LE PONT DU NORD B-
France (131 mi) 1981 d: Jacques Rivette
An extension of an earlier short film called PARIS S’EN VA (1981), this appears to be a riff on one of Rivette’s most successful films, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont ... (1974), one of the most uniquely original films the director ever made, following the exploits of two theatrically minded young girls as they create their own Alice in Wonderland experience while we watch them romp through the hallucinogenic worlds of their imaginations while racing through the streets of Paris. The ecstatic and uplifting tone of the original, an endlessly inventive treat throughout, becomes instead a darkly menacing, nightmarish world where the suffocating atmosphere literally chokes the life right out of this world. Perhaps as a response to the infamous puzzle game experimentation in the mind-altering Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienb... (1961), Rivette invents his own board game, using famous monuments and locations in the streets of Paris as possible places to land, using characters as living pieces moving about the board, seemingly at random, interacting throughout. While you might think there’s a catch to figuring out this puzzle by following the clues, but that’s simply out of the question, as it’s not a detective whodunit, it’s simply a meandering journey through a decaying existential wasteland. While the film appears to be thrown together at the last minute, shot cheaply and quickly by Caroline Champetier and William Lubtchansky on 16 mm, perhaps the best thing in the film is Rivette’s exquisite use of vacant lots, construction sites, an endless series of stairs, and rarely seen off-locations, like abandoned railroad tracks and demolition sites. Into this world Bulle Ogier is Marie, while her real-life daughter Pascale Ogier is Baptiste, meeting seemingly at random on the streets of Paris, as Baptiste keeps appearing wherever Marie goes, so eventually they continue their journey together, but not before Baptiste announces an opening battle cry, “Bring it on, Babylon” as she rides her motorbike circling around the statue of the Belfort lion (1,280 × 830 pixels) situated at the center of the Place Denfert-Rochereau, a symbol of French Resistance against the Germans, and the site where we first see Marie. But the Babylon Pascale references is the looming presence of a corrupt city destroyed by its own materialism and greed.
Throughout the film, there are images of giant construction cranes looming off in the distance constructing new buildings while also demolishing dilapidated structures at a rapid pace, where the world is simultaneously building what it will eventually destroy. Marie is happy to see her boyfriend Julien, Pierre Clémenti from Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR (1967), playing another lowlife gangster who seems to be saddled with nothing but troubles, where two men seem to be following him around the city, giving him 3 days to produce what they’re looking for. While Marie and Julien constantly meet in various locations, Julien can’t disappear fast enough, as if he can’t be seen in public. At the same time, Marie was recently released from prison, where she suffers from a rare medical condition that doesn’t allow her to breathe “inside air,” as she’s become addicted to fresh air, where she’s even forced to sleep outdoors. While you’d think this clever interplay between characters is well set up, no one makes a lasting impression on the audience, where unlike CÉLINE AND JULIE, each sequence is near forgettable. Rivette tries to create a world of mystery and invention, feeling like a claustrophobic parallel world where they have fallen into set traps, often languishing in a state of limbo as the days pass by. Baptiste runs interference, as if protecting Marie from dangerous outsiders, but we never get any clear indication who she is or what she’s doing here. For that matter, all of the characters appear out of a cheap Godard gangster flick playing their respective good and evil roles, where the heavies are all named Max and exist only to exert a noirish sense of danger, while the two women continually appear clueless and innocent, as if they could render no harm to anyone, so why do they exist in this labyrinth of doom? Surrounded by dark secrets and lethal threats, where soon enough dead bodies surface, Pascale finds a secret map stuffed into the dead man’s pockets, as if this is the treasure map leading them out of their imprisoned existence. While this map gives them a chance to explain the rules of the game, it doesn’t generate any real interest in the film, which simply never gets off the ground.
This is a film that suffocates in its own film construction, where outside of its presumed puzzle existence, it becomes a road movie with two characters wandering endlessly through deserted sections of the city, continually questioning their own crumbling existence, never really finding a reason for coming to life onscreen. Made not long after suffering a nervous breakdown, the film does seem to be searching for a reason to live, but these are instead dead souls doomed to wander perpetually through the ends of time, meeting at their designated times and stations, passing back and forth various documents and information from a briefcase, setting up their next designated appointments. Eventually this begins to feel ludicrous, where even the secret language starts to resemble film noir code, where danger always lurks just around the corner. When Pascale is called upon to slay a carnivalesque dragon, which breathes fire and smoke just for effect, it veers into the territory of fairy tales and children’s stories, but just as quickly starts questioning its own raison d’etre, as if these characters are caught up in their own dreary state of malaise and can’t escape their self-inflicted philosophical conundrums, even with the aid of the secret map. The film fizzles out and meanders on too long, simply running out of gas, losing a sense of purpose and dramatic conflict, as it all feels silly and repetitive after awhile, where the absurdity of the rules don’t even begin to make sense, as in this imaginary state, there is no reason for existence other than to continually make random appointments with destiny, where some larger mystery engulfs them, as if fate has already decided the outcome, and they’re mere puppets playing out the parts. In road movies, it’s the journey that matters, not the eventual destination, but here they are caught up in a realm of Sisyphus, destined to repeat their jagged path across an urban wasteland, up and down stairs, through vacant lots, only to discover no opportunity to start over and begin anew, where they’re stuck finishing what they started, where perhaps it was only a blind dream that Marie was released from prison, as her fate is apparently sealed.