Photo by Marion Stolens/HAK

FEW DIRECTORS, AT 39, HAVE WATCHED their reputations soar over the course of a decade, then founder during an equally prolonged creative crisis. At 23, Léos Carax was proclaimed the golden boy of French cinema's New New Wave. But between his Pola X, which recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and his previous film, The Lovers on the Bridge, stretch eight long years. Where has Carax been?

“To hell,” he says. “Getting there and coming back took some time.”

In life as in art, Carax is not prone to understatement. But if he's visited the underworld, his return now seems definitive. Pola X, a striking, elegant contemporary adaptation of Herman Melville's novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, is perhaps his darkest and most measured work to date. And on July 2, The Lovers on the Bridge will receive a long-awaited American release. It's a film full of paradox and ambition, in which the glamorous Juliette Binoche plays an unkempt, bug-eyed, homeless woman; an ode to the poor that went notoriously overbudget, in part by re-creating a famous Parisian monument, the Pont Neuf and its surroundings, on a lake near Montpellier. Yet it's also a wrenching film about love, fueled by passion, and a hymn to cinema.

“Since I arrived in Paris, I've always tried to live near the Pont Neuf,” explains the director, who moved from the suburbs to the city at 16, and made his first short film in a one-room apartment in the same neighborhood. “There's comfort in those ancient stones. It's the oldest bridge in Paris, but it's also surrounded by department stores and all the trappings of consumer society. In French we say 'solid as the Pont Neuf,' but in fact it's always falling apart. In my imagination it became a refuge for people who had no place to go.”

Lovers is set in 1989, when the bridge is temporarily closed for repairs. An unlikely love grows between Binoche's character, an artist who is losing her sight, and the vagrant street performer, played by Denis Lavant, who lives there. All Paris is toasting the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and from their perch, the lovers have the best seats in the city to witness the celebration.

“People like that have to exploit every opportunity for joy which comes their way,” Carax continues. “Squatting was in the air at the time — the idea that resources exist, and you just have to grab them. It's an idea that belonged to the Revolution as well. So these people are excluded from the party, but they enjoy it anyway, because the principal of liberty belongs to them.”

Much ink has been spilled on the fantastic scenes of Binoche and Lavant dancing to fireworks or waterskiing along the Seine. But some of the film's strongest images are also its starkest, like the street person who simply sinks into the river and disappears. Eyebrows were raised at production costs, a reported 160 million francs (or $28 million). The film was a critical (though not a popular) success in France, but Vincent Canby's mixed review in The New York Times on the occasion of its New York Film Festival screening shelved hopes for a timely American release.

“After the difficulty of making Lovers, I thought I was through with cinema,” says Carax, whose previous features were Boy Meets Girl (1983) and Bad Blood (1986), a noiresque thriller. “When you're beginning, you don't know what you're doing. But after three films, you can see how bad you are. And I was used to working with the same actors, producers and crew. Well, one of the producers died. People separated, sometimes violently. It was like the breakup of a creative family.”

Pola X is a visionary portrait of an artist (and a world) in crisis, and it's tempting to search Carax's interpretation of Melville's classic for snippets of autobiography. But after his long hiatus from filmmaking, the director says, he feels “completely liberated” from the specter of his cinematic past. Still, for his next project, he'd like to work in English, which was his first language (his mother is American). “And,” he adds, “I want to set it far away from Paris.”

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