Monday, March 12, 2007

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974)

Considered Jacques Rivette’s most famous and beloved work, Celine and Julie Go Boating is a curious creature. It is a film that ultimately works despite the fact that approximately two hours of its runtime is utterly superfluous and often tedious. In spirit, it is reminiscent of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies, although it lacks that film’s political consciousness, as well as its economical punch. Nonetheless, it gives us two attractive young women who form a unique bond and then pit themselves against mainstream society. Whereas Chytilová’s Maries were anarchofeminists, Celine and Julie are simply whimsical pranksters who spend a lot of time giggling. For the better part of the film, it appears that Rivette will be content to bounce around aimlessly between situations that range from cute to insufferably cute. However, in the final part of the film, the Ritalin kicks in and he at last settles into something approaching a purpose.

When we first see Julie, she is sitting on a park bench reading a book about magic when who should happen by but Celine, a small-time magician. Celine drops a couple personal items behind her, leading Julie to retrieve them and follow her in the hopes of returning them. This, I suppose, is as good a reason as any to bring the two together. Why though does Celine refuse to stop, thus leading Julie on an extended tour of the city? Possibly it is because Celine and Julie (with the guidance of Rivette) will instinctively choose the path that is most adorable and precious.

Eventually Celine and Julie move in together, cause a disruption at the local library, play a trick on one of Julie’s suitors and do lots and lots of giggling. Although much of the film’s first half is meandering and inconsequential, two standout sequences involve first Celine and then Julie appearing at a local cabaret club. With comic indifference, Celine smoothly endures a heckler as she works her way through a decidedly unambitious magic routine in which the focus is clearly not on her tricks, but on her legs. Later, Julie steps into her companion’s place to vamp, mug and improvise her way through a rough approximation of the former’s performance. Because she is able to keep in constant motion, linking one idea into the next, allowing one emotion to drift into another, it takes her audience a long while to realize that what they are watching not only contains no magic, it also contains no sense.

Out of all this whimsy, it comes as something of a surprise when an actual plot arises in the film’s final hour. At a mysterious house, a stilted melodrama is being played out repeatedly day after day in which an innocent ends up murdered. Alternately, Celine or Julie visits the house and then emerges with no memory of what has occurred until they suck on a magical candy that awakens their memory. Unfortunately, they are only able to remember fragments, thus keeping the murderer’s identity a secret. Eventually, in the film’s comedic high point, Celine and Julie find a way to infiltrate the house together in the hopes of altering the plot and rescuing the victim. This portion of the film works wonderfully because at last we have a tangible object of satire. The ghostly figures that maneuver their way coldly through a bleak chamber drama could possibly be figures out of Bergman, or they could be intended to represent an outmoded French theatrical form. (Indeed, there is a brief smattering of inexplicable applause that would suggest the latter.) No matter what target was specifically intended, the situation pits the dusty old conventions of the past versus the fresh, rambunctious spirit of Celine and Julie.

But to answer what is undoubtedly your most pressing question, Celine and Julie really do go boating. Honest. Like so many other things in the film, the title is something of a comic non-sequitur. But when the moment comes, pay attention to who else goes boating. And take note of the fact that they are traveling in the opposite direction.



Anonymous Joe Buchanan said...

I've always loved this film for the relationship of the two characters - how often do you see women in movies having fun together? But I think that Celine and Julie go beyond being pranksters - they take control in the end, whereas the two Maries in Daisies are disruptive in the face of authority but never seem able to empower themselves in a creative way.

7:55 PM  

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