Celine and Julie Go to the Movies

05/02/2012 4:00 AM |

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Directed by Jacques Rivette

The Zeno’s paradox of New Wave masterpieces, Jacques Rivette’s 1974 hypnogenetic spellbinder Celine and Julie Go Boating is a universally worshipped counter-classic that giddily resists critical exegesis. No other great film may be as difficult to characterize. Break it down into summary and you risk sounding like an compulsive Aquarian Age geek lost in his own acid flashes. There is a decidedly Feulliadean Paris, as empty and mysterious as an abandoned playground; the two unacquainted eponymous Parisiennes (vampy Juliet Berto and frumpy Dominique Labourier); a mysterious house they either discover or know about already; and a unchanging Henry James melodrama unfolding inside involving a child, her father (Rivette producer Barbet Schroeder), two untrustworthy women (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier) and a nursemaid, enacted by either Celine or Julie as they enter or exit according to unknowable laws. Once it is discovered that the house’s ghostly tale—which replays endlessly, and which is both a movie-within-a-movie and The Movies—ends with the murder of the child, the girls decide to intervene.

In many ways the French New Wave’s phantom outlaw, Rivette has crafted his own sphere over the decades, a haunted metropolis dripping with undecipherables, intuited connections, senseless but contagious suspicions, etc., and Celine and Julie is the springiest, zestiest tour of that city, a heroic dream in which there is no “reality”—a characterization that could almost define the film as a staged documentary about cinema, if we wanted to settle on one way of looking, and we don’t. Stirring and infectious, Celine and Julie is almost an accident, an amateurish, whimsical epic that is only and entirely “about” the peculiarly, almost frighteningly delicious act of watching it, and if you let it it could change everything, least of all how you think about movies.

Opens May 4 at Film Forum