FILM / Underneath the arches: Director Leos Carax recreated the centre of Paris in the middle of a field in the South of France for Les Amants du Pont Neuf. Sheila Johnston met him

Hunched over an uneaten croissant, answering questions as though they were an exquisite form of Chinese torture, Leos Carax cowers in a darkened room behind a pair of impenetrable shades. These might be a defence tactic, they might well be an affectation, they might be therapeutic (fresh in from Hollywood, he claims to have hurt his eyes in the Los Angeles sun). He chooses to be interviewed in (heavily accented) English, then keeps lurching unannounced into French. Infinite silences yawn between each half-uttered phrase. On tape afterwards, less than a third of what he says is audible, a wastage of which he would doubtless thoroughly approve.

His film, Les Amants du Pont Neuf, is one of the most expensive in the history of French cinema: Carax mumbles that he 'doesn't know' the budget and anyway everyone is lying about it, but it is said to be in the region of pounds 16 million. It was, in fairness, not altogether his fault. To recapitulate the infamous saga: Carax had with some difficulty secured permission to shoot his film, a love story between two tramps, one of whom is slowly going blind (hence, perhaps, those sunglasses), on the Pont Neuf, Paris's oldest bridge. When his regular male star, Denis Lavant, sprained his wrist, shooting had to be postponed, and the permit was lost. Reluctant to relocate his story, Carax constructed a huge replica of the bridge in the middle of a field in the South of France. The budget began to soar. When Les Amants was released in France three years later, to much hostile publicity and what Carax describes as 'la condescendance et le mepris' (condescension and contempt), it was nothing approaching the blockbuster it would need to be to make its money back.

One might have seen it coming. Carax had once declared one of his favourite films to be Heaven's Gate, and the shooting schedule of his last film, The Night is Young, had ballooned from 10 weeks to 30. At that time Carax told me, 'In City Lights, Chaplin did 560 takes of that shot of a blind woman giving him flowers. Seeing that gave me the courage to find something different.' You could scarcely say his producer, Alain Dahan, wasn't warned (Dahan died a few months ago, wrung out, perhaps, by the effort).

Carax, however, is unrepentent. 'We went over time on The Night is Young, but not very much over budget. People think I'm arrogant. They don't understand what money is in the movies. They think it should be all in front of the camera - beautiful costumes, fireworks - and sometimes it is. But money is also time; if you want to live for a year in the street before starting a movie, that means money. That's why I have problems making films.' He admits to shooting only those scenes which involved no dialogue for the first three months: 'It takes time for actors to talk right.' A five-minute flophouse scene, filmed with real hoboes, took him a year.

You would be mistaken, however, in thinking that his film consists only of austere little vignettes of emotional truth; the sumptuous production values are up there on screen too. There is the set itself, of course, which recalls the splendid artifices of Griffith, Stroheim and the heyday of the Hollywood studio; there is a gloriously over-the-top sequence in which Juliette Binoche's one-eyed tramp goes waterskiing down the Seine against an explosion of fireworks; there are the celebrations of France's Bicentennial which form the backdrop to the film.

'I liked the idea of two homeless people who would see through that supershow and all the money I knew was spent, and would benefit from it more than anybody else. The city is like a big playground; they steal what they want from it. It's ridiculous. I can't think of anywhere less revolutionary than Paris, although we're very proud to say there was a revolution 200 years ago. It's a rich city, it's getting richer and richer, and they're pushing all the poorer people out to the suburbs. So the centre is becoming dead. If my dog shits on the street, I get fined. I used to like dogshit.' In actuality, Paris's army of indigents live under the Pont Neuf, but Carax has never been shy of using artistic licence. You don't see real-life tramps waterskiing on the Seine either, he points out helpfully.

'I met Juliette just before I made The Night is Young. At that time she was very boyish - un garcon manque. So I proved to her in The Night is Young that she was a beautiful woman. That was new to her and I was glad to do it,' he says grandly. All this has an autocratic feel (shades of Von Sternberg and Dietrich), but modern stars are more headstrong beings and Binoche resisted being photographed 'as a madonna'. 'In this film Juliette wanted a chance to sweat and run,' explains Carax. The new, uglified image of one of France's most radiant vedettes did not go down a storm in the popular press, of which Carax simply says: 'I'm pissed. I'd rather not talk about it.' They have since split up and his next project will be made without her. Was it difficult to be in love with his leading lady? 'It's the only way,' he mutters mournfully.

He has loosened up in his work with actors. 'My other films were mine made with other people. This one is something we did together. It's a much freer, more liberated form of movie-making. I know I want that movement or that feeling or that rhythm in certain places and try to make a kind of music with editing and light. Then the actors get involved in the story and I make changes because of them. Denis likes to accomplish things that seem impossible, like eating fire. And Juliette insisted on being much more active in this movie than she had been before - in the waterskiing scene, she wanted to ski, she didn't want to be the one in the boat.' The set-piece spectacles punctuating the movie occasionally give it the feel of a musical comedy. 'That's because I'm not a real story-teller,' Carax says. 'A real story-teller wouldn't do that.'

One day, like Wim Wenders with Until the End of the World, he will undoubtedly fall flat on his face. But for the moment the scope of Les Amants, combined with its poetic sense and visual splendour, sets it streets apart from issue- or literature-oriented big- budget French movies like Cyrano or Uranus. Compare, for example, Les Amants to L'Amant, Jean- Jacques Annaud's bland, semi- softcore adaptation of Marguerite Duras's novel, and there's no doubt which is the more remarkable and cinematic film. (Which is why one puts up with all the folie de grandeur from its director.)

It's a little difficult to picture this scrawny, moth-eaten figure in Hollywood, exchanging bland pleasantries, taking meetings and doing lunch, and Carax himself doesn't seem to hold out much real hope for a career there. 'I wanted to escape Paris. The chances of my making the kind of films I want are small wherever I go,' he declares. And what became of his multi-million franc set? 'They burnt it. It shows how stupid the times are. It would have been a great place for kids, for people.'

'Les Amants du Pont Neuf' opens in London next Friday.

(Photographs omitted)

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