If the best movies of all time are a consensus affair — many would agree that you should start with “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Casablanca,” and work your way from there — favorite movies are strictly personal. I could defend other films on grounds of artistic impact or historical importance, great performances or directorial style. The plain fact is that Jacques Rivette’s 1974 cult classic “Celine and Julie Go Boating” makes me happier than any other movie.
It’s playing at the Brattle through Sunday in a brand new print, so you should pounce: The film isn’t available in this country on DVD and a VHS version released long ago is hard to find and not great to look at. But try to go in with the proper perspective. This gently gonzo meditation on fiction and reality, surrealism and sisterhood, is unlike any other movie you’ve seen. It plays a little like a Charlie Kaufman meta-movie three decades ahead of schedule. It’s also what might happen if “Alice in Wonderland” collided with “Thelma and Louise.”
And there is this, too: “Celine and Julie Go Boating” may be the finest Paris vacation you’ll ever have for the price of a movie ticket. Yes, it’s 3½ hours long and nothing much happens during the first hour or so, but isn’t that what vacations are for? Rivette deposits us in a park in Montmartre during August, when most of the city is away at the beach. You can hear the wind rustle through this movie’s trees, hear the kids playing a block away. All of Paris seems to have been left to its cats, some of them possibly Cheshire.
And two women. Julie (Dominique Labourier) is a playfully proper librarian, with a red frizz of hair atop the face of a natural clown. Celine (Juliet Berto) is a singing magician, pencil-thin, a born rebel. (She could be Jeanne Moreau’s bratty kid sister.) Celine crosses the park and drops a pair of sunglasses, and Julie gives chase, Alice after the White Rabbit. The chase becomes a game of tag, then a deepening friendship, then a foray into the dark of a haunted house.
The house is haunted by fiction. No, really. Celine goes to work there as a nanny one day and comes out shell-shocked and remembering nothing. Her new friend investigates and has a similar experience. They discover that the hard candies they’re sucking on when they emerge are the key to replaying the memories of what occurs therein — they’re magic, like so much else here.
What happens is the same, each and every day: a gloomy Edwardian melodrama — based on a pair of Henry James short stories, actually — about a wealthy widower (Barbet Schroeder), his dead wife’s sister (Bulle Ogier), and a glamorous governess (Marie-France Pisier). Both women love the man and vie for his attention; in the corner, a little girl (Nathalie Asnar) languishes, cared for by the grave, booze-sipping nanny (Celine or Julie, depending on the day).
Outside, everything is formless, joyous, summery Paris — life itself. Inside is stasis, story — the rigid unchangingness of narrative. But as Celine and Julie suck on their candies and rewatch the tale, pointing and whispering as though they were in the back row of their favorite movie theater, they see something that needs changing. At the end of each day, the little girl winds up dead. So how does one monkey-wrench one’s way from reality into fiction while keeping one’s eyes wide open?
Rivette is the most obscure of the celebrated directors of the French New Wave, and for good reason: His early films go on forever. “L’Amour fou” (1969) is four hours-plus, 1971’s rarely screened “Out 1” runs for 12. “Celine and Julie” is a short by comparison, and much lighter, even giddier, in tone. Rivette’s obsession with the border between art and reality, role-playing and living, becomes a glorious game here.
But, yes, before the haunted-house plot takes shape halfway through, moviegoers with impatient metabolisms may be kicking themselves. Celine and Julie casually destroy each other’s lives (or, to be precise, the men in each other’s lives) and clear the air so they can get on to the greater adventure. If you can slow down and breathe with the rhythms of August, you’ll roll with it, but not everyone can. The first time I saw “Celine and Julie Go Boating” was at a college screening in the late 1970s; the theater, initially packed, steadily bled moviegoers until there were about 36 of us left at the halfway mark.
Then the enterprising theater managers held an intermission and served everyone hard candies, and by the end of the film, we 36 stalwarts were friends for life. The back half of the film springs its most delightful meta-surprises, as the heroines pull apart the beams of storytelling into a big pile of pickup sticks. Finally — finally — Celine and Julie do go boating, and the film’s penultimate shot is one of the spookiest and most resonant in all of cinema: two dinghies passing on a sun-dappled river, each with its passengers of fiction and fancy.
And then? Then it starts all over again, as it must. Movies are fictions, too, remember? “Celine and Julie Go Boating” propels a moviegoer stunned and sunstruck back into reality, looking for the White Rabbits by which we shape our own fictions. It’s a parlor trick, a mystery, and a masterpiece.
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