Pont Sisters

03.21.13

Jacques Rivette, Le Pont du Nord, 1981, 16 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes.


“REAL LIFE IS A REIGN OF TERROR,” offhandedly remarks Baptiste (Pascale Ogier), a saucer-eyed, long-haired young woman who brandishes a switchblade to gouge out the eyes of models in poster-size advertisements on the streets of Paris in Jacques Rivette’s typically ludic yet unsettlingly ominous Le Pont du Nord (1981). This apothegm, delivered to Marie (Bulle Ogier), recently sprung from prison for vaguely defined insurrectionist crimes, best sums up this droll, haunting film’s mood: feeling estranged in one’s own hometown, where even the quotidian is marked by the sinister.

Le Pont du Nord, like Rivette’s incomparable Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and his minimalist musical Up, Down, Fragile (1995), stands as an act of magnificent collaboration between the director and his main actresses, who, in all three films, shaped the script, largely through improvisation. In each work, the heroines set out on an adventure in Paris. Often these movies highlight—or take as a point of departure—a real-life connection. As Rivette, referring to the lead performers in Céline and Julie Go Boating, explained in an interview about that film’s impetus, “The first idea was to bring together Juliet [Berto] and Dominique [Labourier], who were already friends.” In Le Pont du Nord, the relationship between the protagonists is more primal: Bulle Ogier, a Rivette regular, is Pascale’s mother; separated by only nineteen years, the two could easily be mistaken for sisters.

On the third of the four days that Baptiste and Marie—strangers brought together when the former crashes her moped—spend roaming the French capital, the older woman defines their relationship: “I don’t know if I need you, but I think you sometimes need me.” (The line deepens in poignancy in hindsight: Pascale died in 1984, one day shy of her twenty-sixth birthday, of drug-related causes.) Baptiste acts not only as Marie’s protector but as an ad hoc adjudicator, breaking up a dispute between two boys fighting over the Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta LP. The twentysomething’s altruism is an extension of her odd street vigilantism: In addition to blinding billboards, Baptiste breaks out into kung fu fighting, chopping and kicking the air (and sometimes those she considers a threat to her new friend). “Bring it on, Babylon!” she shouts to the city while zipping along the boulevards on her scooter, greeting Paris’s many lion statues with a righteous fist salute.

As in most Rivette movies, the French capital also has top billing in Le Pont du Nord; filming, on 16 mm, exclusively outdoors to avoid the expense and hassle of interior shots, the director takes particular advantage of the City of Light. Marie’s severe claustrophobia—incapable of entering a bakery, she politely insists the proprietress bring two croissants to her just outside the doorway—leads Rivette to be even more inventive with his Paris location shots than usual. Meetings between Marie and her lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), on top of the Arc de Triomphe are followed by scenes set by the dilapidated warehouses near the Quai de Bercy area. The city itself becomes an ominous maze, its twenty arrondissements parts of an occult board game that Marie and Baptiste are trying to master. That they never can suggests an inversion of the ownership in the title of Rivette’s 1961 debut film, Paris Belongs to Us: We are the property of Paris.

Melissa Anderson

Le Pont du Nord screens in a new 35-mm print at BAM in New York March 22–28.