Review: Céline and Julie Go Boating

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Céline and Julie Go Boating just may bring Jacques Rivette from the background to the foreground in the continuing history of French New Wave directors. Rivette is another of the Cahiers du cinéma writers who made his way from critic to director but, at least until now, has remained something of an unknown quantity, more mentioned than seen. Commercial and legal difficulties with his first two films (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958-60, and The Nun, 1962) meant that his movies were discussed by European observers long before they were shown (and then only briefly) in this country. His films since then have been extraordinarily long (Spectre runs 13 hours; Out One, a much shorter assemblage from the same footage, still runs four hours) and that may have a lot to do with the apparent lack of circulation accorded L’Amour fou, a four-hour Rivette which has had a U.S. distributor for some time but scant bookings.

While Céline and Julie does not augur any great commercial breakthrough, it presents its director’s preoccupations in such engaging form that it may do more than any amount of critical raves and ruminations to create an American audience for all of Rivette’s work. The plot has its mysteries, but there’s also a playful simplicity and modesty of scope that one tends to associate with much shorter films. A cabaret magician, Céline (Juliet Berto), and a librarian, Julie (Dominique Labourier), meet by chance and are soon drawn into a close relationship. They make separate journeys to a mysterious house and return with pieces of candy which, when eaten, evoke fragmented memories of events inside the house. Eventually, the “memories” become more coherent: inside the house a widower and his young daughter live with two strange women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier), both of whom are angling for his attentions. When Céline and Julie realize that one of the women will kill the daughter, they return to the house together and rescue the little girl, thus altering the story they have uncovered, a story the “rehearsals” of which they have participated in during their previously separate visits.

The events in the house can be viewed as fictional (Rivette’s borrowings from Henry James have encouraged some critics to call the place the House of Fiction), and that interpretation may be debatable. But Céline and Julie gain a more and more coherent view of the initially scrambled fragments on succeeding visits; this gradual clarification suggests that the house “contains” a story which, as a set of events, is always the same, but which takes on different meanings: first as Céline and Julie gain an increasingly complete sense of the narrative line, and later as they enter the house together and deliberately alter that narrative line (Rivette also alters the film’s style for this last stage—toward blatant stylization and theatricality). The fictional element also embraces the movies—particularly in a late sequence where Céline and Julie, for the first time, are able to “remember” the events ã deux. Previously, one recounted parts of the house story while the other listened. And watched: for we see what the returning visitor is unable to remember, and in the ultimate example of this, with both characters remembering and seeing simultaneously, it is as though Céline and Julie are watching some of the same movie that we are—and reacting to it in movie-fan fashion. (Rivette compounds the fiction/reality crossovers here by having the actresses face the camera in this sequence, so that the camera, the screen and the audience become—in a sense—part of what reflects the things they see. Or, one must add, part of what they don’t see when they see the things they see.) And the “rescue” which disrupts the one fiction, and apparently puts an end to it, may have given rise to other “new” fictional possibilities. For when the little girl is rescued, she produces pieces of candy which all three then put in their mouths; Rivette cuts immediately to a post-rescue scene involving all three, thus suggesting that the final scenes of the film may be newly envisioned fictions too. And in the penultimate scene, the threesome—boating at last—see the other characters from the house poised with a sculptural finality drifting past in another boat.

The very last scene of the film gives a playful twist to a motif of identity exchange. At the start of the movie, Julie, seated on a park bench, sees Céline—whom she does not yet know—pass by, and is moved to follow her. A curiously humorous chase scene ensues; and soon, through a series of mildly eerie coincidences, the two are close friends. At the end, the same scene is set in motion once again, but with the roles reversed. Elsewhere in the movie, Céline stands in for Julie in a convention-mocking sequence involving the latter’s rather unlikely fiancé; Julie performs Céline’s cabaret act, or rather a parody of it, when the magician is indisposed with adventures in the House of Fiction; and various small revelations of unusual traits held in common (ESP and an interest in magic being the most noticeable) are part of what draws the two together. But here as elsewhere in the film, what may sound obscure or confounding in print is playful and disarmingly lighthearted on the screen. The consequence, with these identity “exchanges,” is not any kind of statement about the uncertainties of identity, but rather a goodhumored form of play which works on the assumption that the boundaries of “the self” and its freedom are much less confining than most modern “statements” on the subject tend to indicate. In a sense, Céline and Julie transcends the theme in its usual form by proceeding as if the boundaries and questions are limited only insofar as the possibilities of fiction and play are limited.

