Lost in the Movies: Mulholland Drive & Celine and Julie Go Boating (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #6)

Mulholland Drive & Celine and Julie Go Boating (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #6)

This is the sixth entry in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended a double feature of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Mulholland Dr (2001) on the evening of Saturday, December 19.

These are the films. If you're asking me for my personal favorites I would probably go with the wilder and woollier Fire Walk With Me and Out 1. But it's incredibly easy to see why Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating are considered their directors' masterpieces, and why they have become the go-to initiation rites for anyone hoping to fall under David Lynch's or Jacques Rivette's spells. J. Hoberman called last night's double feature, with some trepidation, a "surfeit of cinema." He's right. It isn't that films like Lost Highway or L'Amour Fou aren't intensely cinematic in their own right, it's just that these two titles are movie-movie-movies in the same sense as Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or 8 1/2. Collecting together all of the elements present in other Lynch or Rivette films, they are rich with a sense of magic - some combination of charm, imagination, reflexivity, excitement, and depth - transforming already great films into something even more iconic.

These films also form the most logical pairing of the entire retrospective, kicking off the entire concept according to programmer Dennis Lim. Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating join classics like Robert Altman's 3 Women, Vera Chytilova's Daisies, and Ingmar Bergman's Persona by placing young women at the center of an alluringly fantastical world. Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring), like Celine (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier), chase their own elusive memories, mix amateur sleuthing skills with a penchant for performance, rely upon talismans to guide them through a web of intrigue, and cross interdimensional boundaries between reality and dream in order to solve a murder and satisfy their dangerous desire to penetrate an aura of mystery.

Because this is Lynch/Rivette, strong contrasts remain (contrasts that are themselves intriguingly intertwined). Like the very comedic Celine and JulieMulholland Drive's first half employs a playfully arch sense of humor but the tone eventually shifts into something quite somber. There is nary a laugh to be found in the last half-hour of the Lynch film. Celine and Julie also develops an eerie, serious storyline on the fly, but its hilarious final act aggressively undercuts any sense of melodrama. In one none-too-subtle moment, Celine even declares "We're through with the melo!" and starts playing an uptempo record on a morbid family's phonograph. Along similarly playful lines, Celine and Julie establishes the bond between its heroines before introducing the central mystery whereas Mulholland Drive brings its protagonists together against an already unfolding backdrop of suspense and intrigue.

That's an important distinction, highlighting an even bigger difference between Rivette and Lynch. Celine and Julie are winking co-conspirators with the audience, able to immerse themselves in a mystery while simultaneously standing back to analyze it. The fluidity of their roles as spectators, participants, and storytellers allows them to change the course of the narrative, creating an open-ended game in place of a closed circuit. The secret of Mulholland Drive is a fait accompli: the characters can only hope to uncover its existence rather than change its course. Celine and Julie laugh at the victims and perpetrators inside the mysterious melodrama. Rita and Betty realize they are the victims and perpetrators in a tragedy which can't be undermined by laughter and creativity.

The American film industry is both context and subject of Mulholland Drive. If Rivette, operating outside the system on the tail end of the French New Wave, felt free to laugh at old forms while liberating his characters from their constrictions, Lynch is far more conscious of the ominous limitations that hover just beyond the pleasing surfaces of Hollywood films. And well he should have been, since the film itself was subject to these constraints. Mulholland Drive was originally an abandoned TV pilot, almost aired as an inconclusive TV movie until additional funding allowed Lynch to convert the project into a feature film. Rather than reshooting or recutting the existing material, Lynch radically reinvented it, adding new scenes that completely transformed the context of the pilot's story.

The Mulholland Drive feature tells its own story in two distinct sections, the first a sprawling, exciting, and at times charmingly cheesy exploration of Hollywood dreams and nightmares, the second a worm's eye view of what it feels like to scrape the bottom of the Hollywood barrel. This final passage, which many viewers identify as the "reality" informing the "dream" of the rest of the film, repeats many locations, names, faces, and scenarios in a through-the-looking-glass fashion, suggesting Betty's exploration of Rita's trauma went so deep that she lost herself in another world, unable to return to the comfort of her sunny apartment where she bonded with with the dark stranger. This provides a sharp contrast to Celine and Julie, whose bond is strong enough to bring them back to their own sunny apartment in the end.

