"THE LOVERS ON the Bridge," an extraordinary movie by Leos Carax, slipped into the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle last week without warning or fanfare. It was a surprise to almost everyone, even its own distributor.

A spokeswoman for Miramax Pictures, which distributes the movie, explained to me that thiswas "a simple case of human error," rather than evidence of any negative attitude toward the movie.

They love the movie, which was made in 1991. Someone booked the film into the theater without telling others in the company. A ball was dropped. Catch-up advertising is on the way. End of story! Also, I'm told, this movie will open at the repertorial Cinema Arts in Fairfax on Sept. 24. So let's remove this inadvertent pall of obscurity and give the picture its due.

Juliette Binoche plays a homeless painter named Michele who sets up camp on the Pont-Neuf, which has been closed for repairs. She meets Alex (Denis Lavant), an intense, mercurial vagrant who ekes out a living by performing fire-breathing tricks. He's heavily dependent on cheap wine and sedatives, which he gets from his bearded, cantankerous partner, Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber). Michele's fleeing an upper middle-class life and a romantic relationship that went sour. She's also rapidly losing her sight thanks to a degenerative eye disease.

Michele and Alex start a tentative friendship, based at first on wine-fueled loneliness and desperation. Then, little by little, as the trust grows between them, their bond becomes stronger and more surreal.

Michele's eyesight worsens, which makes her even more dependent on Alex. He also needs her. So when he sees Michele's picture posted by her estranged family around the city, imploring her to get treatment for her easily curable affliction, he destroys the posters, petrified he will lose his lover if she leaves.

Writer-director Carax's movie may not be for everyone. Its documentary-like depiction of homelessness pulls no punches. And Binoche reduces her delicate beauty to a sort of icky griminess. The story also has a few long-winded passages, which may leave some audiences gasping for air.

But the movie is so inspired and original, I think cinephiles will respond positively -- especially in the movie's fireworks sequences. Paris happens to be celebrating a bicentennial at the time, so the couple uses the pyrotechnic display literally as a romantic backdrop. The movie soars from gritty street realism to heady Hollywood musical, as they glide and dance on the bridge attended by an amazing light show. Alex also appropriates a speedboat and takes Michele water-skiing along the Seine as fireworks light up the waterway.

Was the boat scene real or imagined? It doesn't matter. The love between them is the working reality, and it's a blissful alternative to the miserable existence we've vicariously endured so far. Carax keeps us guessing throughout this movie. We simply have no idea where things are going. And in this kind of film, that's an experience worth toasting.

THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (R, 120 minutes) -- In French with subtitles. Contains depressing conditions of homelessness, nudity, physical assault and sex scenes. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.