Céline and Julie Go Boating is the best-known film by Cahiers du cinéma alumnus Jacques Rivette, master of slender, ghostly narratives and serious cinematic high-jinks (his best film is 12½ hours long and doesn’t really have a story..) This one does, although it’s unusual to read an introductory title card “Sometimes it begins like this..” We see Julie first, with giant curly red hair and big round spectacles; she’s reading a book on magic on a slow afternoon in the park when as it were a magical gust of wind blows in a gangly sprite, all flowing boa and skirt and scarf trotting by. It’s Céline. She drops a handkerchief and Julie follows. The hunt is on and the games begin, prowling all over Paris and checking each other out like a pair of cats.

Céline is a teller of tall tales it turns out, one of which is having been chased from a house where she worked, on the wonderfully named Rue du Nadir des Pommes. It’s an imposing pile in a bit of acreage, covered in ivy behind a wall, and Julie pays it a visit. Having entered the house, one is ejected sometime later remembering nothing of the visit. Julie finds a boiled sweet on her tongue and replacing it there later, remembers what went on.

The girls enter the house a number of times, because on each revisitation after the fact, they remember more and more of what seems to be an endlessly repeated mystery story into which the visitor is inserted as a maid: a man, two women and a child live in the house, and the child is somehow in danger; there is a dead mother, in whose clothes her sister (beautiful Bulle Ogier) dresses; Dominique Labourier, willowy in purple, faints repeatedly as though she has seen a ghost; passions are repressed and tensions run high. The girls become fascinated – it’s like an all-day movie show, or a serial where each installment provides more information. The characters in the magical house act with increasing detachment, shading into theatricality and then stultification as they go through their parts over again. As they learn the rules of this strange game, it is only a matter of time before the girls try some magic of their own.

Rivette was hugely interested in the artistic processes undergone by the actor and the analogy to repeated rehearsal and performance is clear, as well as the girls’ experience of watching it like a movie in their flashbacks. The sucking of the boiled sweet is less akin to dropping acid, however, than taking one of Alice’s magical drugs in Wonderland. There’s a sense of innocence to the games (they even play grandmother’s footsteps in the house) which is fitting to a film where even if the girls are rather ribald at times, everything sexual is treated as subject for play (word games, theatrics in the park, old-time music hall). The film itself comes across as unsexual, but the air of put-on coyness and the recurrent sex-themed play makes it a slyly sexy film.

This is helped enormously by the leads, both free-spirited skinny 70s French girls, with a great summer wardrobe. Juliet Berto is Céline, all spindly arms and legs, gulping her sweet like a muppet; Domique Labourier as Julie is more motherly, but a screwball nonetheless – she takes over Céline’s magic act in a tiny Montmartre club and performs in an outrageously medley of theatrical styles (including, of course, silent cinema). Both pass themselves off as the other, just as a lark, but they seem to have some deeper psychic connection. There’s definitely something magical in the air. Or ghostly, perhaps. Rivette has a thing for revenants, those who come back, and the title of the film was to have been Phantom Ladies Over Paris. The girls get to looking like ghosts by the end, wandering unheeded in their white nurses uniforms through the house and its story; but then so do the house’s characters, doomed endlessly to haunt the smae corridors, repeating the same words and actions. It is no surprise (though hardly evident) that the sinister scenes being re-enacted are from Henry James.

No-one else had the knack of making films like this, appearing both to have an intricate closely-worked structure, and to have been entirely made up as they went along. The principals created their own parts more or less, and the film has a wonderfully free-flowing feel, light-hearted and playful, winding around the narrative corkscrews. As with the best of Rivette’s films, the diaphanous mysteries pile up, rules are followed, bent and reworked, and at heart it’s all about the thrill and enjoyment of performance and cinema, watching it and doing it. The title in French, Céline et Julie vont en bateau, means colloquially the girls “go on a lark”. They certainly do: the most fun film ther eis about narrative, acting, magic and ghosts.

  • Photo of Celine, Julie and Jacques by  haeng
  • Photo of Celine and Julie with candy by ida
  • Photo of Celine and Julie Boating by jbowman