Combustible Celluloid
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With: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder
Written by: Juliet Berto, Eduardo de Gregorio, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Jacques Rivette
Directed by: Jacques Rivette
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 193
Date: 09/17/1974

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pretty Maids in a Row

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I became a fan of director Jacques Rivette in 1992 after seeing his four-hour La Belle Noiseuse on the big screen. Unlike his "Cahiers du Cinema" partners, though, Rivette's films are few and far between in the United States and it was difficult for me to see anything more. Thankfully, this early masterpiece was recently released on home video, despite all the earmarks of a financial failure. There are video gods out there that watch over us film buffs.

So I was able to watch my second Rivette film. I sat down to this 193-minute movie with slight trepidation, but I quickly became enchanted and transfixed. Many critics have called this movie an all-time masterpiece, and I heartily agree. The two films share Rivette's love for long scenes (amounting to long films) and natural sound. Other than that, the two films have no superficial similarities. Celine and Julie Go Boating is described on the video box as a comedy, and that I suppose it is. Though don't go expecting anything like The Nutty Professor or There's Something About Mary. I didn't laugh out loud very often, but I was left with a warm glow.

The plot of the movie alone is worth studying, and I imagine it will quickly lose many viewers. Julie (Dominique Labourier) is a shy librarian who reads a book about magic on a park bench. Celine (Juliet Berto) is a nightclub magician who breezes by, dropping various items (a feather boa, a scarf, etc.) as she goes. Julie chases after her, trying to return the lost items. The chase lasts a long time. Eventually Julie finds out where Celine lives. She comes back the next morning to return the lost items. Celine visits Julie in the library (although Julie does not notice her) and draws outlines of her hand in a children's book while Julie plays with a red stamp pad (this is a bit of foreshadowing). Celine shows up on Julie's doorstep and moves in. The pair are semi-flirtatious with each other and become fast friends. Celine answers a phone call meant for Julie and poses as her for a meeting in a park with a male suitor. (Later, Julie will pose as Celine and perform her nightclub act.)

The meat of the story comes when the girls find an old deserted house. Julie enters first, and doesn't remember anything when she emerges. With the help of a piece of magic candy, she recalls the events that happened inside. A man (Barbet Schroeder, who went on to direct films like Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, and Single White Female) lives with his daughter, his sister-in-law, and another woman. At first, we only see bits and pieces of their story. They play like eerie panels in an Edward Gorey cartoon. Julie appears in this story as the family's maid. Later, Celine enters the house and she also becomes the maid. The story slowly gets pieced together and we realize that the man has taken an oath that he will not touch another woman so long as his daughter lives. By the end of the story, the daughter has been killed. After making up a magic potion, Celine and Julie enter the house and try to save the little girl.

There are more twists, but I don't want to give away the ending. And yes, Celine and Julie do go boating at some point.

Many critics have read many things into this movie, but the key thing to remember is that Rivette was a member of the "Cahiers du Cinema" team that included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol. These five directors all learned movies by watching movies. Therefore, the drama that takes place inside the haunted house--in which the characters repeat the same lines over and over and do the same things over and over--is in effect like watching a movie. Celine and Julie at first become characters in the movie as well, unable to break out of their routine. It's not until Celine and Julie have been in the house several times that Rivette even shows us different camera angles of the action.

One possible explanation is that Celine and Julie Go Boating is a fantasy where Rivette and the audience can enter into a movie filled with ghosts and change things around. How often have we imagined what old movies would be like if we could change one little thing? The other important thing to point out is that Celine and Julie Go Boating seems primarily focused on the joy of cinema. Truffaut once said that a movie should represent either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema--anything inbetween did not interest him. Celine and Julie Go Boating has magic, poetry, singing, lots of laughter (the actresses seem to have giggle fits every time the camera is on them), as well as the ghost and murder story.

A third explanation for the movie is that it seems like we're watching realism; the long takes and natural sound. When in reality the whole creation is one of pure cinema. There is no reality in this movie. In a perfect world, there would be an old movie palace somewhere that plays Celine and Julie Go Boating over and over. Then there would be balance.

I wrote the above review back in the 1990s after viewing the movie on a VHS tape. I have been hunting for a decent DVD copy ever since, so the news is joyous that we have, in 2021, a brand-new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. The movie is restored in 2K and includes an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The only bonus on Disc One is a commentary track by critic Adrian Martin. Disc Two includes another long-sought-after item: Claire Denis's 1994 feature-length documentary on Rivette. Other bonuses include new interviews with Ogier and Schroeder, a new conversation between critic Pacôme Thiellement and Hélène Frappat, author of Jacques Rivette, secret compris, and archival interviews. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Beatrice Loayza and a 1974 piece by Berto.

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