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Last year, at a crisis time of imminent homelessness, I went to the video
store with the idea of renting some banal new release to distract me from
troubles. Waiting in line holding a video starring Tom Hanks (or was it
Kevin Costner? Maybe it was Julia Roberts. Such a blur is Hollywood today)
something in the foreign section an aisle down caught my eye. It was the
video for Jacques Rivette's 1974 masterpiece, Celine and Julie Go Boating.
Immediately upon seeing the cover image of Juliet Berto (Celine) posed as a magician, her Dietrich hauteur kinky and comical, I knew it would be my kind of film. I was also pleased to see it was such a long film it had to be contained in a two-video set. It had long been my suspicion that all secrets of life would be revealed in a film over three hours long and in French.
Indeed, Celine and Julie is just that film. But it conceals as it reveals, which is to say that its great mysteriousness results from its floribundance of revelation. Yes, my friend, a floribundance! I never even thought of such a word until seeing Celine and Julie.
Critics have been unable to explain what it's "about". I cannot. I can't explain the plays of Shakespeare or the poems of Emily Dickinson, but I am moved by them. Attempts to understand them can lead to intense mental spasmodics, but the pain, if the work is good, can be great.
Those who've seen the film will remember the hard magic candy the women savored on their own path to understanding. Vision giving, the candy became an addiction to them. Once is never enough and hasn't been for me. I have seen Celine and Julie three times and thought of it many more.
My favorite scene is where Celine performs her weird magic act in a nightclub where, as far as I can tell, the customers are all convicted poets. The atmosphere there is fascinating. Time stops while she does her act, which is beyond words, indescribable. The whole feeling in that scene of a kind of super sophisticated moment of comedy and sex and mystery all shared by a group of people in silence is one that I find marvelously inspiring. Surely some clever entrepreneur in San Francisco, where I reside, could open such a club. Oh, I suppose it won't happen, but at least one can dream.
Really, it's the importance, power and pleasure-pain of dreaming that this film reawakended me to when I saw it months ago. To be like Celine and Julie with their minds moved by candy is a state I aspire to daily.
When I was briefly without a place to live, I thought of this film and was taken to a sunny day in Montmarte, a house where the living and unliving mingle, a library where stalkers and smokers meet. I savored that magic, the effect of great art on the mind, and I knew I was not truly homeless.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I was a frequent visitor to an art gallery
in Liverpool called the Open Eye. When they started a film club,
promising to show all the stuff I had read about but would never
otherwise get a chance to see, I signed up like a flash.
It was a humble affair: a bare room with temporary blackouts on the windows, a makeshift screen at one end, a projector at t'other and a dozen or so ill-assorted chairs inbetween, but I loved it. For me it was a magic grotto: a portal to another place of endless fascination and discovery. It was here that I had my first exposure to the works of Buñuel, Renoir, Fritz Lang; Dziga Vertov's "Man With a Movie Camera"; the experimental shadowgraph animations of Man Ray; David Lynch's Eraserhead and, unforgettably, "Céline et Julie vont en bateau".
Even for one as keen on "Art" cinema as I was, Céline et Julie was a bit of a challenging prospect: a low-budget French thing about god-knows-what, by a director I'd never heard of, that we were warned would run over three hours without interval. Little did I know, as the opening credits rolled, that from then on time would mean nothing and I would be held captive; enthralled; the hours slipping by unheeded, as when dreaming.
It is this quality that, for me, makes this film so special. European (especially French) cinema is full of works that lay claim to the label "Surrealist". I have to say that in my opinion most of them have little to do with the truly surreal at all. More often than not they are simply a cocktail of absurdism and social satire.
