By Jeremy Carr.
Make-believe and storytelling are not only central to the shared and exclusive lives of the film’s fanciful female leads, but are devices ratified and dissected at every turn of the movie’s wonderfully screwy scenario.”
There is a repeated refrain heard throughout Adrian Martin’s predictably perceptive commentary on Céline and Julie Go Boating, a 2017 track re-released by the Criterion Collection for its new Blu-ray of the film. It has to do with play, the nature of play: the pleasure, the inventiveness, the possibilities. It’s repeated because it is absolutely essential to appreciating—even without fully understanding—the charmed, spirited formula of Jacques Rivette’s 1974 feature, where make-believe and storytelling are not only central to the shared and exclusive lives of the film’s fanciful female leads, but are devices ratified and dissected at every turn of the movie’s wonderfully screwy scenario.
At first, Céline and Julie Go Boating’s foundation seems to hinge on matters of chance, a common enough starting point for a tale that will be quite random indeed. But an on-screen title reading “Usually, it began like this…” also suggests a matter of previously enacted routine, an idea only fortified at the very end of the film. For now, though, Céline, a fumbling bohemian magician (Juliet Berto), is dashing by Julie, a more reserved librarian (Dominique Labourier) who has been reading on a Montmartre park bench. Julie is swiftly caught up in a new text, unfolding as Céline drops various possessions to seemingly induce the stranger’s curious pursuit. Encouraged by these haphazard bread crumbs, Julie follows Céline as she rushes down nearly empty streets, moves through parks, and speeds up stairs. The game, and it almost certainly has to be a game, is flirtatious, silly, and ill-defined. In other words, it’s playful. Though she seldom languishes for long, Julie does evince a degree of hesitancy (what is going on with this woman?), but she remains intrigued and soon she and the White Rabbit Céline are off and running.
Their relationship is directionless, and yet there’s progress. They’re making it up as they go, yet Céline and Julie are going somewhere. It’s to Rivette’s credit that he allows ample time and freedom to foster this friendship, and he gave Berto and Labourier that same productive luxury. After another project went by the wayside, Rivette and the actresses worked together to discuss and develop this new production. Berto and Labourier, who subsequently share writing credit on the picture, happened to be friends in real life, and they moved in together during filming. That bond surely helped, but the film also gives the impression, perhaps more significantly, that the two were on a mutually beneficial wavelength with their director. Martin cautions against placing too much stress on standard concepts of improvisation, though it is clear that whatever the trio’s process, there was tremendous value in their reciprocated concepts of impulsive narrative and performance.
To that end, the offhand confluence of the two characters is mindful of its own methods, enjoying its own absurdities and teasing its own uncertainties. The early portions of Céline and Julie include extended periods of scenic meandering, spurring on the curiosity of Julie and the viewer, but then the two women appear to generally go about their normal business. We see, for example, their day jobs, their coworkers, and a tentative advancement of their peculiar courtship. Rivette was a key player in the French New Wave, but he was something of an outsider as well. His films were very different than those of Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, and he made fewer of them, but Céline and Julie does share certain commonalities with such antecedent features as Breathless (1960) and Jules and Jim (1962), especially in the way its main characters seem to live in a world of their own (have there ever been characters as self-absorbed and oblivious as those of the nouvelle vague?). Céline and Julie’s lackadaisical opening is therefore rife with spontaneous sparks of childlike tendencies, a giddy rebelliousness and restlessness that makes this particular duo a dynamic, inspired pairing.
Rivette pushes aside any firm notion of narrative headway or all-purpose context, negating transparent indications of what’s to come. A depicted tarot card reading proves rather ironic given that the future of the film, and of Céline and Julie, is relentlessly indeterminate, liable to change at the drop of a hat. Even when the two women do discover they are able to control at least one strand of what happens next, where they take that prospect is anybody’s guess. Still, the magical miracle of Céline and Julie is that it doesn’t really make much difference. Céline and Julie don’t need to know where they’re going, as long as we get to go along. The film becomes, as Criterion promotes it, one of the great “hangout” movies, for Céline and Julie, whatever they’re up to, are so captivating and quirky and attractive. And they have such fun.
As noted in Beatrice Loayza’s essay for Criterion, appropriately titled “Céline and Julie Go Boating: State of Play,” play in the film is “a life force, pleasure a form of liberation.” The free-form, avant-garde, and anarchic sensibility that prospers from this, embodied by Céline and Julie’s titular heroines, prompts Martin to liken the film to Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), but he rightly alludes to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as well. As in that film (a far more somber title also released in 1966), there is a melding of the two characters, a symbiotic relationship that transcends the sexual implications that are nevertheless present and mesmeric (the film’s “queer fluidity” and its mutable identities prompt Martin to likewise draw comparisons with David Lynch’s mind-bending 2001 film, Mulholland Drive). Part of this shared identity is a penchant for storytelling, be it truth or fiction. “I thought it was them after me again,” says Céline as she casually appears outside Julie’s apartment with a bleeding leg. Julie takes her in and the two begin to discuss all aspects of their life. Whether or not everything mentioned is grounded in fact, the cat and mouse interplay that launched the film has now given way to an instant intimacy that is comforting, enthralling, and capricious. Martin recognizes a “psychic connection” between the two (in at least one instance, Julie seems to anticipate Céline’s desire for a Bloody Mary) and Loayza similarly remarks on the “gravity” of Céline and Julie’s friendship. “Their connection casts female love and camaraderie as both universal and particular,” she writes, “to women viewers especially, their friendship will seem intuitively familiar, yet it remains mysterious and sealed off to intruders, who will never quite understand how they communicate and what exactly they mean to each other.”
