Holy Motors has been graciously buzzed about, before and after its win at this year’s Cannes (Prize of the Youth Jury, along with Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.) It comes to us with Carax’s glowing reputation, and with a promisingly loopy trailer. Which you can find here:
With Holy Motors (hopefully) on its way to a US release, a friend suggested I check out Carax’s 1991 film, The Lovers on the Bridge (currently streaming on Netflix.) From where I’m sitting, the film throws a wrench into any attempt to generalize about the early 90’s in world filmmaking. Or 90’s French filmmaking. Or filmmaking in general.
Where to begin? You’ve got Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant playing homeless characters, the titular lovers. Binoche arrives on Lavant’s bridge, and the older vagrant who lives there immediately dislikes her. He demands that she leave.
What strikes you first about Carax is his effortless sense of balance. He’s a filmmaker completely at home with the sort of brutal unfolding of narrative that was uncommon when The Lovers on the Bridge came out, and is more uncommon now. Events follow one another will steadily increasing weight. The scene has restored power, but so does the shot. They come, one after the other, as narrative units. A shot often contains multiple character beats: a full sequence.
What’s more, these are not the slow-boil, visual-game long-takes of the new Cinema of Contemplation. (The film is never slow.) Rather, they’re good dramatic practice. If you frame two characters discussing the past, together, and they are both in character: cutting becomes unnecessary, sinful, dishonest, distracting. There’s no call for it. I don’t have to tell you that Binoche inhabits her character uncannily, and for every second of the film.
What’s resisted, visually, is the back and forth of traditional shot/scene structure. There’s very little shot-reverse shot structure. What we have instead is an internal deliberateness, a single-mindedness of attention. Perhaps this can be risked because we have so much time, right at the beginning, with Denis Levant’s character, quite alone. So when he (Alex) returns home to the bridge, about 15 minutes into the film, and meets Hans (the older vagrant,) the camera lingers on Hans all through their interaction. At first we have a two-shot, in which Alex wanders in and wakes Hans up. Then, in the same shot, Hans shoves Alex out of the frame.
Then: we punch in, getting a medium close-up of Hans, into which a blurry piece of Alex occasionally drifts. There is no coverage of Alex at all in this sequence. And the next shot is another punch-in, this time to a box of syringes that Hans keeps around. This type of visual focus, with the narrative unfolding on top of it in conventional (but quite good) dialogue, creates a hypnotic and unique texture. An environment of seemingly endless cinematic abundance. Why should we need coverage of Alex? We can hear him speaking. We know he exists. Why not follow what we can’t hear with the eye of the camera, rather than what we can? Carax is never redundant.
The pitch-perfect cadence of Carax’s storytelling reminds one of a story written in verse. If every stanza exists as a package, containing a pre-determined number of lines, and each line contains a pre-determined number of syllables, the reader has the opportunity to take pleasure in the sheer narrative balance. There is harmony in knowing that the next scene will last about as long as the one before it. That everything is ticking along in a mechanism that reminds one more of fate than of the anarchic thrill of freely governed life.
This is the central paradox of The Lovers on the Bridge. That the characters move viciously, passionately through a carefully composed film. Further, if the film were made tomorrow (or, I suppose, if the film were not made by Carax) we could expect plenty of hand-held camera work, to assure us of the documentary realism of what we are seeing.
But Carax is not showing us what he hopes we will believe is documentary. The film creates a myth around itself, a legend about two people experiencing love in a world with no bedrooms. At times, it even resembles opera. There’s a thrilling sequence of departure from everything mentioned already, maybe strangely placed at the film’s midpoint (maybe not, considering the commitment to balance I mentioned earlier.) Here we get Carax entering into the throws of stylistic revolution, ecstatic visual play around characters (who do eventually find themselves at play.) About this sequence, I’ll say only that one cannot help but think of Godard.