Amid a plague of contemporary ‘quirk,’ Jacqes Rivette’s ‘Celine and Julie’ is serious stuff

Labourier’s Julie and Berto’s Celine (Film Forum/New Yorker Films)
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I can't remember where I once saw Jacques Rivette's 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating, showing through May 10 at Film Forum, described as a "quirky epic." But the description has stuck.

Almost everything written about Rivette's prolix tale of magic, mischief, female bonding, and met-narrative focuses on its seeming impossibility—a three-hour odyssey that's both irresistibly watchable and theoretically rigorous. But "quirky epic" encapsulates the problem, or the brilliance, of the film in a single phrase. Quirk is intimate, personal, and often coded as feminine; epics are sweeping, totalizing and, sure, male. Quirk is enjoyable, epics are edifying.

Celine and Julie Go Boating doesn't dwell on these apparent contrasts. Instead, as with so many things French around this time, it dissolves or reverses these binaries. It becomes all those things at once: the quirky epic. What it leaves us with, though, isn't a grumpy mess, but a glorious, mysterious sense of relief that sticks with you well past viewing.

Rivette was the late bloomer of the French new wave. Odd as it sounds, he was too uncompromising to find funding during the new wave's initial ‘60s burst of popularity; at least Godard had Breathless going for him. This personal history could have broken a career. Instead, it drove Rivette further into experimentation while leaving his enthusiasm for the classic American film (the initial defining marker of the Cahiers du Cinèma crew) remarkably intact.

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Celine and Julie is long and hard to explain; there's a murder mystery, time travel, sublimated eroticism, and not only a movie-within-a-movie, but then a late-game enactment of said movie-within-a-movie as a play-within-a-movie. Primarily, it's a tour de force of performance, sustained rapport, and sheer joy. It exists at that point where sophistication and silliness not only feed off of each other, but need each other. When James Agee turned his ambitious critical eye on the films of Buster Keaton, he might as well have been doing primer work for Celine and Julie Go Boating. It is surprising, compelling, enigmatic, and, most of all, delightful as a film-viewing experience.

The titular heroines—Celine (Juliet Berto), the feisty, impetuous cabaret magician and Julie (Dominique Labourier), a more reserved and studious librarian who knows a thing or two about real spells—begin the film with an elaborate, unprovoked game of hide-and-seek, a pursuit that's part courtship, part prophecy. They play off of each other as well as any fun-loving duo ever has, prickly and warm even as the film shifts from a relationship set piece to a story.

Celine and Julie, while still finding themselves and each other, stumble upon a mysterious house that serves as a portal into a scheming Victorian love triangle. They take turns visiting it, finding themselves inserted into the perilous situation as a secondary character, only to wander out into the streets, seemingly drugged.

The two then recall events to each other and piece together the alternate reality they have discovered while sucking on bits of hard candy and giggling a lot. It's a psychedelic experience, if nothing else in ritual, that could only have emerged after the hippie dream was dead. Just a couple of weird girls, running around Paris, negotiating multiple dimensions, and periodically tripping their faces off. Celine and Julie is pure cinema in the sense that, without seeing it, it’s hard to feel like you have the slightest grasp on it as a creative object.

However, there’s one major way in which Celine and Julie presents itself as something of a more worldly exercise. For all its unique appeal, it’s impossible to get around the film’s gender politics, or lack thereof. Its two lead stars are women; male characters, when they do put in an appearance (sometimes only by phone) are props, played in one case by a muttering producer. The duo does what they want, dresses bizarrely, and seems to have turned the entire world into a space unburdened by the male gaze.

Of course, they do it all for a male director, and in some ways, the duo is a cutesy, adventurous but harmless vision of intrepid heroines. They are near-genius comics, but they are also fashion plates; they come face to face with murder and metaphysics but themselves offer levity and a sense that everything will work out fine. If there is tension and fear, or a willingness to disrupt the accepted order of things, it’s in the use of the two leads as vehicles for a profound kind of unseriousness.

Compare Celine and Julie with, say, Polanski’s The Tenant, a more compact film that mines similar conceptual material. Celine and Julie may have a lot to say about storytelling and the role interpersonal dynamics have in it, but Polanski—who starred in The Tenant, furnishing his fair share of ridiculousness—made a grim and disturbing trap of a movie. Celine and Julie Go Boating is a hedge maze on a nice day that, when a shadow falls, merely suggests the idea of tension. But it’s all play, sustained by the idealized central relationship. It’s not about women’s lives in any real way, and may just be using them to more abstract ends. Celine and Julie are performers, for us and within the film, which is both their strength and their weakness as any kind of feminist statement.

However, there may yet be a political use for the film, as if such a fantastic moviegoing experience needed one (or as if, at this point, a proper screening run of the film, no matter what the terms, isn’t already a near-religious imperative among cinephiles). What if we take “quirky epic” and transmute it into “epic of quirk”? That might seem like the last thing we need today, when Zooey Deschanel and her ilk have turned wacky females given to eccentric mannerisms and precious lo-fi tastes into a cultural plague.

Celine and Julie Go Boating, though, is unmistakably focused on quirk, predictably channeled through women. And yet its goals, however divorced from real life, are serious, and quirk itself taken as a necessary component of a film spoken about in hushed tones. It’s a reminder that women on screen can be positively kooky and yet do so in a way that achieves serious artistic ends. Celine and Julie Go Boating is a reminder that quirk (like camp) can do amazing things in the right hands.