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A Vision of Sanity: "Celine and Julie Go Boating"

A pandemic-inspired exploration of Jacques Rivette's epic tale of two women who happily invent their one reality.
Phil Christman
A woman sits on a park bench, reading from an enormous orange book. On its cover we can just make out the word “Magic.” The woman draws vaguely-occultish diagrams in the sand with her shoe—or perhaps she is just doodling. After a few moments, a loudly-dressed woman stumbles past her, dropping things—various small accessories, a doll—as she goes. The first woman tries to bring her attention to these missing items and then, failing to get her attention, sets off in pursuit. From the first woman’s strange hesitations and sudden decelerations, and the second woman’s occasional backward glances, we soon realize that there is a playful or ritual quality to their pursuit. Are we watching a kind of roleplay between friends or lovers? An extended and rather eccentric meet-cute? Two characters behaving, or two actors acting? The chase takes both women out of the park, up a long set of stairs, past an outdoor market, into an outdoor market, through block after block of Paris, and ultimately out of any sort of workaday reality, into a three-hour-and-twenty-minute game where neither the rules nor the stakes ever settle definitively into place. 
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1975), Jacques Rivette’s fifth feature—or his sixth, depending on whether you count the two versions of Out 1 (1971 and 1974) separately—is about such games. After the opening pursuit, we see the characters impersonate each other, with hilarious consequences; we see them carry out and invent magical rituals of various sorts; we see them read each other’s minds; we see them, at night, dressed in Irma Vep jumpsuits and rollerskates, breaking into a library that they could easily have accessed the regular way. Eventually, the film’s loose, loopy, looping sense of time settles down into something that, if you squint, looks like a story. Celine (the woman on the bench, a librarian) and Julie (the crazily-dressed woman, an actress and stage magician), after various hijinks and sprees through Paris, both become concerned with an old house—Julie once lived next door to it, and Celine, the poorer of the two, does domestic work there sometimes—where a Victorian melodrama acts itself out, over and over again. To recover their memories of what happens there, they have to chew a candy. But whenever a story tries to assert itself in this film—whether it’s the early romantic subplot in which Celine’s childhood boyfriend tries to reenter her life, only to encounter Julie, who pretends to be Celine, leads him on with some of the goofiest dialogue ever written, and then de-pantses him in public, or, later, the tale that plays itself out in the old house (a story drawn from two of Henry James’s minor works)—this anarchic duo will thwart it. Their commitment is to their own screen chemistry, which is as beguiling to watch as any friendship or romance ever committed to film. 
If Celine and Julie is about games, it is also made out of them. Like Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971), which opens with upwards of an hour of improv theatre games, Celine and Julie constantly betrays its origins as an intense collaboration by a group of artists who trusted each other deeply—the film’s stars, Juliet Berto (Celine) and Dominique Labourier (Julie); their costars, Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier, whose characters live inside the old house, doomed to reenact the murder of a dull-witted widower’s (Barbet Schroeder) little girl; the writer Eduardo de Gregorio, who drew on the novels of Henry James and Adolpho Bioy Casares to construct the film’s plot; and Rivette himself, a veteran of the French New Wave, who uses his fascination with the sheer process of filmmaking to deconstruct it. The finished film doesn’t feature the same amount of improv as Out 1 does—Rivette encouraged the actors to write dialogue, then, working with de Gregorio, brought everyone’s contributions and ideas together into a finished script. But even at that, the film is not exactly anxious to climb up Freytag’s pyramid. It covers a great deal of ground; every time I watch it I feel as though I’ve gone on a long walk through a strange city on a gorgeous day. And yet it refuses, in a sense, to go anywhere. Its main plot takes nearly half the film to fully kick in, and the last scene leaves you unsure whether everything you just saw happen is not about to repeat itself.  The movie dares you to get impatient with it, even as Berto and Labourier’s charm chases boredom away.  
