Lulu on the Bridge (1998): Novelist Paul Auster’s Solo Directing, Starring Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino

Quiet, moody ponderous, and overall underwhelming, Lulu on the Bridge represents writer Paul Auster’s first solo directorial effort.

The movie world premiered to decidedly mixed-to-negative response in the Certain Regard section of the 1998 Cannes Film Fest.

This tale continues to explore some of the issues that prevailed in the far superior Smoke, specifically the isolated, alienating nature of modern urban life, and at the same time provides opportunities for new and meaningful bonds based on random yet fateful encounters.

Lulu on the Bridge
Lulu poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Our grade: C (*1/2* out of *****)

At the center of the movie is a mysterious romantic affair–a kind of American amour fou–between a middle-aged musician, played by Harvey Keitel, and a young aspiring actress, embodied by Mira Sorvino.

Though intermittently touching, the film is ultimately frustrating due to the meandering nature of the riddle-like script and Auster’s lethargic direction.

The film has distribution deals in France and other European countries. However, despite illustrious cast, it will have hard time securing theatrical release in the U.S.

As he showed in other films adapted from his work, The Music of Chance and Smoke, Auster is intrigued by existential tales, structured as puzzles and combining elements of myth and realism. Here, he weaves a simple yet complex tale that celebrates the magical powers of love between two lonely individuals, who despite desperate need to connect have suppressed their yearnings and immersed themselves almost blindly in their professional careers.

In the first scene, jazz saxophonist Izzy Maurer (Keitel) is in the restroom, watching with fascination photos of Hollywood’s glamour queens, including Louise Brooks, hung on the wall. Rushed to the stage, he begins performing with his band, but suddenly an hysterical young man (Kevin Corrigan) invades the place and starts shooting. Hit by a stray bullet, Izzy’s taken to the hospital, where friends try to console him that there is life without–and after–music.

The recovery process is slow and long and Izzy sinks into severe depression based on his belief that, “I have no life without music.” Hannah (Gina Gershon), his ex-wife who still cares for him, unexpectedly arrives at his door, determined to take care of him. Almost reluctantly, he accepts an invitation to dinner party at her house where he meets Hannah’s new beau, Philip Kleinman (Mandy Patinkin), a producer, and Catherine Moore (Vanessa Redgrave), a former actress-turn director who’s now preparing a new version of Pabst’s landmark film, Pandora’s Box.

One evening, taking a walk in Lower Manhattan, Izzy stumbles across the body of a stranger. He grabs the man’s briefcase and begins searching for clues to his identity. All he finds is a napkin with a phone number and a box containing a stone that looks ordinary, but in the dark, projects a magical blue light that has transcendental healing powers.

Without hesitation, Izzy calls the number, which belongs to Celia. In a typical Auster touch, Celia is listening to Izzy’s music when he calls to suggest a meeting. After a rough beginning that arouses the anger as well as fascination of both parties, they fall for each other. Incredibly romantic midsection centers on the duo, who are so madly in love that they cant’ separate for a second. Celia arranges for Izzy to work as a busboy in her restaurant, where he constantly watches her; before long, he attacks a customer who comes onto her too strong and both are fired.

Oddball yarn begins to rumble as soon as Celia leaves for Ireland to shoot her movie, earlier landing the part in an audition orchestrated by Izzy. Last reel boasts a Kafkaesque ambience, when a menacing anthropologist, Dr. Van Hom (Willem Dafoe), suddenly shows up in search for the precious stone. In a series of intense interrogations, Dr. Hom brings painful memories from Izzy’s past: his troubled relationship with his older brother and late father.

The narrative structure is audacious, and second act has many touching moments in depicting the transformative and redemptive power of love. Nonetheless, pic falls apart in the last reel, and the downbeat ending, while original, is bound to frustrate viewers who’ll find it peculiar and not entirely satisfying.

One can only speculate on how German helmer Wim Wenders, whom Auster originally suggested for this project, would have approached the material. But Auster lacks the technical skills to translate his episodic story into an intriguing movie the way that Wayne Wang did in Smoke and the companion docu, Blue in the Face, on which Auster was credited as co-filmmaker.

Lulu on the Bridge contains several powerful moments, but Auster doesn’t succeed in turning what’s basically a riddle into a coherent and resonant film and he particularly falters with the pacing–sluggish tempo accentuates the problematic nature of the material, which ultimately may be more suitable for a novel.

Illustrious cast, which includes actors from his previous movies–Smoke’s Keitel and Music of Chance’s Patinkin–tries valiantly to bring life to their enigmatic roles.

In the leads, Keitel and Sorvino have several good scenes, and supporting cast of Redgrave, Patinkin and Gershon add necessary color to the proceedings, but rather inexplicably helmer drops most the secondary characters as the story proceeds.