Céline and Julie go boating – The quiet achiever of the French new wave goes epic.

How does one describe a film that encompasses the entire world in its enormity? This is easily one of my all time favourite films.  I love it for nostalgic reasons and I love it for itself. It is a holy epic, pure in its revelations, uncompromising in its commitment to its own depth. There is so much to say about a film of this magnitude, and at the same time, its difficult to find the words to describe or explain the film.

Rivette was to be the Cahiers writer to break the group of filmmaking critics, but setbacks in his debut gave Truffaut and Godard the leg up, and they exploded into international stardom while Rivette placed his affairs in order and finally released Paris Belongs to Us in the wake of The 400 Blows and Breathless. By the time he released Céline and Julie in 1974, Rivette had only managed to craft an additional three features (well, four, if you count the different cuts of Out 1, which would make sense considering the massive difference in running times). Where his colleagues and friends hit the ground running, Rivette crafted gargantuan character epics that struggled to receive backing and distribution. By the time he sorted out these problems, the New Wave had already passed.  If anything, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a summation of the Paris Godard was trying to capture through his own increasingly radical filmmaking styles.  Céline and Julie Go Boating exists somewhere in between the most radical of Godard moments and the earthy true-ness of Truffauts story telling. The entire film is a surreal journey as we follow Céline and Julie all the way back to the ending which is in itself the promise of another three-hour feature to be seen in a different dimension. Make sure you take note of the heavy use of mirror imagery in the film.  This film is a journey through alternate dimensions – and within those their own alternate dimensions again. It is genuinely ‘other-worldly’ and can’t be compared to any other film.

The film opens with fifteen minutes of a strange little cat and mouse game between the two women. Initially they meet in a park where Julie (Dominque Labourier) sits on a bench reading a book. White-rabbit-like, Céline (Juliet Berto) walks past her dropping various objects out of her oversized hand bag. There will be many references to Lew Carolls book in this magical film – the opening sequence is just one of them. Julie tries to get Céline’s attention in order to help by return the objects she does not know she has lost. When this fails, Julie decides to follow Céline and all through the opening credits the women play at chase, with the audience never being fully sure if each is aware of some secret game the other is playing. Eventually Julie will catch up with Céline – barely a few words and spoken and she is on her way. But Céline shows up at the library Julie works in a few days later and the two become instant best friends.

As the two women move into petty diversions and the small fun of their lives there is a distinct but inconsequential moving away from the obligations of their lives. They disengage in a very improvisational fashion from their responsible lives – jobs and family etc. This has a distinctly new wave feel to it, even if the intricate planning and multilayered focus of the film is simultaneously obvious.  I have read through various reviews that thee are puns and clever word games in the original French that don’t come through in the translation. The title of the film itself is a play on the phrase “aller en bâteau,” the French idiom relating to shaggy dog stories, that is, a protracted tale that leads to a deliberate anticlimax. At over 3 hours with an ending only gently different from the beginning, Céline and Julie Go Boating certainly qualifies as a shaggy dog story, but its precise lack of a narrative endgame is partly what make it so delightful.

Magic is very important in the film, both in its essence and it its narrative. the book Julie is reading on the bench when she first sees  Céline is a book of magic spells. After returning Céline’s scarf, she returns to the library and plays with tarot cards, and her reading reveals that she’s in a stagnant place in life but also chucks out a contradictory statement about her future being “in the past” that sets up the constant reversals of the film, conveyed visually though the heavy mirror imagery. Céline is actually a magician – she does this for a living. Then, strangely, as the plot develops the two women are able to swap roles within the boundaries of each others lives, without anyone noticing.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. Céline and Julie couldn’t look more physically different, and yet they easily convince everyone around them (including the viewer) they are capable of exchanging roles. To cement this, Céline dresses up and goes to meet an old flame of Julies named Gregoire, whom she begins to tease. This tease extends from the initial pleasantries into a sexually charged lust that literally has the poor man’s trousers fall to the ground.  This is not in any way a sexual act, but more one of utter defeat. Céline then stops the frenzy cold and tells the man to “go jack-off among the roses.” It is later in the film that Gregoire calls Julie to tell her he intends to enter a monetary and that she is to blame. Julie, who knew nothing of Céline’s visit with the man, is very puzzld. After hanging up, Julie suddenly grows indignant and picks the phone back up to shout “Go masturbate in the daisies like a Gregorian” (a pun on his name Gregoire). Gregoire has of course already hung up, but had he stayed on the line he would be more convinced than ever that Julie really was there at the park with him. Later, Julie tries her hand at Céline’s magic act and, despite her shyness, plays up the tease aspect of the show more than her more bohemian and open chum.  As I’ve already said in another post on this blog, it reminded me very much of the film Daisies – a film Rivette loved and saw before he made this one.

