A Bridge to Dreams

Lulu on the Bridge

Izzy Maurer’s life begins when he’s shot during a performance at a jazz club. He loses a lung — and the ability to play his saxophone (the only source of beauty in his life) — but he becomes more generous and open because of it. He connects with his ex-wife and her new husband. He smiles, probably for the first time in a long time.

Then one night, he happens on a corpse — a man with a clean, bloodless hole in his head. He takes the dead man’s belongings and discovers a stone and a phone number. The stone glows blue, so he calls the number. It belongs to an aspiring actress named Celia Burns. They meet, share the rock, and fall in love.

These are just the first of many improbabilities in Lulu on the Bridge, written and directed by the novelist Paul Auster. The movie will surely test some viewers’ patience, and I doubt many will think it a good movie. But it connected with me as a sad meditation on potential and loss.

Lulu stands proudly in the realm of fictions that mine the rich territory of what might have been: the classic short stories “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (by Ambrose Bierce) and “The Garden of Forking Paths” (by Jorge Luis Borges), and the more recent films Jacob’s Ladder, Sliding Doors, and Run Lola Run.

What makes Lulu interesting — and difficult — is that it doesn’t try to sell fantasy as reality; Auster offers a story with the logic of dreams — that is to say, no real logic at all. Like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, this film re-creates the discombobulating feeling of our sleep narratives: the pointlessness of questioning what’s happening, the choppy rhythms.

Auster’s approach, though, creates as many problems as it solves. The plot’s unabashed silliness (in stark contrast to the film’s serious tone) demands constant suspension of disbelief, and many performers don’t seem quite sure what they’re doing. Harvey Keitel (who nicely carried the Auster-scripted Smoke) looks fully lost as Izzy, but it’s unclear whether his stiff performance is intentional or a function of the director’s inexperience. The same question applies to the movie’s uneven pacing.

But if Auster hasn’t mastered some elements of filmmaking — his sole directing credit was with Wayne Wang on the throw-away Blue in the Face — his visual compositions are simple and spare but often stark and dramatic.

And he coaxes some good turns from an impressive cast. Mira Sorvino gives a strong, naive performance as Celia, and Willem Dafoe digs in as the interrogator who kidnaps Izzy to get the stone but seems more interested in his family history than the magical object. Gina Gershon and Mandy Patinkin (who played the straight man in the wonderfully odd screen adaptation of Auster’s The Music of Chance) come along for the ride.

But most importantly, for all the difficulty of the journey, Lulu on the Bridge comes together nicely, in the long, pregnant moments before and after Izzy (in an ambulance) and Celia (on the sidewalk) finally pass one another in reality, two people who might have fallen in love had things turned out differently.

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