The great problem with film criticism -- or at least the shortcomings of my own critical faculties -- is that the best films are often the hardest to describe, both because they grab the viewer in ways that the overwhelming majority of good, bad and ugly movies inure us against and because the critic wants to preserve the effect for the audience. A movie, good or bad, is an experience, and describing a transcendent one will always be more challenging -- and infinitely rewarding -- that cataloging the woes of an alienating one. I recently mentioned this on other blog that listed Terrence Malick's The New World as the best film of the decade, and how I'd left Malick's film off my own list because my single viewing of the film awed and hypnotized me too much to trust my critical senses. I shall spend more time with that film and its alternate versions, and perhaps I can one day soon write about the sheer magnitude of the experience of Malick's film, which was too staggering to put into words when I watched it over a year ago.
The pinnacle of cinematic achievement typically arrives when the filmmaker in question understands and visualizes the distinct difference between truth and honesty. The two are related, yes, but one is objective, cold, uninviting. Truth, that is to say the actual truth and not the putrid infotaintment perpetuated by pundits, politicians and writers, is the alpha and omega, undebatable and, frankly, uninteresting. Honesty, however, can be passionate; it is subject to the whims of emotion, and yet those emotions are genuine. Those who understand this best -- among them Godard, Scorsese and Herzog -- are eclectic yet identifiable because of their underlying quest for the honesty that lies beneath truth.
Which brings me, finally, to Jacques Rivette and his breathtaking, captivating and quietly experimental opus Céline and Julie Go Boating. I have never before seen a Rivette film, and before I began to seriously read Jonathan Rosenbaum about eight or nine months ago I admit I'd never even heard of the director, all the more stunning considering his importance to the French New Wave. Rivette was to be the Cahiers writer to break the group of filmmaking critics, but setbacks in his debut gave Truffaut and Godard the leg up, and they exploded into international stardom while Rivette placed his affairs in order and finally released Paris Belongs to Us in the wake of The 400 Blows and Breathless. By the time he released Céline and Julie in 1974, Rivette had only managed to craft an additional three features (well, four, if you count the different cuts of Out 1, which would make sense considering the massive difference in running times). Where his colleagues and friends hit the ground running, Rivette crafted gargantuan character epics that struggled to receive backing and distribution. By the time he sorted out these problems, the New Wave had already passed.
But, if anything, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a key summation of the Paris Godard sought to capture with his own increasingly radical cinema, signaled in a cosmic way by its near-perfect balance between Godard's experimentation and sociopolitical concerns and Truffaut's more optimistic humanity. The entire film is a Möbius strip, following Celine and Julie until we return to the ending and we find ourselves now watching Julie and Celine, with the promise of a whole other three-hour feature to be seen in some alternate dimension (look out for the heavy mirror imagery in the film). Or an alternative to the alternate dimension in which the film occurs, as Céline and Julie is truly otherworldly. It is unlike any film I've ever seen or any experience I've ever had, and it has given me an insight into Rosenbaum's occasional crabbiness: who wouldn't be continually outraged to see the creator of such a work go unheralded? And if this is not Rivette's best film, how the hell can so many see fit to exist without him?
The initial meeting of the two characters occurs in a park, where Julie (Dominque Labourier), whose big glasses and frizzled hair give away that she's a librarian long before anyone tells us, spots a young woman dropping possessions and continuing unfazed like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (numerous comparisons to Carroll's book pop appear in the film, to say nothing of the two works' similar explorations of magic and wonder). Julie makes some noises to get the lady's attention, but Céline (Juliet Berto) walks on. For nearly 15 minutes, Rivette leads the audience through a laid-back "chase" as Julie walks behind the woman who no one else notices and eyes her curiously. Approximately 12 of these minutes pass without dialogue, playing into the silent film homage established from the opening credits, jaunty piano et. al, and the title cards that pop up occasionally only strengthen Céline's ties to classic cinema (there is more than one overt reference to Feuillade, particularly Les Vampires). When Julie finally reaches her target, the two barely speak and part, but Céline shows up at the librarian's house shortly thereafter and they become fast friends.
The two scour Paris together, their adventures filled with a airy sense of elation that slowly separates them from their jobs and normal lives without consequence. Rivette films with an improvisatory feel befitting the New Wave style that nonetheless cannot disguise the intricate planning of the film, both in its dialogue and structure. Céline and Julie overflows with puns, undoubtedly more than I can spot as the subtitles (which could do with a new translation, judging from the track I used) can only rework so much of the French wordplay. The title of the film itself is a play on the phrase "aller en bâteau," the French idiom relating to shaggy dog stories, that is, a protracted tale that leads to a deliberate anticlimax. At over 3 hours with an ending only gently different from the beginning, Céline and Julie Go Boating certainly qualifies as a shaggy dog story, but its precise lack of a narrative endgame is partly what make it so enchanting.
