Forces of Destruction
Nick Pinkerton on Juliette Binoche in The Lovers on the Bridge

The dressing-down performance has long become a cliché. It’s a way for movie stars—not a bad-looking bunch, in the main—to insist that they be taken seriously as actors by scraping away their glamor, having a roll in the muck. We can think, for example, of Charlize Theron’s prosthetic forehead in Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003), of Tom Cruise’s effacement of his million-dollar mug in Vanilla Sky (2001), of Leo DiCaprio asking James Cameron to let him hobble his Titanic (1997) heartthrob with a club foot—beautiful people, in retreat from their own physical perfection. How, then, to place Juliette Binoche’s work in Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge, in which La Belle Binoche is introduced with tresses in tangles, a black blister on her lip, and, signifying a degenerative ocular condition that threatens her with blindness, a bandage over one eye?

To appreciate the difference between these examples, one needs first to look at the degree to which Binoche’s performance is part of the overall conception of Carax’s film, which delves into questions concerning the slippery issue of cinematic realism that are almost as old as the medium itself. In 1964, Thorold Dickinson, a sporadically excellent filmmaker and pioneering figure in film studies in England, wrote an essay hopefully titled “The Maturing Cinema,” of the schism that had occurred at the dawn of cinema. “Right from the beginnings in 1895,” writes Dickinson, “an unfortunate trend developed: the cinema split into two main streams, which are nowadays associated with their imitators, the Lumière stream, the stream of reality, and the Méliès stream, the stream of contrivance in theatre.” For Dickinson, the way ahead is represented by “filmmakers who either realized or felt instinctively that the backbone of cinema is a blend of the two streams … as soon as your aim is to blend the two streams, the Lumière tests the Méliès with the touchstone of reality and the phony element in the Méliès stream is curdled. The true element in the Méliès school, the conflict of human character, is given an added dimension when it is blended with the reality of environment inherent in the Lumière school.”

The Lovers on the Bridge might be a film made to test Dickinson’s thesis. Its interplay between reality and artifice is encapsulated in its first reel: Alex (Denis Lavant), one of the film’seventual lovers, is lying in the middle of the boulevard Sebastopol in an insensate drunken daze when a yuppie couple in a passing 1969 Peugeot 504 Cabriolet roll over his ankle without seeming even to notice the human bump in the road. Shortly afterwards, Alex is scraped up off the pavement by attendants of a drunk wagon transport bus who are well acquainted with him. As, indeed, a French audience of 1991 might have been already acquainted with Lavant, the small, spry actor with wide-set eyes and a gift for pantomime who had starred in Carax’s first two films, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais sang (1986). And as they certainly would have been with his co-star, Binoche, already introduced on the same strip of the boulevard Sebastopol—she was the co-star of Mauvais sang, a celebrity in France since appearing in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985), and had proven exportable after co-starring with Daniel Day-Lewis in Philip Kaufman’s English-language The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988).

It is with the arrival of that drunk wagon, though, that the movie takes a turn, treads territory that its familiar faces mightn’t lead you to expect. Lavant, the Paris Conservatoire–trained thespian, is packed into the bus among very real clochards, and carted down to an overnight shelter, the Nanterre Night Refuge northeast of the city. The film suddenly adopts an observational stance more usually associated with cinema vérité, taking in bits of information that speak of unmediated hard living, subjects who seem unaware of or indifferent to the presence of the camera—has it been concealed, or do they just not care? There are iodine-painted knuckles, winebag stomachs and sticklike legs patterned with bruises, a clumsy fight that leaves a woman sprawled out on the ground—not the last blow thrown in the film, and this one, seemingly, coming without an actor’s consent.

Here are ruined faces, desperation, private pain, abjection—all of which helps to inaugurate a story of love between two guttersnipes that has passages as convulsively romantic and as purely artificial as anything in the cinema of Frank Borzage. It’s a concussive collision, one whose shockwaves are felt through the whole of the movie, which continues to encourage confrontations between reality and artifice, the prosaic and the poetic.