Much has been made in the reviews of the relationship, because it does come across as a psycho-sexual one. I tend to disagree that this is a film about lesbianism – not because I have a problem with Céline and Julie being lesbians, for the same reason I have a problem with the two Maries in Daisies being lesbian – that it may detract from the jouissance and the abundant libidnal economy of the main characters.  Look at it this way.  Céline and Julie may be loves, but it is the least interesting aspect about them in this film. Here are two individuals exercising their passion for life, a freewheeling engagement with the act of being.  this is lessened if they can only do this because they are in love with each other. Its more powerful to have heterosexual women bonding in this fashion outside of the confines of love, than it is to have an implication that lesbianism frees women completely from the bonds of misogyny.  A casual scene in which Julie hangs a few dolls on a wall and pins a boy figurine by its feet is a giddy visualization of this, but this theme runs far deeper. Those aforementioned role reversals involve the females rejecting the men who hold some sway on the life of the other. Julie kept a photo of Gregoire with a rose as if a shrine to a lover lost in a battle, so Céline breaks her of the lingering crush by alienating the man. Meanwhile, Julie performs as a magician and ends up castigating the same seedy men who ogled her friend, calling them pimps before storming out of the place.  When this occurs, there is a distinct severing from the phallus – everything ‘powerful’ is sublimated. Their jobs and the other confines of ‘normal’ society. Soon it will be reality itself. This is more a statement on capitalism and its use of the phallic order than it is on homosexuality. These women are stepping outside of love as one of the chains that binds women to phallic power.

I’ll lean on the excellent review Jake gives us on Not Just Movies blog here:

The theme of female bonding offers one interpretation of the film, but Rivette plunges into the deep end of cinematic exploration in the movie’s second half, which revolves around a mansion at the fictional address of 7 bis, Rue du Nadir aux Pommes (the Worst of the Apples Street, a.k.a. bad apples?). When one of them enters the house, she emerges later with no recollection of what transpired inside and finds a candy in her mouth, which she saves, assuming it to be of some importance. It is indeed, as sucking the candy unlocks the memories of the mansion visit.

Here Céline and Julie becomes about movies themselves, as well as the act of movie-going. Inside the mansion is a play of sorts, featuring a group of women vying for the hand of the widower who lives among them. Also inside is a young girl, the widower’s, who may or may not be murdered just as the candy wears off and Céline and Julie can no longer watch the story. This narrative within the narrative represents the old style of French filmmaking, poetic realism, both in its structure and especially its more rigid and melodramatic acting. Céline and Julie, of course, with their insouciant wandering and giddy conversations, embody the New Wave, and Rivette pits the styles against each other to craft a more wholesome cinematic language. He tears it down almost immediately afterward, which may be the point of the film, but more on that later.

The Proustian affectation of the memory candies in some ways predates the idea of a VCR, which had been invented by 1974 but not yet condensed and cheapened sufficiently for widespread home usage. The friends process more of the elliptical story with every visit and use of the candy, in the same way that re-reading a book or re-watching a movie can yield all new details and interpretations. Céline and Julie debate over the mystery and what this story has to say like critics looking for a film’s meaning, all too fitting for a film with as many readings and enticing mysteries as this. In the “replays,” the character who entered the house assumes the role of the young girl’s nanny, Miss Angèle Terre, which splits into two relevant puns: “Miss Terre” equates to “mystère,” while “Miss Angèle” becomes “mise en gel” (i.e. frozen). The characters insides the mansion are frozen in their doomed one-act play, a mystery compounded by the editing ellipses, a mystery that the two women attempt to solve, or at least fashion into something in their liking.

The film is now well and truly a film about film making and within that a commentary on the french new Wave itself. After watching the “movie” of the mansion over and over — in one sequence, Rivette inserts quick cuts to shots of Céline and Julie gawking into space over their shared memories, recalling Truffaut’s quote about the most beautiful sight in a movie is to look away from the screen at all the upturned faces — until they brew a potion that allows them to actively influence the events in the mansion. As they float evenly between film maker and film watcher, they notice the over applied make up and the ‘actor-like’ qualities of those around them as they try to transform narrative.  The ‘problems’ of cinema that the French New Wave had to transform are highlighted here.

Rivette uses other techniques classic to the French New Wave such as  the described above free-wheeling nature of women, as well as jump cuts all adding to the sense of magical wonder and unpredictability of the film. Once these cuts begin to show the fractured pieces of the mansion narrative, they become more concrete than abstract, representative of the bits of memory the two experience through the amnesic fog the mansion places upon them. The story itself occurs in a single narrative loop, ending up exactly where it began – except of course, with the women switching roles.

The mix of classic cinematic styling and the jump cut intrusion o the new wave works perfectly here however, framed within the magical narrative. Céline and Julie Go Boating is filled with multiple layers, and various opportunity for interpretation. I am sure I myself will change my mind over many aspects of the film after many glorious viewings. Having said that, this is a beautiful film to watch and engage in also, tugging at the heart-strings with the strength of anything James Cameron could muster.  For all its magical surrealism, it has a firm grasp on life and is a pure and joyous celebration of beauty and the abject magic of being alive.

I’ll leave the wonderful last line to Jake – whose fantastic review I have pilfered and made my own:

In what other film could two grown women raid a magic store at night wearing black catsuits and roller skates?