For Céline and Julie is a film of magic and magical feeling. The book Julie reads at the beginning concerns magic and magic spells. After returning Céline's scarf, she returns to the library and plays with tarot cards, and her reading reveals that she's in a stagnant place in life but also chucks out a contradictory statement about her future being "in the past" that sets up the constant reversals of the film, conveyed visually though the heavy mirror imagery. Céline herself works as a magician, and we see her work her act in a seedy nightclub where we cannot help but suspect that Céline, dressed as she to reveal every last inch of her legs, will perform tricks that may not necessarily have anything to do with magic. But she slowly removes her gloves and casts suggestive looks at the men in the club and then performs her magic show. It's both a fiendish subversion of what the audience might naturally expect a sexy young female in a smoky nightclub to do and the ultimate striptease, never removing anything more than a pair of gloves; this shaggy dog has blue balls.
As the bond between the two deepens, Céline and Julie can swap roles with no one else noticing: Céline dresses up to confront an old semi-romantic liaison from Julie's childhood named Gregoire, whom she teases as her friend. Their conversation builds from the initial exchange of pleasantries to gentle reminiscences that spiral into sexually charged lust that boils over until the poor lad can no longer contain himself and his trousers suddenly drop to the ground (in front of a playground no less). Céline then stops the frenzy cold and tells the man to "go jack-off among the roses." Gregoire later calls the real Julie to announce that he's joining a monastery and that it's entirely her fault; she is of course puzzled over the outburst. After hanging up, Julie suddenly grows indignant and picks the phone back up to shout "Go masturbate in the daisies like a Gregorian" (a pun on his name Gregoire). Gregoire has of course already hung up, but had he stayed on the line he would be more convinced than ever that Julie really was there at the park with him. Later, Julie tries her hand at Céline's magic act and, despite her shyness, plays up the tease aspect of the show more than her more bohemian and open chum. Their ability to mesh into one and live out each other's lives plays in some respects like a whimsical version of Bergman's Persona, replacing despair with carefree cheek.
The relationship between the two characters is so tight that some might be tempted to describe it as a romantic one. Disagreeing with this assertion can be tricky, as I've read some reviews throw out this interpretation as if to say that suggesting a lesbian relationship is an insult. The two may very well be closer than just friends, given heightened physical contact and the way that their exploits recall a more free-form version of the puppy love montages of so many rom-coms, but what I find insulting about some of the suggestions of a romance is the implied idea that no straight women could act this freely and independent of men. A casual scene in which Julie hangs a few dolls on a wall and pins a boy figurine by its feet is a giddy visualization of this, but this theme runs far deeper. Those aforementioned role reversals involve the females rejecting the men who hold some sway on the life of the other. Julie kept a photo of Gregoire with a rose as if a shrine to a lover lost in a battle, so Céline breaks her of the lingering crush by alienating the man. Meanwhile, Julie performs as a magician and ends up castigating the same seedy men who ogled her friend, calling them pimps before storming out of the place. Because both similarly break the other away from men, Céline and Julie free themselves to hang out with each other, and it's interesting how the rejection of men coincides with the ladies' break from normal society and, before long, reality itself (one should also note that Julie leaves her job as a librarian to live in her own piece of fiction). Talk about women's lib.
The theme of female bonding offers one interpretation of the film, but Rivette plunges into the deep end of cinematic exploration in the movie's second half, which revolves around a mansion at the fictional address of 7 bis, Rue du Nadir aux Pommes (the Worst of the Apples Street, a.k.a. bad apples?). When one of them enters the house, she emerges later with no recollection of what transpired inside and finds a candy in her mouth, which she saves, assuming it to be of some importance. It is indeed, as sucking the candy unlocks the memories of the mansion visit.
Here Céline and Julie becomes about movies themselves, as well as the act of movie-going. Inside the mansion is a play of sorts, featuring a group of women vying for the hand of the widower who lives among them. Also inside is a young girl, the widower's, who may or may not be murdered just as the candy wears off and Céline and Julie can no longer watch the story. This narrative within the narrative represents the old style of French filmmaking, poetic realism, both in its structure and especially its more rigid and melodramatic acting. Céline and Julie, of course, with their insouciant wandering and giddy conversations, embody the New Wave, and Rivette pits the styles against each other to craft a more wholesome cinematic language. He tears it down almost immediately afterward, which may be the point of the film, but more on that later.
