Lovers on the Bridge
Lovers on the Bridge directed by Leos Carax France's GenerationVexed Almost a decade overdue,Leos Carax's Les Amants de Pont-Neuf finally begins a regular theatricalrun in America under the title Lovers on the Bridge. It could as easilyhave 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 Pariswith an intense, personal celebration that happens to coincide with BastilleDay. They take nationalistic jubilation to be their own and ride a speedboatand water-ski down the Seine while overhead erupts a pyrotechnical extravaganzato rival the light show in 2001. Not since Demy's Lola has anydramatic film so uncannily evoked the rhythm and ecstasy of a musical. The world that comes alivein 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 withcircus performer gifts and the girl artist slowly losing her eyesight embodymodern pathos; their fearful subjectivity (isolation) must be bridged by love.And Carax's radical story shift has a precedent: Chaplin'sCity Lightstale of the urban tramp who struggles to finance an eye operation for a belovedflower peddler. Even the couple's disconnection recalls Chaplin. Alex-like the29-year-old Carax-learns a different definition of love than the simple joyof companionship he first imagined. The emotional world that opens up for himis frightening but also unexpectedly full. In Film Follies,a book-length study of ambitious personal movies, Stuart Klawans knowingly appliesfolly to movie scholarship, braving serious contextualization of Carax's tourde force. Carax was no doubt aware of other great movie fireworks sequences-DavidLean'sSummertime, Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief-but he outdoesthem in erudition and purpose: Expensively building his own Pont-Neuf, he commandsthe huge and amazing fantasy world to dreamlike perfection. For all its poeticaudacity, the film itself is a seriously grounded testament to turning lifeinto 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'sfirst two films (the black-and-white love poem Boy Meets Girl and theromantic neo-noir Mauvais Sang) found innovative uses of the expressiveimage. He intended continuity with the sensuality of film art, just as his onlycomparable 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, inheritedthe gift to depict spiritual richness. His use of spectacle is in the extravaganttradition of Minnelli, Ophuls, Demy, Bertolucci, Beineix-artists who thoughtwith their eyes and made audiences think with their eyes. F/x-era movie culturehas become numb to true visual splendor and though Lovers on the Bridgeis one of the landmarks of movie imagination, it'll be interesting to see ifthere are still moviegoers out there capable of correctly appreciating Carax'svision. Ribbons of colored smoke trailing jets in a blue sky, the funny sightof gutter drunks dwarfed by their inebriation or of a tumescent silhouette onthe beach comprise Carax's virtually silent telling of Alex and Michele's emotionalrhapsody. (It's even more of an image-first, words-second extravaganza thanBertolucci's Besieged.) Carax doesn't offer conventional narrative buthis vivacious style-the heady, boundless fireworks sequence surprisingly (andvibrantly) scored to Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours"-oughtto be enough for anyone attuned to pop culture. (This sequence has what, inr&b terms, is called "watching your love come down.") Carax'stheme here is joy. It can be seen. It can be felt. In Jean-Luc Godard's KingLear, Carax is spotted in the woods trying to start a fire by rubbing twosticks together. Godard himself comes along, notices his disciple's Boy-Scoutdiligence, then offers him a cigarette lighter. In Sitcom, it's FranšoisOzon's turn to create friction. Ozon attempts to rethink surrealism-a late andredundant effort. This deadpan analysis of the bourgeois family is no longeran iconoclastic view but puts a familiar sexual-political agenda into place.Yet, with the shadow of Bu˝uel over Ozon's shoulder, Sitcom earnsa point for audacity. It dares posit satire as today's common alienated language. Ozon figures that the orthodoxfamily structure is only a fabrication, a facetious notion taught daily throughairwaves. So when businessman Dad (Franšois Martrhouret) brings homea white rat, the household becomes a sociological lab experiment eliciting different,eerie responses by Mom (Evelyne Dandry), son Nicholas (Adrien de Van), daughterSophie (Marina de Van) and the maid Maria (Lucia Sanchez). Ozon wants the boldnessof the surrealist movement that transformed the spiritual