The Boy Who Played with Dolls
Jacques Rivette’s Meta Movie Returns
By Armond White
Legend says (and an eyewitness confirms) that at the 1974 New York Film Festival press screening of Celine and Julie Go Boating, Pauline Kael walked out in the middle announcing, “I’m going to the movies!” Apparently Jacques Rivette’s three-hour-plus fantasia on cinephilia wasn’t movie enough for her taste. Since then, the film has gained prestige among a particular breed of cinephile–the Kael-haters who also pompously decry a particular kind of accessibility and sensual or kinetic cinematic gratification in favor of “smartness.” These legions control today’s discourse.
Now that Celine and Julie is back (a rare engagement at Film Forum starting May 4), it’s become undeniable that Kael’s view of cinema has been overtaken by one that prefers the hermetic and arcane view–the “smartness”–that adorns Rivette’s new cache and that Celine and Julie exemplifies.
Its story of two young Parisians, curly redhead Julie (Dominique Labourier) and raven-tressed Celine (Juliet Berto) who become friends and share confidences and confidantes, parodies the production of film narrative and the expression of imagination and cultural legend. These same themes (implied in the film’s Feuillade-alluding subtitle “Phantom Ladies Over Paris”) were common to films of Rivette’s French New Wave contemporaries Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer who employed less esoteric yet revolutionary methods.
Rivette’s deliberately obscure tale has become iconic for the elitist cinephilia that now dominates contemporary film culture; it defines the festival circuit and internet hordes whose social pretensions have further divided audiences into intellectual and anti-intellectual positions at the exact moment that tabloid journalism (alligned with Hollywood patronization) has corrupted populist approaches to cinema.
Celine and Julie is whimsical yet for a comedy it’s never really funny. Rivette’s dry approach to improvisation and fantasy negates the kind of joy that his collaborators Labourier and Berto mean to have. This Mutt-and-Jeff duo is fascinated by magic (the movies, public performance) and imagine themselves entering a lurid melodrama from another dimension. It’s all so insidey that only their ponderousness is contagious, not their supposed delight. The titular “go boating” is a French phrase for jest or joking. Yet, this laborious caprice is always regarded in somber utterances; usually by critics who deplore lively screen sex or humor. Rivette’s deadpan cinephilia is what made Kael bolt in search of basic movie pleasure.
Since cinematic jouissance has currently been reduced to unimaginative CGI excess and 3D gimmicks, only the film’s dated bohemianism survives. What does this means for contemporary cinema?
Celine and Julie can be viewed as a proto-Mumblecore movie for its seemingly arbitrary storyline and self-infatuated preoccupation with cultural privilege. Indeed, Labourier and Berto’s bland antics resemble the mundane actions and unprepossessing actors of Mumblecore. It’s a particular let down from the sexy wit that gave the French New Wave undeniable appeal.
The dull narcissism of Labourier and Berto connects Rivette’s method to rhythmless, lo-fi, indie rock. This isn’t just an alternative to commercial style; it’s a form of elitist denial. Though not ascetic, Rivette seems temperamentally incapable of the charm and esprit usually associated with cinematic pleasure–unless one sucks up to French superiority like Jonathan Rosenbaum. Viewers who don’t know that sensual delight (as in Von Sternberg, Rene Clair, Mizoguchi, Bertolucci) will overrate Rivette’s insistence on the mundane and ignore his failure to follow through on the gap between Celine and Julie’s hipster inventions and their bourgeois dreams.
Each girl’s vocation (Julie’s a librarian, Celine’s a magician) clashes against the hot-house romance they dream up involving upper-class infidelity and murder acted out by Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier and Barbet Schroeder. This subplot, derived from two Henry James short stories, has a sinister tone unlike the main plot yet is performed with a kind of campy flair that exposes what the rest of the movie lacks.
Ogier and Pisier are genuine movie stars; nothing else is as fascinating and mysterious as the complexity and mystery of their beauty and playful personalities. Ogier staring into the distance suggests a blonde Elizabeth Taylor. Imagine! Pisier evokes an ancient, exotic sensuality. They have mythic authority. Rivette cannot justify turning them into ghouls as if dull, annoying Celine and Julie were preferable–or had outshone them simply by being modern and “real.”