Céline et Julie, on the other hand, is a genuinely surreal film possibly the ONLY genuinely surreal film ever made (!) - insomuch that its narrative (and hence the experience of watching it unfold) is uncannily dreamlike. From the outset the viewer is drawn inexorably forward by a teasing sense of curiosity. Frequently along the way there seems to be far too much going on that is unexplained, and little hope of fitting it all together, yet one cannot help but remain in the story. In time, we become aware that our mixed sensations as viewer are mirroring those being experienced by Céline and Julie and thus we find ourselves in that familiar condition of the dreamer: of being simultaneously both onlooker and protagonist in our own drama.
Afterwards, I was left feeling curiously elated, yet struggling to recall its details with any precision. The impressions it had left behind were powerful and thought-provoking, yet intangible, and recalled but imperfectly, in the manner of one who has just awoken: with a frustrating uncertainty as to exactly what had occurred, to whom and in what order. Any attempt to explain it to a third party was equally doomed. Just as with a half-remembered dream, the very act of telling caused the peculiar para-logic of the narrative to disintegrate, and I'd be left speechless.
It's been part of me ever since. Over the last 30-odd years, the themes and images of this film have, in the nicest possible way, haunted me: lurking in the shadows of consciousness, beyond the clumsy reach of rational query, quietly informing my imagination, to appear, unbidden, in subtle and unexpected ways in my own creative output.
The whole strange business has been made all the more uncanny by the fact that, throughout those 30-odd years, the film itself has been lost to me. Having experienced it the once, I was never able to find Céline et Julie again, nor any reference to it, even in the pages of famously trusted and supposedly 'comprehensive' movie guides. Likewise, whenever I mentioned the film in conversation I could never come across anyone who had ever heard of it. Having worked its mischief, the contrary creature had melted back into the half-light, leaving no trace of its existence.
Then, in October of 2006, a miracle: there it was, right in front of me, listed in the TV schedules! Film4 was showing it at the suitably unconscious hour of 3am. Unwilling to risk losing it for another 30 years to the vagaries of my video recorder's dodgy timer, I sat up, my finger hovering nervously over the Record button...
A few days later, having found an afternoon in which we were free of commitments, my partner and I settled in to watch it: she with some scepticism that she would be able to maintain her interest for the whole 3 hours, and me both a-quiver with anticipation and privately praying that, in the hard light of reality, this thing of treasured half-memory would not prove itself to be The Worst Load Of Pretentious Tripe Ever Made.
I needn't have worried. No sooner had I hit "Play" than that fragrant, familiar magic began weaving itself all over again. I am delighted to report that Céline et Julie is just as powerful an experience now as it was in my youth.
What I had forgotten, or perhaps never noticed at all on first viewing, was just what a rough-edged, homespun creature it is in technical terms. It was shot entirely on location, on 16mm and with a very small crew, and it shows. The soundtrack is patchy in places and frequently prey to whatever ambient sounds were present when the camera rolled (usually Parisian traffic noise). Now and then the acting is self-conscious, and some of the reaction shots are clumsily done. In the end, though, none of this matters a damn. Indeed, it is the film's very lack of studio polish that gives it much of its special flavour. Céline et Julie is an imperfect creation, but an honest one. It is also charming, playful and frequently hilarious. As such, I recommend it unreservedly.
A PERFECT, SHARED IMAGINATION: something we become entirely incapable
of evoking in our adult lives. As children, it's still possible to
create an all-engrossing, parallel existence played out in symbiotic
harmony by two individuals calling themselves best friends. With an
uncluttered and unfettered creativity, these friends are sucked into
their inner story to a point that time, place and the mundane habits
and duties of one's routine no longer exist, or rather, are
incorporated and/or adapted to fit what then becomes one's main
existence - the imagined one. What makes this movie so convincingly
evoke the yearning for the magic of childhood is exactly this: the fact
that this imaginative world is shared so perfectly by two friends, and
not just cultivated within an isolation and individuality typical of
adult age. No other movie has made me think back at my childhood best
friends as vividly as Céline and Julie Go Boating!