The Lovers on the Bridge’s protagonists are—for much of the film, at least—homeless, belonging to the sector of society most vulnerable to the elements and the unpremeditated vicissitudes of life. Through the 1980s, an uptick in homelessness related to the slashing of social services in the United States and Great Britain had not yet been accepted as a fact of life in the developed west, and there was correspondingly a briefly increased visibility of the homeless in popular culture. You found it on FM radio with Phil Collins’s 1989 “Another Day in Paradise” and Crystal Waters’s 1991 “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”; in the multiplex, with Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) and Paul Mazursky channeling Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); and in the “art-house” cinema, from Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise (1984) to Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991) to Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), in which David Thewlis’s nocturnal stroll becomes a vision of social unraveling. François Mitterrand’s France hadn’t the political culture of the US or UK, but it had something of the same retrenchment of the values of material success and stability as paramount, and its own yuppies—the “jeunes cadres dynamiques”—as well. It’s one of them, presumably, who’s driving the Cabriolet that crushes Alex’s foot as the film begins—a brief glimpse of yuppie malice, given fuller form in Leigh’s film by Greg Cruttwell’s moneyed monster.

Carax, however, stands apart in his approach from a Loach or a Leigh, for the story of his Lovers unfolds against a backdrop that is, largely, a simulacra—an ingenious model built at great expense on a piece of marshland near the village of Lansargues, which not only reproduced the Pont-Neuf in 2/3rds scale but also, in forced perspective, recreated the buildings at either end of the bridge, rendering the famous La Samaritaine department store in polystyrene and plywood. Binoche’s Michèle—seen forlornly lugging around a cat carrier, a plastic shopping bag, and a battered portfolio; seen washing her ass on the shores of the Seine before putting back on clothes that are ill-fitting and soiled; seen with mossy teeth and one good eye that goes bloodshot and cloudy as the film progresses—isn’t precisely the no-hope wastrel she appears to be, either. She registers to Alex as a fellow drifter, and they pass a season together on the Pont-Neuf, closed for repairs, getting drunk on cheap wine and huddling together in a love that’s equal parts sheltering tenderness and mutually reinforcing self-destruction. Dependency established, Alex holds Michèle to him with a series of escalating tricks, omissions, and outright lies, only for her to slip away shortly after the revelation of a little concealment of her own. It’s revealed that her exile into poverty was self-imposed; she had all along a good family to return to, her father a colonel with money enough to burn that he can plaster Paris with missing persons posters and take over the airwaves with inducements for her to come back home and seek treatment. What a tangle of deceits is true love—what a remarkable collection of duplicities, this dead-earnest paean to amour fou.

A film of a stricken rich girl’s season in hell, The Lovers on the Bridge is a movie mired in poverty that was made on a blockbuster scale, for two years reckoned to be the title holder as the most expensive movie ever produced in France, until the appearance of Claude Berri’s mammoth adaptation of Émile Zola’s Germinal. Binoche can’t have taken up much of the budget, still young as she was to stardom, which had been come to by a piece of good fortune—she’d got the part in Rendez-vous after Sandrine Bonnaire dropped out. Bonnaire didn’t have a bad 1985 in spite of this, appearing as both a bedraggled drifter in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, a very different study in social detachment, as icy as Carax’s is hot—and all the more moving for its reserveand a seen-it-all teenaged prostitute in Maurice Pialat’s Police. Pialat’s film served as part of a de-glamming project then being undertaken by Sophie Marceau; France’s sweetheart after appearing in two lightweight La Boum teen comedies (1980, 1982), Marceau took a gob of spit in the face in the Pialat picture and appeared the same year in L’amour braque, one of the relentless, frenetic films made by her new husband, Andrzej Żuławski. It’s a challenge that only some young actors, the restless ones, rise to—to get out of the spotlight and into the fire, to try to find the role that slosh through viscera to get to the beating heart of things. Not so long after, Molly Ringwald, the Princess of John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), lit out to France make King Lear (1987) with Godard, made the same year as The Pick-Up Artist, her collaboration with James Toback, who can be accused of many things, but not of failing to live out his art.

The story of American movies, as French movies, is defined by the schism described by Dickinson, a filmmaker grouped by the critic Ian Christie with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as part of “neoromantic” movement in postwar British culture—the term might well apply to Carax, too. But the American popular cinema, after an extended dalliance with naturalism begun in the late 1960s, by the ’80s had taken a decided turn for high-style artifice, while in France the dialogue over cinematic realism continued on its own terms—the discussion had been ongoing since at least the days of the arch-naturalist Zola, whose Germinal happens to also be a piece of full-blooded melodrama with plentiful purplish passages. Such paradoxes were not unknown to Godard, who had a character in La Chinoise (1967) reversing the terms of Dickinson’s split, framing Lumière as a “painter” and Méliès as a documentarian, through re-enactment, of “current events.” Nevertheless, lines were drawn. Talking a while back with a French nonfiction filmmaker who’d worked through the years of Carax’s ascent, I was surprised to hear them cite Carax as the exemplar of a director belonging to cinephile culture—as someone whose cinema was drawn more from movies than from life itself, as in the case of the nonfiction films by Raymond Depardon and others who were then making the leap to cinema from television, the traditional home for nonfiction. Carax, by contrast, is generally placed in the company of the maximalist, razzle-dazzle “cinéma du look” filmmakers—the Luc Besson of Subway (1985) or the Jean-Jacques Beineix of Betty Blue (1986), for example.

