Céline and Julie Go Boating is a film you don't watch so much as get lost in. Watching it for the first time, I was quickly overwhelmed - while 3-D and IMAX promise an immersive experience, director Jacques Rivette's three-hour meditation on role-playing, fantasy and storytelling reminds of what truly intereactive cinema feels like. It's a movie that invites you to become its third protagonist, not in a gimmicky sense but through a meaningful and engaging exploration of film's boundless possibilities. Yet for all this, and despite its length and complicated structure, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a breeze - rarely has such a philosophically and formally ambitious film felt so much like playtime.
With its virtuosic opening sequence introducing us to Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) through a very long game of tag, the film announces itself as an elaborate tease. As the bookish Julie and the waifish Céline meet, form a quick bond and are drawn into a completely different movie - a melodrama about a wealthy, mysterious family - Rivette and his actors (who wrote most of the film, with their director as an editor) create a series of puzzles with no definitive solutions. Rivette repeatedly blurs the line between reality and fiction, favoring a loose, informal visual strategy and natural sound. The film is less concerned with either of its narratives than with the act of storytelling - here, a state of hypnosis for a voluntary audience. I wasn't surprised to read that Rivette is a Twin Peaks fan; both directors are preoccupied with the power of imagination, but if the creative process is often dark and unsettling in Lynch's work, for Rivette it is a funhouse of endless possibilities.
The film also repeatedly references Lewis Carroll and other fairy tale tropes, but without the overt symbols of the following year's Black Moon. The magic candy that Céline and Julie ingest to jump between worlds hints at the sexual subtext of children's fantasies, but Rivette sidesteps psychoanalysis in favor of a playful approach that compliments his wide-eyed heroines, who ultiumately stand in for any writer, performer or director (after all, it takes a certain kind of person to play make believe for a living). The film's success hinges on the leads' fearlessly silly performances. Berto, who reminds of a Gallic Shelley Duvall, projects both innocence and an offbeat sex appeal - when Céline takes a shower, Berto's breasts are upstaged by her childlike unselfconsciousness. And Labourier's Julie is a marvelous comic performance, a tightly wound collection of nervous habits and compulsions undone by her new (old?) friend. The bond that the two women form is a return to innocence that, ultimately, arrives at an understated moment of epiphany before doubling back to start a new game.
In both its style and its meaning, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a liberating experience, the kind of movie that expands one's concept of cinema's possibilities. As Céline and Julie return to the movie's central mystery, hoping that maybe this time will be different, Rivette locates the source of cinema's intoxicating power - the promise of seeing through different eyes. When Céline and Julie finally go boating, it becomes clear that Rivette wants to remind us that life is indeed a dream. Maybe so; either way, dreams are rarely as sweet as this.