SYNOPSIS

Grunge and fireworks in 'Lovers on the Bridge'

The average American moviegoer -- boasting a brain that Hollywood has deep-fried in big-budget lard for 10 or 20 years -- may be convinced that the French churn out three kinds of films, none of which is particularly watchable.

The first kind consists of dumpy men and absurdly attractive women who talk about sex for two hours without ever getting around to actually having it. Only a sojourn to a topless beach full of taut g-strings breaks the monotony.

The second prototype is just like the first, except that people repeatedly hide in closets and fall over furniture. That makes it a "French farce."

The third and most intimidating variety is the sort of stuff that film students like, with vague story lines and wild editing techniques that often confuse things for no discernible reason. It smells like art, so you know it won't taste good. Not enough lard.

Léos Carax's "The Lovers on the Bridge" belongs to the third category, which partially explains why its American release has come so long after its 1991 debut (as "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf").

Although the film boasts a couple of fine performances by Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche as homeless lovers who sometimes grow violently resentful of each other, Carax is the real star. He's devised a handful of sequences here that enter uncharted territory; the vibe is best described as one of disturbed romanticism.

Bridging the plot
Binoche (looking a great deal worse for wear than she does as Hana in "The English Patient") plays Michèle, a bruised and battered artist with a bandage covering one of her eyes and a dark cloud covering her general persona. She turns up one night on the Pont-Neuf, a shut-down Parisian bridge usually occupied only by Alex (Lavant) and his viciously gruff partner in homelessness (Klaus-Michael Grüber).

Grüber's character is less than accommodating when he sees the bedraggled young woman sleeping on "his" bridge -- he greets Michèle with a slap in the mouth. But drug-abusing Alex is fascinated by the portfolio of drawings his new neighbor carries around with her. It also helps that, even in her unkempt state, she's a very attractive woman.

Carax displays flawless visual confidence. In the opening scene, Alex passes out on a city street and has his foot shattered by a passing car. Michèle, who's yet to meet him, watches this from the sidewalk.

Later, he's thrown into a homeless shelter, a sequence that's shot in near-documentary style by Carax. The real-life occupants of this shelter are twisted, tortured souls who've found themselves cast into a government-operated level of hell. It's difficult to watch, especially when an argument ensues and an old woman is punched in the face by a much younger man.

It's a relief when Alex (now wearing a cast on his foot) leaves the shelter. That's when Carax starts getting dreamy, albeit in a manner that allows for a great deal of pain and filth.

As Alex and Michele begin to fall in love with each other, they enter a sometimes dazzling world of makeshift romance, one that never completely obscures the unrelieved trauma of living on the streets. Alex is an acrobat of sorts, so the couple's adventures are sometimes more than a little bit dangerous ... and the actors themselves often perform hazardous duty for the cameras.

Dangerous liaisons
The first unforgettable scene is when Michèle and a crowd of people are flabbergasted by Alex doing a fire-breathing trick for spare change. Filling his mouth with a flammable fluid of some sort, he dances around while spitting huge arcs of liquid into a lit torch, creating a bizarre Kiss-meets-Marcel Marceau street performance.

Lavant's willingness to take part in the scene (it's obviously not a stunt double) pulls you closer to Michèle's mindset. This guy might be crazy, but you have to marvel at his level of invention and sheer guts.

Eventually, Michèle gets caught up in Alex's spontaneous sense of suicidal revelry, which leads to perhaps the single most astonishing sequence to be seen in any U.S.-released film so far this year.

The French Revolution's Bicentennial is being celebrated with a huge fireworks display that fills the sky over the bridge, and Alex and Michèle cavort drunkenly through the falling embers. The two actors, once again, are really doing this, with streaks of burning color dropping from the heavens and exploding in sparks on the shattered bridge.

The real kicker, though, is when the couple steals a speedboat that's being used in the festivities. Lavant steers recklessly as Binoche water-skis down the Seine, with fireworks filling the air around her. She also comes dangerously close to smacking into the brick walls that line the river.

The whole thing sounds insane, I know, like something's gone terribly wrong at Busch Gardens. But the image of Binoche gliding elegantly over silky water in full peril of crashing -- or simply going up in flames -- is the perfect visual metaphor for this particular relationship. This is the sort of multi-leveled exhilaration that can be achieved on film when talented artists bother to give it a go.

The last third of the movie suffers a great deal for telling us too much about Michèle's former life. There's also a medical quandary dealing with her failing eyesight that feels like a ploy from a sappy silent movie.

A lot of Carax's mannered grunge is a chore to sit through, but even the most art-phobic of viewers may admit to a certain power in his glorious imagery. "Lovers on the Bridge" is a noble sometimes-failure, one with more flashes of legitimate brilliance than you'll find in a dozen helpings of "Armageddon." It's a shame hardly anyone will see it.

"Lovers on the Bridge" is sometimes shockingly violent, although there's little blood. Women being belted by men is a recurring motif, but it's meant to be awful. There's also psychological abuse, drinking and drugging. One shot, in which the drunken Lavant and Binoche seem to have shrunk to the size of mice (an abandoned paper cup on the sidewalk is twice their size) is nutty in the extreme while remaining absolutely effective. Rated R. 125 minutes.
by Paul Tatara from cnn.com


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