The dizzying Celine and Julie Go Boating is apt viewing for a chaotic present

The brilliantly trippy Seventies masterpiece suits the growing feeling that life itself is somehow glitching, looping, or not making sense. 

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A brilliantly trippy watch for a period in history when the world around us seems to be dissolving into chaos, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) is a time travel fantasia about two Parisian adventuresses witnessing an inter-­dimensional murder. Celine, a ­gorgeous bohemian who may also be a witch, is first seen rushing through Montmartre in a hurry, sloughing off her ­accessories like a snake shedding its skin. She passes Julie, a librarian with a burgeoning interest in black magic.

As if she were Alice following the ­rabbit, Julie begins trailing Celine through the city, picking up her feather boa, books and silk scarves as if she were collecting the ­ingredients for a hex. They dance around each other, coyly, making it impossible to know at first whether the two women are strangers, or whether they are enacting an agreed-upon burlesque. The game goes on for days; Celine moves into Julie’s home. A new game altogether slowly starts ­unfolding. We are asked to follow Julie and Celine not only down the rabbit hole, but back in time.

“[Jacques Rivette’s] whole movie, like a dream, is set between quotation marks,” Gilbert Adair suggested in Film Comment in 1974. “Like a dream, it is an anagram of reality.” The simplest way to explain the film – if there is a simple way to explain it – is that at some point Celine enters a ­remote mansion on the outskirts of the city, loses track of time, and ends up thrown back into daylight after an unspecified number of hours. She is dazed, and has no memory of what occurred inside the house, but feels compelled to keep returning.

Julie, keen to solve the puzzle, does the same. After each visit, they emerge with a mysterious piece of candy in their mouths; eventually, it becomes clear that the key to remembering what has transpired is ­consuming this strange sweet, allowing them to experience a shared hallucination that takes on the shape of a Victorian  murder mystery.

Each of them pictures herself within the story, as the nanny to a child who is eventually killed. We watch Celine and Julie’s fantasy play out, and occasionally, we watch them watching their fantasy play out: slack-jawed, amazed, engrossed, the picture of a movie audience enthralled by a whodunit.

Celine, who is extroverted, batty and a little naughty, is glamorous in the most traditional sense, from the old Scottish word for magic. She is also the ancestor of another kind of feminine enchantress, the contemporary Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a bewitching catalyst for sudden drama in the life of the protagonist, who cannot help but chase her. (Little wonder, then, that Celine and Julie Go Boating proved to be a major influence on Susan Seidelman when she directed 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan.)

Rivette’s film is full of wordplay that does not translate exactly, the result being that English-speaking viewers like myself are apt to miss occasional jokes. To go boating – aller en bateau – has an idiomatic meaning as well as a literal one: to get caught up in a story, to be taken for a ride. Narratives that loop and replay, or that play out in multiple timelines, have become more popular in recent years – think of 2019’s spiky Russian Doll, whose nihilistic heroine relives her death ad infinitum, or this summer’s hit Palm Springs, in which the loop is a subtly downbeat metaphor for a relationship. Perhaps this is due to an increasing sense that life itself is somehow glitching, looping, playing out on several simultaneous planes, or otherwise not making sense. Rivette, playing fast and loose with unreality, has made a film capable of travelling forward, rushing, to catch up with These Uncertain Times.

The subtitle for Celine and Julie Go ­Boating is the fairy-tale-like “Phantom Ladies Over Paris”, a suggestion that Rivette’s surrealist comedy may be as much a ghost story as an amusing, dizzying romp through time and space. In one of the film’s final scenes, Celine and Julie, in the “real” world, take a boat out on a lake. To their amazement, the characters from the mansion have appeared, as still as statues on the water. For a moment, this appears to be the ending – one last image of the bleed between reality and ­fantasy, the line dissolving like confectionery in the movie’s mouth – until another scene appears: Julie, a librarian with a ­burgeoning interest in black magic, is seen rushing through Montmartre in a hurry, sloughing off her accessories like a snake shedding its skin. Celine, a gorgeous ­bohemian who may also be a witch, sees her and sets out to pursue her. Plus ça change: many stories, whether they are très ­moderne or steeped in history, eventually repeat themselves. l

“Celine and Julie Go Boating” is available on Amazon Prime Video

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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