From late New Wave French cinema, Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie go Boating) (1974) is a particularly astute example of magic realism, a craft often mistaken, I believe, as a purely postmodern technique, which has in fact been mastered long before the postmodernists tried their pessimistic hands at it.
All French New Wave directors have their flair in some form or other; Truffaut’s narrative flow into emotions and characters, Godard’s experimentalism, haunting beauty and political ‘agitation’, Rohmer’s warmth and tenderness, Chabrol’s humour and often suspenseful films (often cited as a French Hitchcock), and, of course, Rivette’s surrealistic touch, placing him right at home with the Surrealists. And while the big five were not the only directors of this great movement (let’s not forget Demy, Resnais, Marker, Varda etc), these five key auteurs certainly exhibit the eclectic style and experimentation of the new wave era.
Mildly similar to Rivette’s La Religieuse (The Nun) in its deliberate absurdity, but lacking the amateur mysticism of Boating, the film’s setting acts as a simultaneously accidental yet deliberate ploy, and place becomes an integral factor. Julie, sitting on a bench reading an occult book (of which key to the film itself), sees Céline, a supposedly oblivious woman who rushes past, dropping her sunglasses as she goes. It is the catalyst moment of delayed introduction that immediately strikes the viewer (or me, at least) as a trick of some sort, not too dissimilar from the drop-the-brush scam in places like Istanbul, where the outsider gullibly falls for the follow-the-white-rabbit type ploy. After a suspenseful cat and mouse game between the two women, who seem mysteriously yet fatefully linked, they eventually meet, only to see their friendship instantly intensify, both familiar and unknown to them, which, in the vein of magic realism and Rivette cinema, seems to suit both women only too well, and does not for a moment strike them as odd, even when they swap lives with each other, seemingly sabotaging the other’s life; but it is all in good fun.
The camera is hand held and quite rightly gives the impression that it was shot by a group of friends who got together one afternoon in Paris, for a more sedate, comic effect. And long before this technique was a popular Hollywood move to glamourize the ‘raw footage’ theme, here it accomplishes just the opposite, that of an intimate, though enigmatic atmosphere that amuses rather than scares or bores us.
Added to this is of course the mysterious house, set in the almost idyllic setting Montmartre in the spring/summer, an image disturbed by the eerie presence that the house provokes, (7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes) whose shutters are constantly closed and the contents of which is for a long time hidden from us, but, when revealed appears strikingly similar to Henry James’s short story The Remembrance of Old Clothes. Broken into these scenes are fragments of memories, of a place both women seem to have been but at the same time have never seen before, and the strange people within who appear doomed to repeat the day’s events over and over, but nothing Céline and Julie can’t investigate!
The original title, Phantom Ladies over Paris, is perhaps a more apt indication of the fate of our angelic heroines who are able to manipulate and mimic others while the rest are none the wiser, as though they themselves are immune to a crushing normality which would otherwise make them visible. They are able to skate around Paris in the night, steal from the bibliothèque, impersonate one another and infiltrate the bizarre house that continues to elude them, despite aid in the form of candied recollections. The secondary title is, on the other hand, much more misleading, at least until the very end, where we do actually see a boat- the journey ending.
Symbolism is heavy throughout, be it the sight and perfume of flowers, received without wanting and given though rejected (from Guilou, on Camille’s dress, the subject of Madlyn’s drawing, the bouquets removed from Madlyn’s room, etc), all of which add to the theme of changing seasons, a crucial aspect and integral feature in spell casting for Julie and Céline, of re-birth and growth. Be it any other season in Paris and we could have seen a very different film.
While I have always had a soft spot for Godard and Demy, and admittedly Truffaut (revealing my evident and shameful likeness for accessibility here), Rivette’s work still compels, and, like many of his New Wave comrades, the men are once again portrayed inferior to the women, who, in all their agency and ability to mock fate as it were, reign supreme as the beloved, though erratic and pleasantly disturbed heroines. Though, being an utterly Surrealist film, this should not bother any of the viewers, as this kind of magic realist work needs no excuse or logic.
Ultimately a playful, mock version of the detective fiction, (that lasts for 192 minutes) our intelligent sleuths come to numerous conclusions, but none so astute as Julie’s: ‘Any pro will tell you blondes are poison.’ Formidable!
Many thanks to Matthew Asprey for lending this film to me, whose love of the New Wave I’m now forced to admit does not rival my own but seems to surpass it. Merci beaucoup!