Saturday, November 3, 2012

L&S Essentials #2: Celine and Julie Go Boating

I'll own up to not being nearly as diligent as I'd originally intended with these posts. I thought one every couple weeks or so would be manageable, but life has taken a turn towards the exceptionally busy, and while blogging may still remain something I try to do for a bit of routine normalcy, I guess large scale ambitions aren't going to be so realistic at times (I still haven't got a review for Cloud Atlas...sob).  Finally, though, another addition to my personal master list of 'essential' films.

The sad truth of the matter is that I spent years searching for the fabled Celine and Julie Go Boating.  It was my art house unicorn, one of those films that was never screened at the right time and which didn't seem to exist in a consumable form.  I began to wonder how it was possible that the people compiling all the "greatest film" lists had ever managed to track down Jacques Rivette's 1974 voyage and began to silently assume that they were all old white elitist men who had managed to see a rare piece of celluloid at a time before home video and now just sat around dropping it into casual conversations like they'd been present at Woodstock.  Naturally, the Celine and Julie windfall came all at once: I finally managed to be available on a day the Siskel Center was having a screening and I found out it had been floating around as a pirated film on YouTube FOR AGES.  That's right: this thing that I had held up as a merit badge, which I'd secretly placed so much power in for so long, which I felt I needed to see to have any grounding in contemporary foreign cinema whatsoever is on YouTube.  You can watch it now, but really, you should wait if you can.  While it's wonderful that this oddball gem has appeared in an easily accessible location, Celine and Julie isn't the sort of art one should absorb in shitty internet video form.  It's a layered narrative partially about immersion; a complicated, absurdist, surreal, and goofily bizarre trip over, under, around, and through its theoretical story.  There's something absolutely magical about it, something that flips its pretentious elements on their heads and twists your perception until you start to "get" it. Celine and Julie is a film you just go with until you eventually start laughing, until your expectations have been turned to the point that you suddenly realize you'd be alright if the nonsense continued beyond its 3+ hours. 

Celine and Julie Go Boating cannot be easily described on its surface.  The title is, of course, a deception (though in French slang it apparently suggests they're going "joking" in the first place).  Nothing can be that simple, and while perhaps it does indeed happen, it's certainly not of any great importance. Diluting the events of the film enough eventually leads to a description rather like the brief, uninformative sentences found on the IMDB page: Celine (Juliet Barto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) encounter one another under highly "mysterious" circumstances and become presences in one another's strange, nonsensical lives.  Each of them has a fascination with magic in one form or another, and eventually they're shared childish whimsy leads to the discovery that sucking on a piece of candy can transport them into a very strange living melodrama they experience in fragments until they eventually seek to immerse themselves completely.  

The rabbit holes are many in Rivette's film, and Celine and Julie fall down them all, quite willingly, in ways that make the experience of watching the film completely unique and mercurial.  In many ways, Rivette's so-called masterpiece is a work of extremely literary filmmaking not solely because of its accounted for allusions to Lewis Carroll and the lost time acquisition at play in the hard candy version of Proust's madeliene, but also because it's playing very much in the crosshairs of the modern and the postmodern while making all of that theoretical bullshit into one big, semi-twee joke.  Celine and Julie plays with structure, form, meta-narrative, and reflexivity in ways unlike anything I've seen in cinema.  Yes, I'd argue that that includes Godard.  While Godard may have had a hand in inventing the methods Rivette is using here, the execution is so specifically stylized, so interested in encapsulating the very spirit of the French New Wave. and so gleefully innocent that it's easy to watch it for the madness and dismiss its searingly analytical eye.  Where Godard (as much as I do love many of his films) and Resnais may suffer from a highfalutin reputation towards indulgent edits, fractures, and ways of making a beautiful film deliberately impenetrable, Celine and Julie uses similar ideas and transmogrifies them into a sort of essence.  While often not up to the photographic standards of its predecessors, Rivette's film is a delightfully excitable bit of hallucinatory electricity.  It powers itself through its insane run time, creates endless somethings out of absolutely nothing, and makes Inception's doubled and tripled narratives look like child's play.

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