I used to think that Rivette’s films were of a type that doesn’t exist anymore—long, unabashedly challenging films that played to an audience of cineastes for whom film culture just was culture. This is true enough, but the further I get into his filmography—a process that resembles Celine’s and Julie’s journey, with its air of manic commitment to an initially arbitrary choice—the more I realize that his films struggled to exist even at the time they were made. He began work on Paris Belongs to Us (1960) as early as 1957, but funding proved so troublesome that that film, which almost launched the French New Wave, was instead incorporated as a film-within-the-film of Francois Truffaut’s era-defining The 400 Blows (1959) before it had actually played in a single theatre. His adaptation of Jacques Diderot’s The Nun (1965)—in which Rivette’s beautiful, static compositions contrast movingly with Anna Karina’s infinitely expressive face—was censored. The first, thirteen-hour version of Out 1 was screened only a handful of times before the 1990s. He recut that film into the somewhat more accessible Out 1: Spectre (1974), but then that version more or less dropped out of circulation too. Even his far more recent and commercially successful Va savoir (2001) is rumored to exist in a 250-minute version, Va savoir+, that, once again, supposedly played for a single week in a French theatre and then disappeared. There are such shadow-versions of several Rivette classics, including Divertimento (1992), which assembles alternate takes from La belle noiseuse (1991). Especially for American audiences, his films have often existed as whispers and rumors, sometimes coming into the world nearly simultaneously with their own apocrypha. Fittingly, their plots also often feature shadowy conspiracies and strange doublings. 
I first saw Celine and Julie Go Boating several years ago, via quasi-legal means, after reading a lot about it, which is how I suspect most American viewers of Celine and Julie who are under fifty have seen it. Until this March, there has never been an American DVD of the film, and it only became legally streamable within the last couple of years. Critics, scholars, and film programmers kept its reputation alive. Watching the movie on a computer, around 2015—it used to turn up on YouTube occasionally—I found its rhythms impenetrable; I was fascinated and bored by turns, and finished it with a sense that I had missed something. This was, I later reflected, a type of relationship to art that had been a completely normal part of my college experience—a first, fidgety viewing of Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (2000) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) to rewire my brain in preparation for a second viewing during which I actually understood what I was seeing. It makes sense. Art is ideally approached as Celine and Julie approach life—as a folie a deux, a shared taking-leave-of-one’s-senses-via-one’s-senses, and that kind of experience is hostile to the clock time of a busy neoliberal subject. A few years later, I finally watched the film again, and I felt that I had begun to see the sheer strangeness and hypnotic quality that such admirers as Jonathan Rosenbaum attribute to it.
Recently I watched it again, a confirmed fan, and I felt that Rivette had somehow seen into the world of 2021 from the vantage point of 1975. Time in Celine and Julie seems to run at several speeds at once—as it has done for so many of us these last thirteen months. Inside the old house, an old story plays itself out again and again; it feels more tired each time we visit it. (Late in the film, all the characters in the house take on a greenish zombie-like pallor.) It’s a lot like watching the news: the same figures, acting out the same overwrought plots. Meanwhile, time outside the house is disjointed and irregular; every decision feels infinitely consequential and at the same time utterly trifling. 
Before this most recent viewing, I hadn’t realized how close Celine and Julie—a film often associated by critics (in this essay too) with adjectives like “sunny,” “playful,” “joyful”—comes to being a horror movie. When Celine first visits Julie after working in the house, she is cut-up and bleeding. The people inside the house come to look, again, like zombies, except for the little girl that Celine and Julie save; she is mysteriously absent from the film’s very last shot, as though she has somehow winked out of existence. At one point, a Tarot card tells Julie that her future is behind her. The words linger in the mind, a prophecy of doom, perhaps, or a prediction of eternal stasis—except that, a moment after we hear them, we see that Celine is, in fact, sitting behind Julie. The most frightening interpretation of the words is staved off by this visual pun. But the viewer’s first reaction to the phrase “your future is behind you” remains in play even after this resolution, and hours later, as the film ends, we see that it is about to begin again, this time with Celine on the park bench and Julie stumbling past. Are they any less locked in place than the people in the old house? The film won’t tell us; it ends with a close-up of a cat, yet another possible Lewis Carroll reference in a film full of them. The characters as individuals have disappeared; only their playfulness remains behind, like the grin of Caroll’s famous cat. The effect is to make play itself seem eerie, dissociated. The faintest shift in emphasis changes the film from woozily comic to subtly frightening. (1981’s Le Pont du Nord, a partial remake of the then-seemingly-permanently unavailable Out 1, is similarly playful, a wander through Paris, till a climactic act of violence changes the film's entire mood.) 
Or are they bound for totally different adventures? Whatever happens after the credits roll, one must imagine Celine and Julie happy—one has hardly, for the duration of this long film, seen them any other way. Their attunement to each other, their ability to construct together a counter-scene for every scene that tries to enfold them, seem likely to assert themselves again in whatever new configuration of events they find themselves in. At a moment when so many of us feel that we’ve run through all of our strategies for surviving this strange sort of active stasis, this infinitely strange film about two mad women offers a vision of sanity. 

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