Criterion Prediction #140: Celine and Julie Go Boating, by Alexander Miller
Title: Celine and Julie Go Boating
Director: Jacques Rivette
Cast: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier
Synopsis: Celine and Julie quickly become friends, then roommates, and shortly afterward they share one another’s identities as their experiences transcend time and place in this Lewis Carroll-inspired freewheeling narrative. Rivette evokes magic realism and metaphysics in a way that is both playful and profound in this existential epic.
Critique: There’s nothing better than watching a movie that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Celine and Julie Go Boating is a flooring experience. Rivette swivels and steers through the thematic, narrative, stylistic and even philosophical domains with the relative ease, as if he were an old hand in the form of improvisational, stream of consciousness directing. Coming from the modernized nouvelle vague Rivette’s cinema is the least referential; movies and their directors read like maps, Godard’s lineage can be traced through American gangster films with his now trademark revolutionary pop-art pastiche. While Truffaut was more sentimental works embraced cinematic artifice in favor of more romantic stories, and the (in my opinion) criminally underappreciated Claude Chabrol, who, like his contemporaries was a student of Hitchcock maintained a more restrained aesthetic but committed to a massive output of provincial chillers and sly mysteries. While the luminaries of the French New Wave were forging new ground, there’s still some air of familiarity in their work. With Rivette, there isn’t even the faintest whiff of recognition. While his framing is sometimes static and his stylistic chops paired down, it’s his revisionist amalgamation of all things relating to fictional storytelling that yield such a quietly ingratiating feature that is Celine and Julie Go Boating. The only time this movie invites comparison to popular storytelling is in setting up the film’s thesis of revision, the reflective opening title card that reads, “Usually it began like this…” of course, what follows is anything but.
Although nothing happens quickly in a Rivette film, Celine and Julie Go Boating is straightforward in showing us that it exists in a world where the mystical and ethereal play a central force in the story and that there’s an air of hypnotic mystery.
This is the kind of film you get lost in. There’s a street-hewn modernity and there’s a curious, investigative style of filming that invites us into this hallucinatory but discernible journey. The spirited technique makes the viewers active participants in the freewheeling narrative; the film plays in what feels like a choose-your-own-adventure book that operates with mystical self-awareness. While heady movies that explored themes of identity and dissolving personalities tend toward bold forms of expressionism, a la Bergman’s Persona, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Altman’s 3 Women. Celine and Julie Go Boating is daunting in length and at times obtuse, but Rivette doesn’t tend toward over emphatic confections but opens a new avenue of participatory storytelling that is cryptic, funny, modern, and challenging.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Celine and Julie Go Boating is one of those curios in film; I’d read about it in textbooks, articles and interviews but the film had been something of an enigmatic title, restricted to historians and French cinema completists. Luckily BFI recently released a restored Blu-Ray and, while it’s restricted to a Region 2 coding it means there’s a restored 1080p image transfer out there. Celine and Julie Go Boating is the kind of international arthouse film that should be an assured entry in the Criterion catalogue.