(18/10/06) – "Usually, it began like this. . ." A woman, Julie, sitting on a bench and reading a book of Magic, tracing a symbol in the sand with the heel of her shoe. A cat runs across opposite benches and wags its tail, eyeing a prey off-camera. Foliage rustles, we hear children playing nearby. It’s summer in Paris, that ebb when Rohmer’s characters feel empty and restless and desire a sign that everything will change. Then another woman, Céline, trips past, drops a scarf, rushes on. Has she been summoned? Is she the white rabbit with pink eyes checking the time? Julie picks up the scarf and follows.
From this starting point, several trajectories open out, not quite overlapping. A film of the relationship between two women. Or is it one woman, Julie, with a double? Céline is a professional magician (later we see her stage show) and Julie is a librarian. There is a large house at ‘7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes’ to which first Céline, then Julie go. Something traumatic happens inside but we don’t see what. An impromptu tarot reading in the library reveals that Julie is in stagnation, immobile, her "future is in the past". This is the first in a psychological set of plot points, one trajectory in which Julie must go back to the house to actively resolve the drama that plays itself out there. But there is also an old woman who lives next door to the house, someone Julie recognises. But we never see her again, while a fracturing relationship with an implausible boyfriend makes us wonder what delusion or desperation Julie’s summer lights up. But overlaid on this is another film of pure fun, two children of the world romping it up in a series of days connected only by whatever imaginative elements they wish to carry over from daylight to moonlight and onwards.
There is slapstick – in search of a spell, Céline and Julie raid a library by night, wearing black cat-suits and making a getaway on roller skates – while the script contains an avalanche of puns, bravely converted to English equivalents for the subtitles, reminding me of the inventive Asterix translations. There are the fragments of a melodrama which plays out at 7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes, gradually piecing together like the postures of grand pain projected onto a screen which the women watch (with the aid of hallucinogenic boiled sweets) and later pass through in order to take a role in the drama, subverting and altering its plot and atmosphere, the moment of watching as the moment of editing, then writing. There are moments of real tension: what is the house? who will be saved? The summer sun sets everything alight; if an emphasis appears to fall on a pattern of mirrorings, then before long the Paris light changes and a new emphasis falls in a cadence previously unsuspected. Paris itself is a half-deserted city that two women dream up.
This BFI set presents a restored print but the result is good if not spectacular. There is a definitely hazy look (which some may find only adds to the charm). Disc two presents rather thin extras, the only one directly related to Céline and Julie is a filmed introduction by Jonathan Romney. He introduces Jacques Rivette, the film’s director, and the New Wave context of his work, goes over the director’s career, then talks sensibly about the film, going through various ideas, highlighting the street-theatre atmosphere of the production, finishing with a wry suggestion that the black cat dreamt it all. Alain Resnais’ short Toute la mémoire du monde is present in the same desperately-in-need-of-restoration print as on Optimum’s region 2 edition of Last Year At Marienbad. The relation of the short to Céline is one of memory and libraries, but they don’t really reflect on each other at all. The final extra, The Haunted Curiosity Shop is a two-minute film from 1901 showing a magic act – floating objects, a ghost who turns from man to skeleton with a flicker – is great fun, and does relate interestingly to the two magic performances in Céline and Julie Go Boating, and to the film’s subtitle: ‘Phantom Ladies Over Paris’. The booklet contains the excellent Rivette interview (from Sight and Sound, 1974) as well as an interview with the two leading actresses, Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto: "We started off with the notion of amusing ourselves by creating interchangeable characters in many different forms in the style of a game."
A set of sunny improvisations which stretch out through bouts of giggling and eerie atmospheres, this is a film with all its chambers and transitions depressurised and expanded by summer’s fire. "But the next morning. . ."
Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating) is out on DVD now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and help support Kamera by doing so.