Jacques Rivette is often cited as one of the central figures of the French New Wave, alongside his famous Cahiers du Cinéma contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut among other luminaries. While that’s true, Rivette’s filmography represents a fascinating and almost formidable collection of winding reflections which had limited availability when they were released and were often cut due to their daunting runtimes.
That is exactly why Rivette’s work is an indispensable part of the New Wave and his 1974 gem Céline and Julie Go Boating is the perfect example to support that claim. Starring Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier as a pair of telepathically linked women who are on an exciting quest to enjoy life, this particular film is the apotheosis of Rivette’s incursions into the fantasy genre during the ’70s which brought him critical acclaim.
While his magnum opus is definitely the thirteen-hour masterpiece Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a much more accessible cinematic experience that pulls the viewer into the magical world that is inhabited by the film’s enigmatic central characters – Céline (Berto) and Julie (Labourier). It all starts off on a sunny day when we see a woman reading a book on the occult while sitting on a park bench.
Suddenly, we embark on a manic chase as she tries to return an item dropped by another woman but she makes no attempt to actually give it back as she follows her. We are left guessing whether this is an encounter between two eccentric strangers or an elaborate ritual designed by two lovers or friends who routinely reject the mundane motions of life by indulging in these whimsical games.
The world constructed by Rivette is a meticulously fantastical space, one where Céline and Julie are free to be whoever they want to be. They slip in and out of each other’s identities as well as other magically crafted ones, creating a portrayal of female friendship that is simply unparalleled in its sense of delight. At the start, it seems like Julie – an introverted librarian – belongs to another realm when compared to the outgoing club magician Céline but those worlds collide in spectacular fashion.
Over the course of the film’s three hours, we spectate with a huge grin plastered on our faces as both the women try and figure out what is going on in an abandoned house that acts as a heterotopic space. Each day brings a repetitive tale that involves their attendance in that house, subjecting them to all kinds of hallucinations as they find themselves in the attire of a nanny tending to a child while her widower father is pursued by two jealous women.
Cleverly structured as a series of flashbacks and then deliberate immersions into that story-within-a-story, Rivette’s metafictional masterpiece serves as a critique of episodic television shows where cliffhangers drive ratings. In Céline and Julie Go Boating, the two women specifically ingest mysterious candies and memory potions as if they were psychedelics just to find out what happens next in the cheap drama they made up in their own minds!
A hilarious folie à deux, Rivette’s film also incorporates elements of horror but none of it is actually scary due to the detachment of meta-narratives and the undeniable fact that Céline and Julie thoroughly enjoy themselves like few of us could. With references to Lewis Carroll, Henry James and Marcel Proust, Rivette was successful in designing an artistic labyrinth within which the inter-textual elements engage in games just like the characters do.
Featuring grumpy cats and one of the most incredible odysseys in the history of cinema, Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of those rare works which reminds us of all the reasons why we fell so deeply in love with films in the first place. If cinema is as close as we can get to experiencing magic, Rivette is truly one of its most skilful magicians.