Jacques Rivette’s urban films capture an enduring fantasy of metropolitan life, the belief and hope that if one rounds the right corner in a faded block of rigidly planned, gentrified buildings that some figment of the city’s mercurial soul can be discovered. His blend of the concrete and elusive is epitomized in the opening text of his 1981 film Le Pont du Nord, which establishes the action in “October or November, 1980—already a long time ago.” This simple setup uses imprecision to evoke specificity, and it projects the recent past as storybook fable, effectively casting doubt on what the viewer is about to see before the first image is even shown.
The film revolves around the twin poles of newly released ex-con Marie (Bulle Ogier) and Baptiste (Pascale Ogier, Bulle’s daughter), who belligerently roams Parisian streets. They run into each other several times in short order, which Baptiste interprets as a sign of fate that binds the two together. Their walks, initially peppered with banalities, gradually lead to a number of strange happenings and eerie coincidences. A mysterious man clad in a tan overcoat, black business slacks, and a motorcycle helmet trails Marie’s lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), and attempts to steal the man’s briefcase. Maps and ciphers are discovered, and Baptiste begins to see conspiracy wherever she looks, though who’s behind it and what its goal is remain unclear.
With no special effects to speak of, Rivette creates a sense of an ancient fantasia brimming just under Paris’s surface. He favors the nondescript parks and walkways of the city, framing the women in long shots that nonetheless feel cramped by looming stone walls that line their passages, turning back alleys into labyrinths. Famous landmarks become not the focal point of Rivette’s cityscapes, but imposing, unnatural breaks in the flow of movement, obstacles in the maze. Rivette’s camera darts around Marie and Baptiste as if to egg on their games, but William Lubtchansky’s naturally lit cinematography emphasizes the playfulness of the whole enterprise, replacing any overriding sense of malaise with a childlike whimsy about an obscure challenge the women nonetheless take seriously.
As is typical of the director’s films, the abstract plot and dense array of mythological and literary allusions draw attention to the only concrete element in the frame: the actors’ performances. Where his New Wave cohort Jean-Luc Godard employs dualities and dialectics as a means of intellectual sport that treats actors as mouthpieces, Rivette uses the clash between the actresses to illustrate the variation they bring to their improvisation. The short, blond Marie revels in being free of the confines of prison, walking around with no real direction, but basking in the freedom of the outdoors. Lanky, brunette Baptiste, meanwhile, walks with a sense of purpose that belies her own peripatetic listlessness. Marie is timid but friendly, while Baptiste speaks and moves with the formal stiffness and bristling antagonism of a ronin spoiling for a fight, and she even has a habit of practicing karate moves on statues and carving out the eyes of advertising posters.
Made in the aftermath of Rivette’s nervous breakdown, Le Pont du Nord finds the director recapturing his fondness for actorly interplay and a directing style that always uses its flourishes of movement to match and exaggerate the physicality of his performers. A wry humor creeps into the film, whether at the sight of that aforementioned man in business wear and a bike helmet attempting to look conspicuous as he trails others, or in a scene where Marie temporarily suspends her agoraphobia to get warm in a theater showing William Wyler’s The Big Country, translated into French as Wide Open Spaces. The finale, of Baptiste and the bad guy having a friendly sparring match, does nothing to bring the story to a conclusion, but its self-reflexive acknowledgment of Rivette’s presence recasts the movie as a celebration of collaborative filmmaking.
Kino’s Blu-ray retains all the filmic textures of the 16mm cinematography. Natural light and the format’s limitations result in less detail, but the transfer nonetheless presents the film with exceptional clarity, with tiny splashes of color that stand out from the dulled park greens and weathered stone of streets, as well as warm, sunlit flesh tones that betray both Jacques Rivette’s and William Lubtchansky’s fondness for the actors. The lossless stereo track is similarly direct, emphasizing the ambient noise of city life as much as the winding conversations of the two friends.
Two visual essays comprise the disc’s extras, the first a collection of images by Roland-François Lack that maps out the film’s magical-realist sketch of Paris, the other a video project by Gina Telaroli that combines Rivette’s footage with her own present-day explorations of the city, as well as recitations of various texts. It’s hard to tease out much of a message from Telaroli’s video, but then the same is true of Rivette’s film, and Telaroli captures some of the original’s spirit by remaking and warping a low-budget film with even fewer resources. The disc also comes with a booklet with old press notes, as well as an essay by Dennis Lim.
Criminally unavailable until now, Jacques Rivette’s gleefully distracted tour of Paris marks an early Blu-ray highlight for 2015.