Lovers on the Bridge
directed by Leos Carax
France’s Generation Vexed
Almost a decade overdue, Leos Carax’s Les Amants de Pont-Neuf finally begins a regular theatrical run in America under the title Lovers on the Bridge. It could as easily have been called Fireworks to highlight its centerpiece sequence, a magnificent, expressionist depiction of young lovers’ ecstasy. Alex (Denis Lavant) and Michele (Juliette Binoche) transcend their homeless wanderings on the streets of Paris with an intense, personal celebration that happens to coincide with Bastille Day. They take nationalistic jubilation to be their own and ride a speedboat and water-ski down the Seine while overhead erupts a pyrotechnical extravaganza to rival the light show in 2001. Not since Demy’s Lola has any dramatic film so uncannily evoked the rhythm and ecstasy of a musical.
The world that comes alive in Alex’s and Michele’s hearts is also the world that closes them out—economically, morally. Carax picks these guttersnipes from a homeless shelter reject pile. The blunt realism of his opening scenes (squalid, ugly, unignorable social futility) makes possible his eventual move into surreal romanticism. The boy tramp with circus performer gifts and the girl artist slowly losing her eyesight embody modern pathos; their fearful subjectivity (isolation) must be bridged by love. And Carax’s radical story shift has a precedent: Chaplin’s City Lights tale of the urban tramp who struggles to finance an eye operation for a beloved flower peddler. Even the couple’s disconnection recalls Chaplin. Alex—like the 29-year-old Carax—learns a different definition of love than the simple joy of companionship he first imagined. The emotional world that opens up for him is frightening but also unexpectedly full.
In Film Follies, a book-length study of ambitious personal movies, Stuart Klawans knowingly applies folly to movie scholarship, braving serious contextualization of Carax’s tour de force. Carax was no doubt aware of other great movie fireworks sequences—David Lean’s Summertime, Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief—but he outdoes them in erudition and purpose: Expensively building his own Pont-Neuf, he commands the huge and amazing fantasy world to dreamlike perfection. For all its poetic audacity, the film itself is a seriously grounded testament to turning life into art. Like Calder’s model circus at the Whitney, call it a work of love.
American foreign-film distributors’ boycott of Carax has severed a key link in modern film culture. This young visionary’s first two films (the black-and-white love poem Boy Meets Girl and the romantic neo-noir Mauvais Sang) found innovative uses of the expressive image. He intended continuity with the sensuality of film art, just as his only comparable peer, Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai, sustained intellectual montage. Consequently, American film culture fell back on the crutch of dialogue and derivative plotting (the “cinema” of Tarantino).
Carax, a true prodigy, inherited the gift to depict spiritual richness. His use of spectacle is in the extravagant tradition of Minnelli, Ophuls, Demy, Bertolucci, Beineix—artists who thought with their eyes and made audiences think with their eyes. F/x-era movie culture has become numb to true visual splendor and though Lovers on the Bridge is one of the landmarks of movie imagination, it’ll be interesting to see if there are still moviegoers out there capable of correctly appreciating Carax’s vision. Ribbons of colored smoke trailing jets in a blue sky, the funny sight of gutter drunks dwarfed by their inebriation or of a tumescent silhouette on the beach comprise Carax’s virtually silent telling of Alex and Michele’s emotional rhapsody. (It’s even more of an image-first, words-second extravaganza than Bertolucci’s Besieged.) Carax doesn’t offer conventional narrative but his vivacious style—the heady, boundless fireworks sequence surprisingly (and vibrantly) scored to Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours”—ought to be enough for anyone attuned to pop culture. (This sequence has what, in r&b terms, is called “watching your love come down.”) Carax’s theme here is joy. It can be seen. It can be felt.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, Carax is spotted in the woods trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Godard himself comes along, notices his disciple’s Boy-Scout diligence, then offers him a cigarette lighter. In Sitcom, it’s François Ozon’s turn to create friction. Ozon attempts to rethink surrealism—a late and redundant effort. This deadpan analysis of the bourgeois family is no longer an iconoclastic view but puts a familiar sexual-political agenda into place. Yet, with the shadow of Buñuel over Ozon’s shoulder, Sitcom earns a point for audacity. It dares posit satire as today’s common alienated language.
