And this is meant to be Rivette’s accessible one?!
So Jacque Rivette’s ‘Beavis and Butthead Go Boating’ (no spoilers!) starts with Julie, a librarian, sitting in a Parisian park and reading a book about magic. She looks around her — is she trying magic out on her environment? Either way, it doesn’t appear to be working. Oh well. And then Celine appears (has Julie’s magic worked after all?!), walking so briskly through the park she drops her sunglasses in her rush.
Julie sees this, picks them up and follows Celine through Paris who is frantically moving forward dropping more of her belongings as she goes white-rabbiting on.
Finally, after a flirting around each other, they finally meet and Celine moves in with Julie where Julie discovers Celine is a magician who works in a night-club. Julie wants magic to escape her “fixedness” but it doesn’t seem to work for her. Celine seems to have too much magic and is a bit of a fantascist, especially to her friends. Julie also finds out that Celine was fleeing from a house where she had been working and something had happened but Celine can’t remember what.
Julie is determined to investigate and to figure out what is going on, to nail down the structure of whatever “reality” they have stumbled into. Curious about this strange house (and possibly wanting something exciting to dislodge her from her frozen stuckness in time) Julie enters only to reappear outside it with no memory of what happened inside .Celine then also enters to find the exact same thing happens to her. The only evidence something has occured is that they both have red hand-prints on their shoulders (similar to Lang’s ‘M’ — a sign of a murdered child) and a boiled sweet. Something, some experience, has been crystallised, taken outside and can now be transported away and put to investigative use.
What they discover is that eating this sweet (“eat me”) allows them access to the “story” that is/was/has unfolded/ing inside the house. On eating the sweet what they “see” is the house’s family repeating the same sequences time and again but fractured and confusing and suggesting a mystery and a possible murder. However they soon run out of sweets and so can therefore no longer access the memories. Fortunately Julie is a librarian and knows there are magic books inside the library where she works which they decide to steal in a daring, night-time, rolling-skating robbery. These books detail how to make a “memory potion”. Thus fortified and ready for transportation they sit down and “watch” the memory unfolding before them like a movie. But it wears off before they get to the end! The only solution is for them to go back into the house together.
Armed with their baby dinosaur eyes and clover they enter determined to save the child inside. But it seems as though the very act of entering the house thus armed (not entering it via memory access) has caused those memories to start dying. Celine and Julie seem to have brought the most important weapon against memory into the house — time — and now those memories seem to be decaying or to be revealing themselves for what memories truly are — not real life.
But will they succeed? Can they defeat the narrative of the house and save the child (themselves) or will they be pulled back into it and memory loss? Will Celine and Julie actually get to go boating?
I absolutely adored this movie and it also blew my mind out of my fucking skull. They certainly do go boating but they go boating down a swirling rabbit-hole of illusions, dreams, swapped identities and that’s only scratching the surface. I thought this was going to be a pretty straight forward movie as I’d heard it was Rivette’s big commercial hit. It turned out to be the exact opposite as this is, possibly, the most Rivettian film I’ve seen and, at times, makes some of his other stuff seem screamingly conventional. Where the hell to start with this one?
First up there are so many wonderful moments. The opening chase through Paris is gorgeous and funny as hell (Julie running up the steps as Celine is in the cable-car is just perfection). Another one of my favourite sequences is when Julie pretends to be Celine, summoning all her strength by the “Properties and powers of baby dinosaurs’ eyes” and performs a magic show at the club where Celine works. It is wonderful. But even prepared with her talismen you can tell Julie isn’t a natural magician and gives one of the best performances of cringing embarrassment mixed with lyricism I’ve seen. And her monologue about the males gazing at her, those voyeuristic men in the “cinema”, those “Cosmic twilight pimps” (I LOVE that line!) is glorious. I could watch Dominique Labourier all day.
Similarly the look on Celine’s face whenever she takes a piece of sweet and enters the fantasy world is wonderful: a look of curiosity, anticipation, fear and courageous resolve.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of Alice in Wonderland in here from the tea party Julie has with her old nanny to the opening chase. And there so are many doublings, mirrorings and references to jewels, reds and blues that you get the feeling Rivette had been speed-reading Nabokov before filming this.
The scenes where Celine and Julie sit “watching” the movie together and commenting on it, like some French New Wave Beavis and Butthead, are glorious and the chemistry between Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier is captivating. I completely fell in love with these two friends. The way they playfully deconstruct, criticise and get bemused by what they’re seeing unfold before them is funny as hell and meta in the best possibly way (i.e. not annoying or indulgent). Again this is very much down to the utterly disarming and beautiful acting. You can’t help but love these two.
There’s so much more I could say about this movie. Everything from Bulle Ogier playing the kid’s game Statues showing her at her sophisticated, glamorous, graceful best or the fact that the men dress in black like angel-fish and (at times) talk from the inside of cupboards and mirrors. Then there’s all that could be said about cinema as a form of dream-travel (astral-(cinematic)projection). This is a film that tears up a memory like tearing up a magic trick to show there is nothing there. It is one of the reasons it sometime reminded me of Orson Welles’ ‘F is For Fake’.
And, without giving too much away — the end? Celine has escaped her “movie” and Julie has escaped her fixedness or, at least, learned to live inside it. They have broken a cycle and now can effect the story, much like Julie has been wanting to do with her life but felt stuck. The “actors” from the house, however, have and cannot. They remain to forever float in stasis. Unlike Celine and Julie, they cannot go boating or, at least, not with any form of agency. And of course, having agency means being able to play and that is what I love about this film and Rivette in general — that sense of play, of fun.
So Julie and Celine are now part of the world. How will they get on as they move forward, even if it’s in cycles? Fortunately they are armed with dinosaur eyes and clover so I think Celine and Julie are going to be just fine. These two will be boating together with each other throughout time and I’m so glad I was able to join them.
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