Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

by on May 3, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri May 4 thru Thurs May 10 at 1:00, 4:35, 8:10 daily at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

A new print of Rivette’s hard-to-see, undefinable masterpiece in a full-length run at Film Forum.; according to David Fear, “”There’s cinema, and then there’s Céline and Julie Go Boating. Jacques Rivette’s free-form dissertation on the interzone between performance and spectatorship is the ideal filmgoing experience, even as the ‘story’ transcends all long-standing rules of narrative engagement. It’s the Ulysses of moving pictures: You can feel Rivette exploring the art form’s modes of expression and then erasing their borders, one by one.”

Dennis Lim just this week for The New York Times:

Duration and immersion are Mr. Rivette’s principal tools, preconditions for the participatory trance state that often descends on viewers of his films. His signature special effect is the uncanny impression that the story is being generated by the characters as we watch; or, spookier and more thrilling still, by the very act of our watching. This perceptual sleight of hand is central to the appeal of Mr. Rivette’s best-known and best-loved film, “Céline and Julie Go Boating,” from 1974, which is being revived for a weeklong run in a new print at Film Forum starting on Friday. It’s not just that the film holds up to repeat viewings; its very point is its seemingly infinite repeatability, its mysterious capacity to surprise both first-time viewers and those who know it as well as a magician reciting an incantation.
Telepathic co-conspirators on a shared adventure that may be a hallucination, Céline and Julie are also surrogates for the viewer in what becomes a parable of movie watching. The mansion that they take turns visiting is akin to an old cinema with an unchanging daily matinee. Partisan and highly vocal viewers, Céline and Julie delight in the creaky melodrama forming in their mind’s eye, even while mocking it, and in a mutinous act of active spectatorship, take it upon themselves to enter the film within the film and rewrite its ending.



Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice:

The Zeno’s paradox of late-to-video world masterpieces, Jacques Rivette’s 1974 hypnotic spellbinder Celine and Julie Co Boating is a universally worshiped post-nouvelle vague classic that giddily resists critical exegesis. No other great film may be as difficult to characterize. Break it down into summary and you risk sounding like a compulsive Aquarian geek lost in his own acid flashes.
It’s not a story, and never intends to be. Truly, you have to watch Rivette’s film to understand what it’s about, because what it’s about is the peculiarly, almost frighteningly delicious act of watching it. It’s about cinema, inventing as well as entering into unforeseen narratives. But it’s not self-acknowledging la Godard- it is self-knowing, the difference between Pound and Eliot. (It vibrates with early-70s intimacy as well.)
You are the ball being bounced through the film, and for that it comes off 23 years later as the film Peter Greenaway would dash all his charts and schemes to have the grace to make. In a very real and mysterious sense, and clocking in at over three hours, Celine and Julie is the endless, enveloping dream experience movies have promised us since their beginnings.



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

One of the great modern films, Jacques Rivette’s 193-minute comic extravaganza is as scary and as unsettling in its diverse narrative high jinks as it is hilarious and exhilarating in its uninhibited slapstick. Its slow, sensual beginning stages a mysterious, semiflirtatious meeting between a shy librarian (Dominique Labourier) and a nightclub magician (Juliet Berto). Eventually, an outlandish plot-within-a-plot magically takes shape between them–a Jamesian, Victorian, and somewhat sexist melodrama featuring Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder (the film’s producer), and a little girl–as each of them, on successive days, visits an old dark house where the exact same events take place. Oddly enough, both of the plots in this giddy comedy are equally outlandish, but the remarkable thing about this intricate balancing act is that each one holds the other in place; the elaborate, Hitchcockian doublings are so beautifully worked out that this movie steadily grows in resonance and power, and the final payoff is well worth waiting for. The four main actresses scripted their own dialogue in collaboration with Eduardo de Gregorio and Rivette, and the film derives many of its most euphoric effects from a wholesale ransacking of the cinema of pleasure (cartoons, musicals, thrillers, and serials). The use of locations (Paris’s Montmartre in the summertime) and direct sound is especially appealing, and cat lovers are in for a particular treat

Read Rosenbaum’s extensive essay on the film here.


