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)

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