Set in the birthplace of some of our modern conceptualizations of existentialism, Jacques Rivette’s 1981 hyper-real narrative of two women wandering around Paris —Le Pond Du Nord — still retains its sense of mystery and serendipity after thirty-plus years. Both women, the claustrophobic idealistic ex-con Marie (played by Bulle Ogier) and her eminently eccentric sidekick Baptiste (Ogier’s daughter, Pascale) make for an unlikely duo, but it’s precisely their quirks and almost isolate philosophies that keep the audience on edge.
Baptiste is almost non-human in many cases, obsessed with her paranoia of the ‘establishment’ and its ruthless and clandestine surveillance. She carries a knife with her that she uses to unscrupulously deface posters she encounters, scratching out the eyes of models on billboards and walls, as if the ‘spider web’ of the plutocracy is anchored in these lifeless advertisements. She’s like an animal, one who is wrapped up in her own solipsism, even to the point where the deaths of others barely knick her moral compass (not to be confused with the physical compass she carries with her; a clever if less than subtle metonymic device).
Marie who is often times naïve and at a loss, both physically, emotionally (in terms of the naïve trust she places in an old flame), and morally, and yet in many ways seems to fulfill a maternal role to the aloof Baptiste. But the tug-of-war in their relationship is kept nominal, distant, as if each is being permitted their own opportunity to play “protagonist”.
But protagonist to what? There are a several different storylines that converge and diverge with an almost whimsical capriciousness. At the heart of the film though is Marie’s past, which is complemented with a number of visual symbols – the maze, the map, the spider-web, the mysterious Max figure that stalks her. French film is notorious for tackling the everyday mundaneness, the relatively inconsequential events that, whether through Fate or a character’s own volition, end up contributing a piece to a much larger puzzle of events or an overarching theme.
It’d be too clear cut – a disservice to the film – to try and narrow the premise of the film down to one cohesive symbol. Le Pont Du Nord is as much a narrative about a shady criminal past catching up with Marie as it is a metaphysical exploration of free-will. The beauty of the film is the tangential nature in which these two elements slide into one another, whether through the apparent random encounters the characters share with each other, or the discursive meandering conversations that take place while they wander aimlessly and homelessly through the wreckage of Paris.
The charm of the film perhaps rests in its refusal to be exclusive about one subject or another, preferring to dust it all into a soup that can be sampled by the viewer at will. But if there is one common flavour, it’s a kind of wariness and distrust of systems – whether it be the government, the penal system, or the underlying sequence of events that both Marie and Baptiste seem to run into. Death, ultimately, becomes an ultimate abstraction for both of them, although each experience the phenomenon in very different ways.
One can’t help but get a sense of meaninglessness from both confrontations. It’s not that particular deaths are meaningless, but that the decision to approach death as anything other than what it is – a split-second movement, from one state to another – is somehow ontologically pointless. You live, you die, and the nonchalance which this duality is approached with borders on downright surreal and unsettling. And yet, I totally buy it, somehow.
Whatever it sought or seeks now to express, Rivette’s masterpiece is so called one because it doesn’t seek – and even if it could, would fail – to answer these particular questions. It merely poses them, and then calls on the audience to come up with their own diagnosis of reality based. It’s a kind of film-making we rarely see anymore, except perhaps with a few exemplary thinkers like Malick or Aronofsky. I’m not sure what that says about modern movies today, or about the audiences they cater to. I, personally, enjoy films that require some conversation after the fact.