In Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), play is a life force, pleasure a form of liberation. Drawing inspiration from cartoons, Hollywood musicals, and the vaudeville shenanigans of early screen comedy in the vein of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Jacques Rivette’s fifth feature film, a masterpiece of modern cinema, wields laughter—women’s laughter—like a weapon for shattering conventions.
We first see Julie (Dominique Labourier) perched on a park bench, consulting a book on magic as she draws runic symbols in the sand with the heel of her shoe. She is admiring her surroundings—billowing trees, a cat on the prowl, squealing kiddies—when the waifish Céline (Juliet Berto) appears, wrapped in a green feather boa, shuffling along like the muttering White Rabbit running late for his appointment in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Julie jumps to the rescue when this strange, flighty woman drops her sunglasses. She whistles and yoo-hoos to no avail before Céline launches into a full sprint and Julie follows after her, initiating an extended, wordless chase down the rabbit hole and through the streets of Montmartre. Theirs is a connection felt rather than rationally understood.
The plot resists easy summarization, unfolding as a series of playful vignettes that forge a mystical connection between the two women, soul sisters in nearly literal terms. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), another frolicking fantasia of merged female identities and a great favorite of Rivette’s, is a clear touchstone. As is Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a film that explores the performance and consumption of gender roles to determine what it means to be a woman. In Céline and Julie, we’re plunged into a girlish, colorful world of cats and tarot cards, dolls and candy. Reality here is dictated by dream logic, spiked with fantastic, supernatural forces—it is the elaboration of an alternative existence, the possibility of an otherwise. Over the course of three and a quarter hours, we spectators are folded into the narrative, but Rivette keeps us on our toes, asking questions, searching for meaning.
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