Céline and Julie Go Boating
Whiling away a summer in Paris, director Jacques Rivette, working in close collaboration with his stars and coconspirators Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier, set out to rewrite the rules of cinema in the spirit of pure play—moviemaking as an anything-goes romp through the labyrinths of imagination. The result is one of the most exuberantly inventive and utterly enchanting films of the French New Wave, in which Julie (Labourier), a daydreaming librarian, meets Céline (Berto), an enigmatic magician, and together they become the heroines of a time-warping adventure involving a haunted house, psychotropic candy, and a murder-mystery melodrama. Incorporating allusions to everything from Lewis Carroll to Louis Feuillade, Céline and Julie Go Boating is both one of the all-time-great hangout comedies and a totally unique, enveloping cinematic dream space that delights in the endless pleasures and possibilities of stories.
Finally receiving a disc release in North America, Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating comes to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, the film presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 2K restoration, scanned from the 16mm original camera negative.
Outside of a greenish hue that lingers throughout, the presentation looks remarkable. The restoration work has cleaned up things impeccably and very little damage remains, imperfections limited to the occasional spec or stray hair stuck in the gate. Unsurprisingly, considering the 16mm source, grain is pretty heavy, but it looks natural, dancing around cleanly most of the time (there is some minor noise here and there). The image also manages to deliver a rather surprising level of detail that I wasn’t expecting from the 16mm source, and the tighter details show through clearly, like the curls on Dominique Labourier’s head.
The colours, as I mentioned, do have that greeny hue, but I didn’t find it as obnoxious compared to other recent restorations (like some of those found in the Varda set), and I swear it varies from scene to scene, though this could come down to lighting of the scene. Black levels can crush a little bit during a few darker sequences (like the magic performances in the club) but they’re generally good, looking inky.
That latter aspect with the colours is admittedly a little disheartening but it doesn’t counter the presentation's strengths in the end, and the colours could look as they're intended to look; I don’t know for sure. The image overall looks superb. It’s clean and stable, and ultimately does look like a 16mm film.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack for the film. I really don’t know what to say about it other than it sounds alright. It’s flat, but dialogue is easy to hear, street effects sound fine, and what music there doesn’t get screechy. Damage is also never an issue. So, yes, it’s “alright.”
Criterion makes up for the skimpy couple of features found on their 2016 edition for Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (the first Rivette title Criterion had released I might add) by packing this two-disc release full of stuff. The film takes up the first disc but Criterion does include film critic Adrian Martin’s 2017 audio commentary originally recorded for the BFI’s own Blu-ray edition. Martin is a little more energetic than usual with this track (a comment that should not be taken as any sort of slight toward his other tracks), which suits the manic (even bonkers) nature of the film, one that he calls an “experimental narrative comedy.” And he spends a lot of time deconstructing that narrative, talking about the “two” very distinct films that are here and the structure of each: the more modern, free-wheeling main story with our two protagonists, and then the more old fashioned, more structured “mystery” storyline. He especially likes to breakdown how that inner story is delivered, first in fragments that give as little info as possible before we finally get the full story... or at least most of it. This also leads to the nature of storytelling, especially through films, and the act of “playing” and/or performing. And Martin will also throw in some occasional trivia (like the location of the central house) and will also reference other critics, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robin Wood, when bringing up thoughts around the film and Rivette’s work as a whole. He also brings up many other films that he feels influenced it or were influenced by it, including Persona, 3 Women, and Mulholland Drive (with Martin noting that Rivette was a Lynch fan himself). He covers many other subjects, including Rivette’s literary influences—Henry James primarily—and then also talks about how the film is one of the few he can think of that passes the Bechdel test. Martin does an incredible job with this, impressively keeping the track informative and engaging for the entire runtime.
The second dual-layer disc then houses the remaining features, starting things off impressively with Clair Denis’ 1994 2-part television documentary, Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur, divided into Le jour (around 73-minutes) and Le nuit (around 56-minutes), and made for the program Cinéma de notre temps. With movie critic Serge Daney onscreen and Denis off (at least, I assume it’s her), Rivette talks about his background and the French New Wave during the first segment, filmed during “the day” at a café. The second segment looks to have been filmed at his place during “the night,” and it’s here that Rivette talks a bit more about his work and film in general, though rather frustratingly, the conversation is not as in-depth as one would maybe hope (and I should mention clips are thrown in every once in a while). It is pretty clear here that Rivette can be a little reserved, and at times I wasn’t sure if his little chuckles at Daney’s comments and questions were out of amusement, frustration, or along the lines of maybe he hadn’t thought of it in the way Daney brings it up before (or a mix of all three), but whatever the case when Rivette does “get going” on a subject he really goes on about it and the passion he has comes out. The style of the documentary is a bit static: it primarily consists of Rivette and Daney sitting there talking, with actors like Bulle Ogier and Jean-François Stévenin (the latter pulling in on a motorcycle) popping in for a one-on-one with Denis to talk about the director. Yet despite that, it’s a very engaging and personal portrait of the filmmaker, who just talking about what he loves.
