Céline and Julie Go Boating

Hard for me not to read things in a feminist direction, and with this film I won't try. It's funny to me that most of the discussion around its themes centre on memory and storytelling. I think Rivette is only interested in the former as a function of the latter – how stories interact with our own memories and experience. But all of that ignores the central movement of the film: that of two women claiming agency of their lives and the stories they tell.

And they do this through each other. Céline impersonates Julie and disarms her childhood sweetheart, the conventions of romantic love and the pathologies of male desire. Julie returns the favour by impersonating Céline, calling out her exploitative employers at the cabaret and the pathological male desire it services. Both run away from the restrictive worlds of love and work, which they find boring and patronising.

And they are sucked into the drama of the haunted house, where two sisters pine for an unreachable widower (who rather than wiving one of them appears more interested in the housekeeper). These ghostly ladies revolve around the uncertain affections of a dour Byronic hero, and their mania will lead to the death of his young daughter. Céline and Julie, having saved each other, conspire to save the child from the restrictive story she is trapped in. They invade the narrative, making the ghostly ladies dull and ridiculous by comparison. And they end up escaping from it all, with the young girl joining their troupe.

Arguably, Rivette's focus on running away into the imagination is not a serious response to objectification, which eventually requires engagement with the worlds of love and work in order to end it. But the portrayal of Céline and Julie's solidarity – with each other and with all young girls caught up in other people's stories – mitigates that. Their irreverent example is practical up to a point. You need the space to reject the dominant narrative before you advance and change it. And 40 years on, this film definitely feels like part of that advance.

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