Like all of Rivette’s characters, Céline and Julie are cinema’s great sleepwalkers—walking through our world, in a world of their own, seeing (quite literally) how the two rhyme and scheme together, how they might scheme back. Is there a plot? It’s the question often facing Rivette characters; the next question is whether they are its audience, subject, or author. In Céline and Julie they are, progressively, all three. When they look in the looking glass, the nod isn’t just to the helpless spectators of Lewis Carroll and Jean Cocteau (like Orpheus, they’ll even find themselves in a car taking them from one world to another)—but to Duck Soup, and to Groucho Marx, ever occupying a different plane of reality than Mrs. Dumont. Surreality: the level right above reality: the level of God and Groucho. With reality entirely at their disposal.
There is a plot, eventually—a little girl is going to be killed. They must save her; which is to say, they must save the symbol of innocence in a world (or house) of plotting reprobates. Not quite the lesbians some feminists would like them to be, Céline and Julie are really children: not only childish (any gag’s a good one, and they live entirely in the spur of the moment), but, like children, whose perceptions defamiliarize all we take for granted, both more attentive to the outside world and its bizarre social rituals, and yet gleefully unaware of any world but the one they make. It's telling that the one desire Julie expresses the entire movie (besides saving the child) is to revisit her childhood home. (Earlier, when she's told repeatedly by her bored coworker, putting in time as a seer, that she’s going to die, she takes up the tarot cards as a fun little card game.) Only children, after all, are permitted to make and enter—or enter and remake—Wonderlands and Neverlands. The whole world is in quotes: a text. They play with dolls like they play with people. The real world exists simultaneously with Henry James’, and Céline and Julie fuck around with both. Not surprisingly, in a few years, they’ll beget the naïve, murderous conspiratresses of Le Pont du Nord and Chabrol’s La Cérémonie.
There’s no distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and this is true of Rivette’s methods as well. Extending the use of interpolations he’d developed in L’amour fou and Out 1, Rivette both plays with any pretense of objectivity—wherefore the inexplicable insert shots, or the characters (in reality) watching themselves (in candy-coaxed revery) from a distance, or even the selective sound design during telephone conversations?—and any assumptions we might have of linearity and contingency, even as a cat's dream at the end seems to have concocted the entire film. We never see the child-murder plot straight through, and three times through it myself, I’m still not really sure what it’s about. For, as in Last Year at Marienbad, whose walking mannequins nearly walk again in Rivette’s House of Fiction (per Jonathan Rosenbaum), all times and states run parallel. The world of Céline and Julie, then, is not one of monistic certainty, but endless possibility. The child-murder plot is full of possibilities—both as a self-contained plot, and for the girls’ hi-jinx. And the structure throughout is cyclical. As in Out 1, the end regenerates the beginning, which itself begins with Julie drawing a circle in the sand.
The red hand: the heavy hand of fate (per Dave Kehr), or, quite the reverse, a way to grasp the world? As in L’amour fou and Out 1, we see characters redrawing (or rechalking) the world, to find some graphic correlation, as if, artists they all are, to try to take control of it. Or at least see it from the perspective of those who are in control.
L’amour fou and even Out 1 are the realistic ones (comparatively) because the worlds the characters create and destroy—and ultimately outgrow—are short-lived balms in face of a messy, mutable reality. Plot as they might, the real world can’t be demarcated; as in Renoir, relationships continue only as long as they continue to change and, eventually, fade away. But the fantasy life becomes plausible (in all sorts of ways) in Céline and Julie, because the fantasies here, infinitely more petty, are not for order, but for subversion, not for stability, but for constant mutation and metamorphosis. Both girls are magicians, and so, as if by invocation, little works of art become real; characters are brought to life.
Céline (Juliet Berto) walks by a poster for a magician, and then becomes her. We see a photo of a man who immediately announces himself in person. And when Julie (Dominique Labourier) looks down at her magic book at the film’s start, a cat seems to turn into a woman. Of course, these transformations are easily explicable by most principles of reality (Céline pauses by the poster because she’s a magician; the man’s photo appears because he’s already a character in their lives; the cat goes away), yet Rivette structures it all to seem like an endless series of invocations. One easy reading is that magicienne Céline is Julie’s Cat in the Hat: an imaginary friend, come forth to bring cheer and trash the world. Rivette’s meticulously naturalistic sound design (the sound of those birds and wind just outside the copious windows and doors) is just how a series of banal fantasies taken the form of–and in–a banal reality: each is finally transformed.
Because ultimately, Céline and Julie are, as Rivette has insisted, two sides of the same person, each really just an excuse for the other’s antics. The ultimate metamorphoses are when they nearly become each other—though not quite, since they each just take the other’s role that was a role to start with (as superficial as those assigned roles Renoir characters are always gleefully taking on as true). Julie plays the magician act, and Céline plays the role of girlfriend to Julie’s dandy boyfriend, who entails a completely ritualized relationship. And thus, I think, they provide bohemian metamorphoses of two other rascals exploiting their sex and objectifying men: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell of Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That any movie could successfully wield and weld the dual primary influences of Hawks’ facetious ode to capitalism (but ode nonetheless) and the anti-capitalist Situationists’ double principles of the dérive and détournement (and just look at the inside of Céline’s house to see how they’ve recreated the world as collage) is an achievement. Céline and Julie Go Boating manages to show how Hawks and the situationists are nearly one and the same. Money-diggers are explorers, after all, and money is to be used for exploration, and as a spur to co-opt spectacles. But that's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As in a spoiled child's world, money's no issue one way or another in Céline and Julie; the one thing it doesn't subvert, of course (how could it?), is a subversive situationist ethos. A do it yourself guide to rediscovering the delights of the street outside, and of the idiots all around you, here’s where we see Rivette first moving toward Shakespeare, and the world as all fools' paradise.