Many of the points developed by Robin Wood in his article on Jacques Rivette's Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau and L'Amour Fou (FQ, Fall 81, available on the site) are also applicable to Pont du Nord. Yet, this film will probably be considered more "accessible" if only because of its length (120 minutes) and its more easily definable narrative structure. The film remains undistributed in the US.
As mysterious as the helicopter blades slashing across the first shot of Apocalypse Now, so are the sounds of another helicopter during the titles of Pont du Nord (North Bridge). The mystery is generated from the outset because the sounds do not refer visually to a shot of, or from, a helicopter. Rather, they relate to a concept of the city which Rivette elaborated as early as Paris Nous Appartient twenty years ago. That concept of the urban environment has been modified on occasion but remains essentially invested by paranoia: "they" are watching us. All of us, not just those involved with radical politics, or those who cheat on their income taxes, but all of us. Our every gesture.
Once again the city is Paris and no one has shown it as beautifully as Rivette has in his films. It is difficult to imagine Rivette in the country, or even in another city. He and Paris seem to be inseparable. From Paris Nous Appartient through the last trilogy of the "Daughters of Fire" (Duelle, Noroit, Merry-Go-Round), Rivette explores this street or that square, a staircase in Pigalle, a bridge on the Seine, the Place Denfert-Rochereau, the Arc de Triomphe. The city is a labyrinth (the Metro, the sewers, the catacombs) which the quest of Pont du Nord explores admirably. It is also a death trap, as the labyrinth was originally meant to be, and the heroine, Marie (Bulle Ogier), will find her Minotaur at its center.
Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) speeds through the city on her moped and literally runs into Marie who has recently returned to Paris from a stint in jail. Marie's claustrophobia forbids her from entering even phone booths. Baptiste, who bears all the trappings of a chic punk rocker, cannot tolerate the insistent stares of billboards and she regularly slashes their card-board eyes with a large knife. She tags along as Marie tries to re-establish contact with her former lover Julien (Pierre Clementi) who is embroiled in some shady and dangerous business involving a briefcase. The case is soon stolen by Baptiste and its mysterious contents yield a map which will lead the two women on a cabalistic journey through Paris, dodging dangerous men (Jean-Francois Stevenin, Benjamin Baltimore) whom Baptiste calls the Maxes. It is these mysterious thugs whom she implicates in the conspiracy of surveillance. "They watch our every move," she tells Marie. The journey is also that of a game (Le Jeu de l'Oie) not unlike Snakes and Ladders with strange pseudo-masonic signs and scribblings. The game eventually leads them to the North Bridge (located in the city's northern suburbs) where Baptiste fights the Dragon to accede to the mastery taught to her by a Max. Marie, on the other hand, is inevitably and fatally betrayed by Julien.
The two major cross-points for Rivette are the city and cinema itself. Paris, the city par excellence, is a labyrinth where underground passages meander, an international financial center, a government seat where plots of every kind are indeed hatched. The clippings found in the briefcase relate to actual news events in French politics where truth can be as strange as fiction. No wonder that Baptiste's first words as she securely adjusts her goggles are, "It's between you and me, Babylon!" And her four-day journey through the city with Marie will take epic proportions. Her voyage of initiation resembles Perceval's quest for the Holy Grail (Pascale Ogier's first role was in Eric Rohmer's Perceval): Marie and Baptiste, modern Quixote and Panza.
Paris is also the city of the Surrealists. It is here that Andre Breton met an enigmatic young woman named Nadja. Another Surrealist writer, Philippe Soupault, wrote The Last Nights of Paris, a chronicle of chance meetings and odd behavior in the winter nights of the city. The city for the Surrealists was not only a magical place, it also became a living organism, a protagonist in its own right, complete with motivations, deaths, rebirths, etc. So Rivette carries on this tradition.
Another link with the Surrealists is evident. The group's fascination with the myth of the labyrinth led them to name their most prestigious and influential review Le Minotaure. Finally, L'amour fou is also the title of one of Breton's best known works and, more broadly, describes the Surrealists' concept of passion. All the elements of Surrealism are here once again: the double, the lions of the Place Denfert-Rochereau which seem ready to spring to life at any moment (Freud's Uncanny), the mysterious stranger who crosses one's path in the middle of the night.
