In December, the French Institute Alliance Français in New York City included this film in their series, French Musicals.
With Le Pont des Arts writer/director Eugène Green returns to the complicated rhythms, connections, and disconnections between people in body and spirit that was the focus of his 2001 debut film, Toutes les nuits. Pascal (Green regular Adrien Michaux) is a Masters student who has turned to a passive nihilism over his boredom with his pre-assigned thesis topic and the constant academic pushing of his girlfriend and fellow student, Christine (Camille Carraz). Across Paris, Sarah (Natacha Régnier), a baroque vocalist, tries her best to please her wildly demanding, and wildly flaming, conductor, the so-called “Unnamable” (Denis Podalydès). The cruelty he directs towards Sarah in order to draw out a strong performance of Monteverdi’s gorgeous “Lamento delle ninfa” makes her withdraw away from her boyfriend Manuel (Alexis Loret, the Lion Knight of Le Monde vivant) into a pensive sadness.
The characters in Le Pont des Arts revolve around the idea, espoused as baroque philosophy by Sarah when trying to explain the era to Manuel, that a person can believe—or live—two contradictory, mutually exclusive things, or lives, at once. The impact of this theme on the story is more than a little allusive, as is the story itself, which is essentially that of Christine and Pascal searching fitfully and with minimal success for meaningful fulfillment in their lives when their professions fail them. Despite the strong sense of play and humor at work in Green’s sometimes deadpan, sometimes beatific clean-faced formalism, until Pascal hears Christine’s voice on a record and has an epiphany it seems both characters are rather doomed throughout the film to an abstract, existential unhappiness.
This anguish comes as a surprise. Because Green’s mise-en-scène is so clean and direct, often utilizing the Ozu technique of shooting conversations with the actors facing into the camera, it is easy to expect a narrative mode of increasing emotional and spiritual connection and upliftment between characters. The episodic nature of the story (such as a bizarre comic subplot involving the Unnamable exchanging male stewards with his homosexual artistic benefactor, a colleague played by Olivier Gourmet), belays an overwhelming impression of the bleakness of life, as does the constantly startling directness with which Green directs his actors and which the actors direct at the camera. This effect with Green’s regular actors like Michaux and Loret is reliably concerting. Even in the darkest or loneliest moments of the film, like during Manuel’s bewilderment at his wife’s sadness, the connection of the actors’ eyes with the gaze of the audience is comforting in their openness and readiness to be seen and read, as well as their hunger to communicate something to other characters (and us) more than just words. But it is Natacha Régnier who gets the most glorious close-ups of the film—fittingly, I suppose, considering her transcendental bodily existence in the plot—especially during a long musical sequence where Green cuts between the gazes of the baroque musical accompanists on “Lamento delle ninfa” and Régnier’s singing face. The scene radiates bodily a spiritual empathy with the music that is as triumphantly exquisite and moving as cinema can be. Dardennes’ regular Jérémie Renier cries at the sound, but it is the sound and the look, and especially Régnier’s eyes, seemingly straining at the joy in the music, that make the effect total. Because of the power of this sequence it becomes understandable when Pascal aborts a suicide attempt over Sarah’s voice heard on the record, though his reason—that he heard the laughter in her voice—is yet another instance of the mysterious paradox of Green’s baroque philosophy.
Frustratingly, the allusiveness of the manifestation of this philosophy in the story, or perhaps the director’s preference for a particular kind of narrative, means that characters come to realizations and conclusions that are usually clearer to them than to the audience. It is this quality that makes Le Pont des Arts as compellingly mysterious and seductive (especially in Raphaël O’Byrne’s subtle photography), even in its irony and silliness, as it is difficult to understand completely the lessons learned by the end. The director’s style goes a long way to making everything in his story appear as either utterly important or merely anecdotal (or both, like Green’s Ozu-like appreciation for empty seats, glasses, and spaces). The juxtaposition of these two kinds of scenes in the film, like the way a couple holding each other is only visually explained by isolating one face on one side and one face on the other in two separate shots, suggests that the baroque philosophy in the story is also used by Green formally to tell the story. Like a Hong Sang-soo film, to which Green’s first and most recent film bare a resemblance in terms of the way the film form structures the way relationships interact and resolve, it will take re-viewings to see how, or if, the odd, continually unexpected construction of a film like Le Pont des Arts informs its subject matter. The film is beautiful and strange, funny and spiritual, but also mystifying; paradoxically, it may be the very undefinable nature of Green’s style and appreciation that makes this film, and his others so compelling. They catch one constantly off guard, in a wonderful way.
Le Pont des Arts is not currently available on video in the U.S.