Leos Carax’s story of two homeless bums and their relationship is built around these contradictions and tensions that make the film a struggle to grasp. It’s a warm, beautiful and intimate film, but it’s also filled with harsh, repulsive imagery and a protagonist who is so rampantly selfish he makes spats of the film hard to watch as this almost naïve and childlike relationship is filled with dark, abusive undertones.
Alex (Denis Lavant) is one of the many bums wandering around the city of Paris with no clear directon or purpse. He keeps up residence at the decaying old bridge, the Pont Neuf, but when he returns one night to find Michèle Stalens (Juliette Binoche) has taken his place, he suddenly has a new pursuit in life and quickly becomes obsessed over discovering more about this strange woman with an eye-patch.
While it initially appears that Michèle’s gradual descent into decaying eyesight might be a romantic metaphor for true love, a love that is blind, Carax quickly flips this notion on its head by showing that blindness leads to abuse and unhappiness as it is the inability to see each other’s flaws that lead to a relationship doomed to fail. Alex takes advantage of this, making their relationship takes a turn for the worse as he begins to control and manipulate her without her knowledge.
Therefore, how much of this “blind love” is selfish dependence. Is it really love to overlook the flaws of another person or is it naïve and foolish? How would their relationship change if Michèle knew the truth? What would happen if the two of them saw their problems for what they were? These questions allow Carax to paint a romance that is neither over-romanticized nor bitingly cynical. The relationship is instead honest to the characters, especially their flaws.
Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier helps capture this dichotomy and reconcile the two extremes by creating a style that melds the bad and the beautiful. The romanticism creates for soft and intimate images that give way to brash and flamboyant visual exclamations. This allows for a wonderful sequence where the two lovers hijack a boat and go waterskiing while fireworks go off around them up and down the river.
On the other end of the spectrum, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the filth and grime that is involved in these characters lives. The picturesque Paris that serves as the backdrop to many a romance is not to be found in this film. From the degrading bridge to its grimy underbelly, the film doesn’t pull away from lingering on the gritty and nasty realities of these character’s world.
All this makes for a love story with a lot of baggage. While it has those wonderful moments of exhilarating love and unbridled joy, those hopeless places of darkness can be hard to handle. And yet, it’s because the film is willing to go deep into that valley, to not hold back, to show in detail the darkness and depravity, that the film is so memorable and effective.
While the film may not be enjoyable in certain stints and one might even be tempted to turn away or quit before the film gets even darker, the resulting climax is all the more exhilarating and beautiful. It’s a film that takes a lot to digest, a film willing to take this love story to some truly tough places. It may not be as sleek and sweeping a romance, especially in the contest of Paris, but its honest is what makes it so wonderful.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing