As one of the first Cahiers du Cinema writers to begin work on a feature film Jacques Rivette was also one of the last to gain any kind of serious recognition. Despite his influence on such directors as Spike Jonze, Susan Sideman, Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, and Jim Jarmusch his place in cinema history has previously been met with uncertainty.
Le Pont du Nord, released in 1981, brings closure to Rivette’s highly experimental middle period that begins with Mad Love (1969) and includes Out 1 (1971) with its infamous running time of almost thirteen hours, and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).
What makes Le Pont du Nord stand out from his previous work is that it feels a lot more linear without deviating too much from his strange and spontaneous signature style. His preoccupations with secret societies, hidden worlds within familiar surroundings, and having an extremely likeable and charismatic female duo as the main protagonists are perfected into something almost cohesive. It’s also genuinely funny.
Bulle Ogier plays Marie, who arrives in Paris on the back of a pick-up truck having just been released from prison. After a chance encounter she joins forces with the erratic Baptiste, played by Bulle’s real life twenty-two-year-old daughter Pascale Ogier.
A streetwise, knife-wielding, scooter-riding drifter who claims to be a kung-fu expert, Baptiste believes the city of Paris is constantly watching those who populate it. A paranoid theory that compels her to attack any billboard and poster that contains images of eyes.
Due to Marie’s romantic involvement with a mysterious figure named Julien, our heroines are gradually embroiled into a conspiracy involving secret maps that reveal Paris to be a mystical labyrinth. Much of the film’s surreal humour comes from this thin mystery plot running parallel with a magnified focus on the random and episodic nature of everyday life.
Despite giving you impression that this is supposed to be some kind of thriller there are no quick edits or fast paced chases. This is a universe where the protagonists crave breakfast and meander from one location to the next, engaging in incidental dialogue and occasionally having to take a toilet break mid-way through a conversation.
Not being the greatest enthusiast of Rivette’s work I have to say I enjoyed every odd, sporadic, nonsensical, and drawn out moment of this elusive entry into eighties French cinema.
The Paris of Le Pont du Nord is not the one we’re used to seeing on screen, which makes it all the more mesmerising. Due to Marie’s claustrophobia brought on from her time in prison the majority of the film is exterior. Those familiar tourist landmarks are now replaced by a decaying industrial landscape. Most of the locations Rivette uses are either in the process of being demolished or have an eerie sense of desolation, such as the abandoned Carreau du Temple, which is used to great effect.
The saddest aspect of Le Pont du Nord is that this was one of only a few screen appearances from the promising Pascale Ogier. Soon after starring in Eric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris (1984) she would die of a heart attack the day before her twenty sixth birthday. Tragic circumstances that give the film an unforeseen poignancy.
As you’d expect with Rivette’s freeform style of filmmaking some plot strands are left unresolved, certain incidents are never explained, and the final scenes are quite bizarre with very little regard towards anything resembling an actual plot.
What we are left with instead is a passionate, abstract and concerned sketch of one of the world’s most enticing cities in a state of immense transition. Captured in a way that only a certain type of artist with a certain amount of life experience is capable of doing. Its progress and changes accepted and endured.