I wrote the following review of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list:
Jacques Rivette’s CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (French)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel (subscription required).
In 2012, the critic Miriam Bale coined the phrase “persona-swap film” to describe a previously unacknowledged genre, one that stretches from Howard Hawks’ GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in 1953 through David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE half a century later. She cites Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING as an essential entry in this unique cycle of movies that focuses on the female experience by examining how two friends with contrasting personalities – one eccentric, the other more conventional – either swap or magically merge identities. The publication of Bale’s essay coincided with the rehabilitation of Rivette’s reputation when a number of his major films that were previously difficult to see started to become more widely available in the wake of his 2009 retirement. CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, the most accessible film from Rivette’s greatest period (1969-1976), is only now receiving its long-awaited streaming debut in America, having never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in this country. (This, by itself, is a good reason to subscribe to the Criterion Channel.) Based on a 2017 restoration of the original 16mm elements by France’s Centre National du Cinéma, the movie’s colors are now tighter than ever, while the plentiful grain within its Academy aspect ratio is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier as Celine and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto as Julie) — have always been and still are the main draw. Berto and Labourier, who also co-wrote, have admitted to consciously drawing on Bergman’s PERSONA for inspiration (while Rivette, more typically, was thinking of Hawks) as they created the scenario of a magician befriending a librarian and, with the aid of a psychotropic hard candy, entering into a “house of fiction.” This location is a literal Parisian mansion inside of which the same 19th-century mystery story (involving a love triangle and the murder of a young girl) plays out each time the women pay it a visit. Eduardo de Gregorio, Rivette’s regular co-writer during this period, apparently scripted these “film-within-a-film” scenes based on two stories by Henry James. The way Celine and Julie start out as passive spectators of the Jamesian mystery but gradually become active participants in its plot underscores the most intellectually provocative aspect of this otherwise supremely playful opus: A lot of filmmakers have made great movies about the process of making movies – but only Rivette made a great one about the process of watching them. The result is one rabbit hole I am happy to go down again and again. (1974, 194 min,) MGS