We have Miramax, whose motto may as well be "better late than never," to thank for bringing director Leos Carax's 1991 Les Amants du Pont-Neuf before U.S. audiences -- albeit about eight years after the fact and with a clunky English-language title betraying its wild lyricism. In the intervening decade, Les Amants has taken on near-legendary status among U.S. film buffs starved for visionary cinema. Ranked at number two on a recent Film Comment survey of the decade's greatest movies unreleased in the U.S. (at that time), I'm not sure Les Amants' reputation will survive the scrutiny of actually being widely available in this country. As grand as it is, it's also completely cracked -- I suppose it's the Heaven's Gate of French relationship dramas, and that alone makes it well worth seeing.

The Pont-Neuf over the Seine River is the oldest bridge in Paris, connecting the island on which the city began with the larger mainland. When numerous delays on the project meant that he lost his location permit, Carax recreated the bridge and its surroundings as a gigantic movie set located well outside of the city, at astounding cost. At the time of its release, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was the most expensive French film in history.

It's a shame that Miramax abandoned the specificity of the original title for a generic English equivalent, since the setting is clearly so important to the movie's often magical mood. In the film, the Pont-Neuf, blocked off from traffic for refurbishment, is a squatting zone for down-and-out Parisians. An eyepatched Juliette Binoche plays Europe's most beautiful hobo, Michele, who hooks up with wiry, alcoholic street performer Alex (Denis Lavant). It's Alex who holds off burly old vagrant Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber) when he tries to boot Michele off the bridge and back onto the streets. It's not long, however, before Hans accepts Michele -- and Alex falls in love with her.

The unabashedly contrived backstory could only be found in a French film. Michele turns out to be a famous artist who ran away from polite society and took to the streets after learning that she had contracted a rare disease and was slowly losing her vision. Certainly Alex is no prize -- he's an impressively athletic fire-eater, but he's also slow-witted and unforgivably selfish, as it turns out. But Michele finds him somehow endearing (presumably she loves his unpretentious earthiness, or his tenderness, or his sexiness).

Now, I could watch Binoche file her nails for 120 minutes without blinking, and I think she's endearingly guileless here, but Lavant is a disappointing partner for her. He's watchable mostly because he raises the question of why, exactly, Binoche's highbrow refugee would fall for him so completely. While that may be a question that the film strives to answer for us, Levant himself doesn't shed much light. More illuminating is the film's raison d'etre, an astonishing centerpiece where our lovers cavort on the bridge as the fireworks of the French Bicentennial celebration pop overhead. It's a jaw-dropping, priceless sequence that ranks among history's great movie moments.

Trouble is, too much of the film is less grand but equally phony, like the mocked-up buildings surrounding that bridge. The appearance of a few real homeless people in the first reel notwithstanding, the film's hip indulgence can't convey the coarseness and desperation of real street life. The result is that while I really liked, for instance, a key scene late in the film in which Michele and Alex rendezvous atop the bridge during a light snowfall, I didn't believe it for a minute. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is all artifice and contrivance -- in that way it's a microcosm for the cinema, and a sporadically dazzling one, but it's a fundamentally unsatisfying experience.

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