Hoberman Revisits “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a Classic Pairing of Depth and Sparkle

Hoberman Revisits “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a Classic Pairing of Depth and Sparkle
Whimsy is grounded by the vulgar schoolyard pranks and submerged eroticism of the pair’s telepathic rapport: Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto.
(Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest)

There are movies that (just as there are people who) take such pleasure in themselves that you can’t help but admire them. It’s contagious — they are enchanting precisely they so openly revel in their movie-ness. “Casablanca” may be the best-known, but the supreme example is surely Jacques Rivette’s 1974 “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” starting a revival run in a new 35mm print, this Friday at Film Forum.

The most experimental of nouvelle vague directors, Rivette was here concocting a recipe for a cinematic joie de vivre so heady it might be sustained for three-plus hours. “Celine and Julie” is verdant, airy, and playful — at once a leisurely exercise in narrativity, a comic rite of spring, an extended riff, a genial incantation, and a feminist buddy film. Harpo-mop Julie (Dominique Labourier), a librarian with a scholarly interest in the occult, and mercurial Celine (Juliet Berto), a pouty stagemagicienne, cross paths and form a friendship based on playful role swapping and mutual mind-reading.

There’s a measure of preciosity but the actresses are resourceful, unafraid, and often very funny. (New York Times reviewer Nora Sayre characterized Berto as “a defiant, ruthless clown.”) Whimsy is grounded by the vulgar schoolyard pranks and submerged eroticism of the pair’s telepathic rapport. “Celine and Julie” is scripted but it has the free-associative feel of a fantasy created by two imaginative kids over the course of a long summer vacation. (Truly, Rivette learned the lessons of his open-ended, quasi-improvised 14-hour epic “Out 1”; “Celine and Julie” is his rules of the game in more ways than one.)

The movie’s first act is a long, playful hide-and-seek pursuit across Paris; in the second act, Celine and Julie become accomplices, investigating the sinister doings in a seemingly haunted house. They relive their discoveries as shared memories, triggered by some magical sweets (part Proust, part “Alice in Wonderland,” part mescaline). The situation becomes more explicitly cinematic when they discover that the house is offering a continuous loop showing of the same domestic mystery.

Alternately horrified and hysterical with laughter, Celine and Julie watch a pair of mannered mam’zelles (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier) slink around in murderous competition for the affections of a fatuously morose widower (the film’s producer Barbet Schroeder). Thus, the movie turns into an essay on spectatorship that, in its delirious third act, has the duo intervene in the melodrama they have been critiquing. Their high spirited, improvisatory style alternates with the over-determined, claustrophobic atmosphere in manner that suggests Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang battling for control of the universe. What’s magical about “Celine and Julie” is the way it conjures up so many earlier movies (Feuillade’s serials, “Duck Soup,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Band of Outsiders,” Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies,” to name a few) while seeming completely sui generis.

At the same time, “Celine and Julie” seems to have cast its spell on such disparate subsequent films as “Irma Vep,” “Mulholland Drive,” “In the City of Sylvia,” and especially Madonna’s most respectable vehicle, “Desperately Seeking Susan.” It seems to have always been with us but, like any cult film, “Celine and Julie” required time to find its audience. Hailed by its devoted early champion Jonathan Rosenbaum in both Sight and Sound and Film Comment, “Celine and Julie” had its US premiere at the 1974 New York Film Festival (along with Rivette’s even longer “Out One/Spectre”), then waited over three years for a commercial release.

In early ’78, New Yorker Films opened the movie at the Cinema Studio where, if memory serves, it lasted less than a week. Some 10 months after that, before vanishing into the realm of Rivette retrospectives and one-day revivals it got a brief run downtown at the Public Theatre. Senior critic Andrew Sarris had two more commercial openings by nouvelle vague directors (Claude Chabrol’s “Violette” and Eric Rohmer’s “Perceval”) that week and so “Celine and Julie” was reviewed for the Voice by its neophyte third-stringer, moi: “The quintessential French movie of the past 15 years … an original and entertaining metaphor for film-watching and, perhaps, film history.” Decades later, that history is unthinkable without Rivette’s glorious intervention.

Indeed, having newly revisited “Celine and Julie,” I could not help but superimpose its premise over the weekend’s two other outstanding releases — the superlative comic-book (or pure cinema) son-et-lumiere spectacle that is “The Avengers,” and the lovingly restored re-release of Shirley Clarke’s landmark 1961 adaptation of Jack Gelber’s dope opera, “The Connection.” While it’s superhero business as usual to watch the eponymous Avengers vie with Loki for control of their scenario, it would be truly fabulous to watch Celine and Julie insert themselves into and take control of “The Connection”’s Pirandellian ritual.

Read more J. Hoberman in Movie Journal