2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)

Céline et Julie vont en bateau

“Each of us is the other half of our divided and ambiguous selves. The art of acting implies a dual personality and between the two of us we were able to create an organic whole.” –Juliet Berto

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: , Dominique Labourier, , , Barbet Schroeder

PLOT: Céline is in a hurry and drops a number of props as she passes Julie on a park bench, who picks them up and follows her, picking up more dropped accessories on the way. Their friendship thus established, Céline relates an odd tale about a dreamy encounter in a suburban mansion. The two friends find themselves investigating their memories in an attempt to solve a long-dead mystery and prevent a tragedy.

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Special Prize of the Jury” at the Locarno International Film Festival as well as being an “Official Selection” at the New York Film Festival on the year of its release.
  • Despite its light-hearted tone, shooting Céline and Julie was a comparatively tense affair. It was the cameraman’s (Jacques Renard) first movie, and shooting had to be completed in 20 working days over a four week period.
  • The “film-within-a-film” idea was built in from the beginning of development, even though writer/director Rivette didn’t know what the inner “film” was going to turn out to be at the time of inception.
  • Henry James’ story “The Other House” ultimately became the inspiration for the dream narrative shared by Céline and Julie.
  • An alternate title for the film, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, became something of a joke with the crew during production, having been suggested as what the movie would be titled if it had been American.
  • “Vont en bateaux” (“going boating”) has an idiomatic meaning in French, suggesting that one is following an outlandish narrative—the equivalent of a “shaggy-dog story”.
  • Celine and Julie provided the inspiration for Susan Seidelman’s 1985 comedy, Desperately Seeking Susan.
  • Celine and Julie go Boating was one of the top three vote getters in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it one of the most popular weird movies left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The whimsical double scene in the library is probably the most important for establishing the titular characters. Julie sits at her desk, doing clerical work that her coworker interrupts for a Tarot reading. In the background, Céline sifts through children’s books in a nearby room. In one volume, Céline uses a bright red marker to outline her hand while Julie sits at her desk playing with her red ink pad, making random markings on a sheet of paper with her fingertips. Tying the two together with this imagery handily conveys the connection between these two mysterious women.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Roller-skate library break-in; memory candies

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jacques Rivette has made an usual movie-within-a-movie, but goes extra steps beyond that “norm” with additional flourishes. The ghostliness of the inner narrative fuses oddly with the surrounding light-heartedness, rendering it almost a “horror-comedy.” Slippery memories give Céline and Julie Go Boating a feeling akin to ResnaisJe T’aime, Je T’aime and Last Year at Marienbad, while other diversions bring to mind Truffaut’s nouvelle vague realism. And, of course, the candy-based memory inducement is weird in its own right.

Trailer for Céline and Julie Go Boating

COMMENTS: In the whimsical spirit of the movie, I shall begin by remarking, yes, my friend, don’t worry: Céline and Julie do indeed go boating. When first watching Rivette’s film, I felt a growing sense of unease as the story spun on, for our heroines saved that outing for the final minutes of the narrative. This declaration isn’t a spoiler, though, so those of you have not yet seen it need not write angry letters to the editor. The many and strange things found throughout Céline and Julie Go Boating will not be given away here—not all of them, at any rate.

The story begins magically, with Julie (Dominique Labourier) digging an arcane symbol into the dirt with her heel. She reads a magical tome on a bench when Céline (Juliet Berto) crosses her path—in a huff, and dropping a series of accessories as she passes. Julie helpfully picks up the ephemera and follows the tunnel-visioned Céline, who we soon learn is a stage magician. This is perhaps a girl-meets-girl kind of thing, or not, as their relationship remains unclear throughout. They might be friends, they might be lovers, and it could be that they’re actually the same person. But whoever they are, they find themselves in the position of trying to unravel a decades-old tragedy in a house haunted by melodramatic ghosts caught in an eternal loop. Through research, memory, candy, and a late night break-in, they get the facts they need to face the spirits head on and, in so doing, attempt an unlikely rescue.

As much as “whimsy” is the key word for Céline and Julie, so is “French.” I mean this with only slight (and well-intentioned) aspersion. Jacques Rivette hasn’t crafted so much as globbed together an odd hybrid of straight-up art-house character study with oddly mannered period drama, using ectoplasm as the glue. The only theme throughout is the exploration of memory. Céline and Julie appear to have just met when we first encounter them, but their behavior suggests they’ve known each other for a long time. They seem to have friends—and, indeed, a lover—that know them, but also seem to be a unable at times to distinguish one from the other. The plot is driven by memory-inducing candies, which allow them to explore the haunted house on 7 bis rue de Nadir aux Pommes (this translates roughly into “#7 Apple-Bottoms Road”; the symbolism of which escapes me now, and probably indefinitely). And the story-within-the-story hinges heavily on memory: the memory of a dead wife and the vow she made her husband take to never remarry for the sake of their daughter.

