Thursday, July 16, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) 
Directed by: Jacques Rivette.
Written by: Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier and Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier and Jacques Rivette and Eduardo de Gregorio based on stories by Henry James.
Starring: Juliet Berto (Celine), Dominique Labourier (Julie), Bulle Ogier (Camille), Marie-France Pisier (Sophie), Barbet Schroeder (Olivier), Nathalie Asnar (Madlyn), Marie-Thérèse Saussure (Poupie), Philippe Clévenot (Guilou), Anne Zamire (Lil), Jean Douchet (M'sieur Dede), Adèle Taffetas (Alice), Monique Clément (Myrtille), Jérôme Richard (Julien), Michael Graham (Boris), Jean-Marie Sénia (Cyrille). 
French New Wave director Jacques Rivette in general, and his 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating specifically, has long been my biggest cinematic blindspot when I looked at the acknowledged masters. It’s been that way for more than a decade – which is when I finally delved into the works of Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky. I wanted to see Rivette films – but I didn’t want to do it until I could see Celine and Julie – widely regarded as his best film – and that was impossible to do (at least legally). So I waited – I didn’t see his other films, and wait until I could finally see this one. When it hit the Criterion Channel, I decided the time was right. Before watching Celine and Julie – I watched two earlier Rivette films of the Channel (Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun) – and quite liked them both. Then claim Celine and Julie Go Boating – a film that days later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Those expecting a plot in the film will inevitably end up disappointed. This is a long film – 193 minutes – and it loops around and around, playing with story, with character, with theater, with narrative construction. It’s film inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and like the two main characters, an audience member has to be willing to go down the rabbit hole, unsure of what they will find there, to get the most out of the film.
It begins with the two of them playing a game together. Julie (Dominique Labourier) sits on a park bench, reading a novel, when Celine (Juliet Berto) walks by, dropping her sunglasses and scarf. Julie picks them up and pursues Celine, unsure of what to do when she inevitably catches up to her. Eventually the two become friends, and their identities blur in some ways. Celine pretends to be Julie when meeting up with an old friend of Julie’s, and rebuffing his sexual advances. Julie pretends to be Celine, and goes on her audition for a travelling magic show, tanking the audition. And all of this is even before they come across a strange house, and enter it – and see an entirely different narrative playing out in front of them – that will eventually lead to murder. The pair of them take turns entering the house, and taking on various roles within it. Eventually, they don’t even need to enter the house at all to be part of the narrative.
Whatever lines there are between reality and fantasy – dreams and waking life, are never really made clear. You can easily see why the film is often cited as a major influence on David Lynch – and more recently on Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Kaili Blues). Rivette invites us into this world, and then lets us determine what precisely is going on.
Celine and Julie Go Boating is certainly a collaborative film. The two stars are credited as co-writers of the movie, and they come to their characters organically. The film allows them the time and space to be precisely who they are – there is a naturalism in their performances that feels real, no matter where the movie spins out. It’s hard to say just what Rivette and company are ultimately doing here. The film can resemble something like Daisies – Vera Chytilova’s feminist film about two women trapped in the patriarchal system, but having fun while there (while still being angry). And you get a sense of that here as well. Celine and Julie seem like free spirits – drifting through their lives, having fun. But there is something darker running beneath the surface. Why do the pair of them so want to escape? What are they escaping from? Lynch usually gives us a glimpse of that nightmare, but Rivette doesn’t – not really. His film is more playful than that, and is right up until the ambiguous last shot (which gives the movie its title) – as all of the main character are adrift down the river.
Celine and Julie Go Boating has never been an easy film to see – so if you are inclined, you should watch it now before it disappears from the Criterion Channel, and perhaps, from legal viewing again for who knows how long. It’s a haunting mystery of a film – not a puzzle box, as I don’t think Rivette is very interested in having you put together all the pieces (that’s a mistake many make with Lynch as well – thinking that there is a grand solution that only they can figure out)- but a film to get lost in – and drift right down that river with its two leads. It was worth the wait.

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