Remember when French authorities built a miniature version of Paris to save the city from Nazi bomb-fire? Well, it wouldn’t be the last time the City of Lights required a stunt double. The second time, however, was under much cheerier circumstances: the filming of the Leos Carax’s cult ’90s French film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.
Initially, Carax considered blocking-off Pont-Neuf for three months of filming, but the Préfecture de Police wasn’t too keen on the idea. Instead, the crew was given a mere 21 days to film on the actual bridge. Unfortunately, the director strained the tendon in his left thumb while tying his shoe on the bridge; so badly, in fact, that he wasn’t able to complete filming in the proposed time frame. The only option? Building another Paris in the southern French countryside.
“There was over 900,00 square-feet of decor,” explained set designer Jérome Perrier to the National French Audiovisual Center about the construction of the set, “[We built] an entire quarter of Paris, with Pont-Neuf being the central element.”
Carax’s drama tells the story of two vagrants lovers: failed fire-breather, Alex (Denis Lavant), and Michèle (Juliette Binoche, a.k.a. the French Julia Roberts), a struggling painter who is growing blind. The artists take shelter on the bridge, fall in love on the bridge, and most importantly, dance on the bridge in this now iconic scene:
Construction began in 1988, on a swampy plot of land in the Lansargues. The “Parisian” apartments around the “Seine” were mere scaffolding, with only the bridge and the famous department store at its feet, the Samaritaine, becoming meatier structures:
The site in 2009.
You have to hand it to the film’s team – the buildings are truly picture-perfect doppelgängers. Check out the real Samaritaine (circa 2011) for reference:
And now, the fake:
“The further away you got from the bridge, the smaller we’d make the scale of the buildings,” explained Perrier. The structures stretched all the way from Paris’ centre to a faux Place du Châtelet, and there were about 400 men and women at work on the film, which provided quite an economic-boom in the small southern town where it was erected.
The film was also set to take place during the 200th anniversary of the storming of Bastille, which called for the synchronisation of the characters’ dancing with a fabulous, unapologetically large amount of fireworks.
The movie’s completion went through a number of ups-and-downs due to mounting costs, and at one point production was at a complete stand-still. Only one person stood guard at the pop-up Paris from October 1989 to June 1990, until filming was finally able to resume. The movie took three years to complete, and cost upwards of 130 million francs — four times its intended budget. It was, understandably, impossible to break even at the box office.
The film was met with mixed critical reviews upon release in 1991. But the crew’s feat of rebuilding the city’s centre was indisputably impressive, and the movie has become a cult-treasure of French cinema. “Leo Carax’s [film] arrives trailing clouds of faded glory,” wrote critic Roger Ebert upon the picture’s US release eight-years later, “It was already one of the most infamous productions in French history [at] Cannes…some were stunned by its greatness and more were simply stunned.”
And the fate of that stunning mini-Paris? “Those kinds of structures aren’t made to last,” concluded Perrier. Sure enough, the site was destroyed (some reports even say burned) not long after production ended.
Luckily, we still have the real thing. Situated in the heart of the city, Pont-Neuf is one of Paris’ most iconic and beloved structures — no small feat for a city that’s basically an open-air museum. It’s also one of the oldest. Construction began in 1578 under the reign of King Henry III, and finally finished in 1607 during the rule of Kind Henry IV, whose version of a ribbon-cutting was to ride across the bridge on a white stallion.
The bridge was basically a ye-olde, Target-Meets-Time’s-Square hybrid; at an ample 232 meters long and 22-meters wide, it was the perfect place for artisans, swindlers, jugglers and the like to set up shop. In his 1888 travel book, Walks in Paris, Augustus Hare wrote, “So central an artery is the Pont-Neuf, that it used to be a saying with the Parisian police, that if, after watching three days, they did not see a man cross the bridge, he must have left Paris.” Hundreds of years (and a lot of tourism) later, Pont-Neuf still remains an utterly, timelessly Parisian fixture — for locals, visitors, and lovers alike.
By Mary Frances Knapp, our Californian in Paris & beatnik at heart.