To get back to the particular Frenchness of the whole affair, this intellectual exercise unspools with equal parts nouvelle vague realism (a fair amount of dialogue was unscripted) and Resnais-ian quick-cuts, flickers of thought interrupting a scene at seemingly random intervals. Céline and Julie‘s self-awareness brings to mind Godard: we spend a lot of our time watching the “movie” they’re watching (recovered memories from the haunted house) with little asides and reactions from the two staring at the camera (at one point they complain, “It’s just padding… and the plot is full of holes”). These elements, combined with their bohemian lifestyles, punnery, and manic-pixie-dream-girlhood all make this movie for a certain kind of audience. Particularly, a patient kind.

Céline and Julie Go Boating has quite a lot going for it, particularly to qualify it for 366: it’s got an oddball sense of humor, well executed dreams, an atypical plot device in the form of the bonbons, and a unique take on the movie-within-a-movie structure. However, it would be remiss of me not to call out its length: one-hundred and ninety-five minutes. I’m a patient guy, and I can (and do) enjoy long movies, but Rivette’s lack of discipline must be mentioned. On the one hand, there’s the unfailingly interesting story of two young women solving a temporal-supernatural mystery, and I loved that part; on the other, there are digressions into the particulars of these two women that don’t drive the story forward and don’t provide information needed to understand the protagonists. I don’t mind this element, but it acts as a dead weight on the “Through the Looking Glass” fairy tale it’s grafted onto.

But! (And this is a big “but”), this is a significant movie. When it works, it works magically. Its core oozes charm enough to smooth out the rougher edges introduced by the copious asides. It is also worth mentioning that despite the fact there’s a (dismissed) love interest for Julie, most of their scenes pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. The male characters (all two and a half of them) are so peripheral, they’re more like props for the plot. And on a personal note, I love it whenever the dour Henry James gets knocked down a peg (Céline and Julie crashing in on the adaptation of his story was a true delight). So yes, it is three hours long. But you owe it to yourself to find that time to visit the majestic playfulness crafted by Labourier, Berto, and Rivette.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the dotty logic of dreams, and the characters rational solemnity while talking nonsense does succeed in evoking Lewis Carroll… When this movie sags, it becomes a series of skits, but the best parts do achieve the spontaneity and impudent freshness that this director relishes.” –Nora Sayre, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

Rivette’s originality means that we find ourselves in the midst of what often seems like a dream, in which suspense, broad humour and improvisation all find their place; his pleasure means that he doesn’t know how to stop his film lasting a week (well, over three hours).”–Michael Thomas, BBC

IMDb LINK: Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

HOME VIDEO INFO: Unless you’ve got the means to play region 2 DVDs or region B Blu-rays, you’re probably out of luck: this movie is currently unavailable for the North American market otherwise. (I wasn’t even able to find a full version of it screening illegally on YouTube last time I checked.)

But if you have region B capabilities, I recommend the BFI release from 2017 (buy). It’s got a big booklet with cast and crew interviews and essays (including one from Susan Seidelman on how Céline and Julie Go Boating influenced her ’80s hit, Desperately Seeking Susan), a short film on memory by Alain Resnais, another two-minute short from 1901, as well as a documentary about the main feature and a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin commissioned specifically for this edition. The video looks quite good (bearing in mind that the source material is over forty years old), and sounds just fine.

The older BFI DVD release (buy) presumably has the same features, but spread across two DVDs. [Editorial addition: per El Rob Hubbard, the DVD skimps on the commentary track.]

If you’re in North America and don’t have non-U.S. film player access, I guess you’ll just have to wait until Criterion, the Cohen Media Group, or some other art-house outfit gets their act together.

(This movie was originally nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who called it “a weird movie that is another variation/or similar parallels to the Lewis Carroll classic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6 thoughts on “2*. CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974)”

  1. I agree with this. I love this film and it is very odd and thoroughly enjoyable, but in a delightful kinna way. Great movie and goes by deceptively fast. Great for multiple viewings.

  2. Awesome, I love this film. I agree w/Kelly about the multiple viewings; the second half of the film is just an insane delight.

  3. Usually, it began like this…

    Thank you for this, top review of a top movie, I’ve been looking forward to reading your take on it. It IS a fair old chunk of viewing time, it must be said, but personally, I feel it zips by like a Tex Avery cartoon compared to lots of other films I’ve sat through that are half its length. Unrestrained delight!

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