Jacques Rivette: Introduction/Céline and Julie Go Boating

Introduction / Céline and Julie Go Boating

The Complete Jacques Rivette
Museum of the Moving Image
Queens, New York
November 10 – December 31, 2006

See schedule for details

I can recall few times when it’s been better to be a film acolyte in New York since I arrived here a few years ago. With Vertov at Walter Reade, Rossellini at MoMA, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and The Rules of the Game at Film Forum, a four-piece mini-Ford survey coming to BAM, and a Woody Allen retrospective in late December/early January, it’s a perfect season to color in those embarrassing little blind spots on individual filmographies. Special mention should be reserved for Museum of the Moving Image, which has followed its excellent Frank Borzage-stravaganza with a series, nay, a paean, to one of the less appreciated masters of the French New Wave. To spectators and critics in their mid-twenties like myself, Jacques Rivette remains a mythical, somewhat inscrutable figure, not because his work is particularly esoteric or opaque, but because it’s extremely difficult to see, especially on film. His Cahiers du Cinéma writings have long been available in North America (for a primer, see James Hillier’s excellent two-part anthology of the best Cahiers criticism) and along with Jean-Luc Godard, et al., he was responsible for enshrining the films of American auteurs like Ray, Ford, Hawks, etc. Indeed, they were the reason why they were deified in the first place, paving the way for similar assessments of filmmakers like Brian De Palma (for whom Reverse Shot has a particular soft spot). With his work so largely unseen, the accepted wisdom on most of Rivette has therefore been passed down second-hand from the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson, who were hightailing it to Paris or attending the New York Film Festival from the Sixties through the Eighties, apparently his most fertile period. Estimable critics both, but it’s hardly a substitute for actually being there. Therefore, for folks of this generation, analyses should be taken as a combination of standing on the shoulders of giants, limited exposure through New Yorker Video’s scattered releases, a proxy understanding of the Nouvelle Vague in general by way of Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut, and Godard—and now, with the laudable aid of the Moving Image, the actual films themselves.

Like Godard, Rivette works like an analytical reverse engineer, picking apart the cinema and leaving its part strewn about. Godard’s weapon of choice is a grenade, which rents the mechanism asunder, leaving only charred, unrecognizable fragments behind, which are insanely difficult to reassemble, which he does with patchwork bits of homage, dialectic, and blatant formal transgressions, all colliding, ricocheting, and generally jostling for space. Rivette, by contrast, works with the delicate touch of a clockmaker, removing the cogs and springs of his medium such that, at a later point, they can be put back together in skewed configurations (with respect to the canon). Godard’s revelations, clear-eyed, and breathlessly dynamic, are immediate, if not immediately manifest, while Rivette makes one wait for enlightenment, the minutes do not so much pass by as aggregate, building one component on top of the next to create an ever-more complex and incredible machine. In Rivette there’s a sense, not just of watching or duration, both of which are passive ideas, but of actively being put through a process. More than arising out of Rivette’s congenital aversion to memory, that aura of trial and process is written into the formal matrix of his films.

It’s an old saw, but the journey, not the destination, really is more important with Rivette—who called his own work a cinema of ordeal—in which the final payoff might (or might not) be worth all the effort invested. Take, for example, Paris Belongs to Us, Rivette’s first film and the one that kicked off Museum of the Moving Image’s full-bore retrospective. The visual repetitiveness and narrative circularity that stalk around Paris Belongs to Us lend it an air of a dilettante society locked in an inexorable vortex, trapped and suffocating in its own middle-class morass. Marginally clinging to coherence, one expects a grandiose finish to make it all worthwhile. But the lugubrious process of endless parties and theater rehearsals is capped by a weak payoff: bourgeois Paris might be enveloped by a murderous global cabal with ill-defined goals—or maybe not. By contrast, the distended action in Céline and Julie Go Boating (the film is over three hours long) could hardly be more delightful—and its ending is one of the New Wave’s true master strokes.

In an opening straight out of Lewis Carroll, puckish redhead Julie (Dominique Labourier) is lounging in a Parisian park on a languid summer’s afternoon. Stunning brunette Céline (Juliet Berto) blitzes past, and, like the white rabbit, drops her scarf. Ever Alice, Julie hoots to get her attention, fails, picks up the discarded item, and chases after. So begins a bravura wordless montage of the hunter negotiating absurd obstacles while pursuing the hunted. For fifteen wordless minutes, the two breeze past one another up and down Montmartre, with Julie trying to keep out of sight, deploying a bit of precognitive logic (I can’t-see-you-therefore-you-can’t-see-me) in the process—and failing miserably. It’s cartoonish, a homage to the great silent comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, Tati—a bit of self-serving play whose primary purpose seems to be generating joy. It also sets the parameters of Céline’s and Julie’s relationship, which is less an adult’s rejection of grown-up strictures of behavior than a genuine, childlike ignorance that these rules even exist.

