Céline and Julie Go Boating
d. Jacques Rivette (1974)
The Criterion Collection

It’s been five years, almost to the day, since I wrote about Jacques Rivette’s debut film, Paris Belongs to Us. There I wrote that that film was the first film I’d seen that felt like a Roberto Bolaño story, with its hazy narrative and palpable, though unfocused, paranoia. I’m now sitting down to post some thoughts on Rivette’s fifth film, Céline and Julie Go Boating, and I just want to say: this is the first film I’ve seen that felt like a César Aira story! The film is a playful free-for-all, filled with changing identities, potential mysteries, a hearty dose of magic and metafiction, and the sense that anything at all could happen, since the story is unfolding spontaneously right in front of us, if we just go along for the ride. I’m so glad I got caught up in this story! By the way, I understand that the title is a pun since “aller en bateau” (go boating) also means getting caught up in a good story.

I had not seen the film, though I’d heard plenty about it, until recently when I received it from The Criterion Collection. Their new home video edition — with two stacked discs — is out today.

Julie (played with supreme playfulness by Dominique Labourier) is sitting on a bench one day, reading a book about magic, watching a cat spy a bird, when she sees a strange woman run past, laden with knickknacks that she keeps dropping.

This is Céline (played by the magical Juliet Berto). Julie jumps out of her seat to pick up, first, the sunglasses Céline has dropped. We think she is going to simply call out and return them to this strange woman, but the pursuit soon turns into a game. It’s almost as if Julie doesn’t want to catch up just yet, and so she keeps picking up the scarf or whatever it is the Céline has dropped.

It’s a fun chase, complete with an exhausting sprint up the stairs at Montmartre (all 222 of them), that goes on for some time. I sat there, chuckling at the faces they’d pull, wondering who these two women were and just why they were playing this game. By the end, Céline has shucked off much of her spare baggage and Julie has become the one laden with knickknacks, which to me suggested the games these two will continue to play with their fluid identities and roles. I was in the film’s grip already. It didn’t matter to me that I had no idea what was going on!

The first chunk of the film seems to be about Julie and Céline’s friendship — the beginning of it, the middle of it . . . I’m not sure, other than it is certainly not the end of it. Before we see any image on the screen, the film provides an intertitle that says, mysteriously, “Usually it began like this . . .” I continue onward with a sense that this is not the first or the last time this — or something like this — has happened.

They fall into friendship quickly, and while it never feels like they’re lovers it is clear they are and want to be each other’s priority. I love a moment early on when Julie is working at a library. Céline is watching her from the children’s section. Do they know each other yet? Is this now Céline pursuing Julie? Either way, Céline’s little games to get Julie’s attention are fun and childish.

The film starts to explore what at first appears to be a darker topic when Céline, looking injured and bereft of some memories, move into Julie’s apartment. What trauma has occurred at a certain home that appears on the outside to be empty. Julie investigates.

And Julie herself soon finds herself walking out of the house, a red mark on her back, and no idea what happened in the home.

Here we are back into Bolaño territory, exploring a mystery so mysterious we don’t even know what it’s about. We sense it, but the only evidence we have is of some kind of after effect. As Julie and Céline struggle to remember what happened, we and they get glimpses of something dark going on in that home. There’s been a murder, it seems clear.

But even that, as dark as it is, begins to turn more playful as the women use, well, magical candy to refresh their memory . . . or enter a shared hallucination. While they are still dealing with a dark event, it seems to be a melodrama from another time — one based on a Henry James novel! Better yet for Céline and Julie, they have the power to really get caught up in that repeating story and exert some will of their own.

Céline and Julie are wonderfully realized characters. This was aided by the fact that Labourier and Berto, who were close friends in real life, worked directly with Rivette to create this tale of magic and wonder. I really loved it. And, though it’s long, I am already looking forward to watching it again soon. The film’s ending, after all, demands it!

The Criterion Collection edition is loaded on two discs. The first is the feature itself, which runs at 193 minutes, with an optional commentary track by Adrian Martin. I had hoped to re-watch the film with the commentary for this post, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. There’s yet one more reason I’m anxious to see the film again. The second disc contains a host of supplementary features, including loads of interviews with the cast and with Rivette and, most exciting for me, both parts of Clair Denis’s 1994 documentary Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur. Again, I didn’t have a chance to get through all of this before today, so I’m still looking forward to watching these. I definitely had enough fun with the film that for me none of the supplements are skippable. I’m hoping to have a few hours this week to finish them and then rewatch the film with Martin’s commentary. It will, I’m confident, be time well spent!

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