Before (or after) reading this review, I hope you'll check out my first narrated video essay, which went up late Monday.
What it is • What if Alice, rather than following a white rabbit down its hole into Wonderland, followed another Alice? Celine and Julie are in the long tradition of female heroines entering a strange world (think not just Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, but cinematic distaff duos in Mulholland Drive, 3 Women, or Persona) yet the extent to which these two fall into an alternate reality, and the extent to which they are creating it, is never quite clear. An air of mischievous play suffuses the film, as if the actresses - and their director - are making it up as they go along. Julie (Dominique Labourier), the seemingly more sensible Alice of the two, is a librarian who begins to chase and is then followed by Celine (Juliet Berto), our sexy white rabbit, an actress/compulsive liar who muffs Julie's love interest and tells her friends that Julie is her sister. The film's "plot" begins when the two pranksters swallow hard candies which magically transport them inside a strange, seemingly abandoned house where a morose family enacts an ever-repeating melodrama of betrayal, resentment, and grief. It's up to Celine and Julie to rescue a little girl who will be murdered - to reset this fatalistic narrative, to take control over it as they have over their own freewheeling lives. Celine and Julie Go Boating - a hard film to explain, but as much an atmosphere as a story - has been called by David Thomson "the most innovative film since Citizen Kane," and though its innovations are more in the nature of mind games than technical tricks, it really is a trip.
Why I like it •
I'm not sure I have the best attention span or sharpest focus; in fact I know I don't - sometimes, watching even films I enjoy, my mind will float away or I'll start thinking of what comes next in the movie. Many films build this restlessness into their very construction, egging the viewer into a state of anticipation. Jacques Rivette's films are different. I await developments to be sure, but with a sense of wonder and curiosity rather than impatience. Somehow, for me at least, from their very first frame they cultivate an air of enjoyment-in-the-moment. I once described Rivette's cinema as "slithering across the screen like a boa constrictor, so long you lose track of time and find yourself hypnotized by the movement; [the movies] contain multitudes within their bellies - these are films you can get lost in." Yet at the same time, Celine and Julie is not only a sensuous experience, it is a movie full of ideas, if you choose to pursue them. Who are the "ghosts" in this "haunted house" that Celine and Julie observe? Are they characters in a conventional narrative film, one much unlike that which Celine and Julie inhabit in their own lives? Most interesting to me is that, when they eat the candy and immerse themselves in the "story" of this house, the lighting is crisp, the actors look real, and we generally experience the incidents as if we were watching a movie. When, at the film's end, Celine and Julie sneak into the house itself, no longer taking candy to get there, the lighting is bizarrely imbalanced, the actors wear garish makeup, and their delivery seems fundamentally out-of-tune with their surroundings (hence Celine's and Julie's contagious giggles). This is the difference between watching a finished movie, and participating in a film shoot on a set; or, to put it differently, the difference between the "total film" we imagine in our heads and the artificiality of how this concrete product is created. No doubt this reflection would have great meaning for the New Wave generation, which graduated from passively admiring the beautiful illusions of Hollywood to analyzing the images that created these illusions to creating their own images - often self-consciously. So then, to cut myself short, I like this film because it makes me both feel (a luxurious relaxation in the moment) and think (about the nature of movies and "reality").
How you can see it • Celine and Julie Go Boating is not on American DVD, but as I write this the film is available in its entirety on You Tube (click closed-captioning for English subtitles - apparently only on the first half, however :( ). Get over there fast! If the link no longer works, well, just find some hard candy, start sucking, and wait for the shock... (I also discussed Rivette's work in a review of his debut, Paris Belongs to Us.) update 2015: I finally wrote a full review of the film, comparing it closely to Mulholland Drive, following a screening of the two films.
What do you think? • What is the relationship between the house and the outside world? Are they both fantasies, of a different nature? How does Celine and Julie relate to the darker, more brooding films like Out 1, L'Amour Fou, or Paris Belongs to Us which preceded it? What facilitates the lighter, more playful tone? Did Jacques Rivette have Ingmar Bergman in mind when he created his melodrama-within-a-comedy? Did you have him in mind when you watched it?