The roles played by chance and coincidence, and the various links with the worlds of children and dreams, all suggest an affinity to surrealism. And yet Céline and Julie is not quite like any previous film to which the surrealist label has been applied. Though the narrative structure juggles “levels of reality,” the film’s images are dominated by the flexible sort of realism that marks so many French films of the New Wave era: attention to the immediate scene and setting, patience with real time, quiet spontaneity with respect to character and milieu, location sounds instead of music. Thus, the opening “chase” scene is an affectionate parody of suspense film chases, a tour with diversions along some quiet Paris streets, and an impromptu battle of wits between two zany, exceptional young people. Later, Céline and Julie—dressed in black leotards and wearing roller skates—conduct a jokey little night raid on the library where Julie worked. Rivette treats the sequence in a way that moves beyond its (pointedly minimal) suspense value and converts it into a brief documentary on two actresses determinedly traversing Paris streets in the wee hours on skates. The scene evokes the silent Feuillade serials which both Surrealists and New Wave auteurs have admired, and though one is tempted to say that Céline and Julie is a Cocteau fantasy filmed in the neorealist manner of Rossellini, Feuillade may be more to the point for the film as a whole.

None of the above should be permitted to obscure the pleasure that Céline and Julie offers as a comedy about two unusual young women. Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier both give funny, charming and very knowing performances. And whatever his distaste for the routines of contemporary commercial cinema, Rivette works with both actresses in ways that permit them to play, literally, as distinctly contemporary stars. And for all its complexities and originality, Céline and Julie is a remarkably unpretentious film. The oblique qualities which audiences may find overbearing and too much in the foreground in certain kinds of European films are treated here as simply some among many narrative possibilities. Thus, a sort of goodhumored throwaway attitude toward Marienbad-like labyrinths puts Rivette’s movie closer than one would expect to the Annie Hall brand of cinematic selfconsciousness. And whereas Woody Allen’s moviemaking seems to have gained through a shift of his comic style toward the narrative sophistication of modernism, Rivette’s seems to have gained from a shift of modernist style toward a sense of its own comic possibilities.

Finally, a word about length—as in “running time.” Céline and Julie runs about three hours and fifteen minutes, yet it’s shorter than all but two of Rivette’s other features. Such distinctions may be of little help to the viewer who is accustomed to feature films in the 90- to 120-minute range. But part of the pleasure of Céline and Julie has to do with the experience afforded by its unconventional running time. I for one found its 190-odd minutes far “briefer,” far less weighty in terms of clock time, than many reasonably respectable films with more conventional running times. It’s the shortest three-hour movie I know of; and there is nothing capricious or bloated about its length. The very first sequence establishes a pace, a set of rhythms, a certain visual idiom, all of which prove integral and necessary to the entire film. Céline and Julie is the realization of a concept for which a certain extraordinary running time is a necessity, and as such it may provide the strongest case yet for Rivette’s notion that the customary feature-length running times set an utterly arbitrary limitation on what is, after all, one of the “time arts.” Rivette has also spoken of his distaste for films which are “predictable,” and I take his concern with running times as relevant to that distaste. William Carlos Williams once protested that all sonnets mean the same thing, and I suspect that Céline and Julie may help at least some movie audiences see that certain customs of movie “length” have the effect of ensuring that movies of certain “standardized” lengths all mean the same thing as well—especially insofar as their use of time is expressive or appealing.

Afterthought: The French New Wave has always meant “François Truffaut.” For a big part of the Sixties it also meant “Jean-Luc Godard.” In the late Sixties and early Seventies, it came to mean “Claude Chabrol.” Perhaps we are now entering a period in which it will come to mean “Jacques Rivette.”

© 1978 Peter Hogue

CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING
Screenplay and direction: Jacques Rivette. Cinematography: Jacques Renard. Editing: Nicole Lubtchansky. Music: Jean-Marie Sénia. Production: Barbet Schroeder.
The players: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


Leave a Reply