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Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and Cinema du Look: Spectacle over Substance?

Module: Screening Europe
Module Coordinator: Dr Emma Austin
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

This is the first of six blog post essays for the module Screening Europe. It is not my best work and, ironically, lacked substance. If I recall correctly we had a low word count to hit, which is probably what tripped me up as I don’t do as well with low word limits. This work was submitted in November 2020, only a couple of months into my studies, so it is interesting to see how my work evolved and grew in strength throughout my time at the University of Portsmouth.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf  (Carax, 1991) follows the life of Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless man who lives on the Pont-Neuf bridge, and Michèle (Juliette Binoche), a woman who’s fortunes have turned and also makes the bridge her home. They fall in love, but Alex is troubled by the possibility of losing her when he discovers there is a cure for her failing sight.

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’s budget was estimated to be $28,000,000 (IMDb, n.d.), which made the film one of France’s most expensive film ever made – largely to the fact that the Pont-Neuf bridge and its surrounding buildings were re-created on a lake near Montpellier, France, because the permission to film on the real bridge expired before it was completed.

A photograph of the set on the Montpellier lake. (Riché, 2015)

The argument of spectacle over substance is often applied to this film, citing the budget and spectacular firework scene as evidence, however, I firmly believe the substance outweighs the spectacle. This film was made two years after Raphaël Bassan classified Leos Carax as a “director of the look”, (Bassan, 2019) – could it be that Carax made this film to prove him wrong?

At the beginning of the film we have a five-minute sequence of raw footage from a homeless shelter, shot in a documentary-esq manner. This sets the scene for the film – dark, dreary, characters with apparent drug/alcohol and mental health issues. Whilst it is somewhat scripted and edited, there are no special effects or music in these scenes.

At 32:53, Alex chases Michèle through the metro and it appears she is running from Alex. The extra-diegetic cello music is suspenseful – will he catch her? Why is he chasing her? It only adds to these questions. It’s now apparent that Michèle isn’t running from Alex but looking for the celloist. This is Juliane, her ex-lover, and she follows him home and kills him, or so we think. It is later discovered her gun still has all the bullets in it, so it must have been a dream, a fantasy. Perhaps her degrading eyesight is causing hallucinations?

At 1:14:35, after the pair have stolen money, Michèle is explaining to Alex what they could do with it. This scares Alex into thinking she could leave him. He stages it so she knocks the money from the bridge. When Alex sees Michèle’s image plastered over every wall of the metro he panics into burning them, accidentally killing someone in the process.

This stark view of the burning posters foreshadows Alex’s world ‘going up in flames’ when Michèle leaves him and he goes to prison. (Rosebaum, 2021)

At 1:51:55 hours we see Michèle telling Alex she cannot be with her, and Alex throws the two of them into the water beneath them. Under the water, Alex shows his willingness to die for her, but they emerge from the water reborn. Michèle agrees to stay with Alex.

Throughout the film we have these strong representations of mental health. From Alex allowing Michèle to think it was her fault they lost the money, to pretending to learn how to sleep without a downer. From the scenes in the homeless shelter to the pair being reborn at the end.