by Allan Fish
(France 1974 192m) DVD2
Aka. Céline and Julie go Boating
One, two, three, eagle-eye and blockhead
p Barbet Schroeder d Jacques Rivette w Eduardo de Gregorio, Jacques Rivette, Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier stories Henry James ph Jacques Renard, Michel Senet ed Nicole Lubtchanksy, Chris Tulio-Altan m Jean-Marie Senia art/cos none
Juliet Berto (Céline), Dominique Labourier (Julie), Bulle Ogier (Camille), Marie-France Pisier (Sophie), Barbet Schroeder (Olivier), Philippe Clevenot (Guliou), Nathalie Asnar (Madlyn), Marie-Thérése Saussure (Poupie), Anne Zamire,
If there is one director of the nouvelle vague who has drawn as much exasperation as admiration, it has to be Jacques Rivette. Many of his films stretch beyond the absolute limit of human endurance. Not just in their length, but in the way he tries to justify that length by the movie itself; even his greatest film La Belle Noiseuse, clocks in at four hours and this – his most famous – at over three. Yet Céline is referred to by many as one of the masterpieces of the cinema, with David Thomson exclaiming it as simply “the most innovative film since Citizen Kane.” So what is it that makes Céline so magical to so many?
In truth it’s that indefinable something that is the magic of Céline in itself. I love the film, but I am also maddened by it, irritated by it, puzzled beyond belief. It’s a film that sometimes you literally have to take a break from and come back to, which makes it perfect for home viewing. There are influences abound, from Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust to Lewis Carroll and Chytilova’s Daisies (and a touch of Monty Python at their most intellectually baffling). Based very loosely on a couple of tales by Henry James, and with a script virtually entirely improvised by its actors and director, it’s a film in a million.
Julie is a librarian who suddenly chases after Céline, a young magician, after she drops a scarf in the street. After chasing her over Paris in a seemingly never-ending game of catch-up, the two finally come face to face in a café, from which meeting they become firm friends and move in together to Julie’s flat. They talk endlessly of stories and Céline supplies many of them, with her wonderful capacity for utter nonsense and fabrication. However, one such story, concerning a bizarre, recurring melodrama in a seemingly abandoned mansion, Céline claims is both true and features her. In it, two women try and seduce a widower, who refuses their advances so as to keep a promise to his dying wife not to marry whilst their sick daughter still lived. Céline is the child’s nanny cum nurse and tries to shield her from attempted murder by one of the two women.
There is undoubtedly an insane quality to Rivette’s film that would alienate many, with two central characters who are, not to put too fine a point on it, totally bonkers. Whether this is down to the hallucinogenic quality of the sweets they originally use to transport themselves as viewers of this melodrama is not clear, but Céline in particular is one of life’s truly mad. Just to recall her tale of her being a guest to a pigmy ruler in the African jungle who hunts Bengali (!!!) tigers is a more than satisfactory exhibit A for the prosecution. Not that Julie, with her endless giggling and hairdo by Janet Frame, is any contender for the emotionally stable diagnosis either. They are literally in their own world, whether sitting like hysterical schoolgirls on that trunk or dressed like extras from Les Vampires as they break in to the local library. Individual scenes and touches recall other movies, and appropriately look forward to others. In truth, it’s incomprehensible even after several viewings, but provides fresh pleasures on each occasion. It’s like a drug-induced assault on both our senses and our intellectual preconceptions about the cinema. It really does leave you with a feeling that anything is possible in front of the camera. More over, in that immortal final scene on the lake (essences of Don’t Look Now abound), though it may not explain the title, it does justify it. With Céline he justified not only himself, but the cinema itself, and its limitless potential. No film-maker can ask or hope for more…or so you’d thought, but…
How Celine et Julie vont en Bateau made the Top 100:
Roderick Heath No. 2
Steve Mullen (Weeping Sam) No. 9
Frank Aida No. 22
Jon Warner No. 57