With amazing performances and some bizarre spectacles, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge a paints unforgettable (if not exactly admirable) pictures of wild romance.
Plunging us into a the difficult and unpredictable lives of the homeless in Paris, Carax shows us an ugly, cruel world that is full of betrayals. Romantic love and passion are upheld as the best hope for a fulfilling life, and its characters pursue this with a passion, believing it should be attained no matter what.
And what characters: Denis Lavant plays Alex, a homeless man who resembles one of the cavemen from 2001, roaming around Pont-Neuf breathing fire… literally. (He’s a fire eater.) He falls into a stormy romance with an artist who is going blind, played by Juliette Binoche, who we are expected to believe could live as an overlooked homeless woman.
Anyone who thinks that romantic love will be the way to satisfaction and fulfillment is setting themselves up for disappointment. Romantic love is a step, an experience that can point the way toward selflessness, compassion, and meaningful sacrifice. But the movie wants our hearts to break for these two lost individuals as they fumble toward ecstasy. For all of its impressive excess, the whole affair feels rather empty. This may come from its failure to offer us a thoughtful exploration of its characters’ stories. But everything is staged at such extremes, it hinders thought. It’s a performance art slideshow set to music that’s turned up to “11.”
As Charles Taylor wrote in his review at Salon,
There’s no denying that some of [Carax's] images are exquisite, but they aren’t tied to anything narratively or emotionally. “I don’t really write scripts,” Carax told Kehr. “I make notes, and then, when we’re at the point of finding the money, I pretend to write a scenario.”
And yet, while it’s difficult to take seriously, The Lovers on the Bridge is worth a look for the strength of its throw-caution-to-the-wind performances by Lavant and Binoche, who deliver something more along the lines of a stunt exhibition at a circus than acting, and for some truly awe-inspiring cinematography and spectacle. Have you ever been water-skiing at night through a fireworks show? That’s just one of the marvels you’ll see here, one of the metaphors for the exhilaration of finding someone who loves you.
The folly of its desperate duo may inspire some compassion, helping us see beyond the alarming violence of their romance to the stories behind their pain. As we watch these two desperate, damaged human beings throw themselves at one another, we see recklessness and selfishness. But we also see the beginnings of wisdom as they learn to care for someone besides themselves.
But overall, The Lovers on the Bridge feels like the work of a flamboyant art student who thinks that he can illustrate a profound love story by firing cannonballs of paint at a canvas. The explosions are spectacular, but in service of what, exactly?