Jacques Rivette’s experimental joyride features two women whose explorations of a haunted house serve to turn all the conventions of film and genre upside down.
French director Jacques Rivette has been subverting narrative expectations for most of his career. It seems to be his mission in life to turn the art of storytelling inside out, allowing us to see how the construction of stories in our heads determines the ways we see the world. None of his films exemplifies this more than his impish 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating.
Celine, a free-spirited bohemian with a magic act, played by Julie Berto, and Julie, a daydreamer and librarian played by Dominique Lobourier, meet by chance in a Paris park, inaugurating a strange friendship that involves playing tricks on each other, assuming each other’s roles and generally improvising little schemes and adventures. There’s a playful, making-it-up-as-we-go-along feeling to all of this, and as it turns out, it’s all meant to seem improvised. The screenwriters, Rivette and Eduardo Gregorio, opened the story up for elaboration by the two leads, and a couple of the other actresses in the film as well. Celine and Julie are all about breaking free from rigid conventions of storytelling into a free-flowing style that is based on inter-feminine talk, fantasy, and play. The principals work very well together, as if they’ve been friends for years. And throughout there is a delightful mocking attitude towards male roles, male privilege, and conventional (in other words, male) ideas of what drama is all about.
Later the duo stumbles on a house haunted by the ghosts of a widower, two women who want him, and his young daughter. Celine and Julie go about reconstructing the mysterious melodrama of the house, “remembering” images and scenarios through sucking on magic candy they have received in their sojourns there. In the process, we see scenes jumbled up in different orders, repeated, or linked together like a puzzle. The bizarre, gothic murder story is set off by the irreverent commentary of the two goofballs.
Rivette pays tribute to the mystery and fantasy realms while making fun of them in a lighthearted way, using his two leads to tear the plot apart and reveal the sexual and familial roles that lie festering like madness underneath.
The picture is over three hours long—it’s intended to serve as an antidote to the tyranny of tightly-plotted little dramas, so to that end we have a film of wandering and tangents, puns both verbal and visual, and a Lewis Carroll-style subversion of waking reality. This is a film that establishes a world of its own, with its own charms, subtle feelings and disorientations. And it has a different sense of space as well—enough room to laugh and make comments, or just munch loudly on your popcorn.