Dir. Jacques Rivette
It shows how complex one's tastes can be when a lot of my film viewing involves trangressive films, very violent and confrontational films, films likely to shock or cause strong divisive reactions, that one of the few films I've seen multiple times is Celine and Julie Go Boating. This is as far as you can get from those films. It's still a film that challenges, but not in brutality, instead through stretching the medium itself into new directions in the form of an amusing frolic. The fact it's a frolic furthers its goal of going into new directions. In three and a touch hours of concentrated whimsical magic realism, red haired librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) meets performing magician Celine (Juliet Berto) by accident, bond and bond further over a mysterious house where a self-perpetuating story takes place involving two women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier) vying for a widow (film director Barbet Schroeder) while his ill daughter (Nathalie Asnar) is caught in-between, one which continues to repeat on and on the more times Celine and Julie witness it or enter the house. Its evokes Věra Chytilová's Daisies (1966) instantaneously only not as a psychedelic and pyrotechnic rush of visuals, but an elaborate film which mixes cinema vérité with fantasy in a quieter tone, which has an innocence on one hand but on the other reflects that the protagonists are adult women. These women are charming and absurd, but they will gladly castrate any male mentally that tries to antagonise them. The film is as diverse; blood is split in the melodrama and a serious plot takes place even if Celine and Julie mock the theatrics occasionally.
What the film does differently is emphasise itself as a comedic and light hearted work, which plays everything that takes place as an adventure or of intrigue. Where suddenly a Les vampires (1915) tribute raids a library and involves roller skates. It's a film that involves two exceptionally strong female protagonists when I'm usually watching very male centric films, which is worth reminding myself of in how potentially patronising my thoughts can be, in an accidental retroactive way, when I worry about not viewing enough films that show strong female influences but neglect films I love like this one or Daisies. Women like those in Daisies are in the centre of this film, who can be eccentric, very childish but always in control, possessing a manic energy through Labourier and Berto's performances that is emphasised by the fact that with director Jacques Rivette they had direct involvement in creating the film's story as they did the characters, the result promoting two protagonists who don't shrivel up in any encounter with any patriarchal interaction and trundle through their adventure with abandon and the grace of two mischief makers. As a fully collaborated project between the main actresses and the director/co-writer, the result is both freewheeling and improvised, as if the narrative is still being built before it gets to the next scene, but carefully put together in production to not because pointlessly random. The film's imposing three hour length actually tricks your senses upon actually watching it. Three hours is a lengthy viewing experience even for ravenous cinephiles. Three hours, unless you go into the territory of super long films including a few Rivette works, still have the magnetism to them of being immense viewing experiences; barring Michael Bay films and attempts by blockbusters to undermine their status, they usually evoke historical epics, and mean encompassing and elaborate narratives.
An hour suddenly passes by in Celina and Julie Go Boating without me realising it because I was distracted by the impish charm of the leads pratting about. Barring some tangents to do with the titular duo's lives - Julie's cousin from her childhood reappearing and Celine potentially becoming a celebrity magician - the narrative is entirely about the mysterious house, filled in with a great depth for the characters and the general charm of the film because of its length. Neither is this a "difficult" film which requires some mental dissection of the content. Jacques Rivette could be seen as a poster boy for very dense art films because a) his films can be exceptionally long, including thirteen hours for his mythical white whale Out 1 (1971); 2) he usually tackles serious subjects, serious drama and/or plays with the form of his work by way of theatre and pulp genres that do need mental dissection to them; and 3) as someone who has been lucky to see films of his many can't, most of his filmography is impossible to find, which adds a status of an "Art" filmmaker even if the third point is not connected to what is in the films. Celine and Julie Go Boating is a lovable marriage when an art film, comparable to similar films like Le Pont du Nord (1981) and Paris nous appartient (1961) in Rivette's filmography, also happens to be the comedic romp in the director's CV. For one of the more under seen members of the French New Wave compared to a Jean-Luc Godard or a François Truffaut, this is one of his most commercially successful movies, thankfully not having had to sacrifice the director's distinct trademarks in the process but meaning the stars were aligned for once for its success.
Obvious film viewing metaphors abound, as every time one of the protagonists leaves from a trip to the mysterious house they have a sweet in their mouth that lets them "watch" the events within when the sweet is sucked, but it's not interesting to view the film just in this light. The film is about the concept of storytelling in general - its title "Go Boating", though it doesn't translate fully from French to English, means to be engrossed in a story being told and the phrase in English immediately brings about going for a lark. Celine tells Julie, from the bathroom to another taking a shower, of a journey through Africa. She tells friends of an American female friend. The protagonists tell each other how the melodrama in the mysterious house will play out. A character in the melodrama tells a macabre fairytale that reveals the divide and conflict between the two women of the house. The stories intertwined with it are those within theatre, within children's fairytales, and much more, willing to make jokes at the expense of them, even have Celine damage a children's book in a library by tracing her hand within it with a felt tip pen, but also celebrate it as the protagonists are in awe of what could happen in the tales told. Magic is interconnected to it, magic in fairytales always allowing for more of the tale to be told by taking it into a new direction. A magic circle drawn in the soil kicks off the film and it is intertwined with the storytelling from there on.