The heroines’ friendship has been seized upon by legions of feminist film critics because it depicts women as unencumbered by men, in natural, easy concord with one another (and even in one prominent instance, Céline rejects a man prima facie). Which is fine, because it’s certainly written into the text, but their times together are enchanting for so many other reasons. Borne out of a real-life friendship between Berto and Labourier, the onscreen personas, largely improvised, have an ingenuous sense of play about them. Donning the appropriate hair prostheses, they frequently double, standing in for one another in certain situations, not to suggest that all female identities are fungible and therefore cheap, but to illustrate just how in sync and connected these two souls are. In one instance, Julie takes over Céline’s cabaret-cum-magic act at a postage-stamp sized nightclub. Julie, looking like the illicit love-child of Marlene Dietrich and Liza Minnelli, gives a delirious, fractured showstopper. Awkward knock-kneed dance manoeuvres lead to sobbing on the floor, which rallies into her spoiling for a fight with the audience before she runs out of the theater. It’s a brilliant bit of excessive performativity that dispatches every idea of capital-F femininity, but more importantly, it’s unspeakably funny. Life is play, irrespective of circumstances; truly, ignorance is bliss.

Rivette is normally a director of demystification, returning time and again to spectacles of art in progress—theater, usually; painting in La Belle noiseuse—to reveal art as process, not as finished alchemical product. Here, he does something radically different; Céline and Julie is a work that makes a mystery of the empirical world, turning it into a place where magic and fantasy ooze out from the fissures in reality, which has become completely adrift from its moorings. I’m a sucker for childlike solipsism, but even I have to admit the charm of Céline and Julie’s regressive play begins to run along a trajectory of diminishing returns. It’s a bit of a relief therefore, when a secondary narrative arises, branching off and giving our women a sense of purpose. From the outset, Céline’s been on the run from a mysterious mansion with a gruesome secret. And so, just as the title predicts—in French, “aller en bateau,” literally translated as “to go boating” has a colloquial meaning of approximately “to get taken for a ride” or “get caught up in a story”—Céline and Julie get wrapped up in discovering said secret.

Céline and Julie take turns entering the building, and tumble out of it several hours later, exhausted, remembering nothing of what’s transpired. Each visit comes with a parting gift: a hard, brightly colored lozenge that serves as a Proustian memory trigger—like madeleine crumbs, popping the sweet into one’s mouth triggers visions of an upstairs-downstairs chamber drama with a gruesome finale. Bulle Ogier, by far Rivette’s favorite muse, flounces around a dingy, oppressive period mansion, quietly burning for the affections of widower Barbet Schroeder, who in turn lusts after the nurse (enacted by Céline or Julie, whomever had entered the house that day), who cares for the young Madlyn, who ends up mysteriously dead. The visions, sketchy at first, coalesce a little more with every iteration, but this weirdly haunted house obstinately refuses to divulge the one single element that has our heroines clamouring for repeated viewings: Who is responsible for offing the kid?

The story played inside “the fiction house,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum called it, is precisely the kind of mannered, literary adaptation (Henry James’s short story “The Remembrance of Old Clothes” has frequently been cited as a possible source) that the French New Wave critics took great pleasure in savaging before they crossed the critic-filmmaker Rubicon. It’s trivial at best, unsightly at worst. Still, our two women keep coming back to see the same show time and again, and are absolutely entranced by what they see. (After popping the sweet into her mouth, Julie perks up, becoming wide-eyed and stiff as a mannequin; Céline goes slack, wide mouthed and glum, rather like an overintense catfish.) Theirs are, in a way, cinephiles’ reactions: wrapt, complete, unwavering, and seeking to devour every little morsel of the celluloid vision that flashes before their eyes. Hooting derisively at the fiction house’s excesses, but still glued to the “screen,” they embody the push-pull of the repulsion-attraction complex that makes melodrama such a fertile and complicated playground: I know I’m watching absolute tripe, but I can’t take my eyes away.

