Of the various French directors that one can place within that loosely defined group known as The New Wave, Jacques Rivette is certainly one of the least well-known in the U.S., although his recent La Belle noiseuse (1991) has changed that slightly. While directors such as Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol were managing, in spite of challenges they represented to the Establishment, to find pockets of acceptance – and commercial distributors – for their work, Rivette remained the true independent, if not totally underground, filmmaker. When Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) finally appeared in 1961 after four years of desperate attempts to find money to keep the project afloat, its vague story of a political conspiracy to enslave the world – a fiction, as it turns out – appealed to very few. The French censors, headed by former leftist Andre Malraux, kept Rivette’s adaptation of Diderot’s eighteenth-century novel La Religieuse, in which a young nun (Anna Karina) revolts against her enslavement to the convent and the Church, out of circulation for over a year between 1966 and 1967.
Following a documentary in 1967 on his mentor Jean Renoir, the director’s next film, L’Amour fou, released in 1969, intriguingly alternates rehearsals for a staging of Racine’s Andromaque, which are filmed, and sometimes shown, in 16mm footage taken by a documentary crew, with scenes in an apartment where the principal actress from Andromaque (Bulle Ogier) and her husband (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) tear each other apart. Although the film strongly enhanced Rivette’s reputation in certain areas, its 252-minute running time has definitely worked against wider acceptance. Indeed, long running times have become one of the trademarks of Rivette’s style. His next film, Out 1: noli me tangere (1971), runs close to thirteen hours and has been seen in its original version by only a handful of people (a shortened version entitled Out 1/Spectre, released in 1974 and shown, among other places, at the New York Film Festival, still runs well over four hours).
1974 also saw the release of what I consider to be Rivette’s masterpiece – and, indeed, one of the major masterpieces of the cinema – Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), whose running time weighs in at a mere 193 minutes. Like almost all of Rivette’s films, Celine and Julie slowly and dreamily sets up the existence of two opposing worlds, with the principal characters – in this case Celine (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) – moving back and forth between the two. The one world is often dominated by artistic creation, although in Celine and Julie this frequently boils down to just pure game playing. The other is a darker, more impenetrable world that seems to hide sinister secrets.
But Rivette also solidifies a position that had been taking shape in his earlier work but that manifests itself in a startling, refreshing, and often extremely funny way in Celine and Julie: the nonsinister world – the world of childhood, games, innocence, witchcraft, Tarot cards, dolls, outlandish puns, even mind-altering drugs – is a universe inhabited by women, whence the film’s English-language subtitle, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, which alludes not only to the old Feuillade serials (and to a sequence in which the two heroines, dressed in black body suits and hoods, roller-skate through nighttime Paris) but also to Rivette’s vision of women as extraterrestrials. The director has been quoted as saying that, “Only women can be extraterrestrials. Men have no sense of the cosmic forces, which lie beyond their grasp.” Interestingly, screenplay credit is given to the four principal actresses (Berto, Labourier, Bulle Ogler, and Marie-France Pisier) and Rivette, “in dialogue with Edouardo de Gregorio.”
And so, to open and close the film, we see what appears to be the beginning of a game (the intertitle reads “More often than not, it began like this…”). In the first sequence, Julie, playing Alice to Celine’s white rabbit, follows this person, who may or may not be her friend and/or roommate, throughout Paris, which includes a run up the million or so steps alongside the funicular railway of Paris’s steep Butte Montmartre, all of it transformed by Jacques Renard’s cinematography and Nicole Lubtchansky’s montage into something close to a fantasy world, as is often the case in Rivette’s films. The film’s final sequence reverses the roles, with Celine running off in pursuit of Julie. Thus does Celine and Julie’s broadest structure throw the viewer outside of the comfortable, causal connections of chronological time into a universe of game playing dominated by cyclism and circularity. This is reinforced throughout the film by certain anticontinuity devices, such as jump cuts and unmotivated blackouts, that are introduced not as a kind of quasi-Godard provocateurism but rather as part of the natural rhythm of things.
