From the favourer (me!): I first taped Celine & Julie Go Boating off SBS when I was about 15, hoping to practice my French listening skills on it, and then discovered no one says anything for about the first 20 minutes. But it just happened to become my favourite film (terribly wanky isn't it, to have you favourite film be an obscure 1970s French affair that goes for over 3 hours). I still watch it about once a year - I love the playfulness, the absurdity, the mystery, and the prominent use of cats.
Writing about someone else's favourite film - especially when you are close to the person, and have heard her speak about the film many times - is, at least initially, an exercise in confronting your own expectations. If Anna's favourite film was, say, Pretty Woman, I would have a fair idea of what I was getting into, even though I have never seen it. I might have made it to the wizened age of thirty-five without being exposed to the presumably hilarious and romantic adventures of Julia Roberts' hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and Richard Gere's whatever-he-is-in-the-movie, but a lifetime of exposure to Hollywood cinema - indeed half a lifetime of exposure to ads for Pretty Woman itself (watch out for her fingers with that jewellery case, you clod!) - has reduced the likelihood of Pretty Woman offering me much to chew on. Thankfully, Anna being Anna, her nominated film is something rather more obscure, less immediately graspable, and infinitely more interesting. You will know this by the way my thoughts on it resemble a second-year English Lit essay.
I knew virtually nothing about Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, but that didn't stop me having preconceptions. For starters, I assumed there would be a boat. Perhaps not a real boat, but at least a metaphorical boat. A gravy boat, at minimum. I expected the eponymous characters to be willowy, lithe young things, alternately serious and whimsical; perhaps they might offer a brief glimpse of petite French boob. (This is a hangover from my teenage years, when the possibility of a glimpse of petite French boob was, as far as I was concerned, French cinema's raison d'etre.) I expected a loose narrative structure, and perhaps some vague, abstract musing on philosophical matters in amongst the (possibly forced) whimsy. Frankly, I expected to be bored a lot of the time. Celine and Julie Go Boating clocks in at an eyeball-withering 192 minutes. That's not where I prefer the 9 to be in my movie run-times. (I should be thankful, however: the full version of Rivette's previous film, Out 1: Noli me tangere goes for a staggering 750 minutes.)
Naturally, the film fulfilled many of my expectations - there is a boat, there are petite French boobs - but otherwise differed from the potential-film my brain had conjured. I was not bored. Celine and Julie were willowy, lithe young things, alternately serious and whimsical, but they were also far more interesting than that. As for their adventures... Well, let's discuss this further, shall we?
The film begins with an homage to Alice in Wonderland, a work that provides many of the film's motifs. Celine, wrapped in multiple scarves, hurries through a Paris park: she is, apparently, late for a very important date, and manages to drop various items every few paces. Julie, who is sitting in the park reading a book on magic, gives chase, picking up Celine's discarded items. They traipse around for some time, Celine running and hiding from Julie but always allowing herself to be seen, often to almost get caught, in order to renew the game. Through a series of encounters, the two women are drawn together and Celine ends up moving into Julie's impressive, bohemian apartment. Julie is a librarian, and seemingly the more conventional of the two, albeit with a romantic imagination. Celine is a stage magician; she is theatrical, flamboyant, almost aggressively strange.
The meat, or let's say nougat, of the film comes when Julie, through circumstances I have forgotten, encounters a quaint old house with ivy-covered walls. Julie manages to enter the house, and something happens that leaves her tired and stiff, hobbling down the road. Glimpses of a second narrative begin to interrupt - a stagey, old-fashioned tale about a love triangle, a sick child, an overbearing nurse, and a terrible murder. Is this story taking place within the strange house? Celine and Julie both begin making visits, emerging with a lolly in their mouths that, when sucked, allows access to this narrative, which apparently somehow exists within the house, recurring again and again, like a play or a movie. (The house narrative is based on a Henry James story called "The Other House".)
