Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) Reviews
It is entirely appropriate that Juliet Berto's Céline is a magician, because the movie itself is an amazing conjuring trick; when it's over, you'll probably find yourself wondering how you've been kept spellbound for three hours by little more than Rivette's inventiveness and the infectious enthusiasm of Berto and Dominique Labourier's performances. The film works equally well as a playful experiment in cinematic form, a tribute to childlike imagination and a feminist buddy movie. The only thing at odds with the prevailing spirit of feminism, and perhaps the best evidence that the film was, after all, directed by a man, is a pointless bit of nudity, but I'm happy to write that off as dated Seventies permissiveness rather than titillation. In any case, who the hell am I to complain, right?! The greatest tribute I can pay this three-hour-plus film is to say that, when Céline and Juile's game finally comes full circle and begins again, I always want to carry on watching. Endlessly fascinating, truly magical and a lot of fun!
The story opens with Julie (Dominique Labourier) sitting in a park. Tellingly, she is reading a book about magic. A confused-looking woman (Juliet Berto, best known for various Jean-Luc Godard films) stumbles past and drops her sunglasses. As helpful Julie chases after her with the retrieved glasses (the Alice/White Rabbit parallel is intentional), the woman lurches through the streets and drops further items. Soon, we realize that she's knowingly teasing.
Julie and the woman we eventually know as Céline engage in these hide-and-seek games for several scenes, but finally engage each other in conversation. Céline moves into her new friend's apartment, and the giggling begins.
This odd bonding ritual is drawn out for over an hour of screen time. In fact, 11 minutes pass before anyone even speaks. Some background information emerges -- Julie is a librarian, while Céline is a cabaret magician -- but the central plot takes quite awhile to emerge. Accordingly, this is a film where reading a few reviews beforehand can be a major help. Because otherwise, you may need to watch it again. And remember, it's over three hours.
Bearing this in mind, take some advice: Be patient through the first third, because the heart of the story is not so much about the two women's relationship. Or their giggling. The real intrigue begins when they start sharing visions of a past saga within a large, nearby manor. Widower Olivier (director Barbet Schroeder, demonstrating why he didn't make his fortune as an actor) has a young, sickly daughter named Madlyn. His sister-in-law also lives in the home, and aims to win the vacant role of wife and mother. Another resident female, employed to watch Madlyn, shares the same competitive goal. However, there's a problem: The departed wife made Olivier promise not to remarry, for fear of disorienting their child.
A live-in nurse treats Madlyn and, more importantly, serves as the portal through which Céline and Julie observe the family tensions. She is alternately portrayed by both Céline and Julie during these scenes. This is not the only blurring of the two's identities -- they intentionally impersonate each other for sport at other times.
A crime occurs in Olivier's home, and the two eavesdroppers seek to find who did it and, if possible, to intervene before it happens. The story leaves realism further and further behind as it unfolds. Additional spoilers should be avoided, but do pay close attention to appearances of hard candy.
This can be a wearying film -- did I mention the giggling? -- but it turns more engrossing as time passes. In fact, the final half-hour is so delightful that previous frustrations are mostly forgotten. The ending is perfection.
Jacques Rivette's direction is an abrupt clash of styles, in accordance with the two parallel tales. The contemporary scenes have the loose, documentary-like rawness of the French New Wave, while the manor sequences are almost gothic in comparison. The performances of Berto and Labourier are equally jarring when matched with the actors in the fantasy. Meanwhile, there is essentially no musical score. It's a tricky mix -- part old-fashioned melodrama and part Luis Buñuel-like surrealism. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Buñuel made "That Obscure Object of Desire" just three years later, casting two actresses to portray a single domestic worker. Sound familiar?
We are like in a blind man's bluff, the film begins with a head-scratching hide-and-seek tailing between Julie, a librarian and Celine, an amateurish magician, we will never know from the context whether they are acquaintances before or the first-sight attraction draws them closer, after a chirpy episode of putting out feelers, they lives together in a small apartment, where Celine casually mentions of her unpleasant experience working as a nanny for a mystified ménage-ŕ-trois family, it intrigues Julie's curiosity, from then on, a very unique ghost-house yarn has been ingeniously unveiled through Celine and Julie's multiple impersonations as the reserved nanny in a boudoir drama.
The film is such a pioneer in its blending liberal modus operandi of whimsicality (the first half looks like everything is done impromptu) with elaborately calculated ad hoc murder scheme, Celine and Julie's laid-back and bubbly kindred spirit permeates the film and modulates its rhythm and pulse up to a labyrinthine fantasy, utterly absorbing and an influential progenitor to many future rule-breakers (MEMENTO 1999, 10/10 for instance).
It is a diptych in its cinematographic style as well, the insouciant nouvelle vague influence vs. a multi-angle observation indoors, which magnify Berto and Labourier's disparate temperaments, intensify Ogier and Pisier's distinctive mystique and functionally wrap us up into this whodunit during the long-haul.
Meanwhile, Rivette adequately leaves viewers many open threads to chew on, like the jumpy intercutting of the shots in the house during Celine's magic show, is a perplexing maneuver to lure us into the mystery, and it works. Also, one snippet when they let a coin to decide whose turn to visit the mansion, Julie cannily says "head I win, tail you lose", one should not miss the ephemeral stimulation which plainly gives more credits than its ostensible spontaneity.
At first glance, its 193 minutes running time looks daunting, but as I watched it separately in two days, it turned out pretty well. It is a film can wholly alter one's notion of story-telling in an anti-cinematic methodology, and Rivette pulls it off effortlessly, a must-see for all thirsty film gourmets plus, it has a sterling ending which will make all its time worth the wait.