Eugene Kang: For this month’s first Living Room Chat, I suggested that we watch Céline and Julie Go Boating. This film has personally been something of a white whale. Until Criterion Channel picked it up just this past month, it was not streaming anywhere in the U.S., and there was no easily accessible release on physical media that I was aware of. As for why I wanted to check it out, I’m a bit of a rating junkie, and Céline and Julie Go Boating has appeared on both Sight and Sound’s famous poll and is regularly cited as one of the greatest works by one of the fathers of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s work is a large blind spot for me in general. I have only seen two of his other works: The Duchess of Langeais and La Belle Noiseuse. It has been too long since I have watched The Duchess of Langeais to have more than just a vaguely positive impression of it. As for La Belle Noiseuse, I thought it might give me some context with which to watch this film. It is a long, languorous piece about the relationship between an artist and his model, and how the model herself (played by the luminous Emmanuelle Beart) is far from some passive object at the disposal of the artist. I will admit that I didn’t “get” La Belle Noiseuse right away, but after I finished it, I found myself dwelling on images from it and trying to parse its meaning. I will definitely need to rewatch this film at that point. I definitely felt a similar need to rewatch and the feeling of being overwhelmed with this film. Otherwise, I think Céline and Julie is quite different from what I expected. From its plot description, I thought it was going to be much more obviously surreal and playful, perhaps along the lines of Buñuel or Věra Chytilová. Yet this movie kept throwing me for a loop for most of its running time. What is your experience with Jacques Rivette and what were your first impressions of this film?
Nick Davie: Thank you for the suggestion Eugene! Firstly I’ll point out that I hadn’t seen the film either, but much like you had seen it mentioned in various polls/lists rating it highly. In the UK it has been available via BFI player for sometime, and critic Mark Kermode has extensively covered the film, explaining its huge influence on David Lynch and Susan Seidelman, to name two. Whilst Rivette was a prolific filmmaker, I also went in to Céline and Julie Go Boating with only basic knowledge of his New Wave history and time as a Cahiers du Cinéma critic. I had only previously seen one of his films, that being La Belle Noiseuse, which much like Céline and Julie is quite a lot to digest in one sitting. A film about the process, sacrifices, and consequences of creating artwork – considered masterpieces, the film is much less playful than Céline and Julie Go Boating but it is similar in its pursuit of visual poetry and a deeply profound analysis of identity.
Though my knowledge of Rivette’s films is limited, I do know he was heavily influenced by Cocteau and that influence is clearly visible in the twisting, surrealist maze that is Céline and Julie. I share a similar sense of being overwhelmed by the film, I think each watch will see the discovery of different pieces of a bigger puzzle reveal themselves. Personally, I enjoyed the film, I liked the feminist buddy vibe it cultivated, and I think it explores the very notion of film viewing, how audiences and auteurs see films, in a particularly playful comedic way. Almost as if interactive, there is a narrative within a narrative. Like La Belle Noiseuse, the runtime is initially daunting, but the plot was engaging enough to keep me focused, albeit through the constant questions the film throws at you.
Eugene: I’m glad you mentioned the very strong friendship at the center of this film because I think it’s the easiest way into this film. Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier respectively play Céline and Julie. At the beginning, it seems that Céline is the more conservative and put together of the two women. The film literally starts with Céline chasing down Julie to give her some items that she had dropped by walking. The whole scene is a very telling homage to ‘Alice in Wonderland‘, a story very much about changing perceptions and questioning identities. Soon, Céline and Julie become such close friends that the women start to exchange identities with each other. We see Céline meeting up with Julie’s old boyfriend while Julie fills in for Céline in her cabaret magic act. It’s not unusual for women to share clothes, secrets, and large parts of their lives with each other. In fact, Berto and Labourier were chosen for this project because they were close friends in real life. So despite the surreal nature of much of this film, it’s still grounded in reality. It’s also interesting that you bring up the idea of authorship and auteurs in relation to this film. The French New Wave, which Rivette was an instrumental figure in, literally coined the term auteur and many of the films of that era were all about their directors and how strongly they imprinted their personal styles on their films. Yet the way that Rivette filmed this movie was more akin to experimental theater rather than the more controlled environment we tend to think of when we discuss film auteurs. Berto and Labourier had the freedom to create their own characters and even get story credit. They are just as much auteurs in this project as Rivette was and the fact that they are is fantastically empowering. In fact, their power over the narrative will be the main focus of this film in its second half. Were there any scenes that really interested you in the first half of the movie?
Nick: What adds to that unique friendship and bond the pair shared on and offscreen, is both contributed to the writing of dialogue in the film, as you mention Eugene. Rivette didn’t want a totally improvised dialogue but he allowed Berto and Labourier to build their characters in their real lives so and translate it to the film, perhaps another interesting commentary on film viewing and film authorship. This close friendship is refreshing, it is not sexualised at all. Even politically and economically, the difference in their on screen jobs does not come between the pair at all. It is much different to the female characters in Classic Hollywood films for example, where much of the focus is on male characters often denying the kind of agency given to Céline and Julie. The second half of the film and its commentary on film viewing is also the antithesis of a Classic Hollywood narrative, two women acting as a support network for each other without any male protagonists. You previously mentioned Chytilová, and there are definite references to Daises in terms of this feminist friendship element, though Céline and Julie is much less experimental than Daises. I have great respect for Rivette in his approach to this film, he applied a certain level of critical thinking to his own filmmaking which allowed him to challenge tropes. Rivette attempts to challenge popular and arthouse cinema, the long runtime being an example of that, yet managing to create an accessible film within film. In the first half of the film the nature of Céline and Julie’s relationship develops and the initial scene of Céline following Julie with her discarded possessions set me up for a totally different viewing experience. There is a shift in tone when the pair are suddenly living together, which I felt was puzzling initially but as their friendship blossoms the tension totally fades. I particularly enjoyed the chaotic nature of Julie being eased by Céline, the latter even tries her hand at performing Julie’s magical cabaret act. Did you find that the second half of the film compliments the first? There are some elements of repetition that at times I struggled with on first viewing.
