Film Review: “Le Pont du Nord” — An Entertaining Exercise in Playful Dis-Ease

This entertaining and provocative work, made in 1981 by the now 85-year-old director, fits into his oeuvre as a complement to his best known movie among American art-film fans, 1974’s Céline and Julie Go Boating.

Le Pont du Nord. Directed by Jacques Rivette. With Bulle Ogier, Pascale Ogier, Jean-Francois Stevenin, France 1981. At Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA, August 9–11, 16, & 18.

By Betsy Sherman


Bulle Ogier stars as Marie in “Le Pont du Nord,” a claustrophobe who arrives in Paris after having finished a year’s stretch in prison.

The quest for answers has never particularly interested Jacques Rivette. The French director’s movies leave plenty of space for ambiguity, contradiction, digression, and questions that lead to more questions. Viewers in love with plot pay-offs may be exasperated, but those with patience for the occasional ellipsis will discover subtle, often witty, observations of human interaction. Rivette’s better films are not only worth seeing once but also worth revisiting, with nuggets to be found in each repeat viewing.

That said, one hole has been satisfyingly plugged for this longtime Rivette fan with the belated U.S. release of the director’s 1981 Le Pont du Nord (North Bridge). This entertaining and provocative work by the now 85-year-old director fits into his oeuvre as a complement to his best known movie among American art-film fans, 1974’s Céline and Julie Go Boating. Le Pont du Nord has its area premiere, on 35mm film, at Harvard Film Archive, which a few years ago held a superb Rivette retrospective.

Like its whimsical predecessor, Le Pont du Nord begins with one woman comically stalking another; they meet and embark on a bizarre adventure involving games. It differs from Céline and Julie by evincing a dark streak of paranoia—which feels serendipitously topical after the Edward Snowden revelation of NSA data collection.

Le Pont du Nord stars prolific French star Bulle Ogier as Marie, a claustrophobe who arrives in Paris after having finished a year’s stretch in prison for bank robbery. The black-and-red-clad Marie becomes a figure of fascination for Baptiste (played by Pascale Ogier, Bulle’s daughter), a self-styled avenger who, dressed in a leather jacket, jeans, and boots, tools around the city on a white moped. Baptiste, who’s prone to busting out not-very-convincing karate moves, intuits that Marie needs protecting. Although Marie doesn’t know it yet, Baptiste is right.

Marie gradually reveals bits of her life story to Baptiste. Formerly a member of a left-wing collective (as the actress was in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Third Generation), the ex-con believes she can choose a new path. She’s convinced that she and her lover Julien (Pierre Clémenti) will live happily ever after. On the other hand, the homeless Baptiste is a figure without a past. It’s endearing to watch her tilt at windmills (shots of lion statues, which she views as foes, form a more malevolent version of Eisenstein’s lion montage in Battleship Potemkin). Yet it’s disturbing to see her slash the eyes of models on billboards. Baptiste believes that she and Marie were destined to meet and suspects that Julien is just another “Max,” the name she gives to “guardians” who “devour us with their eyes.”

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Mother and daughter Bulle Ogier and Pascale Ogier in a scene from LE PONT DU NORD. 

Baptiste gets hold of a briefcase that’s supposed to be passed by Julien to a sinister “Max” played by Jean-Francois Stévenin. In it, along with clippings describing political corruption and left-wing acts of terror, is a game-board-like overlay (in a spiral similar to the pattern of Paris’s arrondissements) placed over a map of the city. Marie identifies it as the ancient Goose Game and points out its pitfalls (including a well, which represents her first experience with claustrophobia). By now we know that Marie is in danger, and the women look upon the completion of the game as her chance for survival.

Le Pont du Nord was devised by Rivette, screenwriter Suzanne Schiffman, and the mother-daughter stars, who were allowed to improvise. It was shot quickly on 16mm film, with practically no interiors, in deference to Marie’s claustrophobia. The visual scheme includes vacant lots, construction sites, and the dehumanizing, low-rent housing that forms an ugly fortress around the city as well as the familiar, picturesque landmarks (startlingly, Marie darts into traffic to reach the Arc de Triomphe rather than use the pedestrian subway). But it may be the sound editing that most successfully creates the movie’s feeling of dis-ease: the assaultive noise of traffic and construction is a virtual Godzilla, crushing something fine about the city (thankfully, there are respites in the parks, with sounds of birds and children playing).

After a dénouement that includes both triumph (Pascale slays a mechanical dragon) and tragedy, the movie ends by breaking the fourth wall and exposing the filmmaking process. It’s nice to get a glimpse of Pascal Ogier as herself, cracking up. The actress died at age 25. The chance to enjoy her performance is only one reason why it’s important that Le Pont du Nord is at last being seen.

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