The Proustian affectation of the memory candies in some ways predates the idea of a VCR, which had been invented by 1974 but not yet condensed and cheapened sufficiently for widespread home usage. The friends process more of the elliptical story with every visit and use of the candy, in the same way that re-reading a book or re-watching a movie can yield all new details and interpretations. Céline and Julie debate over the mystery and what this story has to say like critics looking for a film's meaning, all too fitting for a film with as many readings and enticing mysteries as this. In the "replays," the character who entered the house assumes the role of the young girl's nanny, Miss Angèle Terre, which splits into two relevant puns: "Miss Terre" equates to "mystère," while "Miss Angèle" becomes "mise en gel" (i.e. frozen). The characters insides the mansion are frozen in their doomed one-act play, a mystery compounded by the editing ellipses, a mystery that the two women attempt to solve, or at least fashion into something in their liking.
Thus, the second half of the film becomes a paean to the spirit of New Wave filmmaking. After watching the "movie" of the mansion over and over -- in one sequence, Rivette inserts quick cuts to shots of Céline and Julie gawking into space over their shared memories, recalling Truffaut's quote about the most beautiful sight in a movie is to look away from the screen at all the upturned faces -- until they brew a potion that allows them to actively influence the events in the mansion. They go from film watcher to filmmaker, much in the same way that the Cahiers writers took their impressive knowledge of film and parlayed it into an exciting new movement. When they enter simultaneously and begin to change the "narrative," the two notice the people inside suddenly slathered in too much makeup -- à la the massive pancaking done back in the silent era -- and stiffer than usual. Céline and Julie rework the story so that they might save the young girl, who escapes with them.
This sequence reveals the extent to which Labourier and Berto guided the film in addition to Rivette. Their real-life friendship adds yet another facet to the metastructure of the film and certainly influenced their improvisation with each other. They'd certainly had their own experiences in radical art, particularly Berto, who had of course gotten her break in Godard's late-'60s pictures as he was coming into his so-called radical period. Perhaps then, the widower inside the mansion represents the typical male director they normally had to deal with: he flatters the two women who vie for his attention and we can see him guiding them into action -- his implication to the women that he can never re-wed while his daughter is still alive creates the impetus for the mini-story and the slimy depths men will go to get their way. Berto even said of Rivette that his primary job on-set consisted of taking the improv of her and Labourier and condensing it into some sort of working narrative.
By that measuring stick, Rivette "fails," but the film he makes instead is far more rewarding than any possible attempt to force the giddy whimsy of the dialogue and the waltzes through Paris into a story with a definite endpoint. He emphasizes the proud femininity of the characters and sacrifices none of their charm. His use of jump cuts, even, add to the sense of wonder and unpredictability. Such edits break the timeline, the flow of the images to remind us of their falsity even as these cuts only add to the effect of being swept away into the film; once these cuts begin to show the fractured pieces of the mansion narrative, they become more concrete than abstract, representative of the bits of memory the two experience through the amnesiac fog the mansion places upon them. The sudden cuts to close-ups signify the little details that stick in the minds of attentive viewers, a facial expression or a seemingly random trinket that means as much as anything in the story. The fact that we see these jump cuts before they align with the mansion story suggests that the film we started watching at the beginning was just the latest iteration of this looping story, which starts in a slightly altered repeat when the film cuts out three hours in (on a shot of a cat no less, a clear reference to the Cheshire Cat). So, maybe Céline and Julie, with its juxtaposition of liberating New Wave techniques and ideals with more formal and repressed classic cinema, will loop until Rivette figures out the perfect balance between them.
What he doesn't realize -- or perhaps he does -- is that the oil and water combination of the two styles seen here is no less intriguing than a homogeneous mixture. Céline and Julie Go Boating is stuffed with intellectual and cinematic allusions, analysis and mysteries (some of which I hope remain insoluble even after repeat viewings), yet it's more engaging, delightful and transcendent than nearly all films that aim for the heart instead of the brain. The film, for all of its light surrealism and double-back structure, captures the Paris of the 1970s with that honesty I mentioned earlier, from Céline's hippie-chic garb to the greater liberation as the failure of May '68 began to morph belatedly into the liberal reform the movement sought to bring. Whether it's a lesbian date movie, a defiant entry into feminist cinema, a commentary on the cinema and the role of the audience or all of the above, Céline is one of the greatest works of cinema's greatest decade, and one of the most tantalizingly playful. In what other film could two grown women raid a magic store at night wearing black catsuits and roller skates?