Video Essay. Water and Stone: "The Lovers on the Bridge"

A film that takes us by force into a realm in which we shuttle back between the gutter and the stars, reality and dream.
Adrian Martin, Cristina Álvarez López

The fourteenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Leos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) May 10 - June 9 in the United States.

Leos Carax’s Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge) is a true monument of 1990s cinema. It covers a lot of ground, on every level: starting down in the gutter and looking a little like a documentary about Paris’s homeless, it soon reaches a point where an inner switch is flicked and surrealistic, romantic poetry literally lights up the screen.  

Alex (Denis Lavant)—an emblematic tramp in the tradition of silent cinema, only muckier—spies the equally lost soul, Michèle (Juliette Binoche, never better than here), an artist who, due to encroaching blindness, is on the run from her bourgeois background.

Once the film explodes with the rapture of their streetbound romance—their makeshift home is the Pont-Neuf bridge, closed for repairs—there is dancing and swimming and snowflakes: an incredible dose of spectacle, heightened by Jean-Yves Escoffier’s luminous cinematography, Samuel Fuller-style editing juxtapositions, and an inspired collage of music tracks (Arvo Pärt, Les Rita Mitsuoko, David Bowie).

Naturally, darkness looms: we know from the start that they are star-crossed lovers, and constantly shadowed by dread-filled hints of sickness, depression, and madness. But Les amants du Pont-Neuf is very far from being a realistic film, following a conventional, predictable, dramatic logic. Rather, it takes us by force into a realm in which we shuttle back forth, in the space of a cut, between the gutter and the stars, between reality and dream. 

Twenty-one years later, in the equally stunning Holy Motors (2012), Carax would reach a more sanguine, melancholic position at the end of a similarly wild, quick-change ride; but here, despite everything and against all odds, love does indeed conquer all. 

Like Alexander Dovzhenko, Jean Vigo, or Terrence Malick, Carax is a genuinely poetic filmmaker. This means more than sprinkling occasional ‘striking images’ or lyrical montages throughout a movie. It means that the entire film is constructed like a poem, upon an interconnected set of audiovisual motifs and their incessant transformation.

In our audiovisual essay Water and Stone, we explore a particular cluster of motifs relating to the solid, material world (stone, concrete, the bridge) and the fluid, natural world (water). This is not a simple or schematic semantic opposition: Carax finds a dozen ways to twist and redefine this relationship of water and stone in the course of Les amants du Pont-Neuf.

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