Last weekend I went to the MFA with a couple of friends to view Jacques Rivette’s film Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine and Julie). It’s a whimsical French comedy set in the 70s with a runtime of 193 minutes. I supposed the “whimsical French comedy” tag doesn’t typically set the stage for a three-hour movie, but this really was a three-hour whimsical French comedy.

The movie opens like this: Julie is sitting on a park bench contemplating a spell in a large red magic book. Suddenly, she sees a woman run past in a whirlwind. Said second woman is Celine. She is adorned in colorful, long scarves (and a giant carpetbag full of, presumably, more scarves) one of which she unknowingly drops, along with a pair of sunglasses. A playful chase through the streets of Paris ensues as Julie takes it upon herself to return the belongings to their owner.  Celine soon becomes aware of her assailant and begins to deliberately jettison more items from her giant bag in a breadcrumb-trail fashion. Celine impishly shirks all of Julie’s efforts to return the loot. I won’t reveal the outcome of this charade, but it ends with a pan down a gritty Parisian street, just as the sky is turning golden. A motorcyclist bisects the frame as we watch Julie traverse the crosswalk in the distance. This wonderful shot of the city took me back to the first time I walked down Union Street in Gowanus last summer.


Julie adorned in Celine’s dropped accessories

There are lots of other images from Celine and Julie that keep resurfacing days later, though unlike this shot of the street, others are pseudo-Lynchian or just feel familiar in that surrealist kind of way. Though upon viewing the film, it didn’t feel overtly surreal or dreamy. The strange imagery created more of a quirky tone than anything eerie.

The plot was a bit diluted, but still palpable and enjoyable. Basically, Celine and Julie become friends/confidants. They stumble upon this mansion whose inhabitants are arrested in time, reliving the same day, which is assumed to be from a few decades earlier, over and over – word for word, scene for scene. Celine and Julie can enter this recurring day in two ways; they can either physically visit the house or they can flashback to their earlier visit by eating a piece of candy acquired at the house. When we flashback with them, we see fragments of unsettling interactions with the five inhabitants: a widower, his young daughter, two jealous women, and the nurse whom Celine and Julie become when they physically enter the house. Everyone in the house is suffering from some kind of sickness (grief, medical illness, jealousy, boredom). Their mysterious interactions come together more and more for us with each revisit by Celine and Julie. Then present-day Celine and Julie (and we) realize the young girl has been murdered by one of the two women, of course in the name of love for the father, and Celine and Julie must solve the crime. Now, I’m a big fan of the unassuming detective** – think Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye or Veronica Mars – however, Celine and Julie surpass unassuming to conspicuously unsuitable.


Celine being ousted from the magic house while Julie waits

In an effort to change the course of events, Celine and Julie enter the house together and cease being passive observers. They are no longer the dutiful nurse, complicit (via their passivity) to the sequence of events that end in murder. The house becomes the backdrop to a meta-stage comedy. Celine and Julie take turns looking for clues, all the while missing the nurse’s cues and lines, which by this iteration are completely trite. The story is theirs for the taking. The life of the young girl is in the hands of the least-likely, most flippant protagonists.


the girls wearing their detective (and nursing) hats

I can see the girls come to life. Celine creates a diversion while Julie grabs the screenplay right from Jacques Rivette’s hands. The girls take off running down the street in their platform shoes, carelessly leaving a trail of pages for Rivette to chase down.


Juliet Berto (Celine), Jacques Rivette and Dominique Labourier (Julie)



[** Detectives get to rely on their instincts and intuition (which they are generally right about) in such a great way, and they are seekers of truth and justice!! And when the detective is unassuming, it just reinforces my suspicion that I could be a damn good detective!]

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