By the time Rivette made Celine and Julie, Robert Altman had already achieved whimsical yet profound improvisatory visions in M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split. And in one of the greatest cultural ironies of all time, Altman’s dreamlike 1977 film 3 Women resembled and surpassed Celine and Julie almost deliberately. Kael wrote that she preferred the first part of Altman‘s film that was about “two girls,” but I find it consistently compelling in Altman’s balanced, humorous-then-wacky compassion for the quotidian lives and private fantasies that Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek acted out so authentically .
Both Altman and Rivette’s obvious love for actresses distinguishes their films; they each salute performers’ creativity as a basic element of cinema production. A Rivette revival must accept this comparison. Altman’s formal mastery surpassed Rivette‘s crude attempts at inserts and montage, providing a more fluid, oneiric context for psychological fantasy. None of the pompous criticism that relates Celine and Julie to Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Luigi Pirandello, and that Artforum fetish “duration,” grasps its essential Altmanesque play-acting conceit–which is literalized when Celine finds a trunk full of dolls or Julie encounters her childhood nanny and reenacts a little girl‘s tea party. (Tea is a euphemism for drug-like candy–left over from 60s LSD?–needed to send Julie and Celine into their reveries.)
Rivette doesn’t sustain a sense of child’s play; lost in the act of playing with grown-up dolls, his ponderous Gallic intellectualism gets in the way. Aesthetically the weakest of the New Wave pioneers, Rivette seems to betray the movement’s impulses. (Find James Monaco‘s excellent, out-of-print The New Wave for an reasonable explication.) Celine and Julie comes late in the New Wave timeline; perhaps Rivette was consciously avoiding some of the formal and Feminist breakthroughs that Ingmar Bergman had achieved in his great diptych Persona and Cries and Whispers–both of which Celine and Julie resembles, especially with its dour Jamesian chamber drama subplot. It should offer psychological subtext (like in Genet’s The Maids filmed in 1975 with Glenda Jackson and Susannah York) but doesn’t because Julie and Celine vouchsafe no connection to the tragedy unfolding at their own behest; even as participants they remain blithe, un-implicated observers. (Note: This may have anticipated the affectlessness of contemporary indie films.)
The resonance of seeing actors caught in the psychological turmoil of their imaginations gets lost, and Rivette loses any sense of gaiety.
The revival of Celine and Julie clarifies what’s been lost in contemporary film culture. In the recent The Moth Diaries, a lesbian vampire’s bird-like flutter (mimed by Lily Cole) recalls Ogier and Pisier’s amusing theatricality. It confirms how Celine and Julie’s legacy (as alternative art movie, as lesbian farce) has trickled down to the indie movement and its resistance to strong, clear narrative. Celine and Julie’s current vogue fits the prevalence of “anti” aesthetics, the preference for film style that is both anti-Hollywood and anti the traditional Hegelian form and Aristotelian humanism of the classic “art” cinema.
This meta-movie smartness has hoodwinked the blogger generation (not the fanboy types but those with scholarly ambitions). A new, depressive hierarchy results: Hou Hsiao Hsien over Renoir. Weerasethakul over Fellini. Haneke over Bunuel. DeOlivera over Visconti and lately Naruse over Ozu, Johnny To over Clouzot. Soderbergh over Malle and Rivette over the rest of the French New Wave.
These ruminations are occasioned by Rivette’s epic tale of ruminations. The meta-movie regime signified by the celebration of Celine and Julie threatens to deprive us all of gaiety. Not saying this isn’t a film for cinema history to contend with, just that so many recent, mirthless movies can be traced to the cultural Mandarinism this film epitomizes. It leaves us staring back at the screen the way we do at Julie and Celine having fun with the movie in their heads. Like non-smokers at a pot party, we watch them, excluded from their private spectatorship, yet still longing to go to the movies.
The Boy Who Played with Dolls