Double Feature (on Jacques Rivette’s “Céline and Julie Go Boating”)

June 2008

In his amorous 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes intimates that “we go to the movies through sloth, out of an inclination for idleness, inactivity. It is as though, before even entering the theater, the traditional prerequisites for hypnosis were met: a feeling of emptiness, idleness, inactivity: we dream, not by viewing the film or by the effect of its content, rather, we dream, unwittingly, before becoming its spectator. There exists a ‘cinematic condition’ and this condition is prehypnotic.” In the essay, Barthes avoids referring to any film in particular, but his hallucinatory description of a disembodied spectator—hypnotized, doubled, “twice fascinated”—certainly reminds me of the eponymous protagonists who occupy both sides of the looking glass in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating. Ingesting magic candy, amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) and librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) slip into the rabbit hole of narrative; in return, they stare at us through a trippy two-way mirror with wide-eyed attention, sometimes horrified by what they see, sometimes amused, giggling. Their screen is our screen, too.

Arriving at the tail end of the New Wave—it should be noted that Rivette, like auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and replaced Eric Rohmer as editor in 1963—Céline and Julie seemingly predicts, among other things, the Lacanian cinema theory of Christian Metz’s Imaginary Signifier (1977) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973, published in 1975). If the latter essay dissected the male’s gaze and the female’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” encoded in cinema, then Rivette’s film is remarkable in its positioning of its female leads as both characters and spectators (mostly) in control of the film’s subjectivity and outcome. (Despite Rivette’s position as director, Berto and Labourier are credited as writers, and indeed, much of the film was improvised, which surely informs its playful, unrushed sensibility.) It is never clear whether Céline and Julie are lovers or just friends—or perhaps each other’s imaginary friend; the film’s allusive subtitle isPhantom Ladies over Paris. But the pair clearly reflect complex aspects of each other in their game of cat and mouse.

Beginning June 13, a new and long-overdue 35-mm print of Céline and Julie will receive a weeklong run, inaugurating BAMcinématek’s “Directors’ Fortnight at 40” series. Even at three and a quarter hours—an eternity in our Quicktime moment—Céline and Julie is hardly Rivette’s most demanding film: That honor goes to his 1971 ensemble film Out 1, which runs nearly twelve and a half hours (some 225 minutes of which were restructured and released in 1974 as Out 1: Spectre). Breezy in comparison, Céline and Julienevertheless invents its own sense of time, meandering in and around Montmarte with a dreamy summertime rhythm that is occasionally prone to repetitions, stutters, and blackouts. Its structure is a Möbius strip: The film literally begins and ends in the same location, with Céline and Julie swapping places. Rivette bends genres while nodding to cinema’s variegated history by inserting a suspenseful horror story—and what seems to be a haunted house—inside an endearing, slow-motion slapstick comedy, efficiently connecting the dots between vaudeville and genuine movie magic along the way. Viewing Rivette’s hypnotic film is perhaps the perfect fulfillment of summer’s “inclination for idleness,” because when Céline and Julie go boating, we go boating, too.