Céline and Julie Go Boating is Jacques Rivette’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — psychedelically assisted, indebted blatantly to Lewis Carroll and overrated to the point that conventional wisdom has deemed it a masterpiece, even if fans know that the movie actually rates somewhere nearer to the middle of the creator’s oceanic oeuvre.
This post-hippie lark wasn’t released theatrically in America until 1978, but it premiered stateside at the 1974 New York Film Festival along with Out 1: Spectre, Rivette’s four-hour abridgement of Out 1, his never-aired 13-hour TV series. Spectre, despite its title, is opaque, an experiment in film editing that frankly makes sense only to those few hundred people who have watched the complete Out 1.
The beguiling Céline and Julie, by contrast, feels as gossamer as celluloid itself — and, at just over three hours, brisk for this auteur. Librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) and cabaret performer Céline (Juliet Berto, Rivette’s raven muse before her untimely death) meet in a Parisian park in the film’s opening scene, but they don’t, as promised, hit the water until the close. In the interim, they form a friendship based on role-playing games, and (with the aid of some magic candy) invent lies that, by their very utterance, seem to conjure themselves into existance. The coup de grâce of their joint hallucinations is a haunted house, inside which a lanky, affectless widower (Rivette crony Barbet Schroeder) fends off two murderous suitors (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier). In terms of ambition, the miniaturist fantasies in which these heroines indulge are a far cry from the utopian dreams of Out 1’s revolutionaries. But considering the events of the preceding years, a head trip was about as far as anyone wanted to go in the mid-1970s.