Michelle Orange, also for the Village Voice:

Céline and Julie remains one of the most accessibly enigmatic jewels of the French New Wave—three-plus hours of delightfully maddening intricacy that reek not of musty masterwork, but rather of effortless, exhilarating play. Rivette muse Juliet Berto, who died in 1990 at age 43, is the titular flibbertigibbet Céline. She is youth, 24 frames per second; watching Berto reflexively command the attention (and hot pursuit) of Julie (Dominique Labourier) in the extended sequence that opens the film, it seems outrageous that cancer could even contemplate, much less befall, such a vibrant creature. The tentative stalking that ensues between Céline the alpha waif and Julie, a rosso librarian with a weakness for all things occult, culminates in Céline’s fib about a beating and subsequent installment in Julie’s flat. The women mind-meld over dolls and Bloody Marys, but when Julie attempts to investigate Céline’s assault, both are gradually engulfed by a fifth-dimension odyssey of men, murder, and copious lozenge ingestion.
Rivette’s narrative is as antic and resistant to boundaries as his heroines; he weaves cinematic and self-reference with sublime—and ultimately substantiated—assurance and wit. The girls begin to revel in their urban safari, hunting big psychic game in one of storytelling’s most reliable constructs: the haunted house. Eventually they conspire, in the grand New Wave tradition, to insert themselves in history as it unfolds, and change the game.


Keith Uhlich for Slant:

Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece—quite possibly his greatest film—is a deceptively light-hearted confection that begins and ends (or, rather, begins again) at the entrance to a Parisian wonderland. Bespectacled librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) pursues amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) across a city of dreams (hence the film’s homage-to-Feuillade subtitle, “Phantom Ladies Over Paris”), though Rivette doesn’t distinguish between the real and the imagined. Theirs is a world of limitless, initially aimless possibilities (reflecting the film’s own improvisational genesis) that are slowly honed to a sharp precision point. Those bracing themselves for (or already baffled by) David Lynch’s Inland Empire will find the seeds of that film’s madness in Céline and Julie Go Boating, what with its pervasive Lewis Carroll referents and seamless doubling effects. Céline and Julie’s friendship adheres to an emotional dream logic, so we never question the developmental gaps. These women clearly belong together and it’s thrilling to watch them sever all real-world ties (in situations where they’re each surreptitiously disguised as the other) so that they may focus on the main drama: the rescue of a young girl (Nathalie Asnar) from a haunted house that continually replays the same murderous melodrama. This story-within—which also features Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, and Barbet Schroeder going through a series of hilariously deadpan motions—has been described as everything from an RKO programmer to a Henry James pastiche: like a fourth-wall smashing Kuleshov experiment, it is what you make of it. More important is that Céline and Julie, after several false starts and with the Proustian aid of a magical memory candy, eventually realize they can be more than spectators to the unfolding drama. The duo’s final assault on this intertextual Mobius strip is liberating and brilliantly sustained, though it nonetheless resonates with a variety of discomforting implications (read between the lines for a despondent post-May ’68 commentary) that belie the overall jocularity of Rivette’s presentation.

Ed Gonzalez chimes in as well for Slant:

Jacques Rivette’s spry and intoxicating 1974 comedy Céline and Julie Go Boating observes the way women look at each other, themselves, and the world around them. This through-the-looking-glass comedy begins inside a lovely Parisian garden, with the titular Julie playing Alice to her friend Céline’s white rabbit. The transfixing allure of the film is all over its divine introduction and the way the wind moves sensually through the trees. It’s a perfectly ordinary day, but there’s a hint of mischief in the air. Rivette’s once-upon-a-time title card is the first clue: “Most of the time it started like this.” A seemingly frenzied and oblivious Céline (Juliet Berto) runs past Julie (Dominique Labourier), dropping a string of items. Julie subsequently chases Celine though the park and a local market in order to return her personal belongings. It quickly becomes obvious that the two women are playing a game, and as such the sexy, prosaic tonality of the film’s famous intro reveals itself as a fascinating act of subversion (the “but, the next morning” title cards are Rivette’s theoretical contractions). Simultaneously literate, stagy, and organic, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a free-wheeling study of the narrative-making process and the way we watch movies, but at three-hours-plus, the film’s improvisational tone sometimes betrays Rivette’s meta momentum. Celine and Julie’s spontaneous misadventures actively reject memory and are intercut with scenes from a murder mystery set inside a possibly haunted house (comparisons to Mulholland Drive are impossible to ignore). The film’s dialectic isn’t so much an interplay between the past and the present as it is an elaborate confrontation between two very active spectators and a dodgy narrative text. Rivette fabulously engages silent film idiom (watch for the romantic imbroglio between a disguised Céline and Julie’s childhood crush and, later, the sweet homage to Les Vampires, a favorite of Rivette’s) as a means of rejecting the past (represented by the house). Julie looks back, Celine looks forward. When they do neither, they’re as free as the wind. Indeed, the world is very much a stage for Rivette’s actresses, and they believe only in living in the moment.