If the "city as protagonist" in a ritual of magic, death and mystery is one of the founding aspects of Pont du Nord, a second is film itself. Rivette's involvement outside of film-making proper is well-known, namely his editorship of Cahiers du Cinema in the sixties. But other facets of Rivette's personality remain as cryptic as those of his characters. He is a man who after thirty years still attends films three times a day. It is then not surprising that Pont du Nord refers to film/cinema so directly, not only in specific references to other film texts, but more so in larger allusions to the film-making process and what it holds in mystery, adventure and magic. In this sense, the "house of fiction" of Celine and Julie Go Boating can be seen as the base upon which Pont du Nord has been erected.
Allusions to other films abound. Marie sends a postcard to a friend in prison, Mathieu Doinel. A poster for Kagemusha is almost slashed by Baptiste. One of the Maxes who bears a striking resemblance to Anthony Perkins is found dead wearing a wig. Baptiste and Marie empty the briefcase at the Bir-Hakeim bridge, which is becoming an icon after such films as The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The American Friend, etc. These are the most obvious signposts (there are others) in a city which has come to signify film as much as Hollywood. Paris is a film city and here are its streets, its monuments.
But more generally, Pont du Nord is a quest much like that of young Jonathan Harker who also must cross a bridge before the phantoms come to meet him. He will be led, of course, to Nosferatu (embodied by Max Schreck). The bridge remains an element of transformation in German Romantic literature and in Rivette's film it appears once again to two weary travellers in search of their game's end.
Stylistically, the quest of Pont du Nord is all the more paradoxical because of its presentation in broad daylight -- a paradox which Hitchcock had explored in the most famous sequence of North by Northwest. What evil lurks behind the bright facades shot by Rivette in the beautiful late winter light? The sense of the uncanny is often conveyed through everyday locations or objects. Marie's reluctance to enter a phone booth or a bakery make these places somehow evil. In another cinematic reference, Rivette cuts together numerous shots of the stone lions of the Place Denfert-Rochereau and the allusion to Eisenstein is unmistakable. As they did some sixty years earlier, the lions seem to spring to life, but no longer as a metaphor for popular anger and strength. Rather, it is the dark forces of the unconscious, of the unknown, which they allude to here.
Paris lends itself admirably to its representation as a labyrinth. The disorienting aspects of its landscape are exploited by Rivette who insists on exploring forgotten or unusual areas of the city along with the more famous monuments: the Quai de Bercy area and its decrepit warehouses or the no man's land of Parisian suburbs. Rivette's vision also shares points with that of two photographers whose work captured the mysteries of the city: Brassai and Atget. The most obvious connection made between Paris and its labyrinthine qualities is the superimposition of the "Jeu de l'Oie" game onto a map of the city. The twenty "arrondissements" become the selected boxes of a potentially deadly game, a search for a fairy-tale treasure.
To put the relationship of the two women within the context of Robin Wood's article, the alliance of the women seems to echo that of Celine and Julie but its ultimate conclusion is far bleaker. Marie wants nothing more than to unite with Julien in the assumed hope of forming a nuclear family (at least a perfect couple) and echoes more the heroines of French films of the thirties (Michele Morgan in Quai des Brumes) than a strong modern woman. Baptiste shows no true allegiance to Marie and seems to be there merely "for the ride." An elaboration of Wood's analysis would place Marie as a victim of the patriarchal order while Baptiste seems to join it at the film's conclusion (might she have been its accomplice all along?). The final view of Pont du Nord is thus essentially more pessimistic in terms of possible roads to action.
Marie's belief in a great love with Julien, the real at the end of her quest, will eventually be fatal for her. It is Baptiste's ability to "roll with the punches" which will perhaps save her, but at what cost? As one of the Maxes puts her through a karate exercise and tells her to fend off "imaginary enemies," the cross-hairs of a surveillance device (a rifle scope? a camera?) appear on the screen. "They" are now being watched by others, perhaps simply by us. That is, it may be that the answer to the riddle of the labyrinth -- its last door -- is simply the screen on which the actors' shadows appear. As for Marie, Baptiste, Julien, and even Max, they are inevitably and forever trapped in the web which Jacques Rivette has woven for them and which he calls Pont du Nord.
HOW TO PLAY THE "JEU DE L'OIE"
This French game is derived from the Greeks, my edition of it tells me.
The players move their pieces around the board according to the throw of the dice. The object of the game is to reach the center of the board. But there are dangers. Box 19, the Hotel, forces the player to wait two turns. Box 31, the Well, demands you wait for rescue by another player as in boxes 42 and 52, the Labyrinth and the Jail. Box 58 is Death and forces the player to begin the game anew.
To play with Jacques Rivette, superimpose the pattern of the board on a map of your city and play with real space and people.