When the semi-annual conversation on female buddy movies resurfaces, there are usual suspects. Thelma and Louise. B.A.P.S. Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Steel Magnolias. One film that doesn’t show up in the conversation nearly as much as it should is the French masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating (now streaming on The Criterion Channel). Director Jacques Rivette’s filmography is equally as labyrinthine as his 1974 film, bubbling over with marathon dramas like Out 1 (1971) that refuse to spoon-feed their viewers and act as runtime endurance tests. Avant-garde from the jump, Rivette’s female friendship saga remains his most accessible and captivating work, to both cinema fans and cinema makers.
Cinephiles and bookworms alike will find solace in Céline and Julie Go Boating, wherein Illusionist Céline (Juliet Berto) encounters librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier), and together they tumble down a Parisian rabbit hole and marry misadventure with time-bending in a quest to unravel the mysteries of a child murder time-loop.
If that sounds like a lot to unpack, that’s because it is. Céline and Julie is filled to the brim with plot codexes and narrative labyrinths, each avenue leading to a coda that brings it all back home, ad infinitum. The opening title card reads, “Usually, it began like this”; what we are about to watch is more of a carousel than a horse race. An early scene has Julie minding her own business and reading a book when Céline, the metaphorical White Rabbit, runs across her path, dropping personal items along the way. Eventually, Julie is drawn to Céline ’s vague depravity, a friendship is forged, and the pair share threads, beds, and entire personas (which makes the film a stellar double feature with Robert Altman’s identity exchange-as-transformation chronicle 3 Women). Three hours of runtime later, and the roles are reversed in a cycle both narrative and thematic.
With the aid of a magical candy with transporting powers, the duo happen upon a beautifully foreboding mansion (“A real morgue,” one of them calls it) on rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes. They watch it at first, as observant as the audience that observes them. They crack jokes, a femme version of Statler and Waldorf uppets in the wings of a stage play. But it’s not enough to be spectators. Céline and Julie soon choose to penetrate the fantasy space and become active participants in the tale they’re unraveling as one might go to a repertory theater and watch the same classic time and time again, searching for new clues with each viewing. The candy serves as a memory aid in addition to a vehicle (when they leave the house, they immediately forget the bulk of the events that occurred within it), and the women consume more and more of the sweet with every “visit” in order to piece together the mystery within the Gothic walls of the home.
The characters gaze upon other characters in a story-within-the-story; a pair of catty adult siblings (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier), a widower (Barbet Schroeder), and a frail child (Nathalie Asnar) interact with each other in perpetual motion like figures in a motorized snow globe. The story is patriarchal-centric, and it doesn’t spoil much to reveal that the protagonists’ active subversion of that narrative is one of the reasons why Rivette’s film is hailed as a feminist gem. More mysterious than Groundhog Day (1993) but less sinister than Hideo Nakata’s The Complex (2013), the time loop that the family (and by extension, Céline and Julie) waltzes within is a danse macabre that demands its viewers’ attention as much as one of Céline ’s sleight-of-hand tricks. The family effectively acts as a pseudo-troupe of stage performers, repeating their curtain calls ad infinitum. As this continues, the line of demarcation between fiction and reality (and of author and player) blurs increasingly with every rotation. In this respect, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a movie about movies: their joy, their power, and their malleability.
The character with the most range is the setting. Through the watchful lens of cinematographer Jacques Renard, Paris extends beyond the theatrical aspect of the winding plot, capturing the vibrating energy of the streets of Montmarte and the sprawling parks that stretch out like a cat in the sun. Outside of the House, the characters’ identity-swap plays out throughout the city: the women are interchangeable as one interacts with the other’s longtime lover in a park, or when they switch places for a cabaret act. The theater expands beyond the House that Céline and Julie examine and heckle, all the way out to the city limits of their “real world” itself.
As Elaine May did with her unorthodox gangster picture Mikey and Nicky (1976), former Cahiers du Cinema critic Rivette trusted his actors to be cognizant of character and continuum, giving the leads co-writing credits. Like Mikey and Nicky, the story (adapted, among other influences, from a Henry James novella, The Other House) is a potent brew of script and improvisation. Thanks to both, and the real-life friendship of the principal cast, an authentic vitality pirouettes from every scene. Its influence can be found in the work of David Lynch (Mulholland Dr. has been read as Céline and Julie with a more explicit queer text) and Susan Seidelman; the latter’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan follows the identity-swapping exploits of a pair of young women in New York. A high contrast from (albeit with all of the chemistry and magic of) Peter Jackson’s 1994 thriller Heavenly Creatures, Céline and Julie treats the “bad influence” archetype as both a liberating and innate part of every woman’s psyche.
Sometimes you want a film that bewitches as much as it endears. Through that ensnarement, Rivette motivates us all to follow the rabbit and tap into the creative potential that lies within. A commercial and critical darling in its time, Rivette’s movie snagged the Special Prize of the Jury at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1974. Stateside, it was an Official Selection at the New York Film Festival the same year. And yet, Rivette is not the household name he should be. This week, change that narrative and stream Céline and Julie Go Boating on the Criterion Channel.