Many directors have dipped their toes into the deep waters of the metafiction film, but few, if any, have skated across it as gracefully and triumphantly as Jacques Rivette, whose 1981 masterpiece Le pont du nord is screening at BAMcinématek until Thursday. Set over the course of four impossibly sunny days in Paris, the film takes off after its motorcycling young protagonist (Pascale Ogier) – vrooming the engine to ventriloquize her internal, catatonic emotions – is knocked to her feet by a pedestrian, played by Pascale’s real-life mother Bulle Ogier. The girl morphs into a flâneur par excellence, whimsically interacting with the Parisian streets (e.g. engaging in a make-believe knife fight with the samurai on a poster for Kurosawa’s Kagemusha), eventually crossing paths again with the same woman. She then introduces herself as Baptiste, claiming to be living the first day of her life. Her senior, equally withholding about her backstory, is Marie Lafée. For such a mystical character, it’s an awfully apt surname: French for the fairy.  Perhaps detecting Baptiste’s attempt to blur the line between her imagination and her reality, Marie repeatedly tells her that life is not like a novel. And yet Rivette insists that it, or at least theirs, is.

Meandering together through Paris, equal parts cartographers and cons on the run, Baptiste and Marie find themselves cast as stars of a pulp fiction satirizing the arbitrariness of its own intrigue. Such arty, self-conscious riffs on the crime picture tend not to congeal properly—see select works by Tarantino or even Raúl Ruiz, which work best on a scene-by-scene basis—so the real thrill of Le pont du nord is how effortlessly it flows.

Flow though it may, the film steers clear of the Seine, presenting an expansive, off-the-beaten-track view of Paris, which Baptiste at one point compares to a spider web.

Cobwebs will return and, like other mythical imagery (e.g. a funhouse, fire-breathing dragon slide), take on extra significance, but the film gravitates not towards labyrinthine structures, but to rectangles, from the 63 square shapes into which Marie’s map of Paris is divided to stolen briefcases, from telephone booths to Baptiste’s boxy headphones. The final Zen showdown between Baptiste and one of their pursuants in the shadow of the Pont du Nord will also be drawn, literally and figuratively, by parallel and perpendicular lines. Despite its firm interest in geometry, Rivette’s film is anything but rigid. It subverts rules upon their establishment, it pokes fun at traditions it also reveres, and most of all it exhibits an inimitable humanism.