When Celine and Julie meet early in the film, they have an instant connection. Moving far beyond the frustrated, fumbling dialogue of Paris Belongs to Us, Rivette depicts their construction of an imaginary world more visually than verbally through silent chases, repetition of objects and pictures, and dazzled reactions as the two women realize how simpatico they are. Celine tells Julie an obviously fabricated backstory about being a nanny in an old estate; miraculously, when Julie visits the address she provided, the house - and its inhabitants - are there. Inside the house is an enclosed narrative universe that Celine and Julie experience, forget, and can only recall after sucking on hard candies that transport them back into this strange parallel movie.

Inside the movie - or play - or memory - or alternate universe (take your pick) both Celine and Julie appear in a nurse's smock, caring for a child who is slowly being poisoned by a jealous suitor of the child's widowed father. Determined to rescue the little girl and also discover what's happening "offscreen" (they explicitly respond to their visions of the house as if it is a favorite film they are rewatching to pick up clues), Celine and Julie eventually infiltrate the house together. Despite some close calls their mutual support and comical perspective save them from Betty/Diane's fate. Above all, Celine and Julie are spared from any trap because they can see through the illusion: inside their haunted house, they envision the characters in chalky pantomime makeup so frozen in their own roles that they can't even notice the prankish girls in their midst.

This is a huge difference between Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating, and perhaps David Lynch and Jacques Rivette in general. Celine and Julie have powerful agency, using magic and their own ingenuity to expose this cyclical melodrama as the farce that it is, enacted by ghosts too closed-minded to escape the parts they've been assigned. There is a revolutionary optimism at work here, a belief that conventions are only as solid as the faith we place in them. Indeed, Friday's double feature flipped the script on the retrospective. Until that point, Lynch's selections all ended on an optimistic note while Rivette's ambiguous conclusions suggested a lack of faith. But Duelle revealed Rivette's trust in human ingenuity to defeat larger spiritual/psychic forces, while Lost Highway revealed a pessimistic streak within Lynch's spirituality, which had previously provided a silver lining against Rivette's secular skepticism.

Mulholland Drive continues this trend: Betty and Rita can open the blue box but once that black hole sucks them inside they can't re-emerge. In Lynch's cosmology there is a larger order at work, personified most comically by the Cowboy ("Let's just say I'm driving this buggy, and if you fix your attitude you can ride along with me"); the character's insistence on patience and protocol has been interpreted as both righteous and oppressive. Lynch is obviously as attracted to freedom as Rivette is, but the directors shake off the shackles of convention for different purposes. For Lynch, freedom means the ability to harmonize with the greater truth. For Rivette, freedom means inventing your own truth. This explains not just their different narrative outcomes, but also their varying aesthetics: Lynch's creation of new systems of meaning, more deeply rooted to our subconscious instincts vs. Rivette's open-ended anarchic attack on any systems of meaning except those that are consensual, voluntary, and self-aware.

That said, tonight's final double feature may challenge my reading. Inland Empire is certainly Lynch's most transgressive and reflexive work, and the one that goes the furthest to demolish the sense of illusion and glamor that Lynch's cinema usually evokes alongside its subversion (the fluidity of Inland's travel between worlds may actually be closer to Celine and Julie than Mulholland Drive). And from what I've heard, Marie and Julien is Rivette's most "Lynchian" film, mixing the precise, professional filmmaking of his later period with the open-ended narrative/aesthetic freedom of his seventies films. Until then, we are left with the funhouse mirror-images of Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating: costumed figures standing in front of closed curtains, tricking an audience with visual or aural illusions; giggly young women rehearsing ridiculous dialogue they must later take seriously; an actress who gave no prior indication of talent suddenly disappearing inside her enigmatic, audience-accusing performance, as the camera cuts in for an extended close-up; playful recitations of names and addresses and events that may be made up, or may be real, or may become real precisely because they have been made up.

Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating are about worlds which the characters can disappear inside, just as we can disappear inside these films themselves. They are movies all the way down, ending roughly where they began. Perhaps these ambiguous final images initiate new variations of the preceding story, variations which will continue as long as there are movies, dreams, and viewers - or participants - to appreciate them.

On Monday, the films will be playing again together, in reverse order. Of course.

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