The freedom and joy of movement, or the lack of freedom and joy? Bulle Ogier sliding left and then right in the middle of the street to demonstrate to Pascale that destiny, every action being foretold, is impossible and that she is free to make the gestures that she chooses. But it’s not true (after all, were these movements not written into the script?), and Baptiste (Pascale) may be right- Marie (Bulle) is as likely to end up with a bullet in her gut in a few evenings time as the sun is to come up the following day. This is a thriller after all (of the political, paranoid variety), even if it is also a Western, a fantasy, a film noir (Pierre Clementi’s get-ups in the second half of the film!), an urban documentary, a film about friendship and an avant-garde experiment, and that is how thrillers end. And in the end, a metropolis of winding roads like Paris, that seems to invite wanderings and random chance, can be reduced to a board game, 64 squares or sections with a near-guaranteed discovery and outcome at every step amongst the ruins.
Ruins? Yes, because Paris is fading away, Paris is slipping away (these being the English translations of the title of the mid-length feature Rivette made with the same actors as preparation and a funding tool for this feature-length). Buildings, old buildings are caught in the process of demolition in this film, and now we have a setting that is a landscape of scrap iron (sometimes turned into magical, fire-breathing dragons with slides for tongues), brown and grey rubble, overgrown thorns, thick spider-webs that can envelop and consume and vast empty spaces. Nothing new has replaced the old, just a gnawing sense of a rapidly growing absence. Here is no longer here. This is not the same Paris that Rivette’s characters tried to own when he started off in the late 1950’s. Paris Belongs to Us, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, Paris is Slipping Away, the natural arc of Rivette’s greatest period. Sowing seeds of doubt amongst the glory of a city in bloom, then exposing the dangers that are starting to move more and more into the open sunlight of the new desolations. Celine and Julie’s corners of luck have become wide wastelands (somehow even more looming and alienating than the tight spaces of Out 1), where the Max’s stand in plain sight juggling knives and looking menacing.
But still, no-one has caught the urban/suburban afternoon-evening sun in the same way as Rivette, with the same recognisable truth and humble beauty, the same enchanted and enchantable glow, the same pale golds that make the ever-present reds and greens more vivid, more cinematic. As ever with Rivette, even amongst the dregs of our world, the collapsing infrastructure of story, genre and city, we can play amongst the debris, carry on chasing the magic white rabbits into our own glories of imagination and oppositional life, still catch glimpses of that other place, that greater elsewhere. Paris may be going or gone but everything Rivette’s camera falls upon can still belong to him, can still be used or remoulded as to his whims, as to how he sees fit. Maybe this is why the film is shot almost entirely in exteriors (even the buildings we enter open back up onto the street)- for Rivette, the rest of the world outside the bed or drawing-room becomes his private property.
That’s not to suggest Le Pont Du Nord isn’t slightly terrifying, however; for all its quirks, the paranoia is even more justified here than ever before (and how Rivette reminds us that the feeling of being watched is the primary sensation of our modern age- no wonder Pascale feels compelled to strike the eyes out of the faces on advertising billboards), people are still after you even when some of the pursuers are imaginary, and the abyss seems inescapable. Sanity gives way to insanity, or at least moments of it, and even if death (or landing on the death square in the big game) can offer a rebirth or a restart, it is always there to eat you up, always waiting as the result of your own actions in the past (back to that idea of inevitability). You can run, or rather stroll arm-in-arm with your newfound companion and co-conspirator against the world, but it will catch up with you at some point on the board. Ghosts always appear in Rivette’s work, and here they are the ghosts of decisions made (or made for you) in the past, and the ghosts of the old Paris, and they continue to haunt the present and point towards coming tragedy.
Serge Daney suggested that this was the first French film of the 80’s- it’s hard to disagree, not just because it represents a generational passing of the torch (from Bulle, and Pierre Clementi, to Bulle’s daughter Pascale, a Rivette heroine for the new decade), but also because it predicts the revitalization of experiments with genre that would mark the coming Cinema Du Look, particularly the work of Leos Carax. Here we have shards of genres all working towards some unclassifiable whole, and a whole that is often joyous and exciting to watch (even at its saddest or most worrying). As always with Rivette we have moments of disorientation, moments where we feel we have been lost, left behind by those 180 degree turns in direction and tone that Rivette talked about as natural and essential in his cinema in an interview with Daney and Jean Narboni shortly before Le Pont Du Nord’s release. But no matter, because we always manage to make our way back to where we are supposed to be and feel some new pleasure when we do so, as us outsiders and counter-culturalists (in the Daney sense) who are Rivette’s devoted audience (and his characters as well), get caught up again in our shared dreams of the cinema and it’s possibilities, and are made aware again of the possibilities of our own minds for conjuring up some sort of personal sense-making out of (and adventure amongst) what we are left with in 1981 and 2016, as temporary as it may turn out to be. Example? Pascale Ogier and Jean-Francois Stevenin’s karate lesson on the bridge at the end of the film is the sort of scene we never want to end, so unexpected, so spontaneous and so full of life is it, even when the inclusion of shots seemingly taken through the viewpoint of a separate, invasive camera (or gun?) remind us of the impossibility of privacy and the oppression of constant surveillance. It is the sort of scene that reminds us of the life we can make inside our closely-observed mazes, and leaves us ultimately simultaneously hopeful and fearful about the chances of permanent liberation or even obliteration. Such is Rivette.