We also have a sense of a deep communication between the two women that often takes place on a nonverbal level. And when the time comes, each one, playing the role of the other, is able to oust oppressive males from their world. Celine, dressed as Julie, meets her friend’s choirboy fiance (Philippe Clevenot) in a park, does a pathetically erotic waltz with him as he mutters the words “dormir, baiser” (sleeping, fucking), drops his pants, and then offends his sense of Catholic purity by telling him to go jerk off in the daisies. Julie, taking over Celine’s mildly erotic magic act in a routine of songs that cover the gamut from little girl to Marlene Dietrich, outrages the cigar-smoking, Lebanese businessmen who are thinking about hiring Celine, calling them a “bunch of cosmic pimps.”
Set against this world of little-girl innocence, within the foreboding confines of a large, shuttered, brick mansion set beneath the level of a street improbably named the Rue du Nadir des Pommes (Apples’ Nadir Street), is a musty, hothouse, closed-off world inhabited by three ghoulish characters (Pisier, Ogler, and Barbet Schroeder, the latter somewhat evoking the gaunt character played by Sacha Pitoeff in Last Year at Marienbad), along with a little girl named Madelyn (Nathalie Asnar). Like refugees from a Pirandello play, they find themselves trapped in a double narrative taken from two different works by Henry James, a story entitled “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and a novel, later made into a play, entitled The Other House, the only James work, according to Leon Edel, to contain “a brutal murder.” Somehow, Celine has been hired into the journee perpetuelle of this narrative action as a nurse for Madelyn, and as the action progresses, Celine and Julie take turns playing the role of the nurse. Initially, however, their only way of accessing what has gone on in the house is via memories induced by what looks suspiciously like LSD-laced candles.
As the two women repeatedly witness the same fragments of action from the frozen but fractionalized Jamesian narrative, they become aware, across the long blocks of time that are essential to Rivette’s cinema, that one of the two women in the house, both of whom are in love with Madelyn’s father, will murder the little girl in order to undercut a vow made by the father to his dying wife that he would not remarry as long as Madelyn was alive. With the aid of witchcraft and talismans, Celine and Julie, on a dark, stormy evening, both manage to gain entrance to the house, enter the drama together for the first time, and then save Madelyn. As the next day begins, they find Madelyn in the bathtub of their apartment, asking what game they’re going to play next.
An obvious interpretation of Celine and Julie Go Boating would be that the two women, living in a kind of prepatriarchal state and defying the codes of patriarchal society, have ultimately rescued what amounts to their common inner child. In a sense, it might even be said that they have given birth to her (needless to say without the benefit of a male). But what is ingenious about Rivette’s vision is that he presents the women’s universe, with its games, repetitions, contradictions, and cyclisms, as the real world (to which impression Berto and Labourier’s extremely natural, sometimes improvised acting contributes mightily), while the stiff, patriarchal world of murderous, sexual rivalries is shown for what it is, namely a narrative construct taking place within a rigidly defined time and space. In Celine and Julie’s world, LSD is needed to enter into that linear time and place, not to escape from it.
Here, as in many other Rivette films, a self-reflective examination of narrative ultimately reveals the ugly ways in which the patriarchal world has been put together. Along the way, Rivette offers no pat explanation for just what is going on: it could all be a game; it could be LSD-induced hallucinations; it could even be stories imagined by Julie as a little girl. For, at one point, Celine and Julie reaches a kind of grand pause as Julie, looking behind the brick mansion, discovers a smaller house inhabited by an older woman who turns out to have been her nurse (Marie-Therese Saussure), who reminds Julie how afraid she was of the nurse who took care of the little girl in the other house across the way. And at the end, the director offers a spectacular, final image that brilliantly sums up the clash between the two worlds: as Celine, Julie, and Madelyn watch from their own rowboat, we see a sumptuous, highly saturated long shot of another boat floating on its own power down the fiver. In it, frozen in various postures, are the man and two women from what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Rivette’s “house of fiction.” How’s that for a floating signifier?
New Yorker Video has performed an invaluable service by making Celine and Julie Go Boating, one of the most original visions in all of cinema, available on video. It would have been nice had they managed a sharper video transfer with truer colors (the whole thing has a bit of a greenish tint to it). Non-Francophones will also miss the subtitles from older New Yorker versions of the film, which translated such things as Rue du Nadir des Pommes (this version leaves it in French) and didn’t flinch at giving baiser as “fucking” (the translation of “kissing” is totally wrong). Still, this is an absolutely essential video.