Ozon figures that the orthodox family structure is only a fabrication, a facetious notion taught daily through airwaves. So when businessman Dad (François Martrhouret) brings home a white rat, the household becomes a sociological lab experiment eliciting different, eerie responses by Mom (Evelyne Dandry), son Nicholas (Adrien de Van), daughter Sophie (Marina de Van) and the maid Maria (Lucia Sanchez). Ozon wants the boldness of the surrealist movement that transformed the spiritual search of that turn-of-the-century era into repositioned common objects, a subversive art logic. Our fin de siecle has abandoned that quizzicality. The avant-garde has been thoroughly mainstreamed, rendered futile; that’s why Ozon’s boldest strokes, in this context, feel like deja vu.
After the “I Love Mallory” sequence in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks—still the classic repositioning of banal artifice—our culture has absorbed the shock of family autopsy. Back in the 80s, David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel sought spiritual resolution and Japanese filmmaker Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family pointedly warned against urban depersonalization. Ozon has not surpassed those insights. His previous films See the Sea and A Summer Dress made unsettling use of simple plot circumstances by emphasizing psychological mystery. That double-billed debut was a wonder, because Ozon seemed capable of varying both tragic and comedic tones yet placing intense concentration on character. He was original in an oddly 90s way, unconsciously retreading already broken ground (Hitchcock, Rohmer) but with sedulous conviction.
Sitcom suggests Almodovar and John Waters as well as Buñuel—especially the great The Exterminating Angel and the far less good yet more popular Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It’s probably unintentional, yet these very referents weaken Ozon’s enterprise. And the reason why can’t be avoided. His politics and esthetics seem deracinated, unevolved from the subversive intellectual tradition. Like rappers who never read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” gay activists who never read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” or the Offspring, who seem not to have heard of the Clash, Ozon’s impudence (and his haphazard characters) seems puerile. From the opening shot of proscenium curtains (as if parodying a stage show) Ozon condescends toward our sophistication—a naive artist’s strained, smart-aleck misconception. Even the fake tropical backdrop during Nicholas’ seduction by Maria’s African husband Abdu (Julien-Emmanuel Eyoum Deido) plays with artifice to comment on cultural difference—in this case the sick joke of ethnic stereotype being literally embraced by lust.
Sex, for Ozon, unhinges the oppressive social order. (He also, needlessly, goes beyond the Andre Techine school by exposing Stephane Rideau’s large gift.) But this disruption of established formula tells less than when Ozon concentrated on small-scale interpersonal dialogue. Though the proverbial tv show is the product of commercialism, hegemony and industry privilege, its practice can (as Twin Peaks proved) be both more conventional than theatrical melodrama thus weirder still than underground trash. It’s not just that parody is built into tv, but that modern life has outstripped the surrealness of tv’s bourgeois artifices. Sitcom‘s story climaxes with a domestic action/horror scene. Despite Ozon’s experiments with serial suspense and excitation techniques, his true impulse is to be an ideology-wrecking revolutionary—the action is grotesquely Oedipal, dreaded yet necessary. Kill the father? The Simpsons does that every week and Homer always comes back reinflated with the pomposity, ignorance and hope of the West—pure, radical genius.
The clearest emotion in Sitcom is Ozon’s vexation. Committed to broadening sexual understanding, he opposes those familiar forms of storytelling that have taught us notions of human behavior yet left society baffled and deluded. Sitcom‘s most successful—and characteristic—sequence would be Nicholas’ out-of-the-closet party: Ozon stretches gay erotic expectation then parodies it by suspending it. This mocking ironist and vicious tease seems vexed because he wants to change the political rules behind storytelling. An anarchist in an ccommodationist era, he’s building a fire to burn cinema’s conventions. It’s the unhappy fate of generations arriving late to the game, after the revolution.
Do the Strand. For the next five weeks the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the decade’s single most adventurous distribution company, Strand Releasing. Simply put, they’ve released more of the best (or at least challenging) new films. Terence Davies and Andre Techine, filmmakers who did their finest work these past 10 years, top this week’s retrospective. Techine’s Wild Reeds (showing June 19 and 22) is the teen movie par excellence, even though its four young characters who discover the politics of loving are essentially stand-ins for adult humankind. Not to be missed. And Davies’ The Neon Bible follows his masterwork The Long Day Closes with similarly indelible expressions of how memory works. Sexual longing intrudes on social customs in Davies’ adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s first novel. The autobiographical is Davies’ turf, and though Neon Bible (showing June 18 and 24) is set in the American South (Georgia) during World War II, the characters and place have first-person immediacy. Watch for the Tara sequence—terse images that conflate Gone With the Wind, American domesticity and the Ku Klux Klan. A beautiful, shrewd, courageous critique beyond most American filmmakers. Next week: Why Strand matters.