Julie (Dominique Labourier) is a librarian on her break who reads a book on magic in a park to pass the time, finding the text fascinating enough to try and draw her own sigil in the sand with her foot. As she does, she happens to look up and catch sight of a young woman, Celine (Juliet Berto), who as she walks across the park, drops her sunglasses absent-mindedly. Wishing to assist, yet also a little intrigued, Julie jumps up, grabs the spectacles and runs after her, but then proves curiously reticent when it comes to returning not only the eyewear but also a scarf and a doll Celine has left behind her. No matter, she catches up with her eventually, and an incredible time-travelling adventure begins...
Celine and Julie Go Boating, or Céline et Julie vont en bateau in original French (with its English subtitle Phantom Ladies Over Paris), has been hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters ever since its release in the mid-nineteen-seventies, though in others it is derided with that dreaded word "pretentious", or even worse, "irritating", and to be irritated for three-and-a-quarter hours is no mean feat. In actual fact, it may well be both of those things, and was certainly smug and extremely pleased with itself, but it was hardly worthless as its director examined what it meant to be both observer and creator of cinema simultaneously, which he himself had been since the sixties as part of the Nouvelle Vague.
Not that this endeavour had brought Jacques Rivette enormous wealth and acclaim as it had his contemporaries in that groundbreaking subgenre of French works, he remained rather obscure in spite of a consistent output over decades of filmmaking, but the cineastes would point to him as a figure any serious student of film should get acquainted with, even if it was only for one film. Celine and Julie tied with La Belle Noiseuse as his highest profile movie, though that latter may have attained such a status thanks to its leading lady Emmanuelle Béart being naked for most of it, but if you knew him at all as a director, it would be because watching one of his pieces was akin to running a marathon.
Not for him any notion of brevity as the soul of wit, and he preferred to immerse himself in the lives of his characters, often female ones, and sprawl his stories through the two-hour mark and into the three, sometimes four, even more as his canon was one of the lengthiest of any filmmaker, cult or otherwise. Here this was in service of the act of watching a film, and by doing so participating in that experience by bringing your own interpretation to it as if indulging in a role-playing game, knowing that every time you saw it you would be seeing something different, no matter that the film itself, as a record of the past, remained unchanged. Or did it? Could visiting the cinema (which was Rivette's favourite activity) actively alter what the film depicted as connected to what your state of mind was at the time?
In a way, Celine and Julie was looking forward to the video age, much as Rivette might have resisted that as a champion of supporting the picture palaces, for cult movies in the era after video recorders made their mark meant something watched over and over again, tens, sometimes hundreds of times, just as the two protagonists do here with the haunted house they visit over and over, either literally or figuratively by sucking in on a boiled sweet. They do this in the hope they can change the past and save a little girl from her mystery murderer, but how seriously they take this task was up for debate, they seem to be enjoying it too much to the point of frivolity, acting more like little girls dressing up and improvising at playtime than grown women, which tended to undercut the notion of serious cinema with a custard pie of irreverence in the stuffy face of academic study of the medium. Nevertheless, that self-regarding air, especially in the performances of Labourier and (the tragically shortlived) Berto, could well be a deal breaker for many wondering if this hugely indulgent running time was worth it; for the fans, or the more receptive newcomers, it offered a wealth of food for thought.
[The BFI have released this on Blu-ray in a restored print; as a low budget movie it never looked stunning, but this is a very nice presentation. Also included are featurettes, a commentary and an extensive booklet.]