It's far too fun to watch Celine and Julie go between being rapt and mocking of the film-within-a-film that takes place in the mysterious house and in their general adventures, men mostly assigned to a few minor character or an extra with lines of dialogue. It makes no sense to view the film as a ode to "smartness" as Armond White calls it when the tone of the movie makes the entire notion of even bringing that concept up in any context laughably pretentious, pretence the only thing that the protagonists mock with any cruelty in the melodrama when they are mostly rivet(t)ed by it sincerely. The notion, whilst there is an immense intelligence with a meta-commentary within this, that you'd only read the film as an intellectual piece would've be mocked by the characters themselves and rightly so. The only thing that one has to contend with, when its completely breezy for the most part, is that it's not "funny ha-ha", a comedy that doesn't have punch lines. The pleasure is as much found in how it aesthetically weaves together its content, shot in a real urban city where bystanders aren't extras but watch on with curious fascination as the viewer does at what the actors are doing in front of the camera, but in a tale where the ordinary environments of libraries to dressing rooms develop magical properties.
Lengthy dialogue scenes that are Rivette's trademarks populate the length of the film, with Rivette always feeling like drama which has been allowed to breath, are matched by its irrelevant tone. Its apt that the dialogue heavy melodrama in the mysterious house that engages us and the characters with its more arch yet fascinating tone, visually compelling through the ornate beauty of Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier as well as the frayed emotions seen on their faces, is matched by a more anarchic and spasmodic energy of Labourier and Berto. You can be assured that the more difficult aspects of Rivette the director which you will have to work with is the structures, while the drama in his films is almost always rich and emotionally driven, as much in this irrelevant romp too or you would've wanted to strangle the protagonists for their excitable energy instead of loving them. The dialogue sequences give way to a fantasy tale where the solution to the narrative is through a homemade potion, dinosaur eye rings, and a farcical undermining of a theatrical melodrama. It is an arty film but games are being played by the film itself as well as the characters. Everything I adore about the film is in its complete lack of pretension but without becoming conventional and stolid, having what I would find to be Rivette's trademarks seeing more of his films. I think this was the first films of Jacques Rivette I saw, seeing it at university in the library DVD shelves and renting it out no less, amongst the art books and literature on the above floors, so it does mean a lot as the first impression was as good as on the multiple viewings.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Celine and Julie Go Boating is a very low key in terms of its fantastic nature, the lightness of tone and presentation meaning that it never becomes a completely unconventional film in terms of a dream logic and similar areas. A more likely candidate for a higher rating would be Rivette's Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976), a tale of warring witches in mortal reality which takes the unconventional presentation of scenes to each other and the dynamic of realism with fantasy further than with this film. That's not to say aspects of Celine and Julie Go Boating don't stand out though in this area. The film-within-the-film is set up as fragments, eventually interconnecting and becoming one cohesive narrative, watching it alongside the protagonists as if it is being recollected from memory, including sudden cuts to black for a few seconds comparable to recollecting said memories. One sequence, which I didn't pick up until this viewing, has the protagonists, when they both go into the mysterious house for the first time, interchanging in the role of the daughter's nurse, which both play at various times beforehand. Repetition abounds in the film, from the moment the intertitle "Usually it begins like this" starts the film to how scenes between the protagonist repeat but with them switching places. The film itself, after seemingly breaking the pattern, repeats itself in the final scenes; if the movie had been six hours long, it would've imagined how things might've played out differently or the same if the ending gives any inclination. The result means that, while not the most abstract film I've seen of Rivette's, it still stands out for how its tone matches the fun content.
It's amongst my favourite films and one of the few I've watch a few times. Because its playful. Because its charming. Because it's still an unconventional art film, but never becomes pretentious. Because like Daisies it's proudly feminist but not through a forced artifice which sacrifices being a good movie to promote a good message, but as a good movie which also happens to have a good message inherently within it without having to make a song-and-dance about it, the inherently nature meaning its allowed to be absorbed without distraction. Because it blows raspberries at dour dramas. An Alice In Wonderland vibe is understandably felt, though it feels more inclined to the trait from the story of games and the energy rather than the content, anarchism in the form of coarse language and sexual frankness that occasionally breaks through felt, not to mention frank pride in women. It's a film where the title is a metaphor but the characters do eventually go boating which is a perfect way to encapsulate its qualities.
Everything is quaint right down to the real locations themselves, becoming a labyrinth of places where new discoveries can be found, able to suddenly bump into a long missed person or get into brief hijinks, possibilities all over the locations to be tripped over alongside all the cats that seem to populate every frame and even have the final shot of the film in tribute to them. Apparently they were just there in the scenes when Rivette filmed in the locations they are found in. Film critic Jonathan Romney once pondered, in an extra for the film's British DVD release, that the aforementioned cat you see in the final image may have dreamt the entire film that takes place. It doesn't feel that absurd an idea. Cats are interconnected to the history of magic and they are actually good luck charms when kept as pets in theatres, the mysterious house when the finale starts becoming an elaborate theatre production, right down to what is called the "three knocks" found in French theatre to tell the audience when the curtains were about to be raised, a cat standing guard outside its front door almost all the time. It also feels appropriate because the film is so carefree, so drastically contrasting, even against, the stereotypical notion of an art film, usually seen as dour and glum, that the idea a cat has been asleep imagining this scenario is as appropriately silly as the content.