Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celine and Julie Go Boating

Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite film directors. I’ve been saying that for maybe two decades now, but I have to admit it was based for a long time on faith as much as knowledge, because his work has been awfully difficult to see. Even now, half his films - most Rivette specialists would say the best half - remain unavailable on DVD. Still, even this is streets ahead of where things used to be, and at least it leaves us something to look forward to.

Jacques Rivette

I was originally enraptured by the idea of Rivette because of the first edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, which I bought when I was around 16 years old. Thomson is an establishment figure now, and his writing has become mundane, but the original volume was a revelation (it was recently voted by a Sight and Sound poll as one of the best five books about cinema, with which I certainly agree): it shimmered with the possibility (perhaps the necessity) of becoming a pure creature of cinema, one for whom the achievement of engaging with Orson Welles and Fritz Lang would neutralize mundane needs (fortunately, I just about kept enough perspective to find a workable career for myself). Part of Thomson’s appeal was his immunity to the prevailing consensus; he was largely resistant to Ford and Fellini for instance. I obviously lack his independence of mind, because even now I find it hard to forge a thought on those directors that isn’t influenced by Thomson (on the bright side, I’ve always liked Cassavetes much more than he does).

On Jacques Rivette, he started off like this: “The informed filmgoer might not leap to support the contention that Rivette is the most important film-maker at work today.” This was in 1975, when a solid chunk of the all-time greats were still operating. To emphasize the point, Thomson called Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating “the most important film made since Citizen Kane.” Labeling it “the first film in which everything is invented,” he said it “pursues humour, idiosyncrasy and exhilaration and provides a way of seeing how old-fashioned such concepts as comedy and melodrama have become.”

Intuitive Connection

Rivette was one of the core French “New Wave” directors, moving from writing for Cahiers du Cinema to making his first film in the late 50’s. It’s virtually obligatory to point out, and so I won’t resist, that he’s never achieved the status of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer. But then you could argue – even for the restless, unprecedented Godard – that status imposes limitations. Rivette is reportedly a recluse with few or no conventional friends, which we might fancifully imagine has been the price of his immense artistic sensitivity.

I recently saw Celine and Julie again, and it generates as much delight as ever (I actually saw it the day after I saw Inception, which helped underline that film’s laborious literal-mindedness, not that I needed help). The two women meet in Paris and forge an intuitive connection, marked by playfulness and collaborative creativity. Their interest converges on a boarded-up house, where an ornate narrative of desire and death concerning a widower, his young daughter, two women and a nurse – embodied at different times by Celine or by Julie - seems constantly to repeat itself. With the help of a magical candy, they acquire the ability to view the narrative from outside, like a movie jointly projected directly into their consciousnesses, and then they set out to change the story’s grim arrival point.

I don’t know if it’s strictly correct to call it the first film in which everything is invented – many avant garde works or animations surely fall into that category in some sense at least. And more importantly, it wouldn’t be as vibrant if it wasn’t anchored in a recognizable early 70’s Paris and a particular kind of intelligent but under-utilized young woman: Julie has a dull library job and a seemingly boring boyfriend, and although Celine is more overtly creative – she has a magician act in a low-grade nightclub – her boss seems to pull all the important strings. In other words, their project seems to specifically reflect feminist politics; the melodrama they triumph over draws heavily from old style creations where women cut each other to pieces for the sake of a man.

The Essential 100

Against that backdrop though, almost everything in the film embodies a desire to overcome these strictures. Rivette has frequently rejected normal assumptions about a film’s duration, most famously with Out One, which runs twelve and a half hours, and was long considered to be essentially lost. Celine and Julie lasts around three hours, peanuts by comparison although still a challenge to normal expectations. Certain elements, like the opening sequence where Julie chases after Celine, go on much longer than they would for any other director; at other times we’re locked in repetition. Throughout, it critiques the conventions that restrict cinema, and that therefore restrict all of us who value it.

Rivette’s films have frequently referred to theatre as a source of relative freedom – a good few hours of Out One consists of rehearsal scenes from two different productions. Celine and Julie, at least temporarily, manage to craft a liberating fusion of both arts. But of course, it’s a fantasy, a story of ghosts and magical candies. In the film’s closing stretch, the women’s invention reaches its zenith, hinting for a while at unambiguous victory. But in the end it’s unclear whether they’ve accomplished anything at all. In the decades since then, Rivette’s occasionally returned to related mythologies – the beautiful Story Of Marie and Julien sets out a whole set of rules for the afterlife. Even more often, he’s experimented with notions of conspiracies and mysteries, seldom providing traditional closure. And he’s continued to meditate on the creative process, most famously in La Belle Noiseuse, around two hours of which consists of a nude Emmanuelle Beart posing for a painting.

Another problem, sadly, with Thomson’s assessment of Celine and Julie Go Boating’s relative importance is perhaps an empirical one – if it’s the most important film since Citizen Kane, why don’t more people know it? Unfortunately though, cinematic greatness is a declining kingdom nowadays (I wonder how many of the TIFF Cinematheque staff are fuming about being associated with a list of “the essential 100” films that includes Slumdog Millionaire and Life is Beautiful, but nothing by Rivette). Now in his eighties and reportedly in poor health, he receives a bit more attention than he used to, although it’s obvious from the reviews that many of those writing up his later work lack much feel for what came before. If one views his most recent (and most easily accessible) works in isolation, I hope they’d be rewarding, but I’d imagine they’d have to seem – to say the least – a little quirky. But if your aspirations for cinema amount to something greater than a series of sugar highs, spending some time on investigating Jacques Rivette might just about change your views of everything.

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