Joseph Jon Lanthier, meanwhile, has three different takes on the film also for Slant.
Julia Lesage introduces an insightful feminist reading of the film, for Jump Cut:

Celine and Julie has its coterie of fans, including myself and some of my friends who interpret it fondly as a “lesbian” work. The film invites you to its protagonists’ apartment to play. Just as Julie (Dominique Labourier) unpacks Celine’s things the first time Celine (Juliet Berto) enters her apartment, intending this stranger to stay with her indefinitely, so too this film asks viewers to spend a long time (3 and 1/4 hours) enjoying it. The delight of the film resides in its whacky comedy, fantasy, improvisation, puzzle-like interior fiction, and stylistic inventiveness (especially a heightened use of color and sound).
For a feminist audience, Celine and Julie offers a comic dream about how two women can relate to each other intimately. Celine and Julie enter each other’s fantasy with little ego boundary between them, and they solve each other’s problems either by adolescent hi-jinks or by outright magic, and a pretty tacky magic at that. Play is their means of discovery, tactic for action, and mode of existence. The film uses play as a way of subversion. As in a child’s “fooling around,” the film exaggerates the expansiveness of some acts, repeats others to the point of irritation, and mixes up ordinary social dominance orders. For feminist viewers, one effect such playfulness can have is to reorganize their perception and understanding of the possibilities of women’s lives.


Rosenbaum and Gilbert Adair sit down with Rivette for Film Comment:

ROSENBAUM: Were cartoons an influence?

Oh, yes. Definitely. But it was important as an idea only at the beginning. If we’d had more time and money we would have pursued it more systematically. Although it might not have changed anything. And the actresses had this in mind all the time, especially Juliet. Everything she does is always very visual, physical. Her movements are very staccato-the way she walks, the way she eats the candy.

ROSENBAUM: When was script writing introduced into the project?

There never really was a written script. What is a scenario, after all? If it’s a project for a film, or, on the contrary, something written and then shot, I don’t do that any longer-not since L’AMOUR FOU-and I have no desire to do it again.
We began by elimination: we didn’t want to make a serious film; we didn’t want to make a film about the theater because we’d done that too often; we didn’t want to make a film about current events or politics. But we did have the desire from the very beginning to do something close to comedy, and even frankly commedia dell’arte. And the first thing we did after two hours of conversation was to look for the characters’ names. And we stopped there that evening. So finding the names Céline and Julie was our starring point . . .
The first stage consisted of conversations with Juliet and Dominique, when quite quickly the two girls organized their own characters. Then came the idea of their meeting, how the two connected. But then there was a stage-after the first half-hour of the film as it now stands-where we didn’t have a clear idea, where there were all kinds of possibilities. We hesitated for about two weeks with Eduardo [de Gregorio], who had joined us by that time. We already felt that a second story was necessary within the first, for which I wanted Bulle [Ogier] and Marie-France [Pisier], in order to have another feminine pair, both in opposition and in relation to the first. But we didn’t know at all either u’lint the second story would be or the mechanism between the two-that’s what took the longest to organize. It was by approximation, groping. It was Eduardo who suggested the Henry James novel [The Other House] which we started from, which he hadn’t read himself but had heard about. In fact, none of us has read it because we couldn’t find it. Eduardo read only the dramatization, which is apparently very boring; and I don’t read English well enough.
We didn’t want this to be a realistic investigation-we sought a less realistic principle. We thought of lots of things, like Bioy Casares-Morel’s Invention. The day when we were really happy, when I felt we’d found the trigger, was the day we had the idea of the candy. Because that was what permitted us to bring everything together.


