Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Le Pont du Nord

Le Pont du Nord is Jacques Rivette's mystery without a solution, a thriller without a plot, a modern-day Don Quixote/Sancho Panza tale that transforms the streets of Paris into a giant board game, a maze spotted with mysterious traps, puzzling clues, and chance encounters. Rivette, obsessed as always with secret organizations and obscure conspiracy theories, understands the city as a grand mystery in itself. The people within the city do not, for the most part, know anything about the hidden structures, paths, and narratives that lie beneath their daily activities: the city is a web of strangers, randomly meeting in the streets and then setting off on their own errands. They remain mysterious to one another, their divergent purposes hidden from those they encounter in the streets, and with everyone worrying about their own stories, seldom does anyone wonder about anyone else's. This film is about two of the exceptions to this rule, two wanderers who essentially live in the city's streets, and who as a result manage to peek at the hidden rules and secret societies that exist in plain sight for those who know what to look for.

Marie and Baptiste (Bulle Ogier and her daughter Pascale) meet one another on the Paris streets, and soon find themselves bound together by what the flighty, childlike Baptiste deems "destiny." Their three meetings, she says, though seemingly random, cannot be only a coincidence. They are two very different women, but what they have in common is their existence outside the normal boundaries of society. Marie has just been released from prison, and yearns to be reunited with her lover Julien (Pierre Clémenti), who seems to be mixed up in some shady business himself, promising Marie that he'll be able to join her in three days. Baptiste is something of a street urchin, surviving from moment to moment, sleeping outdoors, practicing martial arts, and committing acts of vandalism against posters; she is personally offended by images that represent the human eyes, and is compelled to slice the eyes off them, as though to make them stop staring at her. The women begin wandering the streets of Paris together, sleeping by night on park benches or in the cinema. Marie, fresh from confinement, finds that she is now afflicted by a claustrophobia so intense that she can barely walk into a building, or even a phone booth, without feeling closed in — the only reason she can sleep in a movie theater at all is because it happens to be showing William Wyler's The Big Country, whose French title translates as "wide open spaces." The next morning, as she stumbles dazed from the theater, the advertisement out front is being papered over with one for Henri-Georges Clouzot's final film, La Prisonnière.

The film, though seemingly straightforward on its surface, is peppered with wry jokes like this, as Rivette's wit characteristically shows through in subtle ways. He seems to be taking a very bemused stance with respect to his heroines, who stroll aimlessly through Paris as though in search of a narrative. They make a game of it as they're pulled into some sort of shadowy conspiracy revolving around a map of London, on which someone drew a spiral maze like a snail's shell. Marie and Baptiste begin thinking of this map as a game board, drawing symbols on it to represent different spaces within the game, which they then visit in turn. Throughout, Rivette keeps his distance, stoically observing their meandering path; there are endless shots of the women simply walking through the city, chatting idly, walking up staircases that seem to ascend forever, or along railroad tracks long abandoned by trains. The characters often act like spies, especially the eccentric Baptiste, who stalks along the streets, hiding behind trees, only to steal the head off a mannequin. Julien too acts like a character out of an espionage movie, and yet when the women steal and open the briefcase that he guards so intently, they find it's filled only with inscrutable papers, mostly newspaper clippings referring to various assassinations and rival organizations with acronymic initials, none of which are ever explained. All of this is being tracked by the mildly sinister Max (Jean-François Stévenin), who watches everything intently and occasionally offers advice; his motives remain as inscrutable as his employers.

All of this intrigue and gamesmanship never quite adds up to a coherent plot, and nothing is ever explained. In one sense, the map serves the traditional purpose of the MacGuffin in thriller films, an object of hazy origins and even hazier usefulness that everybody nevertheless wants. In another sense, though, this is a film in which there is nothing but multiple MacGuffins, many of them stacked within each other like Babushka dolls. The games that the heroines play within the film — declaring Paris a game board, a puzzle to be solved — mirror the games that Rivette himself plays behind the camera. He is turning Paris into a network of symbols: the lion statues that so fascinate Baptiste; the continual destruction and reconstruction of old buildings; the abandoned places that represent an older, forgotten version of the city.

