Le point du nord

Le Pont du Nord

Read the reshuffled version of this essay.

“Don't try to understand,” Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) tells Marie (Bulle Ogier) 20 minutes into Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord. Baptiste, a wide-eyed, leather-jacketed brunette, is trying to convince the older woman, a blonde with a penchant for red dresses and a longing for an absent lover, that their three unplanned meetings on the streets of Paris were fated according to some invisible plan: “One time, that’s an accident. Two times, that’s chance. Three times, that’s destiny.”

Could she be referring to the intentions of Rivette himself, the New Wave filmmaker famous for, among other things, staging just this sort of chance encounter? His favorite obsessions are stamped all over Le Pont du Nord, which tags alongside the two women as they amble around Paris, follow a mysterious map to an uncertain goal, dream up imaginary conspiracies, and run afoul of real ones. There’s fate and chance, of course, but also role-playing and performance, cinema and surveillance, and the thin line between gameplaying and real life.

Early in Le Pont du Nord, Rivette films Baptiste circling the Place Denfert-Rochereau on her motorcycle and cuts excitedly between her face and that of the stone lion in the plaza’s center. When she and Marie later discover a mysterious spiral map divided into squares, are they taking a peek at the director’s editing plan for that earlier scene? While we’re at it, if Bulle Ogier submits too readily to the logic of that first encounter, could it be because she’s still under the spell that forced her to enact the same somnambulistic household drama day in and day out in Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating? That film, too, began with a chance run-in on the streets of Paris, and likewise felt expected, as if it had been modeled on a still earlier encounter—and so on ad infinitum.

Marie resists the suggestion that her life is pre-determined, and hops around spontaneously to prove it: “Look! I can take one step left, then two steps right.” She’s right, up to a point: Rivette’s films, and Le Pont du Nord in particular, give one the sense of having been dreamt up on the spot, by a delicate process of collaboration rather than by any single auteurist design. He adjusts the film’s rhythm to that of his actors as they digress, improvise, and goof off; the resulting experience is not an absence of structure, but a mass of competing structures, shifting, colliding, and canceling one another out. Digressions become key narrative strands, which spawn still more digressions, and so on.  

The closest things to a narrative principle in Pont du Nord are the “trap squares” Marie marks on the map, with a confidence based equally on assumed knowledge, hearsay, and childhood memories: the inn, the pit, the bridge, the tomb, and, most fittingly, the maze. Each square recasts a real-life Parisian landmark as a potentially deadly challenge to be braved by both women with the solemn goofiness of children at play.

There has often been a tendency in French cinema to pursue some harmony between the fantastic, idealized world of the movies and the humdrum details of reality—from the New Wave back to the cinéma fantastique of Cocteau, Franju, and Feuillade. Less magicians than hypnotists, these filmmakers pile on narrative coincidences and convince us that they are the result of some unseen order; they portray the impossible not through technological wizardry, but by sheer force of will. In Franju’s Judex, a splash of moonlight was enough to transform a gang of catsuited robbers into disembodied shadows, just as in Pont du Nord a line of dialogue turns an unlucky Parisian passerby into an enemy spy, a cobweb into a curse of eternal sleep, and, in one of the film’s most exhilarating comic sequences, a theme-park ride into a fire-breathing dragon. 

Le Pont du Nord

For Rivette, magic ought to be considered an extension of life, and city life in particular. When one especially cold night forces the agoraphobic Marie to seek shelter indoors, she makes a beeline for the cinema: there, she can watch the screen and ignore the walls altogether, as if the space of the movie was a natural continuation of the space of the world outside. Elsewhere, Rivette’s camera bounds along with his heroines through the mazelike city streets as if he were their third partner-in-intrigue; when they try to outpace each other or push one another aside, he darts between them like a boxer warming up for a fight. In a sense, he is: Rivette is constantly engaged in a dancelike tug-of-war for control of the shot with the film’s virtuosic cinematographer William Lubtchansky, whose loving, lingering attention to the glow of sunlight on faces, streets and strands of hair counterbalances the director’s love of acrobatic camera movements.

All this suggests a pathological fear of confinement—to a single, closed-in space, or (returning to Baptiste’s initial challenge) to a single choice, a single course of action. The camera has a tendency to set moments in stone, to state with certainty that this happened and nothing else. In Rivette, the impetus for so many events is left unexplained and the outcomes of so many others left unrevealed and the camera is never allowed to document any moment with certainty: there is always some ambiguity, some key piece of information unfilmed and therefore left open to chance, choice, or luck. We never glimpse what brought the two women together in the first place, nor where the pair’s mysterious map leads, nor who’s behind the shadowy syndicate tracking them. But if this willful absence of narrative context leaves us a bit lost, it is a pleasant sort of lostness—giving us the right to imagine possibilities rather than absorb information.

If all of Le Pont du Nord’s games, rules, and neuroses point back to a single theme, it is the fear of death, and the possibility (or impossibility) of cheating it. It’s difficult to say more than that, because for everything you could say about Rivette’s attitude towards mortality, the opposite would likely be just as true. Death is the chief subject of comedy, and at the same time the tragedy for which all comedy exists to compensate; it’s something at once unspeakably awful and unspeakably trivial, unimaginable even as it serves as the basis for all other imaginings. When death does enter into Le Pont du Nord, it comes off as casual, arbitrary, and totally unnecessary, and we don’t know whether to be comforted by its mildness or horrified by its lack of weight. “Death can also be a beginning. Begin a new game,” Marie tells Baptiste as they pore over the map’s central square, the tomb. She pauses. “But in any case, it’s a very frightening game.”

Le Pont du Nord screens March 22 to 26 in a new 35mm print at BAMcinématek.