When Celine or Julie enter the house, they take on the role of the nurse. As they visit more frequently, the narrative begins to straighten out, but there are still lacunae. Who is responsible for the young girl's murder? By casting a spell, Celine and Julie contrive to enter the house at the same time, taking turns in the role of nurse. They discover the identity of the murderer, and prevent the crime by taking the girl with them when they leave the house. Celine and Julie wake up in their apartment, and the girl is with them. The three go boating - at last! - and see the other members of the mysterious household drift past, as lifeless and static as shop dummies.
Celine and Julie Go Boating offers numerous tantalising interpretations, while resisting being engulfed by or explained away by any of them. The connection to Alice in Wonderland has produced some creative theories, especially regarding the presence of so many cats throughout the film. Are they avatars of the Cheshire Cat? The transformative lolly, and the use of potions, echoes the items Alice must consume in order to access Wonderland. Like Alice, Celine and Julie enter a world that is absurd, but it is the inverse of Lewis's schema. The house turns out to have its own logic, its own rigid structure, in contrast to the chaotic and random "real" life Celine and Julie live elsewhere.
Celine and Julie's relationship is never fully explained - they are drawn together irrationally - whereas the characters inside the house are "rounded", as they would be in a traditional narrative. We come to understand something of their background, and their complicated interlocking relationships. Celine and Julie's infiltration of the house could be seen as "reality", or at least absurdity and randomness, encroaching upon the rigidity of traditional storytelling. Their rescue of the child is a subversion of its inherent cruelty, its callous teleology.
While inhabiting the role of the nurse, Celine and Julie break the house rules. They abandon the "script" and begin ad-libbing and mucking around. This affects the other characters in the house narrative: they turn a sinister metallic grey, as if they have had their sole layer of paint - a patina of humanity? - scraped off, revealing the brainless mannequins underneath. There is an obvious, and deliberate, analogy here with the creation of art, especially collaborative art like cinema. A filmmaker can seek to have rigid control over his or her material - Kubrick is the obvious example - or the film can be allowed to develop through collaboration. Actresses Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier were heavily involved in creating Celine and Julie, and according to interviews had an active role on set. (Another example would be Richard Linklater's Before _____ films, which are an increasingly collaborative project with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Linklater is the nominal director, but the trilogy is the product of a filmmaking triumvirate.)
I enjoyed the way the film treats Celine and Julie as somehow interchangeable even as they are strikingly individual characters. The two craziest scenes involve impersonation. In the first such scene, Celine poses as Julie to meet the latter's childhood sweetheart, Guilou. Julie supposedly grew up with this boy, shared adolescent fumbling with him, and he has returned to claim her hand. As a story, it is like something out of a novel from the distant past - the same kind of rigid narrative the women later uncover in the mysterious house. Julie is a modern woman: she has a job, an apartment. She doesn't need a dashing young doofus from her past to whisk her away. Guilou is gallant and formal, and Celine-as-Julie mercilessly parodies his stylised, old-fashioned manner, rejects his proposal, and finishes by telling him to "go jerk off behind a bush".
The second impersonation scene sees Julie performing a travesty of Celine's magic show for some seedy booking agents. Celine's actual magic act is weird enough - a simple set of tricks that are clearly of secondary importance to Celine's long, exposed legs - but Julie-as-Celine provides a genuinely over-the-top spectacle. The impassive faces of the booking agents underline the scene's hilarity. Both impersonation scenes involve Celine and Julie saving the other from a terrible fate: marriage to a pompous git, and being booked on a dubious-sounding tour through the Middle East. This solidifies their friendship, even though neither realises what the other has done. It also reduces their world to one another, which is interesting. They are intended as a kind of binary, but not in an obvious way. They are more complementary than oppositional. (Even the fact that Julie is a redhead rather than a blonde - the more predictable contrast with brunette Celine - undermines traditional narrative expectations.)
Celine and Julie Go Boating is the kind of film you could discuss for hours. (I have barely mentioned the apparently "real" but never systematised magic that plays such a vital role, and there are countless other elements.) It's a generous film that rewards attention and analysis, but it cannot be reduced to a thematic skeleton. It is also a film that demands a second, third, fourth viewing. The running time makes this prohibitive, but life is hopefully long enough to fit in a few viewings of this singular film.