The English translation of French maestro Jacques Rivette’s debut feature Paris nous appartient (1962) is “Paris belongs to us”. It could also have easily been the title of his 1981 oddball offering Le Pont du Nord. Coveted by cinephiles for years, this Masters of Cinema rerelease is most welcome. It’s a magical work of blazing intelligence and imagination which sees Paris as a labyrinth full of hidden narratives and emotional fault lines. At just over two hours, it’s a relatively short film for Rivette, but its rambling structure lets him pack a lot in; from the post-68 French mindset to generations in transition.
Le Pont du Nord follows an enigmatic treasure hunt undertaken by Marie and Baptiste, played by real-life mother and daughter duo Bulle and Pascale Ogier respectively (the latter would go on to win the Best Actress award at the 1984 Venice Film Festival). After being released from prison for involvement in a bank robbery, Marie wanders around the city’s streets searching for her boyfriend, Julian (Pierre Clementi). Following three run-ins with a strange girl on a motorised bicycle who harbours a penchant for bad karate, Marie finally meets Baptiste and the pair become friendly once again. After a series of events lead them to an oddly marked map of Paris, they embark upon a mythical, oft-dangerous voyage.
Le Pont du Nord is one of the defining films about Paris. Rivette appropriates the intriguing discipline of psychogeography to consider the effect Parisian environments have on the collective state of mind of the inhabitants. The director captures a city in flux; the virtuosic 360-degree introductory shot to Baptiste shows the modernist concrete towers creeping across the Seine towards the older, more picturesque Paris of popular imagination. It’s the marriage between Godard’s brutal vision of a city under perpetual construction in 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967) and the beautiful, romantic capital in the films of Eric Rohmer.
Rivette uses the crime subplot as a form of pessimistic post-68 stock take. We see various references in newspaper clippings to infamous gangster Jacques Mesrine and the famous kidnapping of industrialist Edouard-Jean Empain. Where civil unrest was once the force for progressive social change, the criminals of the 60s and 70s are now the new outlaws; the unintended debris of a social revolution. Rivette even harks back to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade in his use of maverick imagery, with Baptiste often framed to resemble Irma Vep in Les Vampires (1916). It’s an endlessly fascinating and cunningly political enigma.