They continue:

ROSENBAUM: When did you shoot the scenes in the house?

In the middle of the shooting. At first we thought of doing it later, and then for all sorts of practical reasons-because both girls had to talk about the house in their scenes together-we had to shoot it earlier. On the whole, the shooting was in three parts: first we shot more or less everything corresponding to the first part of the film-all the exteriors (the chase, etc.) and the “annexes” (like the cabaret); then the scenes in the house; then everything taking place in Julie’s apartment
The scenes in the house had to be written; those between the two girls were largely written by the actresses themselves. Their dialogue wasn’t definitive, but a sort of canvas on which we improvised afterward. After all, there were many precise things that had to be said; it couldn’t be totally improvised. And there was a whole system of repetition in the house, so that had to be completely written. Marie-France, Bulle, Eduardo, and I wrote out the principal scenes. But Bulle’s monologue when she’s bleeding and the scene just after, between Marie-France and Barbet [Schroeder], were done only by Eduardo.
ADAIR: In OUT there are explicit references to “The Hunting of the Snark,” and the whole of CELINE ET JULIE is saturated with the spirit of Lewis Carroll. What role did Alice in Wonderland play in the conception of the latter film?

We thought of it in the first scene. We wanted Juliet’s dash in front of Dominique on the park bench to remind one a bit of the White Rabbit. The idea was that Dominique would chase her and they would both fall, not into the rabbit hole, but into fiction.


David Phelps for MUBI:

L’amour fou and even Out 1 are the realistic ones (comparatively) because the worlds the characters create and destroy—and ultimately outgrow—are short-lived balms in face of a messy, mutable reality. Plot as they might, the real world can’t be demarcated; as in Renoir, relationships continue only as long as they continue to change and, eventually, fade away. But the fantasy life becomes plausible (in all sorts of ways) in Céline and Julie, because the fantasies here, infinitely more petty, are not for order, but for subversion, not for stability, but for constant mutation and metamorphosis. Both girls are magicians, and so, as if by invocation, little works of art become real; characters are brought to life.
Ultimately, Céline and Julie are, as Rivette has insisted, two sides of the same person, each really just an excuse for the other’s antics. The ultimate metamorphoses are when they nearly become each other–though not quite, since they each just take the other’s role that was a role to start with (as superficial as those assigned roles Renoir characters are always gleefully taking on as true). Julie plays the magician act, and Céline plays the role of girlfriend to Julie’s dandy boyfriend, who entails a completely ritualized relationship. And thus, I think, they provide bohemian metamorphoses of two other rascals exploiting their sex and objectifying men: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell of Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That any movie could successfully wield and weld the dual primary influences of Hawks’ facetious ode to capitalism (but ode nonetheless) and the anti-capitalist Situationists’ double principles of the dérive and détournement (and just look at the inside of Céline’s house to see how they’ve recreated the world as collage) is an achievement. Céline and Julie Go Boating manages to show how Hawks and the situationists are nearly one and the same. Money-diggers are explorers, after all, and money is to be used for exploration, and as a spur to co-opt spectacles. But that’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As in a spoiled child’s world, money’s no issue one way or another in Céline and Julie; the one thing it doesn’t subvert, of course (how could it?), is a subversive situationist ethos. A do it yourself guide to rediscovering the delights of the street outside, and of the idiots all around you, here’s where we see Rivette first moving toward Shakespeare, and the world as all fools’ paradise.