Eugene: To be honest, I struggled with the first half of the film as well. Rivette certainly likes taking his time with his films and letting scenes play out in long and naturalistic ways. It’s the same problem I had with Chantal Akerman when I was first exploring her work. But with Akerman, when I rewatched her work I found myself appreciating not only her considerable artistry but her playfulness as well. Playfulness does not necessarily mean constant, frenetic activity but rather a sincere fascination with unlikely subjects. It’s why children can be just as fascinated with the packaging that their fancy new toy might come in. Even having seen this film only once, I think Rivette and his cast capture that so well. The actors never feel like they are “giving performances” but rather that they are playing, and that we are supposed to take their play completely seriously, even when it’s the least serious thing in the world. The second half of the film is when I decided I was completely on board with what Rivette and company were doing. Perhaps I had been conditioned by enough David Lynch to immediately gravitate to when they go to the mansion of fiction and they see the same narrative play out over and over again. It’s a heavily melodramatic, yet stiff and mannered, soap opera most likely based on Henry James’ ‘The Other House‘. Céline and Julie go from watching with fascination to actually interfering with the narrative and changing the tragic outcome to something that suits them better. I actually think that the repetition was a part of the comedy and Rivette’s comment on how fiction tends to cleave to broad tropes and patterns constantly and how absurd that repetition is, both in real life and in this film. Céline and Julie’s participation in the narrative and their ultimate influence on it is the ultimate form of play, which finds something of interest even in the most seemingly mundane content. Their play is a complete subversion of what society and taste has considered acceptable even though it has become unnatural and ossified like the story they witness. I almost think that the second half could have stood on its own as a complete film with just a little bit of context to establish who Céline and Julie are. For me, the second half felt so comfortable because I have seen narratives like this fairly often in my film watching history. What is your history with movies with similar conceits as Céline and Julie?
Nick: I think that is one of Rivette’s trademarks, he lets scenes play out with no time constraints, which I sometimes find disengaging depending on the nature of the scene. Chantal Akerman has a great talent for this as well, packing long scenes full of information that adds to the intended emotion of the film, in Céline and Julie, Rivette really allows the characters to take time in establishing the chemistry they have between each other. Though it can test a persons focus at times, it is great to see a filmmaker given the freedom to work under their own time constraints and not adhere to any structure set by studio or movement in this case. Whilst I do suggest the longer scenes can be harder to follow that maybe an issue to do with film viewing today, which is interesting because as we have said the film is, in its own way, a commentary on audience viewing and authorship. It is interesting you mention David Lynch, he also tends to let scenes run longer than you would necessarily imagine, Céline and Julie‘s influence can be seen in Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Mulholland Drive, all showing varying degrees of suggested surrealism, some feminist narratives, identity shifting, and haunting plot points. The second half of Céline and Julie Go Boating is when the film really pulls the audience in for me, with such a strange twist, a narrative within a narrative- it feels like a dream captured so perfectly, as the pair try to alter the narrative they find themselves in. Through the psychotropic candy also, its this loose grip on control they keep grasping at that is much like a dream, or nightmare. The achievements of Rivette and cast in this film really stood out to me, having read so much praise for the film, it had a Citizen Kane-type reputation about it, one that i was wary of, but the film really stood its ground, more so as it went on. Defying tropes, remaining realistic whilst being totally surreal and dreamlike, the real achievement is in the repetition for me personally, making everything from banal to intriguing continue to be relevant despite seeing it over and over. It is a difficult question Eugene, I don’t think there are many films quite like Céline and Julie, but as I have mentioned Citizen Kane, I do feel that has some similarities, it is almost like watching someone watching something. Discovering a narrative within a narrative, like in Mulholland Drive, the characters try to discover their identities and change the paths they either know have happened or will happen. Does Céline and Julie Go Boating make you want to seek our further work by Rivette? I would love to know if any other of his films really push the fourth wall as much as Céline and Julie?
Eugene: Céline and Julie also had an influence on the 80’s movie with Madonna and Rosanna Arquette called Desperately Seeking Susan. The director of that movie, Susan Seidelman, has admitted as much, especially in terms of the dynamic between the two leads, in which one is more freewheeling and daring and the other is more buttoned up. In terms of the narratives that deal with two women experiencing fluid identities, perhaps the most famous and still most influential example would be Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. But while Persona is very heavy emotionally and self-serious, Céline and Julie is the more playful counterpart. I would also add Robert Altman‘s 3 Women, is almost mystical in its imagery and identity swapping. There is clearly no shortage of films that deal with this narrative and seeing just how popular Lynch is with influential cinephiles (directors, writers, etc.), we won’t see this narrative disappearing from films anytime soon. I am definitely interested with checking out more of Rivette’s work, even though it doesn’t seem that any of his films are quite like this one. As of right now, Céline and Julie is more a movie I admire rather than love. But I feel like that could easily change upon a rewatch, which I would like to do when I get a chance to really familiarize myself with Rivette. For now, I am still grateful to have had a chance to watch this movie, and while it was challenging to watch and comprehend, it left me wanting to unpack its mysteries.