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Céline and Julie Go Boating
(1974, Céline et Julie vont en bateau)
Jacques Rivette

Irina Janakievska
posted 19 May 2006

Jacques Rivette made relatively few films over his career and generally operated without much respect for orthodoxy. In 1950, Rivette joined the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, and began to write film criticism for the Gazette du Cinema. It was during this time, he made his first short films, Aux Quatre Coins (1950), Le Quadrille (1950), and Le Divertissment (1952). In 1952, Rivette began writing for Cahiers du Cinema with several other young critics who were to become the core of the French New Wave: Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. With Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette is considered to be among the most experimental of the French New Wave directors. His output is highly original and creative but excites either extreme adulation or conversely bores and baffles both audiences and critics. Céline and Julie Go Boating, despite being complex, is perhaps the most accessible of Rivette's films.

The film's opening scene is clearly an allusion to Alice in Wonderland. So let me try to guide you briefly through Rivette's Parisian Wonderland. Julie (Dominique Labourier), a librarian, is seated on a park bench reading a book about magic, when Céline (Juliet Berto) rushes past like the White Rabbit dropping various possessions as she goes. Like Alice, Julie had perhaps never before seen a White Rabbit, so burning with curiosity she runs across Paris after Céline. Céline begins to notice that she is being followed and, not realising why, tries to evade Julie. Julie decides to follow Céline more surreptitiously, never even considering stopping. Like Alice she loses this White Rabbit, but then catches another glimpse of her, still in sight, hurrying along. Eventually, Julie is finally able to discover where Céline lives, stares at the apartment from the street below for a few minutes, and then gives up and leaves. The next morning, Julie finds Céline in a coffee shop and returns the dropped items.

The following day Julie is at work in the library playing Tarot cards with a colleague. Intriguingly, one of the cards selected is interpreted as signifying that Julie's future is behind her. At that moment we see Céline, wearing a disguise, observing Julie from one of the library desks. As Céline draws an outline of her hand in one of the books, Julie plays with a red ink pad - a momentary glimpse at a plot element to come involving a red handprint. It is a brilliantly simple, but poignant moment which reminds us that through the mist of life, we see the past which haunts and always chases us, but in this case the future is behind us, reminding us that what we were and how we can incorporate the past into the present is what the future becomes.

Céline eventually leaves, only to reappear, collapsed in front of Julie's flat, with blood dripping from a scraped knee. Julie takes her in, and so begins Julie and Céline's adventure ensemble. The two women begin to live together and share their lives in a beautifully bizarre manner, substituting for one another in their intertwining lives, playing tricks on one another. Céline stands in for Julie when she is due to meet her childhood sweetheart, her cousin Grégoire, nicknamed 'Guilou'. The dialogue between Guilou and Céline (posing as Julie) is an utterly inspired piece of comic genius. Julie in turn poses as Céline (who works as a magician at a nightclub) when Céline is due to audition for a tentative offer to take her magic act on an international tour. Just as Lewis Caroll described Alice as 'a curious child…fond of pretending to be two people', it seems that Céline and Julie are both Alice, at times changing into desperate or enhanced versions of themselves.

Both Alice's also share a curiosity for mystery. They set out to investigate the peculiar events in the seemingly haunted house of 7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes where Céline had briefly worked as a nurse. Céline and Julie take turns entering the house, the one going in becoming the 'nurse' in an on-going intrigue. Upon leaving the house they experience amnesia, unable to recall exactly what transpired. They also emerge with red handprints on their shoulder blades and pieces of rock candy in their mouth. They recall only isolated, disjointed memory fragments completely out-of-sequence, until they realise that the rock candy allows them to recall what happens in the mansion. While Celine and Julie observe the events in the house unfolding, they become like us the audience, enthralled by the mystery centred on a little girl in the haunted mansion who becomes a pawn in a love triangle involving her father and two women. Julie and Céline decide to save the little girl from being murdered, which they know will be the story's endpoint unless they are able to intervene.

A text within a text, a film within a film, the events within the house become a hallucinatory fable, based on 'A Romance of Certain Old Clothes' by Henry James. The story is elegantly revealed from within the mansion in tiny fragments interspersed with the exterior narrative - a highly original cinematic juxtaposition. Though the tiny fragments become rather repetitive, they are effective in indicating the truncated nature of memory. The two films proceed simultaneously, in parallel and in contrast. The events that take place within the mansion clearly depict the dominant form of French cinematic poetic realism - a highly stylised, gothic, grand melodrama with elaborate sets, which Julie appropriately describes as 'a whole tear-era school. Grand tragedy! Smells like mothballs'. Whereas Céline and Julie as characters epitomise the New Wave style - real, earthy, improvised.

The two storylines converge when Céline and Julie decide to enter the mansion in tandem, so that one can participate in the interior story the role of the nurse while the other investigates and rescues the little girl. It's as though two different plays are being performed on the same stage at the same time, as if Rivette's New Wave characters have gate-crashed a stagy, formal, and sweepingly melodramatic stage-set, bringing with them a burst of energy and trying to rescue the soul of cinema from the deathly clutches of decrepit poetic realism. Rather than just an expansive riff on film style from the vantage point of the New Wave, this element of the film could also be interpreted as Céline and Julie trying to rediscover their inner child, much like Rivette using inspiration from the books of his childhood.

What I can't help but wonder throughout the movie is whether there is a logic to all the coming and going? All the dislocation? Is there a way, a theme, a method that binds all the surreal madness together, embracing the experience with everything? Some of the episodes are brief and feel exactly like one of those dreams in which you suddenly realise you are dreaming.

Perhaps as Dali would say there is always method in madness. The film is a peculiar marriage of Luis Buñuel's surrealism and Éric Rohmer's exploration of the personal lives of women. There are clues, patterns, possibilities. However, they all trigger thoughts that never fully materialise into one big idea. At times each moment feels like an eternity - you can see infinite moments lined up. Waiting for something to happen. Certainly this is a thematically rich film, with multiple issues at various levels being developed simultaneously. It is the most successful combination of the themes of theatricality, paranoia, la vie parisienne, memory, past, present and future, the relationship between two women and longing for a return to innocence all wrapped up in an extended and entrancing examination of the nature of film-making and film-watching.

Perhaps this ambiguity allows viewers to interpret the themes in accordance with their own predilections, but Hitchcock said that a confused audience was an unmoved one. And yet, in this case, the confused audience is nevertheless moved. As character creations Céline and Julie are utterly bizarre yet dazzling, addictive and powerful. The simplicity, naiveté and clarity of their improvised dialogue conveys an utterly unselfconscious sincerity, of two individuals simply trying to enjoy life in all its technicolour strangeness. The simple words of life are expressed with exquisitely comical detail. You are physically lifted and placed into Céline and Julie's shoes, and end up seeing the world through their eyes. It is a process of realisation that you have been looking without seeing. Upon returning back to dull reality perhaps Rivette's message is simple though profound: reclaim magical innocence. There does not need to be a grand unifying theme, melodramatically contextualised. Reality can be most effectively explored through surrealism and simplicity. This movie is a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible, it may actually be true. For it is always the false memories or dreams that look the most real, the most brilliant.

What about the end? The mystery is resolved. Oh yes, and there is a boat. Upon leaving Wonderland Alice exclaims 'Oh, I've had such a curious dream!' And like Alice, we think to ourselves, what a curious dream it had been. You emerge from the dream, uncomfortably enthralled, almost believing yourself in Céline and Julie's Wonderland. Until suddenly you are back where it all began. Céline now sees Julie rushing past like a White Rabbit. And so the dream begins again…

Currently screening at the National Film Theatre, London


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