Hours spent in a room surrounded by familiar objects turned into so many powerful talismans. Earnest "magic" rituals punctuated by benevolent, mutual derision in the little moments in which one risks getting too serious or devoid of irony. Convulsive giggling fits which end in snorting noises. Relaxed, spontaneous, touchy-feely languid poses making two friends feel like they fit each other's company like a glove. Living the present so perfectly that one is momentarily, blissfully freed of any baggage from the past or the insecurities for the future that stunt one's spontaneity in the present. This isn't just a definition of perfect, child-like friendship, but also of a simple, uncluttered state of pure happiness. Rivette captures the spirit of all these things - childhood and happiness - in a movie unlike any I've seen before. Or rather - the movie may have seemed familiar thematically, but the execution and spirit of it was something else altogether.
As other users have commented here, Céline and Julie Go Boating is inspired by both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Henry James, as well as being reminiscent of Buñuel - not just his "surreal" movies but also That Obscure Object of Desire. In the latter, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina play the same character interchangeably. Céline and Julie do the same when they both, interchangeably play the nurse in the closed-circuit, story-in-the-story involving the man, the blonde woman, the brunette woman and the little girl in the "haunted" house - this story's plot is being played out over and over again in the two protagonists' heads as they strive to both figure its intrigue and the dark heart of its mystery out, all the while deriding the stuffy rhetoric of its melodrama (delightful!). There are clear echoes of Bergman's Persona as well, as Céline and Julie stand in for each other - namely, Céline pretends to be Julie when she meets her childhood sweetheart and cousin Guilou, while Julie stands in for Céline when she attends the magician's audition. Touches of Buñuel and Fellini are also evoked by the dream sequences, with their typical, fragmented rhythm which mixes in dreams, reality, thoughts and imagination. Though innovative and timeless, Céline and Julie Go Boating does also belong to the decade in which it was made, as it has a recognisable 1960s/70s surrealist aesthetic and an interest in "inner landscapes", not for their own sake but for what they say about the psychic goings on of human beings.
Purely thematically, this movie also brought to mind Peter Jackson's 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures. However, though the latter was made exactly 20 years later than Céline and Julie, it is decidedly more "misogynistic" in spirit, to be fair perhaps not consciously or intentionally so. Why am I calling Jackson's movie misogynistic? Because ultimately, unlike Céline and Julie Go Boating, it treats the symbiotic, shared, female imagination that's allowed free rein as something negatively irrational, uncontrollable, dark and finally, destructive, the lesbian undertones becoming morbid rather than light-hearted, humorous and feel-good as in the Rivette's splendid and highly original movie.
What this Céline and Julie Go Boating told me was that in some cases, guiltlessly cultivating, salvaging and exploring one's inner and imaginative life is far more important than meeting the expectations of one's day-to-day, material duties. Therefore, solving the mystery of a "haunted" house is more crucial than, say, furthering one's career (for example, succeeding in an audition for an important, international magician's tour - Céline should have attended it but Julie does so instead, to very amusing and disastrous effect! I loved, loved, loved actress Dominique Labourier's droll histrionics during that scene!).
I have never seen a movie treat with such humour and gaiety a subject as serious, complex and potentially heavy-duty Freudian as exploring one's unresolved childhood issues. Much of this movie is about Julie's (and perhaps everyone's, to a degree) inability to assimilate the past completely (her tarot reading by a fellow librarian reveals this at the beginning of the movie - "Your future is in the past"). To put it stereotypically, the "inner child" needs to be freed before one can truly become an adult - a happy, healthy, sorted, serene, childlike adult. This process of healing is punctuated by the two protagonists by playful role-playing (both Céline and Julie have a ball taking on different identities by also donning different costumes throughout the course of the movie), an endless string of occasions for giggling fits and what is essentially a cheerful use of childish "drugs" (candy and home-made magic potions) to evoke that crucial, life-giving shared imagination. In a sentence, the psychic ailments typical of adulthood are cured with the spirit typical of childhood.
