Former Cahiers du Cinema theorist and Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Rivette developed a deeply personal and fascinatingly distinctive form of cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which magic and reality become entwined ingredients in a self-aware mode of storytelling rooted in the playfulness of improvisation, but combined always with a solid sense of place and time. The high point of this fertile period in Rivette’s filmography was his strange and wondrous masterpiece “Celine and Julie go Boating” to which “Le Pont du nord” acts as a kind of final footnote, also concerning as it does the explorations of two women, Marie and Baptiste, who meet by chance (or is it fate?) on the streets of Paris (in this case during a time very specifically located as being the autumn of 1980) and embark together on a strange adventure that skirts around the subject of history and urban environments, and their ambiguous relationship with the imagination. While “Celine and Julie go Boating” was largely the result of improvisation by its two lead actresses, Le Pont du nord” combines improv with a scripted outline involving Rivette’s perennial themes of espionage, conspiracy and mystery, and was shot using only exterior Parisian locations, filmed in natural light by cinematographer William Lubtchansky. The shifting landscape of the city itself is made a central component in the unfolding opaqueness of the drama, establishing itself as a kind of story-making palimpsest -- its architecture and public spaces capturing layers of the past in a vast web of intangible conspiracy.
The opening twenty minutes are devoted to the establishment of the film’s unique tone, which comes over like a documentary travelogue infused with languidly paced mini scenarios involving the two central characters, played by Rivette regular Bulle Ogier and her real-life daughter Pascale Ogier. Bulle plays Marie, a recently released convict who now finds it impossible to live indoors after years of being confined to a claustrophobic cell, and who arrives in Paris in the back of a pick-up truck. She attempts to make contact with her former lover Julian (Pierre Clémenti) but finds it difficult to track him down; meanwhile Baptiste (Pascale Ogier), an elfin featured, tom-boyish young woman in leather jacket and blue jeans, rides around traffic-crammed streets observing Paris’s statuary, architecture and historical landmarks.
This slow-paced opening, virtually without dialogue, establishes a mood and a rhythm dictated by the relentless din of motorway traffic and a visual landscape composed of dull overcast autumnal skies that frame wrecking cranes on the horizon captured in vertiginous 360 degree pans with a hand-held camera, often set to an attractive orchestrated score by Astor Piazzolla; a series of alleyways, municipal parks, bustling marketplaces and characterful winding side-streets outside hotels that Marie cannot enter form the backdrop to a series of meetings between the two women, but each has an opposing perspective on the nature of their relationship. Marie is a former idealist who belongs to the generation who once participated in the student rebellion of ’68, but who now, as a result of years of disillusionment spent in prison, sees the world as a series of disconnected events governed by a mixture of chance and contingency (‘Things don’t happen just because you want them to!’) while Baptiste believes (knows!) that ‘everything is mapped out from A to Z’.
The philosophical tension that exists between the perception that randomness is a defining quality in life, and the opposite tendency -- inherent to the storytelling instinct -- to discover connections everywhere and between everything, echoes the film’s own bifurcated construction, which takes the realistic environmental ambiance of the Parisian filming locations (ignoring the picture postcard tourist image of Paris and dwelling instead among dusty construction sites, abandoned cemeteries and a hinterland of waste ground and concrete that surrounds the disused railway lines encircling the run down edge of the city) and imbues them with a spectral intrigue and a fantasy life borne aloft on the imagination and the subconscious, braiding together the general pre-scripted outline of the film s basic scenario with unpredictable elements and contributions which take the form of the performers’ own improvisations and other random accidents and chance happenings which occurred during filming, all to create the intimation of there being this grand narrative which somehow remains forever just out of reach of understanding and eventually dissipates in a fog of abstract performance. The mystery genre tropes which occur here are suggestive, but lead nowhere narratively concrete; it’s the formal role they play in the film’s evocation of a Paris which exists below the surface of the imagination that provides the film with its raison d'êtr -- injecting enchantment and menace into the mundane surface of an urban space that seems to be in the midst of erasing its own past in a welter of soulless modern housing development projects; thus in hindsight, the film also captures a specific moment in time --depicting a version of Paris in the early 1980s which by definition also no longer exists.
The sparsely delineated mystery which provides what little ‘structure’ this free-flowing, sedately paced work possesses, is centred on the contents of a mysterious briefcase Julian carries with him whenever (observed by Baptiste from afar) he and Marie meet up for their romantic trysts at various city locations. A seemingly minor character (Jean-François Stévenin), glimpsed early in the movie, appears to be trailing Julian (who is apparently involved in some sort of conspiracy) in an attempt to switch the case. According to Baptiste, everything that happens around Marie and herself is all part of this same plot, so that even the most casual seeming bystander might be a ‘Max’ (the name she gives to those involved in the supposed clandestine scheme). After Baptiste manages to acquire the case, the contents reveal newspaper clippings relating to various real-life violent crimes and political assassinations, including those of the 1970s French criminal Jacques Mesrine, as well as the failed bank job that Marie got sent down for. Also in the case is a mysterious map of Paris, onto which a numbered spiralled grid pattern has been over-drawn; it might be some sort of a code, but it looks like a children’s game. Unlocking the key to this spider’s web of orchestrated secrecy, signs and conspiracy becomes the two friends’ main aim, with Baptiste’s make-believe world (in which she is a kung-fu expert pledged to guard Marie from a shadowy plethora of agents out to do her harm) resulting in this mysterious acquaintance entering a strange realm that’s part performance art and part insanity.
The cinema of Jacques Rivette is renowned for making the inordinate length and (extremely slow) pacing of most of this director’s films into a vital component for evincing particular visual textures, patterns and emotional qualities. At two hours and ten minutes, this is one of his shorter works -- yet the scarcity and opaqueness of the narrative, and Rivette’s deliberate policy of letting scenes run on for very much longer than is usually expected or feels comfortable to watch, induces a mood of interested stupefaction in the viewer that allows one to see with new eyes the most apparently mundane occurrences or sights. Even a row of posters advertising a perfume product with the piercing eyes of a cosmetics model might be part of the Mabuse-like Parisian conspiracy in this strange semi-real world of intrigue. There are long pseudo-profound conversations between Marie and Baptiste on the nature of reality and illusion; and strange, playfully surreal interludes occur which add immeasurably to the film’s sense of freewheeling avant-garde uniqueness, unravelling the strands that usually make a compelling narrative style while creating something new out of them that is at once curiously compelling at the same time as it remains inherently nebulous and indefinable.
But even after adumbrating such leisurely, meandering ways, Rivette occasionally allows for the odd unexpected moment of genuine menace and surprise to intrude into the atmosphere of vague ungraspable anti-narrative he excels in: there’s threat to the well-being of one or other of the two heroines at several points, and an unexpectedly abrupt ending after a particularly shocking development curtails the lull of revelry the film has induced like an sudden rude awakening from an intoxicating dream …
This Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release features an adequate if unspectacular 1.33:1 (the film’s original aspect ratio) HD transfer but no disc extras. There is included however a substantial booklet that features several lengthy essays on the movie and the work of Rivette in general, accompanied by archive images. It also has a reprint of a revealing interview with the director conducted just before the original release of the film. This might not be a definitive extras-stuffed treatment of what is after all still considered a minor work in Rivette’s filmography, but it provides the best available version of it and reminds us that this particular staging post, towards the end of Rivette’s middle period, fully deserves to be looked at and evaluated again from the standpoint of the discipline if psychogeography, and is still an evocative vehicle for providing suggestive means of interpreting the urban environment in ways informed by cinema, memory, history, and the imagination.
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