The headline might sound a bit disrespectful, but it is this film's very virtue - and the ride, actually quite joyful. Jacques Rivette's ingenius "Céline et Julie vont en Bateau" [Eng. Title: Celine and Julie go Boating] explores the art of storytelling by blurring, and at times obfuscating traditional narrative altogether, by taking us on a trip through the surreal world of the protagonists during a balmy Parisian summer. It is also Rivette's most successful international hit to date.
It's doubtful if I can do it justice, but shall give it a try...
Brushing up on her magic spells at a park, librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) is distracted by a passing young woman - Céline (Juliet Berto), absent-mindedly dropping a trail of paraphernalia from her overflowing handbag. Julie, intrigued by the woman who appears to be in some kind of hurry, picks them up and follows Céline, which takes the shape of a flirtatious pursuit across the streets of Paris, amidst puzzled onlookers. They will soon become close friends, possibly more, even developing a kind of telepathic bond between them. Together, they embark on investigating the mystery surrounding a nearby mansion and its hitherto occupants, by taking turns in venturing inside. When either of them pass through the door, it shuts behind on its own, but upon leaving the mansion, they strangely loose all memory of what they saw inside; the only remnant of their visit is their dazed expression, and a boiled sweet in their mouth. They realise that the sweet, while it lasts, also helps them recollect fragments of what went on when they were inside, but not quite enough to reconstruct the full story, despite repeat visits, where the same drama with differently nuanced performances are played out during every visit (like shows in a theatre play).
What they do remember is that once inside, they turn into one of the characters - a nurse, employed to care for 'Madlyn', the child of the master of the house. It is not until they decide to pay a visit together, with the help of some 'baby dinosaur eye-rings', that they begin to piece together a tragic unfolding melodrama, where 'Madlyn' is in mortal danger from some relatives of the household. They try to thwart the murder and rescue 'Madlyn' using various means. Towards the end of the film, we'll see that they have come full-circle, ready to embark on the adventure once again...
This, of course, is just part of the storyline - at over three hours, there are numerous other moments thrown into the film paying homage to different genre - from romance to family melodrama, and from murder mystery to farcical comedy, it is a celebration of cinema and its magic itself. Rivette, as he often does, explores the film medium in relationship with other art forms - in this instance, theatre. He firmly believes in cinema's roots in theatre, and it is underscored repetitively using various traditional theatrical elements, like the on-stage cues, exits, and the repeat performances themselves - likening them to rehearsals. There is also referral to audience reactions upon leaving a theatre or cinema after a matinee - momentarily dazed, by being ushered back into the real world. Not to mention how some shows might require repeat viewings from the audience to 'get the full picture', is also illustrated succinctly through the screenplay itself.
In addition to this, we get to see Rivette indulging in what he enjoys most, the film-making process itself, as opposed to the finished product. Using minimal edits, exquisite cinematography, evocative score, and the enchanting, albeit slightly kooky protagonists, he promises us a pleasurable boating experience, full of grace, beauty, and warmth, through a Parisian summer stunningly timestamped with its gorgeous 1970's wardrobe. But despite taking us for a ride for the most part, Jacques Rivette, nevertheless delivers, and in style! But the film is also as much a creation of Rivette as it is of the two principal actresses - Godard-regular Juliet Berto (sadly deceased) and Dominique Labourier, playing the eponymous roles respectively, and who practically created the characters themselves by drawing references from various literary sources like Lewis Carroll and Henry James. They indulge in improvisation too, like in the scene where Céline makes up a tall tale for her bewildered friends about the 'American celebrity' she's recently moved in with. This gem of a film is utterly charming while also showcasing the sheer magic of cinema and theatre - it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon BFI 2-DVD-set [PAL]
This is a sumptuous and super-value 2-DVD set from BFI UK - the first DVD is the film itself, while the second DVD includes an insightful interview from Jonathan Romney on Rivette, and also has a brilliant documentary about the Bibliothèque Nationale called "All the World's Memory" by the Alain Resnais.
The Nudity: Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier
There is a scene of Céline (Juliet Berto) making up one of her tall stories while in the shower, while a bemused Julie (Dominique Labourier) eggs her along. There is also brief, if unintended nudity from Ms. Labourier, trying to scrub off a stain in the shower.