The Most Beautiful Fraud: Le Pont du Nord

Le Pont du Nord, which I saw earlier this week in a gorgeous new 35mm print at the Northwest Film Forum, is a baffling creature; neither a straightforward narrative nor an entirely experimental impressionistic piece, it’s hard to figure out while you’re watching it and even harder to suss with later consideration.  It’s a very curious concoction altogether, which is really just to say that it’s of a piece with much of director Jacques Rivette’s later work; the trick is figuring out exactly how to contextualize it, as it defies categorization in almost every other way.

Rivette is a distinctly Parisian director to be sure, but the city plays a bigger part in Le Pont du Nord than in most of his films.  Made in 1981, it captures Paris at a time of great flux; physically, it looks vastly different than the Paris we’ve seen in earlier works of his, not just in the bright, breezy colors that replace the stark black and whites of his Nouvelle Vague period, but also in its distances from the old city, trying to maintain its character while emerging from the shock of World War II.  Heavy equipment is everywhere, and a number of its key scenes take place near construction sites and around earth-moving machines.  It is a different city culturally as well, with cheap electronics and Senegalese immigrants and long-haired rock and roll kids moving breezily along its streets, happily oblivious to the old games of revolutionary violence and organized crime played by the denizens of earlier generations of French film.

The stars, too — who also had a hand in writing the story that turned into the movie — are a reflection of the changing nature of the culture of Paris.  Marie (Bulle Ogier) enters the story carrying nothing more than a change of clothes and shoes in a flight bag, wandering through the city as best she can given a crippling claustrophobia that keeps her from going into phone booths, shops, or even hotel rooms; she sleeps on park benches and in unlocked cars and has people hand her food from inside the market.  She’s in love with Julien, a compulsive gambler and lowlife loser who knows he’s got her on the hook and constantly manipulates her into holding his many enemies (including a persistent gang of no-goodniks, all of whom are inexplicably named Max) at arm’s length.  It’s a classic noir relationship, but in this time and place, it seems dated and absurd; the two are playing roles in one another’s lives and they know it.  Into their destructive pas de deux steps Baptiste (played by Ogier’s real-life daughter Pascale, who would tragically die of an overdose only two years after the film was released); she has a man’s name, the only one she has ever known, and seems to have emerged into the city fully formed, with no past and no history.  She dresses in a vaguely punkish style, and carries a sharp knife and an even sharper sense of justice.  She, too, has curious quirks that go without explanation, including an obsession with defacing the eyes of women in posters and advertisements; and, with her keen belief in right and decency, she wants to become Marie’s paladin, her protector, her bodyguard, her guardian angel.

That’s about all there is to the story; the two of them wander around for four days, Marie chasing a deadline which might become lethally literal for her beloved though callous Julien and Baptiste trying to help Marie figure out her past and her future.  The two come into possession of a map of Paris’ arrondisements, and turn it into an intricate game board against which they plot their moves, giving each one an elaborate and impenetrable mythology.  At times, this comes out in a very light, whimsical way, two women, one burdened by her past and the other entirely without one, leading a whimsical tour of a shifting city, reinterpreting it with their own playful psychogeography; at other times, it becomes menacing and deadly serious, as the Maxes prove more understanding, Julien proves more treacherous, and Baptiste proves more unstable than anyone suspected.  Its conclusion tells us nothing, as if the game was interrupted before it could end.

The film plays, for much of its running time, not like a dream, or even like magical realism; it is more like an urban fantasy, albeit one robbed almost completely of its fantastic elements.  Marie and Baptiste are living in a fantastic world, but it exists only in their heads; we see it not at all, but, seeing how they behave towards it, we get a sense of what it must be like.  Though they behave like they live in some world teeming with dragons and faeries, they daily life could not be more prosaic; Marie wraps strips of cloth around her shoes to keep the split sides from coming apart, and Baptiste practices daily ablutions of awkward karate chops.  Everyone else in the film — even the Max gang, who surely are in on the arcane fantasy of it all — seems determined not to notice how oddly they behave; a group of artists barely look up when Baptiste decapitates one of their mannequins, and Marie’s habit of sleeping in cars raises only mild annoyance.  This is the modern Paris, after all, and who even pays attention to such everyday madness?

In a twisted way, Le Pont du Nord (the reference is to Baptiste’s trusty pocket compass) is an odd mirror image of Bresson’s brilliant Lancelot du Lac:  it shares its sense of a fantastic world that is beginning to decay into the ordinary, of men and women engaged in deadly work that they fail to fully appreciate until it’s too late, of a game that curdles from amusement to grimness.  There are the same muddled closeups, and there is the same deliberate confusions of identity.  Although the two directors weren’t similar in most ways, this at least helps put it in some sort of historical context; the real question, then, which I haven’t been able to make heads or tails of in four days of thinking on it, is ‘what does it all mean?’.  And the answer to that is, well, hell if I know.  There are certainly no shortage of ideas floating around, but floating is just about all they do:  they aren’t given a structure strong enough to come to rest.

I’m not sure I can entirely call the movie a success.  It was full of little moments that were hugely enjoyable, it’s terrific to look at, it does a great job of capturing Paris at an important historical moment, and Jean-François Stévenin, as the head Max, is very good, as are all these scenes (and there’s plenty of them) where Marie and Baptiste interact.  But it never coheres into anything sensible.  The catalogs of many directors contain items like this one, beautiful little cups containing an unset egg.  Lovely to look at, but you don’t get a good meal.

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