subversive film, that could only have been made by a youthful and patently fearless director (Leos Carax, born 1960) with the lead parts played by young, angry and seemingly politicised actors, namely Juliette Binoche (born 1964) who was 25 in 1989 when filming started, and Denis Lavant (born 1961) who was all of 28. Carax had made his acclaimed low budget black and white debut Boy Meets Girl (1984) at the tender age of 24, and the half dozen years that had passed before The Lovers of the New Bridge had evidently broadened his imaginative scope and laudably idealistic ambitions. I have seen the film 3 times: in 1993 in rural North East Cumbria; in 1994 in a grim and dilapidated Manchester hotel where Charles Dickens once stayed, and finally 25 years later, a few days ago on the Isle of Kythnos, via a DVD on my laptop. Only now, 25 years after the Manchester viewing, do I realise quite what a stereoscopic, delicately nuanced, and incalculable achievement this cinematic masterpiece amounts to.

Let’s start with the obvious ironies. It is 1989 and Paris is celebrating 200 years of the French republic, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, including astonishing firework displays, of which more later. Carax chooses for his bicentennial celebrants, 2 down and out vagrants whose future is to say the least unremittingly bleak. Alex (Lavant) is a street performer in the form of a humble fire eater (contrast the mega-scale civic pyrotechnics) who unfortunately has serious alcohol and sedative addictions, so that he is now homeless and dossing on the Pont Neuf, which has been cordoned off for extensive bicentennial repairs. He suffers from insomnia which explains the sedatives, and these he obtains from a middle-aged tramp, also on the bridge, called Hans, played with splenetic conviction by German director and actor Klaus Michael Gruber (1941-2008). The film is effectively a 3-hander then, for one day Alex chances across a woman covered in a blanket and sprawled on a bridge bench, and when he lifts the blanket, he beholds the most beautiful little pedigree cat sitting on her belly. The young woman Michele (Binoche) has a patch over her eye, the other eye is glazed, and she looks harrowingly vulnerable yet also studiedly angry with life and everything it has done to her. She is a gifted and successful artist who is going blind because of some rare ocular deterioration, plus the love of her life has broken off all relations, and refuses to even let her past his door. These 2 vagrants have already met, though only Michele remembers exactly how. The previous evening Alex was staggering drunk and doped down a busy city road when a car ran over his leg, and it was Michele trudging myopically the other way who rang for an ambulance. Alex now perforce has to hobble about on a crutch and he does this with a stern and determined dexterity that so to speak orchestrates the dynamics of the film. Lavant, with his dogged yet touchingly feral face, stomps angrily backwards and forwards around the cluttered bridge, almost like some silent opera singer playing a tramp, just as Michele is pugnaciously stone-faced at the thought of her unbearable future as a blind artist. As for Hans, he is in a rage with the new arrival, and threatens violence if she doesn’t bugger off immediately, insisting that a woman sleeping rough is bound eventually to suffer rape and/or violence. Later we learn his tragic story: decades with a secure job as an attendant in the Louvre, but a wife who liked the booze too much, and then they lost their small child, the drinking got worse, and everything went downhill. Nevertheless, he still has a complete set of keys to the Louvre, so that when Michele later resists his evicting her from the bridge, and pours out her torrential grief, he tells her he can easily get her in there to take a last look at her favourite paintings.

The two young derelicts soon become smitten, though while Michele eloquently states her love, she insists that it must go slowly, slowly, so that volatile Alex is regularly driven to distraction. His naïve solution is simply to subvert everything that might lead to her deserting him, either soon or in the long run. Thus, when she shows him a loaded pistol that had belonged to her army colonel Dad, after ordering him to merrily blast away on the bridge for their entertainment, she then commands him to fling it in the Seine. She is so short-sighted however that Alex fakes a splash, and hides the weapon where he can get at it if necessary. Note also that this close focus study of two seemingly terminal existences, is not without its regular laugh out loud comedy. The stronger of the pair, Michele, decides to wean her lover off Hans’s sedatives, by their wangling as much money as they can steal as quickly as possible. After that, she surmises, they can leave the bridge and live in a proper house, and then surely Alex’s insomnia will disappear. She is visibly pleased when she sees that the sedatives are administered from plastic ampoules, and she orders Alex to purchase a cartload from Hans, after which they repair to the poshest of central Paris cafes. Michele plonks down adjacent to the intended businessman victim, Alex then strolls up begging a few sous, and as the dupe is fidgeting in his wallet, or being distracted by handsome Michele, Alex squeezes an ampoule into his coffee or beer. Within minutes he is fast asleep, and Michele empties his wallet and that of dozens more, so that before long she has amassed 2000 francs which she keeps in a faded cigar box.  Unfortunately, all that money spells her possible independence from Alex, so that back on the bridge he craftily moves the cigar box, meaning that as she exercises her stiff leg, she kicks it blindly into the Seine and then collapses into grief at the absolute hopelessness of everything in her life.

