Fantasy takes much of its vividness from dualisms, tensions between opposites, often symbolised by the meeting of two different kinds of world. A similar tension to that between modern and ancient is that between the rational and the irrational, the routine versus the mysterious. At the heart of many fantasy films – from the first version of Alice In Wonderland (1903) to Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – there is a pure mystery protruding into the banalities of everyday life. To enter such a mystery is often to find that the inside is bigger than the outside. One small item of irrationality opens a door to a maze, which becomes wilder the more deeply it is explored. The notion that mysterious places may only open their doors to a special kind of person is central to one of the most unusual fantasies of the last century, Céline And Julie Go Boating (1974) directed by Jacques Rivette.
The film opens in a little garden square in Paris where we see a cat stalking something invisible. For the next 192 minutes we, the audience, are put into much the same position. It begins by summoning up the ghost of all other films it might have been: “Most of the time it started like this…” At the very end it looks as if it might be going to begin again, only the other way around. The world is a strange place for the two girls, Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier). They meet in Montmartre under odd circumstances and immediately start sharing Julie’s apartment. Julie seems more down-to-earth than Céline, but both have fertile imaginations, and there are indications that they are indeed the same person, as take on each other’s identities on several occasions.
They are barely adults really, and the Paris they so spontaneously inhabit is full of the delightful surprises of childhood, little worlds within worlds, small moments of magic, as when Julie (who has only just met Céline) drops in surprise the Bloody Mary martini she has already prepared when Céline requests her to make one. But the telepathy they seem to share becomes commonplace. After all, Céline is a magician (albeit in a rather cheap cabaret) and Julie is a librarian much involved in books of magic. In another of Paris’s secret gardens, Julie finds a strange old house with cats outside, and she enters. Two hours later she leaves it looking stunned and holding a candy, unable to remember anything. But when she and Céline eat the candy (LSD?) they both remember. What we are then shown is like a film-within-a-film.
The house was full of ghosts, something was happening there – was there a plot? Who were these elegant claustrophobic spirits? (They are deliberately made to look like the mildly catatonic characters from a brightly coloured forties RKO movie, shot in stylised deep focus. Céline visits the house next and forgets what happened. They eat the candy again, and we have to make sense of more scenes from this film-within-a-film. All of this goes on for a long time, and we witness some of the action in this mysterious house three or four times over. In the haunted house is a nurse (who is alternately Céline and Julie) takes care of little Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar).
Desperately ill Camille (Bulle Ogier) and Sophie (Marie-France Pisier) each plot to kill Madlyn because her widower father (Barbet Schroeder) will marry only if his daughter is dead. Céline and Julie watch the drama unfold, trying to figure out who’s going to kill Madlyn. Then they join in the drama, although no-one in the film-within-a-film can see them and, although they often forget their lines, it’s up to them to save Madlyn. Finally, in exasperation, both girls raid the house together, pull silly faces at the ghosts (who ignore them as they continue their repetitive melodrama) and save Madlyn. Julie then confesses that she knew the house well when she was a little girl. Céline implies that she made the whole thing up, she is always day-dreaming. But we, the audience, saw it all too.
Are fantasies things we see because we want to see them? Towards the end, Céline and Julie go boating and, on the tranquil water they drift past another boat on which are the three ghosts – the handsome man and the two women who hopelessly, beguilingly love him – pale and impassive. The world of reality and the world of fantasy are, it seems, ships that pass not in the night, but in the middle of a gentle summer’s day. Perhaps the title gives the game away. In an obscure French phrase, to ‘go boating’ is to be caught up in a tall story, and so we have. To some viewers, it is the most magical film ever made but, to others, it is an irritating fable about narcissistic young women who are intrinsically boring and silly.
The two heroines of this weirdly structured film exist in an unreal illogical world. They are characters in a mystery, a ghost story, a play, a movie, a dream, a fantasy, a fairy-tale. They act, dance, sing, perform magic, play children’s games, improvise. Speaking of which, it seems to be a common misconception that most of the film was improvised by the actors. In fact director Rivette provided structure but did not let his actors ‘go wild’, instead he allowed them to rewrite certain scenes. Apparently only one scene was actually improvised, in which Céline brags to her associates about her rich American friend. The rest of the film was shot from scripted material, with many contributions from actors Berto, Labourier, Ogier and Pisier. Rivette’s only involvement in the writing was to give structure to all the contributions, tightening things up.
The initial screenplay was written by the remarkable Argentinian scenarist Eduardo De Gregorio, who also wrote the story for Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970). As he is steeped in the South American literary tradition that is often known today as ‘magic realism’ it is perhaps not surprising that echoes of Borgesian labyrinths or Marquezian tricks with time should permeate his work. In a film that he himself directed, another oasis of enigma appears, and again it takes the form of a house. Sérail (1976) is about a crumbling house which is clearly built by the same architect as the one in Céline And Julie Go Boating, but that’s another story for another time. Please join me next week with your morbid curiosity well-prepared for another step beyond the inner limits of the outer sanctum with a touch of evil from the amazing zone known as…Horror News! Toodles!