Bulle Ogier Melissa Anderson

The actress who brought an enigmatic expressiveness to Jacques Rivette’s ’70s and ’80s films about female friendships and alliances.

Bulle Ogier as Pauline/Émilie in Out 1. Courtesy Kino Lorber.

“Bulle Ogier: A Tribute,” organized by Joshua Siegel, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West Fifty-Third Street, New York City, through May 31, 2024

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Over the course of a screen career that began nearly sixty years ago, the French actress Bulle Ogier forged key affiliations with several eminent auteurs, working more than once with Marguerite Duras, Manoel de Oliveira, and Barbet Schroeder (who is also her husband). But no collaboration has been quite so defining as her association with Nouvelle Vague titan Jacques Rivette, which spanned 1969 to 2007 and included seven films; the second, the gargantuan, thirteen-hour Out 1 (1971), stands as one of the greatest works of post-’68, post-utopian paranoia and despair. As with many Rivette films, it takes place in a Paris imagined as both a city of infinite random encounters and a sinister maze, the latter quality sharply enhanced by Ogier’s character, Pauline—sometimes known as Émilie—proprietor of a head shop called the Corner of Chance, which doubles as the HQ for shadier operations. One of the more famous stills from Out 1 shows Ogier, filmed from behind, staring into a mirror—an image that becomes a mise en abyme. With her lips parted ever so slightly, her wide eyes conveying an odd fascination with her own reflection, Ogier as Pauline/Émilie seems to be contemplating the infinity of her character or the recursive nightmare of her epoch. The moment distills the qualities that Gary Indiana has hailed in the actress: “Ogier’s gestural purity and the telegraphic quality of her smallest expressions [suggest] the flexing tensions of a high-wire acrobat.”

Pierre Clémenti as Julien and Bulle Ogier as Marie in Le Pont du Nord. Courtesy Janus Films.

In the final week of MoMA’s monthlong retrospective devoted to Ogier, who turns eighty-five this August, viewers can marvel at her funambulism in two other films she made with Rivette: Le Pont du Nord (1981) and The Gang of Four (1989). The former originated in a postcard that Ogier, then shooting a movie in Switzerland, sent to the director, asking when they could work together again (their previous collaboration had been the 1976 fantasia Duelle, in which Ogier plays the Queen of the Sun). When the actress got back to Paris, she suggested to Rivette that their new production could be imagined as a sequel of sorts for the character she had played in Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979), a member of a Baader-Meinhof–like terrorist cell.

Bulle Ogier as Hilde Krieger in The Third Generation. Courtesy Janus Films.

At the beginning of Le Pont du Nord, Ogier’s Marie returns to the French capital in the back of a pickup truck, having just served a one-year sentence for vaguely defined insurrectionist crimes. “I did something stupid and I got caught,” Marie explains to Baptiste (Pascale Ogier), a stranger quickly turned intimate who is brought into her life when Baptiste almost runs Marie over with her moped. Le Pont du Nord is one of several movies Rivette made about female friendships and alliances, beginning with his best-known film, 1974’s ludic Céline and Julie Go Boating (in which Ogier has a secondary role as a woman trapped in a “House of Fiction,” stuck in an eternal domestic melodrama). Like that of the earlier film, the script for Le Pont du Nord was shaped by the main actresses, largely through improvisation. And, just as the catalyst for Céline and Julie was the actual friendship between leads Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto, the relationship between the protagonists in Le Pont du Nord foregrounds an even more primal real-life connection: Pascale Ogier was Bulle’s only child; separated by a mere nineteen years, the two could easily be mistaken for sisters.

Pascale Ogier as Baptiste and Bulle Ogier as Marie in Le Pont du Nord. Courtesy Janus Films.

During the four days they spend together, Marie and Baptiste, both homeless, navigate a particularly de-glammed Paris. They traverse mammoth construction sites and areas near the Quai de Bercy dominated by dilapidated warehouses; a reunion early in the film between Marie and her lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), a member of a nefarious cabal, on top of the Arc de Triomphe occasions the only glimpse of a well-known landmark. Working on a minuscule budget, Rivette shot exclusively outdoors, a technical limitation masked by an ingenious idea of Ogier’s for her character: Marie suffers severe claustrophobia (even when making a call in an outdoor, all-glass phone booth, she must keep the door open).

Bulle Ogier as Marie and Pascale Ogier as Baptiste in Le Pont du Nord. Courtesy Janus Films.

Marie and Baptiste’s peregrinations become even stranger when they discover, in Julien’s briefcase, a bizarre map of Paris sectioning the city’s twenty arrondissements into squares that transform the capital into a kind of malefic board game. (The title of the film itself adds to this derangement; there is no such eponymous pont, or bridge, in Paris.) “I don’t understand what any of this means,” Marie states calmly to the more excitable Baptiste while looking at that oddly partitioned city diagram. However rootless Marie may be, Ogier imbues the ex-terrorist with a steadfast equanimity—the composure of a woman who’s had a long time to reflect on her misdeeds, who can, having touched bottom, adapt to nearly any circumstance. Shortly after they first meet, Baptiste, full of bravado, takes it upon herself to act as Marie’s protector. Much later, Marie says to her new friend, “I don’t know if I need you, but I think sometimes you need me”—a line made all the more poignant by the fact that it is delivered by a mother to her daughter, who would die one day shy of her twenty-sixth birthday in 1984.

Bulle Ogier (foreground) as Constance and cast in The Gang of Four. Courtesy Cohen Media Group.

The placidity Ogier exhibits in Le Pont du Nord is elevated to extreme hauteur in her role as Constance Dumas, the head of a cultlike acting program in The Gang of Four. Constance charges dearly for her class, open only to young women, and insists on commitment so total that her students must forswear employment. Day after day these twentysomething thespians rehearse Marivaux’s La double inconstance (surely a punning connection to the name of their guru?) in a tiny theater as Constance, always clad in crisp black-and-white ensembles, observes and offers cutting comments: “Your only concern has been to build a shelter for your ego.” Her imperiousness has the effect of instilling even greater devotion in her pupils, who parse their teacher’s many mysteries—why did she stop performing, for one—outside of class. Yet Constance is not as indifferent to her charges and their lives beyond the stage as she first appears; she commits a great sacrifice on behalf of one of them, played by Nathalie Richard. (Seven years later, an exchange between Ogier and Richard would be the fizzy highlight of a boisterous dinner party in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, also screening this week.) “Continue, please don’t let it take you from your work,” she tells the class, befuddled by the plainclothes cops who have entered their sanctum, looking to haul away their revered instructor. At a precipitous moment, Constance, like the woman portraying her, maintains an unwavering focus.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and the author of a monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire from Fireflies Press.

The actress who brought an enigmatic expressiveness to Jacques Rivette’s ’70s and ’80s films about female friendships and alliances.
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