search of that turn-of-the-centuryera into repositioned common objects, a subversive art logic. Our fin de sieclehas abandoned that quizzicality. The avant-garde has been thoroughly mainstreamed,rendered futile; that's why Ozon's boldest strokes, in this context, feel likedeja vu. After the "I Love Mallory"sequence in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and David Lynch's TwinPeaks-still the classic repositioning of banal artifice-our culture hasabsorbed the shock of family autopsy. Back in the 80s, David Byrne's TheCatherine Wheel sought spiritual resolution and Japanese filmmaker SogoIshii's The Crazy Family pointedly warned against urban depersonalization.Ozon has not surpassed those insights. His previous films See the Sea andA Summer Dress made unsettling use of simple plot circumstances by emphasizingpsychological mystery. That double-billed debut was a wonder, because Ozon seemedcapable of varying both tragic and comedic tones yet placing intense concentrationon character. He was original in an oddly 90s way, unconsciously retreadingalready broken ground (Hitchcock, Rohmer) but with sedulous conviction. Sitcom suggests Almodovarand John Waters as well as Bu˝uel-especially the great The ExterminatingAngel 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 neverread "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," gay activists who never read"The Ballad of Reading Gaol," or the Offspring, who seem not to haveheard 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-aleckmisconception. Even the fake tropical backdrop during Nicholas' seduction byMaria's African husband Abdu (Julien-Emmanuel Eyoum Deido) plays with artificeto comment on cultural difference-in this case the sick joke of ethnic stereotypebeing literally embraced by lust. Sex, for Ozon, unhingesthe oppressive social order. (He also, needlessly, goes beyond the Andre Techineschool by exposing Stephane Rideau's large gift.) But this disruption of establishedformula tells less than when Ozon concentrated on small-scale interpersonaldialogue. Though the proverbial tv show is the product of commercialism, hegemonyand industry privilege, its practice can (as Twin Peaks proved) be bothmore conventional than theatrical melodrama thus weirder still than undergroundtrash. It's not just that parody is built into tv, but that modern life hasoutstripped the surrealness of tv's bourgeois artifices. Sitcom's storyclimaxes with a domestic action/horror scene. Despite Ozon's experiments withserial suspense and excitation techniques, his true impulse is to be an ideology-wreckingrevolutionary-the action is grotesquely Oedipal, dreaded yet necessary. Killthe father? The Simpsons does that every week and Homer always comesback reinflated with the pomposity, ignorance and hope of the West-pure, radicalgenius. The clearest emotion inSitcom is Ozon's vexation. Committed to broadening sexual understanding,he opposes those familiar forms of storytelling that have taught us notionsof human behavior yet left society baffled and deluded. Sitcom's mostsuccessful-and characteristic-sequence would be Nicholas' out-of-the-closetparty: Ozon stretches gay erotic expectation then parodies it by suspendingit. This mocking ironist and vicious tease seems vexed because he wants to changethe political rules behind storytelling. An anarchist in an ccommodationistera, he's building a fire to burn cinema's conventions. It's the unhappy fateof generations arriving late to the game, after the revolution. Clipped Do the Strand. For the nextfive weeks the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the decade's single most adventurousdistribution company, Strand Releasing. Simply put, they've released more ofthe 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 areessentially stand-ins for adult humankind. Not to be missed. And Davies' TheNeon Bible follows his masterwork The Long Day Closes with similarlyindelible expressions of how memory works. Sexual longing intrudes on socialcustoms in Davies' adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's first novel. The autobiographicalis Davies' turf, and though Neon Bible (showing June 18 and 24) is setin the American South (Georgia) during World War II, the characters and placehave first-person immediacy. Watch for the Tara sequence-terse images that conflateGone With the Wind, American domesticity and the Ku Klux Klan. A beautiful,shrewd, courageous critique beyond most American filmmakers. Next week: WhyStrand matters.
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