One Good Film: "Cèline and Julie Go Boating"

Jacques Rivette's magical masterpiece -- it may be my single favorite movie -- is just the tonic for a lazy August watch.

One Good Film: "Cèline and Julie Go Boating"

If April is the cruelest month, does that make August the laziest? Days are hotter yet getting shorter, the deep greens of June have burnt off into a haze of corn-yellow. The afternoon sun is slanted and valedictory. Dogs nap more, and so do their people. Work? It can wait.

Historically, August has always been the month when the studios release those titles in which they have the least faith – the un-blockbusters, lame, halt, and blind. Tax write-offs. “PAW Patrol: The Movie” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” or, if you’re going by 2023 releases, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” a Dracula-on-the-high-seas horror movie that was undead on arrival this past weekend. Even the streamers are observing the rules: Netflix rolled out the Gal Gadot action film “Heart of Stone” on Friday to crippling reviews. They know we’re all at the beach.

On a personal note, August has always been for me a birthday month – late August specifically, when no is around when you’re a kid except one’s parents and their friends. This was reasonably depressing, and I could easily put together a photographic timeline of little Ty blowing out an ever-increasing number of birthday candles while surrounded by a small crowd of adults in Bermuda shorts and one or two surly siblings. These days, by contrast, I enjoy the quiet, except on the occasions that a banger is called for. (I’m still recovering from my 50th, which involved a DJ, a local Hibernian hall, and friends from all phases of my life, and which resulted in at least one marital engagement that I know of.)

I take some solace in the fact that I share said birthday, August 17, with a refreshingly motley group of celebrities: Robert De Niro and Mae West, Samuel Goldywn and Sean Penn, Maureen O’Hara and professional wrestler Cheerleader Melissa. (How about you? Find out who shares your birthday here.)

There are few cultural artifacts that capture this sweet late summer sense of drift while hinting at larger matters. One of them is literally called “The End of Summer” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 1961, above), the penultimate movie by Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu: My wife and I saw it two weekends ago at the Harvard Film Archive’s just-concluded Ozu retrospective and it’s available to stream on Max, The Criterion Channel, and Kanopy. Entwining comedy and sadness with the gentle touch of a master, the movie’s a family tale that unfolds to a low chorus of ever-present crickets – time’s ceaseless passing as background hum.

Another is the film that I often give as an answer when people ask what my favorite movie of all time – it’s in a tie with “The Godfather” – and that’s Jacques Rivette’s “Cèline and Julie Go Boating” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 1974), a magical meta-movie that take place in an August Paris almost entirely emptied of people, the better for games to be played. How much do I love this movie? Here, take a look at my phone:

For years, “Cèline and Julie Go Boating” was unavailable in the US except for a hard-to-find VHS copy, but a few years back, Criterion put out a DVD/Blu-ray and the film seems to have taken up permanent residence on the Criterion Channel. I couldn’t recommend a better viewing choice for this week in this month of any year. Still – and here is where I will quote at great length from a Boston Globe piece I wrote on the film in 2012 because it’s August and I’m feeling lazy

try to go in with the proper perspective. This gently gonzo meditation on fiction and reality, surrealism and sisterhood, is unlike any other movie you’ve seen. It plays a little like a Charlie Kaufman meta-movie three decades ahead of schedule. It’s also what might happen if “Alice in Wonderland” collided with “Thelma and Louise.”

And there is this, too: “Celine and Julie Go Boating” may be the finest Paris vacation you’ll ever have for the price of a movie ticket. Yes, it’s 3½ hours long and nothing much happens during the first hour or so, but isn’t that what vacations are for? Rivette deposits us in a park in Montmartre during August, when most of the city is away at the beach. You can hear the wind rustle through this movie’s trees, hear the kids playing a block away. All of Paris seems to have been left to its cats, some of them possibly Cheshire.

And two women. Julie (Dominique Labourier) is a playfully proper librarian, with a red frizz of hair atop the face of a natural clown. Celine (Juliet Berto) is a singing magician, pencil-thin, a born rebel. (She could be Jeanne Moreau’s bratty kid sister.) Celine crosses the park and drops a pair of sunglasses, and Julie gives chase, Alice after the White Rabbit. The chase becomes a game of tag, then a deepening friendship, then a foray into the dark of a haunted house.

The house is haunted by fiction. No, really. Celine goes to work there as a nanny one day and comes out shell-shocked and remembering nothing. Her new friend investigates and has a similar experience. They discover that the hard candies they’re sucking on when they emerge are the key to replaying the memories of what occurs therein — they’re magic, like so much else here.

What happens is the same, each and every day: a gloomy Edwardian melodrama — based on a pair of Henry James short stories, actually — about a wealthy widower (Barbet Schroeder), his dead wife’s sister (Bulle Ogier), and a glamorous governess (Marie-France Pisier). Both women love the man and vie for his attention; in the corner, a little girl (Nathalie Asnar) languishes, cared for by the grave, booze-sipping nanny (Celine or Julie, depending on the day).

Outside, everything is formless, joyous, summery Paris — life itself. Inside is stasis, story — the rigid unchangingness of narrative. But as Celine and Julie suck on their candies and rewatch the tale, pointing and whispering as though they were in the back row of their favorite movie theater, they see something that needs changing. At the end of each day, the little girl winds up dead. So how does one monkey-wrench one’s way from reality into fiction while keeping one’s eyes wide open?

But, yes, before the haunted-house plot takes shape halfway through, moviegoers with impatient metabolisms may be kicking themselves. Celine and Julie casually destroy each other’s lives (or, to be precise, the men in each other’s lives) and clear the air so they can get on to the greater adventure. If you can slow down and breathe with the rhythms of August, you’ll roll with it, but not everyone can. The first time I saw “Celine and Julie Go Boating” was at a college screening in the late 1970s; the theater, initially packed, steadily bled moviegoers until there were about 36 of us left at the halfway mark.

Then the enterprising theater managers held an intermission and served everyone hard candies, and by the end of the film, we 36 stalwarts were friends for life. The back half of the film springs its most delightful meta-surprises, as the heroines pull apart the beams of storytelling into a big pile of pickup sticks. Finally — finally — Celine and Julie do go boating, and the film’s penultimate shot is one of the spookiest and most resonant in all of cinema: two dinghies passing on a sun-dappled river, each with its passengers of fiction and fancy.

And then? Then it starts all over again, as it must. Movies are fictions, too, remember? “Celine and Julie Go Boating” propels a moviegoer stunned and sunstruck back into reality, looking for the White Rabbits by which we shape our own fictions. It’s a parlor trick, a mystery, and a masterpiece.

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