Nearly an instant classic upon its release in 1974, filmmaker Jacques Rivette has since made his name on the back of his transmogrifying fantasy-comedy, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau). Unapologetically difficult and revealing in its lateral conception, Rivette’s film about two magically intertwined women has been a sourcing ground for many films since.
Susan Seidelman paid homage to the film in her commercial breakthrough, 1984’s Desperately Seeking Susan. Robert Altman’s surrealist contraption Three Women (1977) borrowed a few narrative turns from the French fantasy-comedy, as well. And much of the film’s threads of influence likely lead to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), yet another film about the symbiotic relationships between women.
For the nearly 50 years of its existence, Céline and Julie Go Boating has confused and confounded viewers with its hairpin turns of logic and story, never conforming to a particular convention that would otherwise free the film from its distinctive and insular niche. And yet, it transcends its very mystic device of hijacked cinéma verité to present an idea of truth that could only appear and feel authentic in a world contrived by celluloid.
Céline and Julie Go Boating may seem dated in its execution; it isn’t designed with a refined touch, its presentation visibly rough from an imagination put into practice by an impatient hand. But it teems with ideas that roil passionately beneath its uneven exterior. Céline and Julie Go Boating’s story of two women going beyond the means of their respective realities to change the undesirable circumstances of their lives is a concept that still resounds with many storytellers and viewers today, half a century on from its 1974 debut.
Using a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice chases after the white rabbit, as the basis to birth the elaborate narrative, Rivette begins his film with Julie (played by Dominique Labourier) sitting on a bench and looking over a book of magic spells. Spying Céline (Juliet Berto) from across the way, Julie notices that Céline has dropped a number of her belongings as she is rushing across the park. Julie hurries after Céline, picking up the woman’s dropped belongings so that she may return them. Céline, mindful that she is being pursued, continues her run through the Paris streets with Julie in tow.
Céline manages to evade Julie but later turns up at the library where Julie works. It is a pronounced setting to establish the idea of stories and those who author them; Rivette offers this transition as a first of many that will appear throughout the film, and here it initiates the common bond (the love of stories) between the two female leads. After an awkward and facetious meeting, Céline moves into Julie’s apartment and the two become fast friends.
Through the act of storytelling, with each woman regaling the other about the past adventures of her life, their respective narratives get crossed. Céline meets Julie’s longstanding flame for a date one afternoon, dressing up as Julie in a gown and wig. Meanwhile, after Céline relates a strange story of having worked as a nanny for a mysterious family, Julie decides to visit the mansion of Céline’s former employment, only to discover that it is haunted.
The house itself has its own complex narrative, thereby inserting another story within the larger one we are presented with, in which Céline and Julie tell each other stories. The house is occupied by a turn-of-the-century family (the matrons played by Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier), and through a series of role-reversals in which both Céline and Julie play the same woman – a nanny – they discover a sinister plot: a young girl’s life is in danger. As the women continue to enter the house in turns, they are immediately transported into the narrative of that family, and more and more of the story is revealed. To further complicate matters, Céline and Julie completely forget the events that took place within the house upon each exit.
Rivette uses the silly device of magical candies that give the women the ability to recall, with clarity, their moments inside the house. These scenes play out before the viewer like the acts in a play (the narrative chunks divided by placards that read “But the next morning…) with either Céline or Julie deciding how much or how little they wish to engage in the narrative of the mysterious house.
Céline and Julie Go Boating coasts entirely off the charm of its premise. Its brand of surrealism depends on how well the two leads sell Rivette’s inornate magic, which never troubles the film’s visual aesthetic. In fact, much of the enchantment onscreen is simply achieved through the set-up of fatuous rituals, clichés cribbed from the filmmakers’ handbook of onscreen spell-weaving: magic potions cooked up with absurd ingredients, tarot cards, magic rings, magic circles, magic stage shows, and spell books.
Céline and Julie naïvely partake in these ceremonial ventures by the act of sheer whim. The viewers’ suspension of disbelief is accomplished through a humour that proposes such magic can work in a narrative as rickety as the rituals performed within it. While everything is presented as farce here, the film profits from all the surrounding happenstance that produces a stray, anachronistic image of chilling consequence; the Brechtian mannerisms with which the actors perform their roles yields, from time to time, a horror of bourgeoisie mechanism.
In one of the remaining scenes of the film, a boat ride (the often-ridiculed pastime of provincial French life) becomes a scene that has seemingly floated right out of a waking nightmare. The haunted mansion, through the constant retelling and re-ordering of the lives within it, becomes a dollhouse of death in which the inhabitants take on the qualities of zombified, murderous sleepwalkers.
Rivette manages to arrest viewers’ attention through an assortment of suggestive images that are framed economically and in which all movement appears improvised; dispensing with any fancy trills of photographic glamour, our focus is trained solely on dialogue, which purports all airs of magic. Céline and Julie Go Boating is simple in execution, but far more complex in what it intends to provoke. It is either an attack on bourgeoisie life, the then-fashionable ennui of Parisian youth, or, simply, the very nature of storytelling, depending on one’s current mood of the day.
Criterion’s release of Céline and Julie Go Boating is a deservingly lavished upon edition that celebrates the one film that inspired countless others. The double-disc release features a handsome restoration of the original print (which, alas, cannot hide the inherent deficiencies in the filmstock of the original master), and captures splendidly the typical paisley colours of an early ‘70s lifestyle. A talky film, the audio does a very good job at reproducing the original monaural soundtrack. However, at certain moments, you may be straining to catch a few whispered words, if you speak French. If not, the English subtitles are nicely and readably laid out.
Supplements are generous. The second disc features a 1994 documentary on the film by esteemed French filmmaker Claire Denis, in which filmmaker Rivette discusses the genesis of the film. There are no less than three interviews provided, featuring cast members Bulle Ogier, Barbet Schroeder, Dominique Labourier, Juliet Berto, and Marie-France Pisier. As with most Criterion releases, this edition comes packaged with an essay booklet. Beautifully written by critic Beatrice Loayza, she provides a wonderfully insightful essay on the strengths and merits of the film.
Inelegantly charming, original and thought-provoking, Céline and Julie Go Boating will test the patience of the casual viewer who has little penchant for arty, talky world cinema. At nearly three and a half hours, and with very little action, it is a film that demands full attention to its many scattering threads of minute detail. Like all good French films, Rivette’s meditation on the multitudinous possibilities of cinema has had interminable good standing in the upper reaches of cinephile circles, despite its invisibility to a wider, commercial audience these last 50 years.
If anything, it is a film that celebrates some of France’s finest golden-era actresses: Bulle Ogier and the late Marie-France Pisier. Two of Europe’s bravest performers, Ogier and Pisier have exhausted all experiments in cinema-narrative, often daring their reputations, careers, and ultimately themselves for the sake of further developing France’s new wave beyond its then-stilted schema of middle-class films. Céline and Julie Go Boating is no exception in the actresses’ oeuvre.
If anyone wants to know where the germinating seeds of experiment in French new wave truly blossomed, Céline and Julie Go Boating is where it all began.