Though that documentary and Martin’s commentary are pretty substantial additions on their own, Criterion still packs on more. New to this edition is a remotely conducted interview between critic Pacôme Thiellement and author Hélène Frappat, the two talking about Rivette and Céline and Julie in relation to the rest of his work. They discuss a wide range of topics around the film, from the film’s focus on the friendship between two women, to the actors’ own contributions to the story (they’re credited as writers as well), to the many references found to Henry James within it, and to it being a “summer film.” It’s a loose interview at 35-minutes, and the remote structure leads to a few amusing moments, like Thiellement taking advantage of being in his own place by just pulling out a cigarette at one point (because why not), and another moment where the two sound like they are about to to get into an argument because of a misunderstanding over a comment made about the murder-mystery subplot.
Criterion also includes two new (remote) interviews with actors Bulle Ogier and Barbet Schroeder—the latter of whom also worked as producer—each running 10-minutes and 12-minutes respectively. The two participated in the story-within-the-story so their perspective on actual shooting comes from that (that storyline was mostly shot independently from the main storyline), Ogier touching a bit on the genre nature of it. Schroeder’s interview does end up focusing heavier on the production aspect, the filmmaker recalling how difficult it could be to get funding for Rivette’s work because of their length. Amusingly, Rivette promised him this film would be less than two hours and what came in was what we have now. Schroeder even looked to edit it down but had what could probably only be called a “to hell with it” moment and just let it ride.
After that the rest of the material is archival. There is 6-minutes worth of footage (a third of which is a clip) from a 1974 Cannes interview featuringactors Ogier, Juliet Berto, and Marie-France Pisier talking about the two-films-in-one nature to it, followed by a 12-minute segment from a 1974 episode of Pour le cinema, featuring the three with Rivette talking about the production (which felt like a “vacation”). Dominique Labourier also shows up during this segment on her own.
One of the more interesting archival features here is an 8-minute segment entitled Jacques Rivette: Histoires de titres,which is incorrectly dated at having been filmed in 1974, and that can't be the case because a.) it sure looks like the late 80s/early 90s and b.) the 1989 film The Gang of Four gets mentioned. Rivette simply sits and talks about the titles of his films, explaining what they mean and where they come from, whether they be a reference to a quote (like Paris Belongs to Us) or just a goof (like Céline and Julie). An interesting look at his thought process. It’s also kind of hilarious how he doesn’t comment on the films themselves until he gets to Merry-Go-Round, which he has some real disdain for (he even feels the title is stupid).
The remaining material looks to come from a previous 2004 French DVD edition for the film. This includes a 35-minute feature presenting individual interviews with Ogier, Labourier, and Pisier, all of whom recount their work on the film, Labourier admiring the late Berto’s instincts and recalling how they developed their characters and some of the film’s scenarios. I was much more thrilled with the 21-minute interview with Rivette, though, as he really gets into the details about the production and the many ideas they all threw around but never used. According to him a point of contention between him and Berto and Labourier was the idea of the candy being the gateway to revisiting their memories, the two actors seeing it as a drug reference (which gets mentioned in the previous interview) but Rivette intending it to be a Lewis Carroll reference. He also had the idea where, before the characters view those memories/ghostly visions (whatever they are), one of them would literally pull film strips out of their head, though the costs for such an effect would have been prohibitive (he states digital would make it so much easier now). This interview is just Rivette talking about the film’s production and its development yet it is probably one of the most fascinating inclusions here, if just for the abandoned ideas.
The release then closes off with a small booklet, featuring some great (and suiting) artwork along with an essay around the film by Beatrice Loayza followed by a reprinting of a 1974 article written by actor Juliet Berto recounting the making of the film and her creative input into it.
Altogether the supplements do a spectacular job covering the film, while also managing to offer a very deep look into Rivette’s working process.
It was a long wait but it was worth it. The film’s North American disc debut comes packed with goodies and terrific looking presentation.