But don’t forget the play. Céline and Julie also have some fun at each other’s expense. Céline poorly imitates Julie and accosts and humiliates the latter’s would-be suiter, while Julie dons Céline’s nightclub costume and lambastes a group of male onlookers. Forget that Céline’s façade is hardly convincing or that Julie’s outburst may or may not be fully committed (the tangent might be because she simply doesn’t know what else to do on stage); the point is, as Loayza’s above comments submit, there is an exuberant liberation in the collective invasion. In a Criterion conversation with Hélène Frappat, Pacôme Thiellement notes the “joy” of Céline and Julie compared to the anxiety present in other Rivette features, and if nothing else, this elation alone would be enough to guide the film along. But there is much else, and as Loayza adds, “Despite Rivette’s meticulous orchestration, it is the authentic, living, breathing expression of their friendship that Berto and Labourier constructed that keeps the film from crumbling into mere conceptual play.”
Lest it be assumed Céline and Julie is in fact nothing but a series of oddball shenanigans, there is a semi-conventional plot that emerges. Owing to the film’s three-plus hour duration, which is nothing compared to the nearly 13 hours of his preceding film, 1971’s Out 1, Rivette is simply taking his time, manipulating and highlighting the movie’s form and content. Working with frequent editor Nicole Lubtchansky, who achieves a steadfast measuring of pace and emphasis, and cinematographer Jacques Renard, who finds the surreal in what is generally naturalistic imagery, he is having his own fun with this fragmentary worldbuilding. It hasn’t all been stalls and misdirection and before too long, a mystery arises. There are brief inserts of a house and its inhabitants, first glimpsed in intercut snapshots that are “incomprehensible” in the moment, as Martin says, but eventually coalesce into a simultaneous plane of revelation. Céline and Julie “help invent the story they will later observe,” according to Martin, and this reality-fantasy overlap acts as an intriguingly incongruous memory or dream—a “mishash,” as the girls say. There’s a loose tension in this technique, an excitement building from its very strangeness. Magic and fairy tales, which have already figured prominently in the film, now feed the sensation of limitless possibility, as well as the thematic prods of inevitable illusion, deception, and sheer imagination.
The depicted house, an isolated Gothic residence, is a site both Céline and Julie have some prior association with, though the timeframe and veracity of these connections is unclear. In any event, the two are able to penetrate the parallel realm where a melodramatic tragedy is transpiring. The evolving story-within-the-story, which gives Céline and Julie its subtitle, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, and is based on Henry James’ novella “The Other House,” involves two women, Camille and Sophie (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier), and the object of their affection, Olivier, a wealthy widower (Barbet Schroeder, producer of Céline and Julie). More concerning for Céline and Julie is the apparent death of a little girl (Nathalie Asnar), Olivier’s daughter. Who kills the child and why? The answers only come piecemeal for Céline and Julie, who “enter” the house for transitory periods of time, observe the drama for a spell, and are then cast out rattled and exhausted with only scant, tangible trances of actual physical presence.
Shards of candy allow Céline and Julie to return to and witness the interior spectacle, which plays out repeatedly with minor variations, after which they are again left to analyze what took place. Through repetition and reconstruction, they hatch a plan to save the young girl, making what had before been a largely passive observation an interactive replay. Make no mistake, though, the increasingly chronological and elongated crisis is hardly all-consuming. While Céline and Julie at times appear utterly engaged as they pop the candy and stare straight ahead in a transported state, their reactions run the gamut. Without ever acknowledging how weird the whole enterprise is, they are also anxious, excited, and even bored; they’re watching a movie they’ve seen over and over again and are eager to change the plot. Here is where the film’s protracted introduction pays off, as we’ve become so captivated by the anomalous plight of these two women that our identification emboldens an enduring rapport with their daydream undertaking. There’s an amusing allure in the fourth wall’s dissolution, justifying the coincidences of a conveniently placed taxi, excusing the logical lapses, and sustaining the self-conscious nods to overt theatricality. This is part of what makes Céline and Julie so entertaining. The ostentatious shifts in lighting, the sound of off-screen applause, the affected make-up, histrionic posturing, detached emotions, and the comical postponements of progress (following the build-up to their final mission, Céline and Julie arrive at the house too early and pause for a quick smoke): all of this contributes to the film’s transfixing appeal, its sense of play.
Martin, who describes Céline and Julie Go Boating as a “blast” and a “shock,” provides numerous instances of the film’s deliberate references and allusions. Not knowing these signposts doesn’t take away from the picture, though they definitely add to its intricate intersection of resources. This is a film so dense and layered and so ripe for the picking in terms of analysis and contemplation that the bounty of supplemental features provided by Criterion is a welcome enhancement of what is already a complex production in terms of its own making, its intent, and the end result. This includes a two-part documentary about Rivette, directed by Claire Denis, new interviews with Ogier and Schroeder, and archival interviews with Rivette, Ogier, Berto, Labourier and Pisier. “The day when curiosity disappears,” Rivette states, “we can just lie down and wait for our last gasp.” There’s no risk of that here. Céline and Julie is as experimental and as delightfully ambiguous as it ever was, from its slapdash opening to its one-two punch of an ending, which upends and reverses the story and begins anew. “The materials do not change,” writes Loayza of this addling conclusion, “yet the possibilities are infinite, unpredictable, freeing.” There aren’t many films that achieve such free-wheeling liberty, bestowed upon its narrative, its characters, and its audience. And with all that, who wouldn’t want to play along?
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).