Céline and Julie Go Boating Review
Le plus souvent, ça commençait comme ça - (Usually, it began like this...)
It's a hot summer in Paris. Librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) is sitting on a park bench reading a book of magic spells when stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) hurries past, dropping possessions as she goes. Julie follows, intrigued. The two women become friends, and move in together. They become interested in a supposedly deserted house in a well-off suburb. When either of them go inside, they emerge later not remembering anything, but there is a mysterious sweet in their mouth. When they eat the sweet, they remember: transported inside the house, as observer – in the role of nurse Angèle - of an ongoing drama, maybe a film within the film, as Camille (Bulle Ogier) and Sophie (Marie-France Pisier), angling for the attentions of widower Olivier (Barbet Schroeder), and a young child, Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar), who is in danger...
First, the title (Céline et Julie vont en bateau in the original French). “Aller en bateau” literally means “to go boating”, but if you're waiting for Céline and Julie to travel in a water-borne vehicle, you'll be waiting until the very end of the film. The expression is an idiomatic one, meaning “to be led a merry dance” or “to go up the garden path” or “be caught up in a story” and that's what this film does to its characters and its audience both. You could call it a shaggy dog story, or rather a shaggy cat story, as it begins with that animal chasing something, has several feline cameo appearances along the way, and ends with a cat staring down the camera. Maybe it dreamed the whole thing.
Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) was first inspired to make films by watching Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (itself due a BFI release, scheduled for March 2018 as I write this). He made his first short film at twenty and, in Paris, worked as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma and saw many films at the Cinémathèque Française, meeting François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, all of whom would make the leap from critics to filmmakers and would make up a large part of what became what became known as the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave. Like them, Rivette took advantage of the possibilities of taking lightweight cameras out on to the streets, giving their films a non-studio-bound freshness. At times in this film, and in others of Rivette's, you can see genuine passers-by caught on camera, sometimes nonplussed as to what is going on in front of them.
Rivette was the first of his colleagues to start work on a feature film, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient) but films by others reached screens first. It's an inside joke in Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (Les quatre cents coups) that Antoine Doinel and his parents go to the cinema to see a film called Paris Belongs to Us, given that it was still in production and wouldn't see the light of a projector lamp for another two years. Rivette's films have never mostly been as popular as other New Wavers (relatively speaking, that is – no New Wave director would have a bona fide commercial hit until Truffaut's The Last Metro ). Paris Belongs to Us introduced many of Rivette's preoccupations: a love of theatre and theatricality (both this and 1969's L'amour fou's characters are theatre troupes in rehearsal), a fascination with narrative and narrative game-playing, a fascination with his adopted city of Paris, with stories and secrets in every nook and cranny, and an emphasis on duration as part of the creative process. This last often resulted in running times that tested the bounds of commercial viability: two and a half hours for Paris Belongs to Us, four hours ten minutes for L'amour fou, six for the two-part Jeanne la Pucelle (with Sandrine Bonnaire as Joan of Arc). The ultimate was Out 1, made as a thirteen-hour, eight-episode serial for French television, who passed on it. It was shown at full length once as a workprint in 1971 before Rivette produced a four-hour-twenty-minute version, Out 1: Spectre, the long version not re-emerging until the 1980s. Several of Rivette's films have not been released in the UK, at least not in commercial cinemas with BBFC certificates.
Céline and Julie Go Boating runs a relatively shorter three and a quarter hours. However, it's a comedy – though that's not immediately apparent from the outset – and its lightness of tone no doubt helped make this most likely Rivette's biggest hit. In UK arthouse terms it certainly is, with the 1991, four-hour, La belle noiseuse its main rival. Rivette developed the film with his principal cast, with Berto, Labourier, Ogier and Pisier, given script credits, along with Eduardo de Gregorio, credited for “dialogues”. Henry James also deserves a nod, as the story within the story is partly derived from two stories of his. Magic and fantasy are writ very large, from Céline's stage conjuring act, to Julie's use of the Tarot and the mysterious sweet which translates the two women from one reality to another. Allusions to Alice in Wonderland are quite appropriate, as we and they end up down a rabbit hole of story, to which Céline and Julie are both spectators and participants. By the end, as we do finally take to the water, reality and fantasy are inextricable, and the ending takes us back to the beginning, though in reverse.
However, what this film also is, is a story of, and a celebration of, female friendship. Céline and Julie are impulsive, not afraid to be ditsy and zany, and great fun to be around. Vera (Some do find them annoying, though.) In this, Rivette shows the influence of Czech director Věra Chytilová's 1966 film Daisies, of which he was an avowed admirer. For Céline and Julie, the mystery that unites them becomes the whole of their lives. They do move in together and may be lovers, as some have suggested, though the film doesn't confirm this either way. Much of this no doubt comes from Berto and Labourier, who are cowriters of the film, and did share a flat while the film was being shot. One of the film's admirers was New York-based filmmaker Susan Seidelman, who was inspired to make her own spin on this storyline, Desperately Seeking Susan. Its influence can also be felt in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Robert Altman's 3 Women.
