Leos Carax’s film Les Amants du Port-Neuf (1991) is a lyrical coming of age story for his generation. Unlike most coming of age dramas, Carax doesn’t emphasize any life lessons or a journey to adult responsibility or understanding. Instead, Les Amants du Port-Neuf deals exclusively with the lessons of romance, and the journey towards a mature relationship. Les Amants du Port-Neuf is pure Romanticism, as naïve as it is visually stunning, often suspending all believability and reality in favor of sequences that are representative of the main character’s affair. Carax avoids sentimentality by employing scenes of stark realism; strategically juxtaposing more Romantic sequences, and thus allowing those sequences to more fluidly inhabit the same world. Les Amants du Port-Neuf is unique in that there is no pretense that the world of the film is the same as our own reality. Carax’s world is a fictitious invention that reflects enough of our own reality so that we may invest more easily in the fanciful Romanticism that manifests itself in his film. The heavy stylization at work in Les Amants du Port-Neuf make it, along with Carax’s other films, unique to the French cinema of the early nineties. Filmmakers such as Andre Techine had been advocating a return to dramatic realism throughout the eighties, a notion that appears to have been oppressive to the conventions of Leos Carax’s film. This makes Les Amants du Port-Neuf not just a coming of age story for a generalized public, but for a new generation of filmmakers.
Les Amants du Port-Neuf opens with Alex (Denis Lavant) being run over by a car then quickly picked up to be returned to a homeless shelter. Unknown to Alex, a passerby named Michelle (Juliette Binoche) witnesses the accident. From there, Carax takes us to the homeless shelter where Alex is treated for a broken foot. The sequences here take on a documentary quality in direct opposition to the heavily saturated colors that dominated the scene of the accident. With a series of fast cuts, Carax quickly contextualizes the lives of the homeless, the illness, despair, violence, and frustration. Doctors hurry about treating the dying while officers break up fights. It’s notable that this scene’s duration is twice as long as the scene of the accident. This allows Carax to reinforce the juxtaposition he made before in the film’s visual palette. The dominant sensation of the audience is now more closely in tune with the shelter sequence than the accident, so whatever may follow will be accepted as having the same realist merits as the shelter sequence.
Next, Alex has been released, and returns to Port-Neuf where he lives (Port-Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris and is in a state of disrepair for much of the film). Alex is surprised to find Michelle is also living on the abandoned bridge, and decides to look after her once he learns that she is sick. It is immediately clear that Alex’s intentions are romantic, but Michelle rejects him, she is still seeking closure from her previous relationship. Alex’s feelings are not unrequited for long, however, because Michelle locates her former lover and shoots him dead.
After killing her former lover, Michelle and Alex get drunk, steal a boat and go water skiing while fireworks erupt in the sky. This sequence returns the characters to the fantastic world of rich colors and symbolic coincidences (the fireworks). After this night, their love affair is in full swing. Together they begin ripping off café goers by drugging their drinks, dancing at nightclubs in montage to David Bowie’s Time Will Crawl (1986), and racing on the beach.
Then, while Alex and Michelle are walking through the subway, Alex sees a poster of Michelle instructing anyone who has seen her to report the sighting to her parents so that she may receive eye surgery that will save her sight (thus also explaining why Michelle wears an eye patch). Suddenly aware that if Michelle goes she will never return to him, Alex takes her back to the bridge. He then returns to the subway and burns all the posters of Michelle adorning the walls (this is one of the most memorable visuals of the film). Alex then sets out to prevent any more posters from being hung by burning a van full of the posters that accidently kills a man. Distraught by these events, Alex returns to Michelle on the bridge. As Alex approaches Michelle, there is a broadcast on her portable radio about the eye surgery. This prompts Michelle to drug Alex and return to her parents.
It’s worth noting that all of Alex’s efforts are in vain. Carax condemns Alex for his violent manifestations of his selfishness, for in the next scene the police are beating Alex, interrogating him about the murder. In a montage, it is conveyed that Alex will serve three years in prison, and that Michelle visits once six months before his release and arranges to meet him at the now restored Port-Neuf at midnight on the day of his release. This sequence, with all its moral retribution, returns the film to an approximation of our reality in preparation for the film’s final scenes.
The film ends with Alex and Michelle meeting on the bridge. After three hours together, Michelle says she is going home, at which point Alex grabs her and leaps into the river below. Once underwater, the film resumes it’s fanciful flare. The couple sinks, face one another, and linger as if they were about to kiss. At this point all ties to reality are forsaken as the two emerge to be rescued by a passing barge.
The synopsis above may give the impression that Les Amants du Port-Neuf ebb and flows with stylistic convulsions, but that is not the case. Transitions from the fantastic to the realistic are carefully plotted by Leos Carax so as not to disassociate the audience. Music cues, and color signifiers are the mainstays in the communicating of these transitions. For instance, the realist sequences are notably warmer, the whites and yellows of cement convey the heat of Paris in August, as well as capture the characters in a more familiar, tangible environment. Sequences with a bit of fantasy are full of cool, deeply saturated colors, often emitting from neon signs, fire, and fireworks (recalling both Fassbinder’s film Querelle and Coppola’s One From The Heart). The fact that all of Carax’s lighting is naturally motivated is the key to its cohesive alignment to believability.
Alex and Michelle themselves are not the naturalist romantic leads of a film by Eric Rohmer, but come closer to the frenzied youths of Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Band Of Outsiders (1964), more concerned with capturing the emotional moment of youth as opposed to the environment and behavior of youth. The speed at which Alex and Michelle race through their relationship, the severity of their romantic conversation and the naïveté of their world view is not indicative of people as they actually are, but rather of the abstract sensations one experiences during first love. To enable an audience to associate with these characters and explore these abstract sensations, Carax wisely employs the tactics of realism, though only briefly, so that it is the audience’s own willful choice that they make the journey with Michelle and Alex.
All of the stylistic components described above point to a distinctly expressionist tendency in Carax’s film. All the visual elements of the film (location, color, framing, motion, etc) are correlated to express the emotions of Alex and Michelle. For Leos Carax, this is a monumental undertaking, especially when one considers that Les Amants du Point-Neuf is his third feature. Like Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise (1926), Carax built a replica of Point-Neuf on which to shoot, best capturing the expressionistic Romanticism of his piece. It is worthy to note that two films I mention above, Coppola’s One From The Heart (1981) and R. W. Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), also attempt the level of expressionism Carax achieves here (both One From The Heart and Querelle were shot on giant set pieces replicating real locales). Though both Coppola and Fassbinder were successful to varying degrees, neither was able to translate Murnau’s approach into a contemporary vernacular as well as Carax. Neither Coppola nor Fassbinder come close to approximating any tangible reality, both are trapped in fictitious worlds whose plasticity remains inescapable and dated by the technology used to manufacture those worlds. Les Amants du Point-Neuf’s close relationship to both our reality and our shared cinematic fiction allows us, as the audience, to engage the film on levels denied One From The Heart and Querelle.