From the earliest street films of Alice Guy-Blaché, the secret passageways of Les vampires (Feuillade, 1915) and illusory mansion of La belle et la Bête (Cocteau, 1946), whistle-stop circuit of Paris in Zazie dans le métro (Malle, 1960) and urban mimicry of Playtime (Tati, 1967), French cinema has always been concerned with cityscapes and architecture, the art of mise-en-scène and blocking. It has, in short, been a cinema of attractions, an unfurling essay on its capital’s romantic grandeur, albeit one paradoxically located in social realism and politics (Blaché’s earliest street films addressed issues of poverty and war, shooting on location in the working-class milieu). Such is the case with the cinema of Jacques Rivette, and especially his 1981 treasure Le pont du Nord, an extension of the characters and plot from his 1980 short Paris s’en va. It tells the peculiar tale of an agoraphobic ex-con, Marie (Bulle Ogier), and footloose karate devotee Baptiste (Pascale Ogier), who cross paths and embark upon a four-day flânerie through the nooks and crannies of Paris, where the pair encounter a trail of rhetorical clues which they use to transform the city into an epic snail-shell maze of dead-ends and tangential mysteries, all seemingly without conclusions.
Rivette reaffirms the bond between city and cinema in his title sequence, with the sound of a whirring projector and droning helicopter mingling over a black screen. Immediately we establish a filmmaker’s perspective of Paris, with techniques found in the “reportage film” – quasi-vérité camerawork, harsh sound cutting and improvisational acting – feeding the idea of reality captured by unreality; the vice versa is suggested through slowly measured pacing which introduces ‘thriller’ and ‘chase’ elements into the narrative. In fact, while the first act delights in observing the characters in long, single-take conversations, the second introduces that most conventional of thriller devices – the MacGuffin. Here it takes the form of a map dividing Paris into dozens of uneven squares, like a cobweb blanketed over the capital. One wonderful scene finds Marie numbering them to recall a Game of the Goose, outlining which squares carry pitfalls and penalties and which will lead them to their goal (which remains uncertain to the audience, and probably to them).
This MacGuffin also divides the film into two structural and tonal halves. In the first half Marie and Baptiste are engaged in a baffling pas de deux, travelling in circles (literally for the first twenty minutes, as Baptiste drifts aimlessly on her motorcycle and Marie appears overwhelmed by the city), and occasionally crashing into each other. In each instance of their meeting a connection becomes more discernible, and its implication grander – were these women fated to meet, or is this merely a day when happenstance smiled upon two lost souls in search of a greater purpose? We could think of Rivette’s framework for this story as identical to the Game of Goose at its heart, conceived as a concentric circle which, at its start, Marie and Baptiste exist at the centre of, and each time they crash together they drift into a larger, outer circle, time and time again reaching farther out into the city’s mass and traveling in wider and wider circles, like blips on a cosmic radar.
In the second half the characters find direction, plotting their path from square 58 to 42, 42 to 10 and so on, with each cast of the dice revealing more of their past lives, hopes and dreams. The structure becomes more formulaic, addressing in direct terms the contents of a mysterious black briefcase and the men chasing it. As a result the tone becomes more playfully self-aware – Baptiste confronts a theme park ride which transforms into a fire-breathing dragon – and the characters spend more time exploring the perimeter of one circle rather than crashing and causing ripples in a new one. This section also changes our perception of the city – removed from the sidewalks, courtyards and canals of the first half, we now view Paris on the brink of modernization, an intermediate or purgatory city of abandoned warehouses and stations, half-built apartments, barren industrial estates and dilapidated churches.
In many ways Marie (subdued, pragmatic, romantic) could represent the old Paris, while Baptiste (aloof, unpredictable, possibly schizophrenic) represents the new, emerging Paris which would produce the Cinéma du look, an aggressive punk movement fronted by Luc Besson and Leos Carax. So it would be fitting that Marie appears lost and disoriented upon her re-arrival in the city, but Baptiste slinks around its cavities like a cat prowling its slum. Of course, the analogy applies to the actresses too – mother and daughter in real life, Bulle Ogier we consider part of a past cinema which produced Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), while Pascale (who only acted in four more features) belongs to an inbetween generation, one who would bridge a gap between then and now. But Rivette would never get over the Paris glimpsed in Le pont du Nord. His contribution to the 1995 anthology Lumière and Company was a charming little street scene where romance and innocence were still possible, and there was no mistaking the city where this merry event of happenstance took place.
Masters Of Cinema have done an outstanding job, presenting the film in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with a healthy amount of grain, meaning that while the film’s colours and shading (and the beautifully sourced natural light) are clear, it still boasts enough texture to feel true to Rivette’s vision. Sadly there are no extras on the disc, but a 56-page booklet featuring letters, an essay and original statements from the director’s 1982 press book, contains much of value and is an indispensable contextual item.