James Crawford for Reverse Shot:

Céline and Julie’s subtitle (“Phantom Ladies Over Paris”) and opening intertitle (“Usually, it began like this”) recall the wafting fairy-tale ephemera of René Clair circa Paris qui dort, and the ludicrous exchange between Céline and Julie’s long-distant childhood beau, Guilou (Philippe Clévenot), has the distinct perfume of silent cinema. Already in his mid-forties by the time Céline and Julie was released, Rivette is here somewhat softened. He’s mature and generous enough to allow that the church of movie love is big enough to accommodate those propitiating Jacques Prévert, Réné Clément, and Jacques Feyder (whose contributions Truffaut summarily drowned in his bathtub), as well as those worshipping at the altar of Godard, Hawks, Hitchcock, Tati, Ford, Ray, Lang, etc. Though Rivette doesn’t celebrate the melodrama of the play within he gives it space to breathe, at least momentarily.
But not for long: during the justly celebrated penultimate sequence, when Julie and Céline subvert the laws of the fiction house by entering it simultaneously, Rivette quite literally strips the veneer off cinema. He abandons the flattering three-point lighting system in favor of a single source of illumination, placed somewhere behind the camera, which casts ugly, misshapen, unstylized shadows across the screen. Not that there’s anything beautiful left to behold. His quartet of rather attractive actors now have their faces smeared with a sickly greenish-beige cream that’s a hyperbolic approximation of silent-film pancake makeup, and they go about their business with glazed, unattended stares. The drama proceeds as it had previously, using identical camera placement, editing, etc., but with Céline and Julie taking scene-by-scene turns at playing the role of nurse, the fiction house becomes a Hawksian screwball comedy. They forget their lines, miss their cues, gesture wildly to each other behind the characters’ backs, stand in mute horror at their gaffes, and generally make a hilarious mockery of their serious task: trying, as the ultimate invested spectators, to find out who killed Madlyn.



Michael Ned Holte for Artforum:

IN HIS AMOROUS 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes intimates that “we go to the movies through sloth, out of an inclination for idleness, inactivity. It is as though, before even entering the theater, the traditional prerequisites for hypnosis were met: a feeling of emptiness, idleness, inactivity: we dream, not by viewing the film or by the effect of its content, rather, we dream, unwittingly, before becoming its spectator. There exists a ‘cinematic condition’ and this condition is prehypnotic.” In the essay, Barthes avoids referring to any film in particular, but his hallucinatory description of a disembodied spectator—hypnotized, doubled, “twice fascinated”—certainly reminds me of the eponymous protagonists who occupy both sides of the looking glass in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating. Ingesting magic candy, amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) and librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) slip into the rabbit hole of narrative; in return, they stare at us through a trippy two-way mirror with wide-eyed attention, sometimes horrified by what they see, sometimes amused, giggling. Their screen is our screen, too.
Arriving at the tail end of the New Wave—it should be noted that Rivette, like auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and replaced Eric Rohmer as editor in 1963—Céline and Julie seemingly predicts, among other things, the Lacanian cinema theory of Christian Metz’s Imaginary Signifier (1977) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973, published in 1975). If the latter essay dissected the male’s gaze and the female’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” encoded in cinema, then Rivette’s film is remarkable in its positioning of its female leads as both characters and spectators (mostly) in control of the film’s subjectivity and outcome. (Despite Rivette’s position as director, Berto and Labourier are credited as writers, and indeed, much of the film was improvised, which surely informs its playful, unrushed sensibility.) It is never clear whether Céline and Julie are lovers or just friends—or perhaps each other’s imaginary friend; the film’s allusive subtitle is Phantom Ladies over Paris. But the pair clearly reflect complex aspects of each other in their game of cat and mouse.
Céline and Julie invents its own sense of time, meandering in and around Montmarte with a dreamy summertime rhythm that is occasionally prone to repetitions, stutters, and blackouts. Its structure is a Möbius strip: The film literally begins and ends in the same location, with Céline and Julie swapping places. Rivette bends genres while nodding to cinema’s variegated history by inserting a suspenseful horror story—and what seems to be a haunted house—inside an endearing, slow-motion slapstick comedy, efficiently connecting the dots between vaudeville and genuine movie magic along the way. Viewing Rivette’s hypnotic film is perhaps the perfect fulfillment of summer’s “inclination for idleness,” because when Céline and Julie go boating, we go boating, too.


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