Sunday, March 13, 2011

Eventually, the Title Makes Sense

Film: Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating)
Format: VHS tapes from the John C. Murphey Memorial Library through WorldCat interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

First a note of thanks: my local public library refuses to get DVDs and VHS tapes through WorldCat. Oh, they’ll do interlibrary loan from places in the network, but they will not go outside the network for DVDs and tapes. This means that of all the libraries I use, the only one that will get such films for me is the school I work at. Cynthia, my librarian, is made of equal parts rock and roll and awesome, and she’s agreed to start bringing in some difficult-to-find films for me. However, Cynthia’s numbers are important to me—she needs to have more checked out from her library than she brings in, so I make sure I check out at least half a dozen things every quarter. The last thing I want to do is damage her numbers. But, this means that some of the more obscure films are now within my grasp.

The first of these—I chose it because it was one of the longest I couldn’t find—is Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating). This film is obscure in multiple ways; it’s not only difficult to find, it’s a bit difficult to grasp. It is at times surrealist and at other times it dips heavily into magical realism in the telling of its narrative.

Naturally, our two stars are Celine (Juliet Berto), a stage magician and Julie (Dominique Labourier), who works in a library. Julie is tall, red-haired, and attractive in a 1970s way while Celine is shorter, dark, and much more classically beautiful. I say this only because it actually isn’t always easy to tell them apart. The frequently play each other’s roles, each substituting for the other, and both playing the same role in one sense.

Yeah, I know that’s a bit confusing, so I’ll try to explain this more closely. At the start of the film, the two women do not know each other. Celine is running through a park dropping items and is spotted by Julie. Julie gives chase, and the two act as if they know each other, but it’s evident that they don’t. However, this doesn’t prevent Celine from moving into Julie’s apartment within the first half hour.

What we learn is that both of the women have a connection with a strange old mansion in a relatively deserted part of Paris. It appears that the two of them in turn take the role of a nursemaid for a young girl named Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) on her birthday. Also in the house is the girl’s father Olivier (Barbet Schroeder) and two women who are competing for his attentions—Sophie (Marie-France Pisier) and Camille (Bulle Ogier). During the course of this day, Madlyn is killed. Soon after, whomever has spent the day as the nursemaid is ejected from the house, dazed, with no memory, and with a hard candy in her mouth.

Celine and Julie determine that the candies that they leave with every day are the key to their memories of what happens in the house, and by slowly sucking on the candies, they can relive at least parts of the day that they experienced. It appears that the same day repeats endlessly, because they have the exact same memories. The more they remember, the more they can predict what will happen next, and the two begin to include their own changes into the “script” of the house, altering the unfolding drama. This culminates when the two of them both manage to get into the house on the same day.

The idea is a great one. Essentially, Celine and Julie are the authors of their own story, making it up as they go along, changing it to the way they want it to be until they discover the ending that they can both live with. At several times, as mentioned above, the two take each other’s place in the real world just as they inhabit the same role within the house. Celine pretends to be Julie with one of Julie’s old boyfriends, breaking up with him. Julie takes Celine’s place on stage and destroys her act on a different night. These problems don’t seem to bother either of them, but are taken in stride and ignored.

As for the rest, a spoiler is required.


A few important things become evident in the telling here, but not until the very end, and it is this final shot that makes the film what it is. Celine and Julie do eventually get on a boat, because they manage to rescue Madlyn from her daily death. While on the boat, they see the other three from the house, still unchanging and unchanged, but without the girl they have rescued. They have gotten the story to the conclusion they have wanted.

However, the film ends with Julie running through the park dropping her items and Celine chasing her, their roles from the film’s opening reversed—just as they have been reversed throughout the entire film. So, will they live through the same process again? I think they will. In a meta-moment, it occurred to me that just as the people in the house live the same story over and over again, so do Celine and Julie. And they do—should I watch the film again, the same things will happen again. The characters are trapped in their reality just as firmly as their images are captured on film. Neat, huh?


There are some pretty nice editing moves here. As the two constantly flash back to their memories in the house, some nifty editing switches them in and out of the nursemaid character. Julie starts a scene as the nursemaid and turns into Celine after a cut and then back again after another. What’s surprising here is not that it happens, but that it happens so seamlessly and without much in the way of jarring.

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau is a queer duck of a film. It’s also too long. It’d like to take a good 45 minutes out of its running time because a lot of what goes on outside the house seems needless. I’d really like for this film to be a lot more joyous than it is. For something that exists in such a magical world, it shouldn’t be so darn drab.

I suppose I enjoyed this movie, but I think I really need to watch it again to fully grok it.

Why to watch Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau: Oddly endearing and endearingly odd.
Why not to watch: It can lose 25% of its running time.


  1. Whoa. Sounds like Christopher Nolan meets "Groundhog Day."

  2. Yes, but in French and with a lot of giggling.

  3. I asctually spent my Easter evening watching this movie. Very twisted - very good from a sense that it reminded me a bit of a Christopher Nolan film well before it's time.

  4. It does have a Nolan-y feel to it, although with a lot less action and explosions. There's something very appealing about it.

  5. I watched it on YouTube today. Almost fifteen minutes passed before there was any dialogue to speak of, and the sub-titles hadn't been turned on. As I don't know much French, I clicked on the sub-titles and the only option was ... Korean!

    I watched it anyway. I paused it for a few minutes to read your entry on Cline and Julie Go Boating and also the Wikipedia entry, just to make sure I would have a good idea of what's going on. I'm glad I did! I don't know what I would have made of it had I not read the summaries.

    I'll watch it again someday. I liked it well enough, there were a number of scenes that were wonderful without knowing the dialogue, like the opening and I also loved Celine's magic act.

    I certainly enjoyed Juliet Berto's performance! So animated, so indignant so committed to solving the mystery!

    But I feel like a missed A LOT! I'll definitely be on the lookout for this so I can watch it again in a language I understand.

    1. Sadly, I think this is one of those movies that I feel like I'm going to always miss a lot on. I don't think I have the full cultural context to understand it completely.