From Dziga Vertov’s Camera-Eye to Buñuel’s sliced-up eyeball, along through Samuel Beckett’s cyclopic Buster Keaton, the lone eye returning its regard from the screen is an ocular sign of reflexivity, of cinema looking not only at us but at itself as well.
The two-eyed regard is the human gaze occurring inside of cinematic artifice, of one character looking at an object. One eye less and the regard becomes the camera’s gaze, reaching from within the film out into the viewer’s space. Whereas binocular vision asserts its perception of the world as truth, the monocular vision is the world elevated into photographic artifice. Close one eye, reduce perception by a dimension; open it again, and reveal the artifice of binocular vision too.
In Les Amants du Pont Neuf (English title: The Lovers on the Bridge), when Denis Lavant’s monomaniacal tramp Alex falls incorrigibly in love with Juliette Binoche’s one-eyed vagabond Michèle, the two run-down, down-and-out, out-of-luck homeless paramours are distanced enough from society’s center that they can live out an impossible, even legendary love. This love only is possible because of Michele’s eye disease which leaves her wandering the street with one eye covered like Keaton and so many other personifications of cinema.
Homeless, dirty, alcoholic, their excommunication from the social order allows the love of these two bridge-dwellers to bloom (like a firework, not a flower) in the pure narrative space of all-consumptive passion and outside the space of compromise.
So, when the lovers finally acquire money by drugging middle-aged businessmen in cafés, their financial gain allows Michèle to hope for an escape from the tough world they inhabit. Alex, for his part, understands the dangers money represents to their relationship. Although the acquisition of capital offers them a way off of Pont Neuf, doing so it also threatens to sever their connection with this terrain of their love’s blooming. By allowing them to re-enter society, money will attenuate their love’s fierceness, gentrifying them into apathetic creatures like the first bourgeois couple which obliviously drives over Alex’s leg with their vehicle, all the while holding hands preserved in the formaldehyde of their comfortable couple, ensconced behind the reinforced windshield of their middle-class security.
The second, greater threat to Alex and Michèle’s mythical love affair arrives when Michèle is given the chance to be healed of the very malady which sent her onto the streets and menaced her with immanent loss of vision. When Alex sees that Michèle is being sought by her family so that her vision may be restored, he does everything in his power to hide this possibility from her so that he can keep her close to himself, even at the cost of her sight. But Alex is unable to hide this from Michèle for very long, and she soon discovers the possibility of her yearned-for cure, announced on a radio crushed between Alex and Michèle’s torsos as they embrace. “If you know Michèle, 24 years old, her sight could be saved by the new operation of Doctor Destouches,” crackles the radio that Alex gifted Michèle.
The name of the mysterious Doctor Destouches, who never appears in the film, yet who will eventually heal Michèle’s sight, is a reference to the great French writer of urban Paris, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Destouches being Céline’s given family name, and the one he used when consulting patients. The mention of Doctor Destouches is more than a simple homage to the French author, but a key reference which unlocks an entryway into the film’s meaning and the secrets of its construction.
In his short pamphlet Conversations with Professor Y (1955) Louis-Ferdinand Céline exposes his literary program in a faux-interview with Professor Y, the incontinent academic. “Professor Y!” declaims Céline, “I’m trying to make you understand that the inventor of a new style is the inventor of a new technique! an itty-bitty technique!... does this little technique prove itself? does it not? that’s all! that’s all there is to it!... it’s crystal clear!...my little trick, it’s the emotive! does the style of the ‘emotive account’ have any value? does it work?... I tell you: yes!”1
As Céline rants against the boredom and banality of the literature of his day with its ideas, its academics, its sentimentality, he compares his situation to that of the Impressionists. When the invention of photography rendering painted realism pointless, the painters of the late 19th century needed create a new style and technique so that painting could represent its own truth. And as Céline reveals to Professor Y, his new style, his ‘little invention,’ was similarly a response to how cinema changed the novel: “the cinema contains everything that his novels lack: movement, landscapes, picturesque scenes, gorgeous babes, naked and not naked, Tarzans, young Adonises, Lions, enough circus tricks to make your head spin! enough boudoir games to get you damned! psychology!... crimes enough to fill your will!.. orgies and voyages! as if you were there in the flesh! everything that this poor little craphatch writer can only hint at!...”
Céline’s literary invention was born from a reaction to cinema’s popularity, and it revived literature by veering it towards the spoken, the low-class, the energetic and the vulgar to offer an entertainment that could compete with if not outdo cinema’s offering. Yet this shift of literature’s field of action in response to cinema’s influence in turn compels cinema to alter its own field of action, for it also cannot continue plodding along in its old ways.
Once Céline’s literature used the low-class forms lifted from French argot to create a literary language that allows for a truly ‘emotive account,’ Leos Carax, making film après-Céline, understands the necessity of creating a cinema without the corniness of the realist melodrama, without the fakeness of which Céline accused film: “The cinema just can’t do it!... it’s pure revenge!... despite all the hype, despite the billions in advertising, the thousands of closer and closer close-ups… eyelashes three feet long!... with enough sighs, smiles, and sobs to fulfill your wildest dreams, cinema is all bunk, all mechanical, all cold… it has nothing but fake emotion!...”