For Carax to keep such self-consciously contemporary and frankly commercial company is curious, for the frame of references evident in The Lovers on the Bridge don’t come from the Hollywood or Tokyo of the 1980s; they are, rather, a curious hotchpotch, unified by a distinct inclination towards the 1930s and ’40s. There are literary allusions—the doctor with the cure for Michèle’s sight is one “Destouches,” the surname of physician-turned-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who crossed wartime Europe with a cat carrier not unlike that which Michèle ports about—but most come from cinema. When Michèle proposes to Alex a reunion at a midnight meeting on the Pont-Neuf, a rendezvous to occur only after he’s had time enough to work on his human failings, it’s a direct echo of the Empire State Building meeting in Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) and his auto-remake An Affair to Remember (1957). In Carax’s film, as in McCarey’s, a physical disability threatens to keep the lovers apart, and even Michèle’s explosion of optimism (“Nothing’s irreparable”) recalls that of Deborah Kerr at the end of McCarey’s second Affair. (“If you can paint I can walk—anything can happen, don’t you think?”) When Alex arrives to the appointment and, slipping in the snow, coasts toward Michèle on his ass, she laughs without the sound of laughter—a pre-talkie laugh, lifted from the silent cinema. Lavant’s performance combines the pathos of Chaplin with Keaton’s tumbling physicality, while much of the film’s humor and horror, often intermingled, follow a Laurel & Hardy logic of escalation, as when Alex’s attempt to destroy posters bearing Michèle’s image ends in the death by fire of an innocent poster hanger. The old couple on the passing Seine barge where the movie ends might be the newlyweds from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) some sixty years on. Even the celebrated traveling shots of Alex and Michèle dervish dancing up and down the length the bridge as bicentennial fireworks fill the sky seem to connect to the legacy of Jean Cocteau, the strange, billowing, rolling motion of Binoche and Lavant recalling the wall-walking in his The Blood of a Poet (1930).

Yet here, even in this scene, which shows The Lovers on the Bridge at its most fantastic, the film is acting as documentary in the sense proffered by Jacques Rivette—that is, as a documentary of its own making, of a grand finale fireworks display and an abandoned, unrepeatable performance, with both actors thrashing themselves into a lather of exhaustion. Such slippages between a distancing artifice and a bracing immediacy, sometimes within a single scene, define the film. For every “movie” moment like the bolt of overtly artificial optically printed lightning that crosses the screen, there’s something else to blindside you with a bolt of seemingly uncontestable reality—for the film being made in a moment when the indexical relationship between the movie camera and the physical world was already fraying but still unbroken. We might think of the Paris police clobbering Alex with phone books in the interrogation, or Alex dealing Michèle a clout to the side of the head as she returns with a blissed-out grin from a handheld clandestine visit to the Louvre to look one last time on a 1660 Rembrandt self-portrait which she, Michèle, Juliette Binoche, seems to touch with her own hands, a moment of exceeding quiet and care in a film lashed by violent motion, by ragged shots following breathless retreats. (In his following film, 1999’s Pola X, Carax crosses the final frontier, including unsimulated sex scenes between actors Guillaume Depardieu and Yekaterina Golubeva.)

It is from all of these angles that Binoche bears consideration in The Lovers on the Bridge—as a full-body performer giving a reckless, breakneck, once-in-a-lifetime performance; as a movie star dressing up in derelict chic drag; as a rich girl in a medical and emotional crisis who has decided to descend to les bas-fonds; and, simply, as a victim in pain, near animalistic in her agony, hungrily gnawing the wax caps off plastic jug wine in a passion for oblivion. Only once Michèle has passed through this crucible will she appear as purified by suffering, a vision in white—a white made to be sullied all over again with a final, quite literal, plunge. This is a gesture of commitment made involuntarily, as Alex, unable to bear the thought of another separation from Michèle after their reunion, bears her in his arms down into the water below the Pont-Neuf, a seeming murder-suicide that becomes a baptismal rebirth. It’s a gesture of commitment made totally—as far as we can tell, for a happy ending is only an arbitrary ending that blocks out the hardships ahead. It is a celebration of folly against self-preservation, in a film that exemplifies the same.