Their trusted remedy for despair is to go on periodic binges with rough red wine, often preceded by Alex doing acrobatic cartwheels on a wall above the Seine (Lavant actually trained as a circus performer and a mime artist at the age of 13). Whenever they get drunk, they roll about the bridge laughing crazily, and one of the extraordinary things about this movie is their particular species of hysterical laughter, which is that of two comprehensively wounded souls, hence quite unlike that of most folk who find themselves in stitches. Their whinnying laughter sounds partly like a horse neighing, partly like a whistling express train, and partly like someone in muffled anguish. There are 2 set pieces where they go both crazy with mirth, and the second one even has Michele telling a joke as preamble to the hysterics. It takes her an inordinately long time to tell the joke, however, because she is helpless with merriment as she anticipates the punchline…

Three Parisian men, all middle-aged barflies, are comparing notes about the frequency of their marital sex life. One has sex once a fortnight, and is depressed by his meagre quota. Another has it once a month, and is even more fed up. The third confesses he only has it once every 3 years, and yet he is beaming from ear to ear. Why, the other 2 ask him amazed, are you so bloody happy, if you only have sex once every 3 years?!

Because, gushes the man euphorically, tonight is the night that I have it!

On another drunken binge, things turn out altogether surreal, yet infinitely liberating for both. They decide to break into the makeshift shelter used by the river police, Michele expertly coshes its sole occupant with an empty wine bottle, then they steal his motorboat. Before long we have Alex steering a police boat with impudently blaring siren, at full speed down the Seine, with the half blind artist being ecstatically towed behind on water skis.  Director Carax doesn’t do things by half, so that at this point he chooses to have the bicentennial pyrotechnic display go off in all its excess, extravagance and unbelievable beauty. I honestly doubt whether I have ever seen anything more affecting in all my life, cinematic or otherwise, if only because the spectacular glory of the contrapuntally igniting fireworks, set beside the poignant tragedy of the two disabled vagabonds, free at last in however provisional and curtailed a fashion, would be enough to move the coldest heart. For this epic visual epiphany we have to thank the cinematographer, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier (1950-2003), who in my opinion should have been given not one but half a dozen Legion d’Honneur medals for his services to French cinema 30 years ago.

The other mesmerising tableau is one of horror rather than beauty. One day along the metro Alex notes numerous posters with Michele’s mugshot on it, paid for by her rich father, and urging her to come home, for they have found a certain virtuoso eye specialist who can probably cure her rare condition. Terrified she will desert him, Alex rips down the first one with his nails, and then noticing dozens more, he sets fire to the metro station to annihilate them all. Fleeing the blazing station, he sees a van full of the same posters, so he promptly sets fire to that. The van driver comes out from the station shouting his rage, but then catches fire himself, and neither he nor any bystander can extinguish him. He dies screaming his agony, and the hideous image lingers as Alex returns to the bridge where he finds Michele listening to an old radio that is broadcasting the same parental message as the posters. Just as she realises she might be healed of her affliction and resume her artist’s life again, a couple of cops arrive on the bridge and take Alex away for interrogation. Once again Corax pulls no punches as they handcuff this virtual cripple and have him on his knees where he is assailed on 4 sides by flics battering his head as hard as they can with 6-inch phone directories and the like. He is given 3 years for manslaughter and while he is in jail, and learning, of all things, how to be a welder, Michele is successfully treated and completely regains her eyesight.

Nonetheless she is still in love with Alex, and visits him in prison, albeit in his cloistered vulnerability he urges her to go away. Once he’s out of jail, they liaise on the bridge again, where Hans has recently committed suicide by drowning, and where at last the reconstruction is over. Full of wine they dance together gleefully and lovingly, and Alex is about to embrace her in a way that indicates possession and perhaps an ultimate permanence. Always too considered Michele blows it at this point, and insists on yet more slowly, slowly, for she must leave him now to be alone, and then she will return tomorrow. Alex goes completely crazy at such a heartless command, grabs Michele, and athlete that he is, throws the pair of them into the Seine where they sink like lead and look set to drown…

Just then as deus ex machina an old-fashioned barge bearing sand trundles past, and the 2 waifs surface and beg for a rope, then clamber aboard. The elderly couple who run the boat are both in tears as this is their last day as bargees, which they have been for all their married life. Their astounding plan, having delivered the sand, is to keep on travelling into the Atlantic, an open-ended and fairytale option which very much appeals to the 2 lovers. They beg the bargees to be taken along, the old couple accede, and for the first time in the whole film both Michele and Alex offer to the world the most natural, full, tender and human smiles imaginable. Their lovers’ happy ending is of course incredible, and also incredibly beautiful, and you are for once requested to suspend adult disbelief and to embrace poetic aka childlike license.

I would add that if you neglect to watch this remarkable film, you will do yourself out of far more than trusting credulousness and a refusal to see that even the ineluctably damned may be redeemed in the proper circumstances. Meanwhile hats off to Leos Corax, his veteran regular Denis Lavant, and the Juliette Binoche who in her mid-twenties at any rate was an unbelievably gifted actor who has since changed the world around us in more ways than one.

Postscript

When it was released in 1991 after 3 years in production The Lovers of Pont-Neuf was the most expensive French film ever made, only exceeded 2 years later by Claude Berri’s version of Zola’s Germinal starring Gerard Depardieu. It was plagued with production problems as Corax had limited access to the real bridge, and eventually had to construct both it and the Seine in the Herault region of the South of France. Lavant is variously noted as having broken his thumb/ broken his leg on set, but Corax refused to cast anyone other than his regular actor. Whatever the fracture, it obviously helped Denis Lavant to stomp convincingly around the set on his single crutch. In the end the costly film was successfully bailed out by the movie’s producer, the late Christian Fechner (1944-2008)