Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

A Feminist Adventure Unfolds When ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’

Jacques Rivette's film features two female characters who exhibit feminine strength and solidarity in a masculine world.

Celine and Julie Go Boating
Jacques Rivette
20 Nov 2017

In the groundbreaking article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), Laura Mulvey employed the workings of psychoanalysis in order to theorise the power of the “male gaze” that was manifested in classical Hollywood films. The dynamics of this gendered gaze lay in the fact that meaningful point-of-view shots were invariably allocated to leading male characters during Hollywood’s classical period. Mulvey thus argued that both male and female spectators were prompted to identify with these male characters and their masculine worldview. Furthermore, the power of the male gaze had a tendency to reduce the films’ female characters to the status of mere erotic spectacles while the “masculine” nature of the films’ narratives served to privilege the actions of strong and active males over those of passive and immobile females.

Those female characters that possessed the wherewithal to temporarily move beyond these narrative patterns and representational stereotypes were ultimately punished or tamed in some way at a narrative level before the end of their film. Mulvey suggested that a radical form of feminist avant garde filmmaking was one way in which the male gaze and the hierarchical notions of gender that informed classical Hollywood’s characters and narratives could be negated. Her own efforts in this regard led to her co-writing and co-directing Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) with Peter Wollen.

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘s psychoanalytical aspects and its assertions regarding the ways in which male and female spectators were prompted to routinely identify with the male characters that they were presented with onscreen were duly disputed by later writers while also being rethought by Mulvey herself. But the gendered nature of the narrative patterns that Mulvey had noted – along with the pointed ways in which female characters were typically presented and treated in classical Hollywood films – remain beyond dispute. Indeed, we can still observe a wholly similar approach at work in a significant number of popular films that are produced and released today.

In the years since Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘s publication, much has been written about the notion of feminist filmmaking but it remains hard to pin down a working definition of a “feminist” film that might suit every interested party and every circumstance of production. Some might question whether it is indeed possible for a male director to produce a feminist film, since the film’s onscreen visuals will have ultimately been framed and processed by a male gaze. However, while the French film Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau: Phantom Ladies Over Paris, 1974) was directed by a man, Jacques Rivette, its right to be classed as a feminist film would appear to be beyond doubt. Indeed, I’ll use the synopsis that follows to offer an idea of the female-centric nature of the film’s narrative.

Celine (Juliet Berto) is attempting to cast spells in a Parisian park when the strange figure of Julie (Dominique Labourier) dashes by, dropping a trail of personal items as she goes. Celine follows Julie across town in an effort to return her lost items but Julie’s peculiar behaviour prevents the two women from fully connecting. However, the pair appears to have secretly become obsessed with each other and fate soon brings them together again.

Celine offers sanctuary to Julie, who works as a stage magician in a small club, while also bringing a sense of structure to Julie’s often-chaotic day-to-day existence. A librarian by day, Celine’s seemingly unremarkable life is in turn greatly enlivened by her association with the unruly and flamboyant Julie. Celine and Julie seem to share a psychic link that allows them to conjure up a shared memory of a large house that is host to strange goings on. Julie vaguely recalls working there recently while Celine remembers living next door to it as a child.

They both visit the house separately and experience supernatural phenomenon that is wiped from their memory as soon as they are ejected from the property. However, they discover that the candy that they find in their mouths after each visit possesses the power to offer them visions of out-of-sequence snippets of the ghostly scenario that repeatedly occurs inside the house. Working together, Celine and Julie are able to eventually piece together the whole narrative.

A widower, Olivier (Barbet Schroeder), is concerned about his young daughter Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar). The child is sickly and her condition appears to be getting worse. Two women who have a direct connection to his deceased wife – her sister, Camille (Bulle Ogier), and her best friend, Sophie (Marie-France Pisier) – are vying for his affections but he is more concerned with using his position of power to proposition Madlyn’s stern nurse, Angele. It becomes clear that somebody in the house is prepared to kill Madlyn in order to bring his or her dream of a new romantic relationship to fruition. And so Celine and Julie become determined to somehow save Madlyn.

Celine and Julie Go Boating is an idiosyncratic film and it remains a remarkable production on a number of levels. Although he isn’t as well remembered as the likes of Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut outside of his native France, Jacques Rivette was a key figure in the French New Wave. As with most of his New Wave counterparts, Rivette had become a film director after serving as a critic for the influential journal Cahiers du cinema. And, in common with a number of other New Wave directors, Rivette employed a critical approach to his own filmmaking practice in order to deconstruct the norms of both popular and art house cinema.

The most obvious example of this approach is perhaps found in Celine and Julie Go Boating‘s running time – the film is an unhurried 194 minutes long as opposed to the industry standard of 90 minutes. Within those 194 minutes, Rivette employs a number of alienation effects – akin to those associated with Bertolt Brecht’s theatre plays – which serve to remind the spectator that they are watching an artificially constructed work of art: jump cuts are regularly employed; inter-titles punctuate the film; Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier employ an obviously mannered approach to their acting at times and Celine and Julie are seen to become performing actors of sorts themselves when they both take on the role of the nurse Angele in the haunted house’s ghost world.

