The desperate romanticism of Leos Carax’s early features peaked with The Lovers on the Bridge, an opulent, budget-busting love story set against the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. As with Carax’s previous two films, the romance here, between the homeless Alex (Denis Levant) and Michèle (Juliette Binoche), is marked by codependency. This is particularly true on the part of Alex, who’s so desperate for companionship that when Michèle needs an operation to save her failing eyesight, he considers letting her go blind so that she would have to rely on him.
That such a grim premise could beget such a frequently rapturous film is a testament to the abandon of its director, who cemented his reputation as the true heir to Jean-Luc Godard’s early-’60s spirit with The Lovers on the Bridge. Carax certainly mimics Godard’s propensity for jagged editing; frequently, the film cuts from the climax of one action to an unrelated but associative one, such as a scene of Alex breathing fire on the street to footage of French fighter jets emitting smoke trails of blue, white, and red as they roar over Paris. In the film’s midpoint climax, the bicentennial celebrations erupt over the Pont Neuf bridge where the couple sleep at night, illuminating the worn stone in explosions of sparks that send Alex and Michèle into frenzied dancing and, in a total leave of any realistic sense, water-skiing on the Seine. The sequence finds Carax at his imaginative peak, unburdened by any financial restriction to play out his vision of reckless love.
In many respects, however, The Lovers on the Bridge shows Carax maturing considerably. His previous films stressed moods drawn from worn character types, but here the director focuses on the more ambiguous nuances of his actors’ performances. The old wino Hans (Klaus-Michael Grüber), initially a repulsive, violent presence who harasses Michèle, gradually betrays layers of grief that shade him as more pathetic than abhorrent. Michèle is substantially more developed than the women in Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang, her hesitant facial expressions suggesting that she’s aware of Alex’s manipulations even as she surrenders to a certain impulse toward him.
Carax has never not delighted in highlighting Lavant’s acrobatic skillset, but he’s never regarded his muse as thoughtfully as he does in The Lovers on the Bridge. In the scene of Alex’s fire-breathing busk routine, the camera bobs and weaves along with Lavant’s slinking movements, curving down with the leg that the actor slinks out as he falls into a catlike pose. Lavant is transfixing even when just walking, stumbling about with a newborn-like jerkiness that marks Alex as a Lost Boy. The film’s minute character observations prefigure his later work, particularly the performative playground of Holy Motors.
It's a treat to even see The Lovers on the Bridge in its correct aspect ratio, and that alone should make this disc a must-own for fans. But the high-definition transfer is itself dazzling, retaining the grimy textures of Jean-Yves Escoffier's cinematography. Nighttime scenes balance black levels against bronze street lighting. The transfer also highlights the bursts of color that disrupt the naturalism, be it Michèle's yellow blouse or the multiple hues of fireworks. Sound is stable and without error, and the lossless stereo ably balances the many loud intrusions of street noise and music without burying dialogue.
A brief video essay from critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin breaks down the film around the imagery of its setting, contrasting Pont Neuf and the Seine with the behaviors and desires of the characters. An accompanying booklet also contains a brief, introductory essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky that spotlights the film’s show-stopping sequences while also calling attention to its deft character work.
This is a desperately needed home-video upgrade that at last presents Leos Carax’s film in its correct aspect ratio, and with excellent video and sound quality.