Movies would seem to be the ideal medium for surrealism, yet there are
almost no good surrealist movies. There is the venerable "Un Chien
Andalou", and there is "Celine et Julie vont en Bateau", and that might
be the lot. "Celine et Julie" has been one of my favorite films since I
first saw it in the 1970s, because it is hypnotic, thought-provoking,
mysterious, and funny, all at once. Its overall style could be described
magical realism, in which the quotidian life of Paris serves as a mere
background for the magical fantasy life of the protagonists, two young
on a psychic journey, which may or may not end in madness ("vont en
which literally means "go boating", is also slang for "go
The film is made of moments that seem to happen outside of time. In fact, the passage of time, the succession of events in everyday life, becomes an intrusion on the increasingly shared inner life of the two women, and each takes (hilarious) action to prevent those intrusions from continuing. They determine, in effect, that they must return as adults to their childhood in order to change the past. This may sound like a boring Freudian nightmare, but there is no heavy-handed psychologizing in the movie; it is all play, lighthearted yet beautifully composed. The sound-track is particularly effective, almost hyperrealistic, with no background music. The click of heels on pavement, or the motor of a taxi, loom out of the silence as in a dream, which the movie may be, at its heart.
I give this one a 10. You probably know already whether you would like it. If so, see it in a theater if you can, and on video if you must, but don't miss it.
CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (5 outta 5 stars)
Wow... one of those really great, really strange movies that I love so much! Over 3 hours long but I got so absorbed in the story that I didn't even notice it was that long. I wanted it to be longer, in fact! Kinda hard to describe... sort of a cross between a Bunuel and a Rohmer movie... starring a French Laverne and Shirley. The plot takes its time getting started... but once the premise became evident I was totally hooked! Our 2 heroines take turns going into a strange house. They emerge some hours later, totally disoriented and with no recollection of what happened inside. Later they are able to recall certain events... but not the whole story. This goes on day after day... the exact same scenes take place with the 2 women taking turns playing a nurse to a sick child... who, it turns out, may have been murdered by someone else in the house! But who? The girls keep going back into the house to find out the secret. The 2 women who play the leads are EXCELLENT! They start out not knowing each other but become close friends as the events unfold. They are both slightly kooky and enjoy playing pranks on each other... at times taking over the other person's life while that person is busy in the house. Some of the later scenes in the movie... when the 2 girls go into the house together... are HILARIOUS! I was actually laughing at loud at stuff... but I fully admit that normal people don't always see the humour in the same things that I do. 8) Wow, I need to see this movie again! Will someone PLEASE release it on DVD with a decent picture? This grainy bootleg just doesn't do it justice.
Praised by the critics as "delicate , mysterious, and exiting", "an original and entertaining metaphor for film-watching and, perhaps, film history", and named "The most radical and delightful narrative film since Citizen Kane! The experience of a lifetime" by New York's critic David Thompson, "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974) is all of the above but first of all it is incredible fun to watch. This magic candy of a movie tells the story (or rather plays with the story) of two friends, Julie, a librarian and Celine, a magician. The film starts one sunny summer day in Paris when Julie follows running through the park and losing her stuff all over (a scarf, a shoe ) Celine exactly like another girl in the English country side one sunny summer day had followed a White Rabbit into a world of her imagination. Two girls became friends and soon with the help of a magic memory-inducing candy, they both will be the observers and participants in a bizarre soap-opera like drama that takes place in a mysterious house. It involves two stunningly beautiful women, a blonde and a brunette, who are in love with the same man. The man is a widower with a young daughter who had promised his wife that he would not remarry as long as their daughter is alive. When the blonde and the brunette become desperate enough to try to do something about the situation, it is up to Julie and Celine to come up with the plan and to rescue the young girl. Will they go boating? Well, you will have to stay with them for all 193 minutes to find out. Yes, Rivette takes his time but his movie never seems slow or boring. Playful yet complicated, mad and funny, "Celine and Julie" is a magic movie. It grabbed me from the opening scene - which is of course the opening chapter of "Alice in Wonderland" - and it never let go. Buniel would love this movie, I think. It also reminds me of "Mullholand Dr" and even "Persona" but in the absolutely different mode. Simply DELIGHTFUL.