This Paris is full of surprises. Open a random door, expecting to find an interior, and step instead into an unroofed courtyard, overgrown with grass; the door only separates one exterior from another. Or a conglomeration of pipes and metal shards might be reconfigured as a fire-breathing dragon, who must be vanquished in order to reach the treasure he guards. The film is about playing games with reality, about the ways in which imagination and creativity can shape and alter the fabric of the tangible world, transforming a city into a playground. In this sense, the hastily scrawled adventures of Le Pont du Nord are a grand metaphor for Rivette's twin loves, the cinema and the theater, which also reshape reality through the power of art. Rivette is the playful guiding intelligence responsible for the film's whimsical re-imagination of reality, and his actresses are not so much his game pieces, his pawns, as his willful collaborators in the game. Even the audience must also join in the fun. When Baptiste, after performing her morning martial arts ritual, solemnly bows to an unseen master, she does so towards the film's audience, acknowledging those watching her as she would if she were in the theater.

Ultimately, this formless, improvisatory film leads nowhere and everywhere. Its "plot," to the extent that it even has one, is never resolved except in the most unsatisfying manner, in a casual and unexplained betrayal that is quickly dropped. Rivette ends the film instead with a beautiful, mystifying scene between Max and Baptiste, as their fighting soon morphs into a martial arts lesson, with Max giving her pointers about technique. It's a strange scene, especially since there are occasional inserts that suggest the duo is under surveillance from a Big Brother-style video monitor. What it amounts to is the film's most obvious embrace of the concept of play as a guiding principle. When it's all over, when the plot has been wrapped up in perfunctory fashion and it's time to say "cut" for the final time, the characters cast aside their differences, making a few half-hearted attempts at staging a final battle before starting to play around, laughing and cooperating with one another instead of fighting. Maybe, then, the omnipresent surveillance is not a far-reaching sinister conspiracy but simply the camera eye of the filmmaker, documenting the last moments of his characters as, with the film over, they begin to blend back into reality as actors and actresses.


celinejulie said...

Your review is great. I saw this film many years ago without subtitles, and always wondered what the film is all about. Now I can understand it better. I always like the theme of conspiracy in Rivette’s films, which can also be found in PARIS BELONGS TO US (1960), GANG OF FOUR (1988), and UP DOWN FRAGILE (1995). I think the conspiracy seems the most sinister or the most serious in PARIS BELONGS TO US, but in some other films the conspiracy can also turn to be a benevolent one. I like the playfulness and the mysteriousness of his films very much.

Joel Bocko said...

Great review, which captures the quality of so many Rivette films. I've seen only three - Celine & Julie Go Boating, Paris Belongs to Us, and Out 1 - but these films, especially the third one, have made deeper impressions on me than just about anything else I've ever seen. The quality of a Rivette film is so remarkably unique - I'd compare it to stepping off a plane into a tropical clime - you know immediately, just be breathing in the air, that you're in a very different place than you were several hours before.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. There are A LOT of conspiracies and secret organizations in Rivette's films. In addition to the ones already mentioned, there's Duelle, Noirot, History of Marie and Julien (where the lovers have the same names as in this film), and Don't Touch the Axe, at least. For the most part, the details of these various conspiracies are never worked out too clearly, and often it's not even clear if the conspiracy is "real" or just a paranoid illusion. I think Rivette prefers to keep these things hazy because to answer all the questions concerning them would diminish their secret nature. He doesn't really want to talk about specific secret plots so much as he wants to evoke a generalized air of mystery and intrigue. Part of what gives Rivette's films their very unique feeling is that he uses plot only to the extent he needs to in order to create the atmosphere he wants. Sometimes, as in this film, the plot is only the barest wisp of smoke floating around in the background, just enough to set the characters in motion.

Lights in the Dusk said...

Another great review...

I'm completely fascinated by Rivette's work - however, being hopeless at Torrents and suffering with a listless computer means that this is the period of his career that I'm a little behind on. I saw Out 1. at a cinema showing a couple of years ago and found it fascinating, but would have much rather been able to view the film alone so as to really immerse myself in the experience. Hopefully it might one day see a full-scale DVD restoration alongside Out 1 Spectre, which is the one I really want to see (along with Merry-Go-Round).


Dan Coffey said...

I'm only 11 years late to this conversation - LPdN has now gotten a BluRay reissue. I've watched the film a few times over the past several days. Despite the lack of plot and the perverse anti-resolution, I found this film extremely satisfying.

Coming at the film after being immersed in late Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and the 21stC Twin Peaks), as well as The OA, I can't shake the feeling that the Paris Marie has arrived in after leaving prison is a transitional realm between life and death. Bardo, purgatory, or some other liminal space. "Max" and Baptiste seem to be there to guard and protect her while she gains the necessary self-knowledge that she needs to be released from the realm at last by Julien. The final sequence shows "Max" and Baptiste freed from their tether to Marie, and see each other with new eyes.