When Celine and Julie have their visions of the ghost world, their experience is presented as if they are spectators watching a film. Rivette duly appears to use this device in order to pass comment on the impenetrable nature of some art house films and the repetitive nature of most popular cinema films. He does this by flagging up the differences that are inherent to watching both types of film. The fragmented and out-of-sequence snippets that they see initially leave the pair frustrated because their meaning isn’t readily apparent and a firm sense of resolution is not present. Familiarisation with particular narrative conventions via the repeated viewing of key scenes and the pair’s critical work to put these scenes into an order that offers meaning subsequently brings a sense of satisfaction and pleasure – as well as a sense of alarm – to the duo.

The content of the ghost world’s melodramatic narrative very much reflects the gendered aspects of classical Hollywood cinema. The ghost world’s more obviously staged nature can be contrasted to the looser and more naturalistic ways in which Rivette shoots and presents Celine and Julie’s “real” world scenes. In the ghost world Olivier has two beautiful women vying for his romantic attentions and he also has the power to pressure his daughter’s nurse with veiled sexual propositions. By contrast, Celine and Julie’s world is the antithesis of a classical Hollywood narrative – here two women act as a support network for each other and get by without having men in their lives while also being active characters who are able to contemplate the rescue of a vulnerable child. They are both granted meaningful point-of-view shots that afford them the power of the cinematic gaze.

The two women ultimately exhibit feminine strength and solidarity in a masculine world on a number of occasions – often when they are standing in for each other. For example, Julie pretends to be Celine when Celine’s pompous childhood sweetheart deigns to visit town with romance on his mind. He expects to immediately pick up where they left off years ago but Julie embarrasses him and sends him packing. The strange venue where Julie works seems to function more like a strip joint than a cabaret club and the male gaze is very much in evidence when Julie performs her magician’s routine for the club’s clientele. Celine picks up on this when she pretends to be Julie for an important audition and she winds up berating the men who are staring at her onstage. The most obvious point of reference at a narrative level here would be Vera Chytilova’s Czech New Wave masterpiece Daisies (Sedmikrasky, 1966). However, Celine and Julie Go Boating is a very different beast at an audio-visual level since Rivette’s film lacks the kind of snappy pacing, vibrant visuals, and inventive soundtrack work that made Chytilova’s film so striking.

As well as allotting point-of-view shots and agency to its female characters, Celine and Julie Go Boating can also be loosely aligned to Daisies by virtue of the element of female authorship that both films possess. Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier devised Celine and Julie Go Boating‘s story arc and wrote or improvised many of the “real” world scenes that they feature in while Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier contributed to the creation of the ghost world scenes. All four women received a writing credit alongside Rivette (who essentially brought everything together and tightened it up) and Eduardo de Gregorio (who worked on the film’s dialogue). In the course of setting the scene for the film’s ghost world, Rivette adapted aspects of two Henry James stories: The Other House (1896) and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868).

The influence of the two Henry James stories brings some undeniably macabre and supernatural elements to Celine and Julie Go Boating‘s narrative. However, Rivette tends to imbue the film’s ghost world sequences with a mildly uncanny atmosphere rather than attempting to present scenes that are spooky or truly scary. As a consequence, there’s little in the way of special effects to support the film’s supernatural footings. That said, the make-up that is applied to the ghosts when Celine and Julie visit the ghost world for the final time is a little unsettling. As is the ghosts’ reactions when they become aware that their world has been invaded.

Celine and Julie Go Boating is a unique film. Rivette’s work here appears to be entering into dialogue with popular and art house filmmaking traditions but the experimental nature of that dialogue serves to move the film into a space that lays beyond both traditions. But don’t let that put you off. Celine and Julie Go Boating is a wholly accessible film and it remains a largely pleasurable and rewarding filmic experience. Much like the “solve the meaning of the film within the film” task that is set for Celine and Julie, Rivette’s film is itself a fascinating sequence of scenes and repeated motifs that invite us to try and critically make sense of Celine and Julie’s own enigmatic world. It’s a really fun and satisfying trip if you’re prepared to embrace the loosely experimental and magical spirit that informed the film’s production.

Shot full frame with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on 16mm film, Celine and Julie Go Boating has been restored and scanned at 2K using the film’s original camera negative. This new presentation of Celine and Julie Go Boating is without doubt the best the film has looked and sounded on home video. Indeed, the picture quality here is detailed and colourful and there’s little in the way of print damage present. Rivette’s employment of much location work here captures early ’70s Paris in an almost documentary-like manner at times. The film can also be regarded as something of a visual time capsule that offers insight into the look and feel of Paris’ contemporaneous street life.

The BFI’s presentation of Celine and Julie Go Boating on Blu-ray is supported by a raft of informative extra features that include an illustrated 42 page booklet that is crammed with period writings and interviews relating to the film, a new feature length commentary by Adrian Martin, a featurette in which Jonathan Romney discusses the main feature and Jacques Rivette’s work in general and restored versions of Alain Resnais’ short film Toute la memoire du monde (1956) and W. R. Booth’s silent short The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901).

RATING 7 / 10