Halfway through CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING my opening line for this review would have been something like this; "a drawn out, poorly photographed mish-mash of uninspired surrealistic images. However, gradually as the film drew me further into its unescapable web, I began to realize that the films images weren't uninspired, they were simply detached, in the logic of a dream. True to that statement, CELINE AND JULIE is the most realistic demonstration of a dream state I have ever witnessed. It is drawn out, but it's also meditative, not to mention fascinating, and strangely, as in dreams, realistic. Gradually you don't notice the irrationality, like a dream you simply feed off its aestheics. And as the "swiss cheese" plot begins to fill in, your excitment grows as you long for a better understanding. Now, Freuds will no doubt aply their psuedo-symbolism to a film such as CELINE AND JULIE, I myself find it to be a film about a search for inner childhood (notice the "haunted house" plot is the womens attempts to rescue a small girl). It is a film that demonstrates the way imagination gives our lives a needed purpose.
I saw "Céline et Julie vont en bateau" a few years after watching "3 Women" and Claudia Weill's "Girlfriends." The next day I saw it again, and then again and again... This was a time when I was very interested in the depiction of modern women in films: some were quite original and revealing, and this was indeed one of them, dealing with the creative process, and women's imagination. Made in 1974, it had a similar origin as that of "3 Women", in which the female cast (Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier) worked with director Rivette and writer Eduardo de Gregorio on the script. It is also a story of female bonding and solidarity, but instead of relying on dreams, it uses magic and literary sources, Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" being the first to come to mind. Librarian Julie (Labourier) becomes intrigued by weird rabbit-like magician Céline (Berto), but soon one is after the other. They become friends (or sort of) and exchange roles in each other's life, but nobody seems to notice the difference. Then Céline reveals she frequently goes inside an old house where a melodrama is repeated on and on (based on Henry James' "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" and "The Other House"), enacted by two women (Ogier, Pisier) who are both in love with a very pale man (filmmaker Barbet Schroeder.) In the old house there is also a little girl (Nathalie Asnar) who is in danger, so Céline and Julie become the "phantom ladies" of the title (including Fantômas outfits) to rescue her. This post-modern movie is a puzzle, and the audience is intellectually involved in the making. Critics went crazy and called it "the most important film made since 'Citizen Kane'." I don't know if it is, but I love it: it is funny, demanding, entertaining, and sometimes boring, in the best tradition of Satie's repetitive "Vexations". Reworked as "Desperately Seeking Susan", without acknowledging it.
Some directors use less than 2% of their footage in the final cut but
Rivette must have used 92% of his to make this - perhaps he used
absolutely everything, including, apparently, out-takes. Tedium
sometimes has a point, but not here. This is annoying-tedium for every
scene seems calculated to test our patience. There's no humour or verve
or flair or great lines or classic scenes, not even sad attempts at
those things, only a forced drollerie that falls flat in every scene
There is endless silly giggling, scenes such as those in the nightclub
that are just tiresome to watch, fantasy sequences that are presumably
meant to look like a corny TV sitcom, but, lacking any scrap of humour,
the point is entirely lost and the actors flounder. The girls try far
too hard to be cute, and only succeed in being cloying. And I'm waiting
for a director to grasp this simple truth: that giving the actors free
rein does not make the action more spontaneous and natural, only more
strangulated, more self-conscious, more unnatural and cringe-inducing
than if they were following a consistent and meticulous script.
