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"3 Bridges On the River" is a quietly intriguing, intelligent film. There's some mystery, but it prefers character study to conventional suspense. If you like Jacques Rivette or Eric Rohmer, it's worth your while. Portugal travel flavor makes it nice to curl up with, even watch alone, although director Biette's subtle sensibility might bore those who insist on plot points and clear motivations. However, if you think 'travel' and treat it as a reflective journey, it may be a pleasant surprise.
Simple outline (for roughly the first quarter): Arthur, a history teacher who keeps to himself, meets a new neighbor across the hall. Unsmiling and somewhat intense, Thomas imposes a friendly get-together for both to become better acquainted, but Arthur remains aloof, especially as Thomas' pushy creepiness does nothing to break the ice. A while later, a chance meeting brings Arthur and ex-love Claire together again, after a separation of 3 years. Uneasy, they soon find themselves cautiously making their way through old emotional territory. He tells her that he's traveling to Portugal to seek out an elderly historian, someone whose work he's admired, hopefully to obtain a critique of his own thesis-in-progress. The trip is a tender subject, as they'd once planned a similar one together 3 years ago, unsuccessfully. But she agrees to go with him. However, after arriving in Lisbon, Arthur finds the whereabouts of the retired history professor becoming rather elusive, and the road leads on to Oporto... Then, some unexpected appearances by Thomas in Portugal begin to trouble Arthur, making him increasingly wary... and Claire and Arthur hear mention of a secret sect in the city, luring young people...
Jean-Claude Biette directs in low-key manner, neither under- nor over-playing any aspects of the film. Even the complete lack of a musical soundtrack (unless via musicians who appear on-screen) is rather perfect, so that there is never a particular 'mood' overlaid on any scene. In this way, it all plays out in a refreshingly natural fashion, and any moments containing "intrigue" of some sort benefit from not being artificially heightened, allowing us to 'read' each moment unguided, and taking our surprises as we do. There's a steady but quiet intrigue that develops out of Claire and Arthur's relationship, but as for the more obviously "mysterious" business going on, for the most part it's rather like having glimpses of something odd, slightly "off," as one goes about one's daily affairs.
The subtle sense of uncertainty that emerges during the film is beautifully controlled, so that it never cheapens into a "foreboding" found in typical thrillers. Still, Biette's film is about mystery: the small subtle mysteries of the way we are, by ourselves and with others; what we reveal and what we don't; and how coincidences unsettle us, teasing us as possible signs, yet seemingly not insisting too much as they come and go... But it's not a suspense thriller, or even a film that answers "what happened?" It's primarily Arthur and Claire's story, and much of what else is happening serves to provide subtle reflections on his personal dilemma. We come to see that, just as Arthur remains unforthcoming and self-centered, a more vital connection to Claire, as well as Portugal, remains inaccessible for him.
As the couple wanders the streets, Lisbon and Oporto appear as historical cities of mystery, but also as ever present, sunlit bystanders to the tentative and emotional fluctuations of Claire and Arthur as they negotiate successive moments of intimacy together. Things develop slowly, and we wonder if it will really work out for them this time, as there doesn't seem much urgency in their relationship. In natural, understated roles, Jeanne Balibar (a revelation in "Va Savoir") and Mathieu Amalric ("La Sentinelle," "Late August, Early September") are both perfect, and their quiet appeal makes us come to care a good deal about them.
The metaphors of "3 Bridges" are also understated. The three characters each have their own reasons for their journey. There's a sense of "bridge" as suspension and crossing over: Arthur and Claire sometimes appear in suspended states from one moment to the next, now moving from uncertainty to insight, or from expectation to disappointment. Also, history can serve as a bridge which links us to the past and answers many questions. However, Arthur unfortunately winds up having a disappointing encounter with the silence of history, its unwillingness to divulge its secrets, in the course of his search... Being self-centered, Arthur eventually discovers he needs to bridge his own insular and obsessed nature, by extending himself to acknowledge the presence of others in his life, as well as a greater world at large than the one he sees. In a sense, the character of Thomas provides a "bigger picture" for Arthur. In one encounter, when Arthur asks Thomas why he keeps showing up, reappearing in his life wherever he goes, Thomas is mysterious but nonetheless direct: "Sometimes you have to obey." It's just one of many opportune moments for Arthur to realise that the people, places and events that have been entering his life are synchronicities, suggesting that a greater surrender to life is necessary on his part.
Some viewers won't come away with expected answers, as there isn't much conventional plot material. Rather, while some intrigue does add spice, the film's real material develops as we get to know Arthur and Claire, hanging out with them in a very leisurely way, following their vulnerabilities and hopes as they move into a new unknown adventure together. "Character development" is what traveling does for us anyway, but also the art of living, if rediscovered...
For myself, a pleasant reward came from being shown how the mysteries of life are always there, sometimes beckoning and tantalizing, coaxing our emotions... or preserving our caution when rubbing shoulders with something questionable, even dangerous perhaps... and yet things usually turn out just as they should. Even the inexplicable, which is quite well enough.
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