Céline and Julie has been variously described as “an anagram of reality” by Gilbert Adair, as adhering to “dream logic” by Keith Uhlich, and as an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy by, well, nearly everyone who scratches out more than two words on it. Their analyses are spot on, but I don’t think they tell the whole picture. What does this sound like? Scrambled reality? Dreams? Fantasies? Even with subsequent viewings of a Shaw Brothers film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Minnelli’s Gigi, In the Bedroom, Woody Allen’s Interiors, and a screening of Tom Tykwer’s latest, Perfume, I literally, not rhetorically, cannot get it out of my head. Allusion, critique, self-contained proclamations of individual taste: nothing less should be expected from one of the nouvelle vague’s founding fathers, I suppose, but what I’m struck by is how deftly he dissolves his cinephilia in the film’s frothy tisane, and how subtle his observations tend to be. Sticky with movie love from past to present, Rivette clothes his heroines in Irma Vep’s black unitards from Les Vampries for a library heist that’s doubly unnecessary, first for the roller-skates they use (the two can barely make it up the hills of Montmartre), secondly because Céline works at the library from which they’re stealing. Céline and Julie’s subtitle (“Phantom Ladies Over Paris”) and opening intertitle (“Usually, it began like this”) recall the wafting fairy-tale ephemera of René Clair circa Paris qui dort, and the ludicrous exchange between Céline and Julie’s long-distant childhood beau, Guilou (Philippe Clévenot), has the distinct perfume of silent cinema. Wigged up to pass for Julie, Céline—credible as stand-in considering the passage of time—and Guilou enact a very perormative Belle Epoque romance in the park, replete with flowers, white linen, and many theatrical gestures, especially by Céline: a half turn away with the back of her hand pressed to forehead; arms in T-shape in front of her body, fending off amorous advances. Dialogue somewhat lessens the effect, especially with Céline telling her beau to rub one out amongst the rosebushes, but I’d wager that with the sound off, the schism between actual, vulgar dialogue and silent, demure appearance would melt away, as it did for that one glorious scene in Singin’ in the Rain. Even if Céline ultimately unbuttons Guilou’s shirt and pulls his pants down around his ankles.

Normally, I’d say: So what; it’s cutesy personal pastiche, but what does it all amount to? This feels different, and it has to do with the passage of Rivette’s personal timeline. With Céline and Julie, we move past the homage for its own sake, and we’re given the infrequent insight into a director making a midstream appraisal of his own career, and an interrogation of his own predilections.

Céline and Julie reads like the middle-aged apology by a once vitriolic Young Turk who finally cedes to the opposing point of view. Yes, the tradition of quality, derided by Truffaut in “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” the instigating manifesto of the Nouvelle Vague, may be aesthetically torpid, narratively banal, and guilty of a particularly insolvent brand of bourgeois snobbery; BUT, Rivette allows, people ate (and continue to eat, if The Lake House is any barometer of taste) this shit up, and much as he’d like, he can’t just disavow the positive public reception to an entire swath of filmmaking. Already in his mid-forties by the time Céline and Julie was released, Rivette is here somewhat softened. He’s mature and generous enough to allow that the church of movie love is big enough to accommodate those propitiating Jacques Prévert, Réné Clément, and Jacques Feyder (whose contributions Truffaut summarily drowned in his bathtub), as well as those worshipping at the altar of Godard, Hawks, Hitchcock, Tati, Ford, Ray, Lang, etc. Though Rivette doesn’t celebrate the melodrama of the play within—after all, the two women captivated by it frequently regress to the mental acuity of five-year-olds—he gives it space to breathe, at least momentarily.

But not for long: during the justly celebrated penultimate sequence, when Julie and Céline subvert the laws of the fiction house by entering it simultaneously, Rivette quite literally strips the veneer off cinema. He abandons the flattering three-point lighting system in favor of a single source of illumination, placed somewhere behind the camera, which casts ugly, misshapen, unstylized shadows across the screen. Not that there’s anything beautiful left to behold. His quartet of rather attractive actors now have their faces smeared with a sickly greenish-beige cream that’s a hyperbolic approximation of silent-film pancake makeup, and they go about their business with glazed, unattended stares. The drama proceeds as it had previously, using identical camera placement, editing, etc., but with Céline and Julie taking scene-by-scene turns at playing the role of nurse, the fiction house becomes a Hawksian screwball comedy. They forget their lines, miss their cues, gesture wildly to each other behind the characters’ backs, stand in mute horror at their gaffes, and generally make a hilarious mockery of their serious task: trying, as the ultimate invested spectators, to find out who killed Madlyn.

In spite of these massive cock-ups, nobody seems to notice or care. The chamber piece is an automaton and doesn’t require its players to do or say precisely what they’re supposed to in order to move forward—a fact that the two eventually take great delight in, capriciously mucking about with the narrative that blindly marches forward with the irresistible, dispassionate tempo of a metronome. When Céline and Julie finally step through the screen together (or the looking glass, to keep up with the Alice in Wonderland motif), thus stripping the film of its audience, the upstairs-downstairs narrative is sapped of whatever momentum it once possessed. So film is proffered as a symbiotic relationship that requires spectators in order to thrive—not financially, but creatively. Without them, the cinema becomes an unsightly, stilted, and feeble approximation of itself. In his tour de cinema, Rivette takes leave to consider one vital, ill-attended half of the equation, and as a token of his regard for engaged filmgoers (indeed, viz. those sunglass-wearing foreign impresarios, a detached spectator in this world is ridiculed) he endows his heroines with the most marvellous power. Julie and Céline are given the ability to alter reality, and save Madlyn from the throes of death.

There is actual boating too, once all is said and done, with the newly formed trio of women crossing paths with a boat-bound Bulle Ogier, et al. It’s a meaningless cipher though, signifying nothing. Then one languid summer’s afternoon in a Parisian park, Julie blitzes by a lounging Céline, dropping accessories everywhere, and the whole thing begins again. Or does it? —JAMES CRAWFORD