The BFI previously released Céline and Julie Go Boating on DVD, but this Blu-ray edition benefits from a new restoration. The disc is encoded for Region B. On its UK cinema release in September 1976, Céline and Julie Go Boating had a AA certificate, restricting it to the over-fourteens. Due to some sexual references, it now has a 12, not that it's likely to have much appeal to anyone that young.
Rivette, like Godard and Rohmer, favoured Academy Ratio (1.37:1) long after it had been largely abandoned in western commercial cinema. This Blu-ray transfer, derived from a 2K scan of the original negative, is in that ratio. Céline and Julie Go Boating was shot in 16mm, so there's inevitably grain in abundance, also a visual rawness, and some softness, which you wouldn't see in a film shot in a larger gauge. In a few scenes you can see hairs which had clearly got stuck in the gate when the scene in question was shot, but that's due to the original source and no one should try to remove them.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Nothing much to report here, except to say that the dialogue and sound effects and music are clear and well balanced. English subtitles for this French-language film are optional, and I didn't spot any errors.
The extras begin with a newly-recorded commentary by Adrian Martin. He begins by dedicating his commentary to the man who shushed him for laughing at his first viewing in a Melbourne arthouse in the mid-70s because it was a serious film, didn't he know. With three and a quarter hours at his disposal, Martin gives a very detailed appreciation of the film, covering a lot of ground about the making of the film, its themes and structure and style, with detours including one on how the film relates to the then not-yet-devised Bechdel Test.
The remaining on-disc extras are carried over from the BFI's previous DVD release. Next up is a piece by Jonathan Romney (19:17). Talking to camera, he begins by giving an overview of Rivette's career before going on to discuss Céline and Julie in particular. This was recorded in 2006 (as Romney says partway through) at a time when Rivette was not only still alive but still active as a filmmaker, but it's still very useful, alongside Martin's obviously much longer commentary.
Alain Resnais was another director in the French New Wave who shared Rivette's fascination with narrative, and narrative game-playing, allied with a concern about the effects of time and memory. All of these are in his dramatic features, but he began as a documentarian and memory, of something that should never be forgotten even as it slides out of living memory, is central to Night and Fog, one of the defining films about the Holocaust. They are also central, in a very different way, in the film included on this disc, Toute la mémoire du monde (21:54), from 1956. This is an essay film on the Bibliothèque Nationale, location of some six million manuscripts, and the repository of, as the title says, all the memory of the world. The film was shot in 35mm black and white Academy Ratio, and the Blu-ray master is derived from a 2K scan.
Considerably older is The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1:55), a collaboration between director W.R. Booth and producer R.W. Paul, from 1901. It's a showcase for the special-effects techniques that they had devised, and is part of a strand of early cinema (most famously epitomised by the French Georges Méliès) which is more aligned to magic and illusion than documentary-like actuality. It has a lot of charm. Given the film's age, you can excuse some noticeable print damage. The film was scanned at 2K from a dupe negative.
The BFI's booklet runs to forty pages. Rivette and Berto are both no longer with us, but they are still represented here. The first item is an interview by Gautam Dasgupta with Berto and Labourier, from 1975. The two women talk about the film and their contribution to it, how they created their own characters and contrasting this type of controlled improvisation to a more free-form and possibly self-indulgent approach which, as Berto notes, happened in Out 1.
The longest piece is “Work and Play in the House of Fiction” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, reprinted from Sight & Sound in 1974, the year that Céline and Julie premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, though two years before its British cinema release. This begins by describing the large amount of improvisatory footage Rivette shot around 1970, out of which came Out 1 and Out 1: Spectre, the latter really a different film from the same raw material rather than simply a shorter edit. While Rivette was editing the latter, he was making Céline and Julie, and Rosenbaum points out that the two are at opposite poles in the director's work, from heaviest to lightest. The article is in two parts, the first discussing Spectre (not the complete Out 1, for obvious reasons of then-unavailability) and the second Céline and Julie. It's a very detailed analysis, very spoilery if this was a film you could easily spoil.
From the same issue (Autumn 1974) of Sight & Sound comes the next item, an interview with Rivette by Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky. As with the Rosenbaum piece, it ranges wider than the film at hand, as Rivette discusses his change in filming method from his largely scripted first two features, Paris Belongs to Us and the once-banned La religieuse, to a more collaborative one driven largely by his cast, shot inexpensively with a minimal crew. He then goes on to discuss how Céline and Julie came about by these methods. Next in the booklet is the review from the August 1976 Monthly Film Bulletin, and finally there is Susan Seidelman's “Desperately Seeking Céline and Julie”, discussing how the film cast its spell not just on her but also on Leora Barish, the screenwriter of Desperately Seeking Susan. The booklet also contains full credits for Céline and Julie, credits and commentary on the extras and transfer notes.