To even describe Céline and Julie Go Boating is antithetical to the experience. It is a purposefully rambling and anti-narrative piece more in love with spontaneity and energy than it is with anything else. It is a film about breaking the rules, about repetitions and deviations, and ultimately about the nature of cinema itself.
Fundamentally, this film functions as a three hour joke – in the most delightful way. To go boating is a French idiom, a cognate for the British idiom of a shaggy dog story or a tall tale. Basically, a rambling series of digressions where the point is that the story has no real point. This, in itself, is an anti-cinema statement that puts this firmly not only in the French New Wave but arguably beyond it (as elements of that film could be read as a critique of the empty innovations of much of the movement – where the way narratives are old may have changed, but the dynamics and traditions of those narratives arguably stayed the same). This is a film pushing the boundaries of what film can be while serving as a tongue in cheek critique of what film has been. The fact that the film, for no real reason, actually ends with some titular boating is just the cherry on the cake – and the perfect punchline to this delightful romp.
In this penultimate moment, before an even more clever ending, a statement is made. The image evokes traditional French art – specifically Impressionism – presenting the bucolic beauty you expect of a Monet or a Renoir. Interestingly, this image of relaxed French citizens in fancy attire boating slowly down a picturesque river, also evokes the other Renoir – Jean – specifically Partie de Campagne. This being an unfinished work links to the purposefully sporadic structure of Go Boating. This referential slice at the end, apropos of nothing bar it being the title, seems like a send up to an old way of filmmaking, but also an acknowledgment of it. The times have changed and there’s a new kind of film in town – the referent being unfinished just sharpens this statement. Also, transposing the very contemporary and counter cultural figures onto a traditional setting makes a strong stance through its juxtaposition.
Céline and Julie Go Boating is a playfully chaotic work, and one that will lead to diverse and fascinating readings. There is a clear feminist bent, in spite of coming from a male filmmaker, as the spontaneous feel of the film makes every inch of it seem like it bursts forward from the two female leads. It is similar to Daisies in this regard – and in its purposeful use of repetition, where the anti-narrative bends around the whims of the female characters. This makes it stand as an anti-patriarchal statement, in which the conventions of film – an overtly patriarchal medium, even more so at the time – become symbolic of patriarchal constraints that these women are freeing themselves from, all with a carefree attitude.
The eponymous pair are just drawn together, finding kinship in a way that echoes sisterly togetherness: two likeminded women against the world. They start from points of normality and unfold into being architects of a story that does not want to include them – a fascinating feminist statement. Their opening normalities are stereotypically feminised also: one is a magician (not traditionally feminine in and of itself) but is defined by being an aesthetic object (a woman on display to a male gaze); the other is a librarian, think the prim-and-proper caricature of femininity so laughably used in It’s a Wonderful Life.
These roles are left behind in the latter parts of the film yet also define their later behaviours – as if they have left the stigma but taken advantage of the tools that have been used to oppress them. The narrative makes frequent literary allusions to Alice in Wonderland, a clear key to the story’s meaning as our characters fall into an ever more surreal world which bleeds not just into reality, but breaks down the barrier between the real and the imagined. The latter section, where the characters wrestle control of a narrative they were previously looking into, could echo the change in role for the ex librarian. A visual motif that begins in a library scene, and is used as a catalyst for her break from convention, becomes a key visual motif in the later narrative. This links the two narratives and creates a reading in which the guardian of the stories of others, the librarian, is now able to become the architect of the story. It’s a lovely metaphor for feminine liberation. And, this carries forward into our second lead. Once a magician but really just used as an object to ogle at one stage, she now exercises actual magic and uses performance to get her way. Previously she is promised a world tour, but clearly as a tool and a resource. Later, she gets to interact with invented (maybe?) realities and gets to shape them herself.
This final section I keep alluding to is the film’s real master stroke. As the characters break away from reality they start to have visions, inspired – in a seemingly Proustian way – by eating boiled sweets (it’s a weird film). These visions are of a domestic melodrama in a high society house. It gives the feeling of a traditional film about traditional drama, only made interesting by the fragmented nature in which we see it. Céline and Julie see themselves in the maid – which becomes more important later – but mostly the film cuts between them reacting to their vision and the vision itself. They are trying to parse it and work it out in a way that mirrors our parsing of the film as a whole – as if it is daring us to solve the unsolvable or mocking us for doing so. Even this element could be a comment on the state of French film, where a traditional narrative only becomes interesting due to structure. The characters note that it is repetitive (we see it as appearing in an almost proto-Groundhog Day loop, which links to the film as a whole which keeps repeating the same title card that brings us to the ‘next morning’, implying a sense of prosaic repetition); yet, the characters still are interested. Ultimately they decide to change the story and to liberate a character, a young girl.
If we are going to read the young girl as the future and as specifically feminine, which seems valid, and the vision as cinema, then the message becomes fascinating. The comment on the landscape of film seems to be that empty structural flair is used to continue traditional and regressive narratives. These post-modern devices are just empty distractions that barely cover up a stale narrative medium. This is cemented through how laboured and forced this who segment seems, how artificial and inhuman the in world performances are (foiled perfectly by the fabulous Céline and Julie). What our titular pair do is write themselves into the film and use its narrative conventions to alter its path – which is glorious. They aim to liberate the young girl, a girl doomed to being killed, on loop and ad nauseam. To follow our metaphor, this seems to represent the continual suppression of a new cinema, of a more playful cinema – the young girl wants to play and is told not to – and a specifically feminine cinema. Her rescuing opens up new stories and perspectives, not just new structures for old narratives.
Why this really holds is due to the coding of Céline and Julie. They watch the narrative framed as looking into the camera. They are clearly coded as an audience staring into a screen, making it clear that what they are viewing can be linked to cinema. The idea that they are learning lines later and enjoying a narrative only adds to this. Thus, the audience (Céline and Julie, who don’t really see themselves in the story) becomes fed up of the narrative they keep getting and intervenes, in a beautiful echo of the film itself. This loops back to the film’s nature as a shaggy dog story, as a ‘going boating’ narrative. This is all specifically against the expectations of narrative cinema and, the film seems to argue, it is time to break out and to be something new.
The film gives us a new perspective, these two anarchic women positioning themselves as the future of cinema. Cinema pushes them into submissive roles: maids, stage performers and passive librarians. They use the tools learnt here to break out and to wrestle the future of cinema from its previously patriarchal hands (the culprit behind the repeated child murder also gives us an interesting point about how the patriarchy traps women in its web, making them take the fall for its sins).
We build towards the scene of classic French traditionalism – the boating- but now it is dominated by an anarchic, feminist presence. Towards the start of the actual film, a character is told her future is in her past; the film then goes on to ransack cinema’s past to carve out its future. By linking in traditionalism at the end we have the statement that this is the new tradition: this meandering, chaotic and playful sensibility is the new way for film. And then the actual end loops us back to the beginning, giving another cogent message.
It is not a statement that things are doomed to repeat, but it is a recognition that cinema is a medium of repetitions. So, what the film does is make its own template, a bold and brilliant template. The looping at the end is just to show us that this is the way of things, this anarchic spirit is here to stay. Welcome to a real new wave.