Take the notions of gigantic conspiracies which were explored at (great) length in "Out 1, noli me tangere"; add the idea of an obsessive friendship between two women that happens instantly and totally by chance, from "Celine and Julie Go Boating"; set it entirely in Paris like the latter film, and film it in 16 mm like both of these predecessors, but have it take place entirely out-of-doors, as a sort of portrait of the non-touristy side of Paris, the mysterious, decrepit and ancient, and the continually renewing, self-destroying, and rebuilding that any 2000 year old metropolis must undergo. Add the typical moments of quirky humor and bizarre behavior (mostly on the part of the younger of our duo, Pascale Ogier's crazy Baptiste), sudden and surprising shocks of violence, and a typically inexplicable ending - and you've got "Le pont du Nord".
Rivette's first of two features released in 1981 (the other is Merry-Go-Round), this came after a 5-year absence, after the meltdown that ocurred while filming what was to be his four-part "Scenes from a Parallel Life" (only two of the films, "Duelle" and "Noroit", were finished and released). Accounts I've read suggest that the director had a nervous breakdown, and came back a somwhat different filmmaker. I'm not so sure; the tone of "Le pont du Nord" may be a bit more subdued than that visible in some of the previous decade's mad fantasy worlds, but thematically it's pure Rivette, improvisation and storytelling, street theater and evil unseen conspiracies, political machinations never really explicable to the characters, or the audience. It's a bit "light" for Rivette, certainly - cheaper, funnier perhaps, and certainly shorter than his average feature at just over two hours. But there are moments of brooding and dark fantasy that beg to get out, and they end up being some of the most memorable scenes in the film.
The story, such as it is, has Marie (Bulle Ogier, the real-life mother of Pascale) just out of prison for some scheme that we are never quite clear about, but which she claims to have instigated. She is so shaken by her years put away that she cannot bear the idea of being closed-in, thus the excuse for the film to take place entirely out-of-doors. After bumping into Baptiste three times, the younger woman - clearly even in the early part of the film living in her own world - takes it upon herself to act as Marie's protector, because chance has made it so. It turns out that Marie has a friend, or boyfriend, Julien, and Julien is in fact mixed up in something nefarious - and Marie and Pascale fall into this plot, more or less willingly, which ends up involving a strange map of Paris divided into squares that form a spiral. If you've seen a bunch of Rivette films you will probably be amused at how Marie and Pascale interpret the map; if you haven't, you will likely be very confused. At any rate, from about halfway into the film, the story seems to be actually heading towards a kind of conventional resolution - but as always with this director, that cannot be counted on.
What I loved most about "Le pont du Nord", apart from the guerilla feel of the filmmaking, and the very intimate portrait of the many-sided great city that we get, is the way in which it subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) develops it's notion of an all-seeing, all-knowing government. As the credits roll at the beginning, while the screen is black with the credits starting, we hear unseen helicopter blades - watchers. Throughout the early part of the film, our eyes - and those of the paranoid Baptiste - are drawn to stone lions, passing police cars, people in the street filming...something. Eyes are all around, watching, and ears are hearing. Near the end, we finally get some evidence, but by that point the main story is over, and we're playing a game, a typical Rivette joke on us, and on his characters, and on the notion of narrative itself.
The Ogiers are both wonderful - I hadn't been crazy about Pascale in the couple of other films I'd seen her in, but she embodies a youthful spirit of punk rebellion, a kung-fu pixie with a helium voice, and you can believe just about anything she'll try to do - even slay a real fire-breathing dragon. And her mother at first seems much younger, closer in age, but gradually as the film goes on the distance between the two in experience and emotional make-up becomes clearer, and we don't wonder that the older Marie allows herself to take this strange journey which might have an unhappy resolution. The other characters in the film, nearly all male, are shadowy and indistinct in a sense, untrustworthy, liable to disappear at any moment. Rivette's affinity with noir is stronger here than in any of his previous films I think, save perhaps "Duelle" and his first, "Paris Belongs to Us".
All in all, not my very favorite film from Rivette, and probably towards the bottom of the first tier of his work for me - which still ain't too shabby as there is no director I love more, none whose mysteries I enjoy solving, and not solving, half as much.
THE BLU-RAY: This is the MoC Region B disc, playable in North America only on a multi-region/unlocked player so be aware of that before you buy it; Rivette has been very ill-served in the USA and I wouldn't bet on this showing up anytime soon here, and really given that this is up to MoC's usual standards, why not take the plunge? Given that the original was shot on 16mm, this immaculate transfer looks very nearly as good as a brand-new print must have in the cinema in 1981, for those tiny few who are lucky enough to have been able to see it. The booklet is typically well-done and gets a lot deeper into the magical world of the director than I'm able to here; I wish that MoC had been able to include the director's short "Paris s'en va" from the same year, a sort of behind-the-scenes poetic view of the city which would have been the perfect supplement. Someday...