In Les Amants du Pont Neuf Leos Carax provides the artistic response to Céline’s indictments, all while drawing upon the writer’s own ‘little invention.’ Sharing Céline’s mischievous disdain for conservatism of style and boredom with the sentimental, as well as his contempt for the phony, Leos Carax draws inspiration from the low artistic forms to create his own true ‘emotive account’—using acrobatics, street people, fireworks, water-skiing to revivify the love drama which fell into the abyss of slick stereotypes and unthinking tropes.
Céline’s language may be taken from the street, but it is never an imitation of real street talk, rather only a narrative technique which allows his ‘emotive account’ to renew literature. Likewise Carax’s cinematic technique veers us off the path of realism to send the film flying wildly off an emotive cliff in search of true sentiment. Lest one think that the Pont Neuf represents a real bridge, and their love a real love, it is not long until we see Alex and Michèle lying in an oversized gutter beside a bottle of wine as large as their bodies.
The bridge, like the characters and the technique which created them are pure artifice, an imaginative explosion of event, of fire, of love to open new cinematic possibilities.
Les Amants du Pont Neuf, using a cinematic technique parallel to Voyage au Bout de la Nuit’s literary one, flows fervently from scene-to-scene, improbable event slammed back-to-back into improbable event in incessant bursts of happening. Alex and Michèle are on the Pont Neuf drinking, fireworks blasting in the background, landing on the bridge, as they shoot off a handgun shouting while riding a horsed statue, before dancing to the music echoing across the city bursting from ballet to rock to hip hop, until Alex is driving a speedboat on the Seine, with Michèle behind him cracking up with joy and love on water-skis as the skies burst into flames above them…
This approach of nonstop emotive action, this frenzied bum-rush of words, syllables, images, gestures, is one of Céline’s literary trademarks. For example, near the opening of “Death on the Installment Plan” (1936) Ferdinand takes his girlfriend Mireille to the Bois du Boulogne because he wants to pleasure her sexually: “She was a real slut, she orgasms only with great difficulty, and the danger, she loved it.”2 As Ferdinand and Mireille engage in heavy petting, more onlookers surround them, rows and rows of men with their penises in their hands playing with themselves while gawking, rows of women joining behind them in lace hats, the scene degenerating into a saturnalia, with an old Englishwoman cheering them on with “Hurrah! Hurrah!” from her vehicle as the whole crowd of orgying onlookers makes its way to the Arc de Triomphe where the Englishwoman rips off Mireille’s clothing and bites into her breast… “The flame under the Arc de Triomphe rises, rises higher, breaks, scatters through the sky… The whole place smells of smoked ham… Then Mireille whispering in my ear, speaking to me at last: "Ferdinand, my darling, I love you!... I admit it, you have wonderful ideas!" The flames rain down on us, everyone picks up a big chunk… We stuff them sizzling and whirling into our flies…”
Céline would not be Céline without his (in)famous suspension point or dot-dot-dot, which more than any other punctuation mark approximates the operation of the cinematic cut. Céline’s dot-dot-dot, just like the cut, is visible but unreadable, and by so being solders his sentences into a single ceaseless flow by physically separating them. In borrowing the cut from cinema Céline’s literature conversely reveals the cut’s full filmic potential, a potential stifled by academism, encaged by industrial production. Leos Carax with his Doctor Destouches pays homage to the literary master whose invention rejuvenates the cut which can no longer simply imitate the novelistic end of chapter, end of phrase, end of gaze, but rather fuses the events into an uninterrupted flow to carry us along on his manic voyage, his invention not only reinvigorating the cut, but forcing cinema to advance on towards new territories.
The flow, the ellipsis, the inclusion of low artistic forms, the commitment to stylistic innovation (Holy Motors is worth a look for this alone) are only some of the many echoes between the works of Céline and Carax, which share not just a stylistic technique, but also a parallel artistic approach and philosophical outlook, both displaying contempt for middle-class values, intimacy with urban Paris, love of provocation, amoral fascination with vulgarity. The point is not to equivocate Céline and Carax’s oeuvres in a one-to-one parallel (operation which would be as pointless as it would be academic) but to illuminate the poetic similarities shared between their works, and the understanding that radiates from the reverberations echoing from one art to the next.
Near the end of Conversations with Professor Y Céline explains how his idea for his ‘little emotive invention’ came to him in the Parisian Metro. Traveling underground in the most ultimate of urban (and Parisian) spaces, the author writes how he wanted to take everything with him down on the rails leaving nothing on the Surface:
“I don’t hesitate!... that’s my genius! the secret of my genius! no thirty-six ways about it!... I take them all on board my Metro, see!... and I charge ahead: I take everybody!...willingly or unwillingly!... with me!... The emotive Metro, my emotive Metro!” stammers Céline. “Oh? So you take everything with you?” asks Professor Y.
“Everything!” answers Céline bubbling, "Yes Colonel… everything!... the seven-story buildings!... the ferocious rumbling buses! I’m leaving nothing on the Surface! nothing at all! not its advertising columns, not its pestering ladies, not its ragpickers under the bridges! No! I’m taking it all along!” “The bridges too?” “The bridges too!”
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