After a while you realise Rivette is just playing silly buggers. Fluffed lines are left in, characters glance inadvertently-deliberately at the camera. Rivette will be saying: 'Regard, c'est un film that is pas un film, we're deliberatement toying avec your illusions'. I'm saying: Vous etes un wankeur.
Why three hours? A Senses of Cinema article is eager to explain: 'The tradition of rigid adherence to the 90 minute to 2-hour time frame, enforced by the laws of free market capitalism, is exploded by Rivette. As a filmmaker, Rivette refuses to confine himself to these arbitrary lengths, or to the even more arbitrary, if unspoken, rules about demands on subject matter and mise-en-scène in films of epic length. Instead, Rivette extends the lengths of his films to a point beyond necessity, where it is understood that the film's length in and of itself is a statement about the system he works in and rebels against.' 3 hours simply to defy (capitalistic??) convention? Wankeur.
The audience are the dupes here - poked fun at for trying to apply reality to what is self-consciously only a film. This is not New Wave. I'm gazetting Rivette as a hanger-on, a copyist. He wants to shoot in the style of Rohmer, but he hasn't got Rohmer's indefinable deftness. He wants to break the rules like Godard but he has not got Godard's indefinable style or charisma. He wants to say something meaningful in an offhand way, like Truffaut, but he hasn't got that indefinable intellect for it. All he can do is try. You can feel him trying. It boils down to a single lame joke that isn't funny and a single idea that isn't clever. Three hours of film-flam, tiresome beyond belief.
For over 30 years I have been calling this my favourite film. Like
Céline and Julie I was young in 1974, there was magic in the air:
dressing up with floating scarves and feather boas brought performance
into everyday life, fashionable dalliance with the magic symbols
beloved of the Surrealists contrasted brightly with the still fairly
recent, drab post-war world. Rivette's film had more than a little of
"l'air du temps". So would I be disappointed over 30 years later,
seeing the film (subtitled in English) in London's National Film
Theatre in May 2006? Emphatically, no. Rivette's genius is to recreate
a timeless magic which weaves seamlessly through city streets and
gardens and which is to be accessed in a more condensed form in the
cinema (symbolised here by the rather more wooden and conventional
story within the film) .
This is a film for those who can sit for hours on a park bench in Paris, or at a café table, unaware of the passing of time, but entranced by the details of the surrounding architecture and the glimpsed lives of passers-by. Over three hours long, it is not a film for the person impatient for the plot to race to its conclusion, when every question is answered and every mystery solved.
Magic is the magic of Paris itself. Lingering shots of cats hold our focus on the magic of the prosaic, while also reminding us of witches' familiars. Magic exists in the performance of the magician Céline. The viewer is also reconnected to the magic of childhood. We see Céline in the children's section of the library, and it is with the solemnity of small children that the two girls are happy to substitute the perfume "L'Air du Temps" (ultimately just air) for the element of air in their magic potion. The whole adventure can be seen as a return to childhood, an old photo in a toy box giving us a clue as to the origins of the mysterious house in which the girls alternately act the part of the nursemaid.
It is a film with layer upon layer of allusions. The magic sweets echo the madeleines with which Proust's Marcel regained with immediacy memories of his childhood, just as they echo the magic potion in "Alice in Wonderland".
Humour abounds. Try, if you understand French, to follow the word-play in the original (sometimes necessitating inaccurate translations, as when the punning pair of words "persil" (parsley)/ "esprit" are rendered as "clover"/ "clever"). Delight in the natural exuberance of the two girls as when, fearful of being discovered as one and the same nursemaid in the mysterious house, they almost literally fall about laughing as they try to disguise themselves as mirror images of themselves.
Mirror images and symmetry shape the film, and are extremely satisfying to the viewer. This time round I noticed many details that I hadn't noticed before. In the penultimate scene, for example, both girls are wearing identical boating jumpers. We have to wait for the last scene for the patterns of identity to come full circle.
I think this will always be my favourite film.
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