The real star of Jacques Rivette’s “Le Pont du Nord” is Paris, but it’s hardly the Paris of Woody Allen, “Funny Face,” or “Amélie.” Shot in early 1981, around the time Francois Mitterrand ascended to the French presidency, Rivette’s film captures a city in infernal flux — old buildings are ripped apart by cranes, gray housing projects erupt from the ground, much of the action takes place in vacant lots and on construction sites. The whole movie seems made of rebar.
It’s a fitting landscape for a film that seems a summary of its maker’s many obsessions. The appearance of any Rivette in these parts is an event, and, while “Le Pont du Nord” is one of the lesser-known works by the most mysterious director of the French New Wave, its appearance at the Harvard Film Archive — five screenings between Aug. 9 and 18 — is worthy of note. Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece, “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” had a rare revival at the Brattle last year, and for those audiences lucky enough to have seen it, “Nord” may seem like a playful, paranoid retort.
As in “Celine and Julie” (not to mention 1976’s mystical neo-noir “Duelle”), we have two women playing cat and mouse with each other and with the world. Where the earlier film was awash in summer sunlight and channeled the spirit of Lewis Carroll, “Le Pont du Nord” is wintry and seems more informed by the labyrinthine mind-games of Jorge Luis Borges.
Marie (Rivette regular Bulle Ogier) arrives in Paris after a year in jail; it’s hinted that she took the fall for her boyfriend, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), in a robbery. She’s so claustrophobic after her imprisonment that she can’t go inside, and neither does the film; “Le Pont du Nord” is shot exclusively outdoors, with a few excursions into a parked car and an elevated Metro train (the latter involves a long, beautifully languid traveling shot). Even when Marie is cajoled into spending the night in a movie theater, she relents only because it’s playing William Wyler’s 1958 western “The Big Country,” whose French title translates as “Wide Open Spaces.”
The other half of the movie’s duality is Baptiste, a leather-clad Puck figure played by Ogier’s 22-year-old daughter, Pascale. The two women keep bumping into each other on the city streets, and as Baptiste says, “One time, that’s chance. Two times is coincidence. Three times is destiny.”
And so the two plunge into the thicket of gamesmanship and oblique conspiracy theories that make up the Rivette universe. It’s a place where love is fragile and untrustworthy, where they are always watching. Who are “they”? It’s never specified. Baptiste’s all-purpose name for them is “Max,” and she sees Maxes everywhere, including a coolly threatening trench-coated figure (Jean-François Stévenin) who is either out to kill Julien or save him.
Story line, obviously, is not a strong point with this filmmaker. Instead, his movies allude to a greater, more abstract plot that the characters and we only vaguely glimpse, like the flash of a whale several fathoms deep. You can try to piece it together, as the earnest Marie does, or you can fight back like Baptiste, who practices her kung-fu kicks and uses a knife to tear out the eyes from advertising posters lining the plywood walls of the construction sites.
Baptiste is the movie’s chaos principle, and the younger Ogier renders her an unforgettable presence. Her wide eyes never seem to blink and her hair, initially pinned up under a motorcycle helmet, eventually cascades down with pre-Raphaelite fury. Baptiste is not really of this Earth, but she wants to save it along with Marie. The two actresses, different as a mother and daughter can be, still communicate on an invisible wavelength, and it’s a separate tragedy that Pascale Ogier would die of an overdose three years later, after a breakthrough performance in Eric Rohmer’s “Full Moon in Paris.”
“Le Pont du Nord” is not one of Rivette’s greatest works — honor goes to “Celine and Julie” or 1991’s “La Belle Noiseuse” — but it’s a useful compendium of his themes and it captures a very specific time, place, and sensibility. What is this Paris, the movie wonders, and what is it becoming? “Le Pont du Nord” has one foot in fairy tale — the impish Baptiste battles a scrap-metal dragon at one point — and another in the deconstructed shards of detective movies. There’s a mysterious briefcase, a dead body in a lot, furtive meetings with gun-toting men.
To understand what it all means, you really need a map, and inside that briefcase is a map of Paris that has been subdivided into 63 miniature arrondissements, curling toward the center like a snail’s shell. Or do they curl outward, toward freedom? The two heroines treat the grid as a game board — a French variant on Chutes and Ladders — with escape hatches and traps that have eerie echoes in the film’s ruined cityscapes.
Eventually, Marie and Baptiste get seduced by the game itself and so does “Le Pont du Nord”; the film heaves inconclusively to a finish with noir closure for Marie, open-ended absurdity for Baptiste, and the mocking tango music of Astor Piazzolla on the soundtrack. Rivette treats endings as mere inconvenience — for all I know, Celine and Julie are still out there boating somewhere. Here the great conspiracy and the games with which we try to make sense of it extend far past the final frame. When you leave the theater, don’t be surprised if you feel the Maxes watching you.