That hazy, moderately depressed and trapped feeling, slowly growing over the course of a few hours as any pretense initially had of willfully directing oneself through a purposeful perusal of the web (worldwide or personal-habitual) and its contents slips away – one is weak, directionless, in a stupor, numb and aching and agitated, isolated and part of the same oblivion that the obscure data browsed through itself essentially inhabits – Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating destroys that feeling because/and/as it is about destroying it. For all that load-of-craptastically hyperbolic trailer-talk about “motion picture events” there are very few films that feel like monumental occasions, and those that do are rarely described that way; they are movies that either do not feel like movies at all or completely redefine what they can be.
There are many fantastic finds to be excavated from beneath the acceptably pleasant or appreciably entertaining films that compose most critical-consensus canons and top box-office-receipt rankings, but the ways in which they are fantastic are limited in number. Escapist absorption is probably the most common, or, at least, most popular, in which interstate-freeway-paced action sequences blow across the viewer’s hair and face and affix the mind upon the pure exhilaration of the oncoming. Emotional absorption, where music, visual tones and character types decorate an alluring plush interior of rich color and comfort in which to loll and self-reflect on previous occasions of similar feelings, now nostalgically reinhabited, spilling over into thoughts on the quality of life, pleasant in nature though not necessarily in content, is a second kind of joyful experience. Another powerful manner of enjoyment is a sort of moral-perceptual recognition, in that a certain structural scheme, plot device or character tirade embodies a deeply ingrained truth about the world that is not frequently encountered or acknowledged internal or external to oneself.
Some films do each of these things extraordinarily well, and some do all three, but there is a much rarer class of film that does something much different, and that is to introduce a radically novel grammar into the conversation. Conversation is a peculiar word to use to describe the activity of sitting in the dark and waiting for things to happen that will happen independent of being there or not, but some films serve as a very welcome reminder that there is, in fact, always a conversation. One rarely realizes this because the great majority of celluloid-strips end up talking to or at the audience rather than with them, seeking to wow or awe in much the same way that certain people only seem to talk to impress others, feeding off of a temporary envy whose inevitable side effect is resentment and often self-hatred. Other films and people may speak one-sidedly about their own opinions, or relate captivating stories that yet leave the receiver outside of the excitement, uplifted but distant. There is the disturbing possibility anyway that most apparent conversations, even when each person is speaking, and even between intimate friends and family, are not really conversations at all.
As with most frequently repeated activities an unthinking automatism comes to replace the struggle and fear and uncertainty of initial education or experimentation, and face-to-face exchanges can often feel like alternating triggers for prerecorded recitations: facade-to-facade exchanges, if you like, if you like as much as me cringingly maybe-clever maybe-stupid maybe-both plays on cliches. Though I – to take a totally random example subject – for instance occasionally amuse myself at home alone by imagining and rehearsing scenarios in the mirror or under my breath in which I shatter these discursive schemata reinforced before other people, expressing wild, uninhibited and invigorating emotions and opinions as nonsequiturly and alively as could be hoped for, in those actually interpersonal moments the faucet from the reservoir remains dry and instead I hear the hollow dripping-out of foul sentences long stagnant from overuse like “Yeah, it’s definitely nice to get out of the city for a while” and “Yeah,” – always lots of “Yeah”s, like pitons thrust into the social crag upon which follow hoisting by well-practiced maneuver – “it’s actually costs the same [for a Californian] to study in England as it does to study at a [University of California],” the latter of which I say when I talk about my sister who went to UC Santa Barbara for a time but now attends the University of London.
Omnipresent is this phenomenon with reading too, particularly digital reading: scrolling and “progressing” downward but responding more to structural format (brevity of paragraph and coherence of clauses) than digestion of content. Commenters will frequently deride writers for not obeying the dictum to limit blocks of text to a handful of short sentences – though such an enjoinment would utterly demolish the enjoyment of prose stylists like Williams Burroughs and Faulkner – as if the more important experience is not contact but completion. Movies perhaps are the medium most susceptible to this mode of approach, however, in that they alone of all public artworks are always described in terms of runtime, which will be the same for all participants at all screenings, provided there are no subsequent re-edited releases. Hence according to its genre each film must hew to particular shorthand conceits of pacing and plot development tested over decades to hook and carry a captive audience.
Such objective notions about duration and reaction belie the great realities possible with unfamiliar methods, because what is often marketed or generally received as a (by-the-book) taut action-heavy thriller yet feels interminable and what often appears as languorous and meditative yet feels exciting and outside of time. No matter what the official timepiece says, life unfolds very distinctly in an hour of amazement from an hour of horror, so much so that it would not be untrue at all (and indeed seems already understood) to say that one can live much longer through great films (and events) than through awful ones. “Longer” is probably an improper word, though, evoking again the official timepiece, when a better one is something like “denser:” thicker and richer and more suffused with vitality than the average second. This requires a special kind of effort for the time occupant by which – inciting conversation – it elicits an effort from its receiver beyond some sort of preprogrammed mechanical response.
Hence the cruciality of the novel grammar is that it indicates a willingness to play and be intimate with the listener, just as young children who are very close will invent their own language to maintain a private world between themselves. The reader or listener or viewer of the strange object has to fill in the weirdness with his and her own interpretation, asked unexpectedly to participate rather than just spectate, because otherwise infuriation or confusion will drown out an intriguingly open-ended message. Vigorous exercise activates the mind by breaking down tensions, and generating meaning is vigorous exercise; the logical upshot of this quasi-modus-ponens is that the bizarre is a turn-on.
To finally return to the film mentioned seven paragraphs ago, Céline and Julie Go Boating turned me on more than any film I can recall seeing, and more than most experiences I can recall as well. There is magical incantation about it – explicitly in its plot, as the two main characters use witchcraft to brew a powerful potion, and meanwhile implicitly in its process. From the beginning we are not only permitted but primed for fun, as one woman urgently chases after another who is obliviously dropping various pieces of her gaudy and unmatching wardrobe throughout the city, and we soon realize that the characters themselves know they are playing a game: they live together in a house and know each other very well. We don’t know why they are playing it, though, or what it signifies for the story or as symbolism, and this is pivotal.
It’s impossible to resist continually diverting away from the putative subject of this text-sequence because not knowing is peculiarly treated as a kind of poison for society as it increasingly becomes technocratically coded out and institutionalized. Ambiguity and uncertainty are given a peck of lip service by vague discussions of quantum physics (although its predictive power is its raison d’etre) but they are essentially forbidden to social contexts. People must know who they are and where they are going and what they are after if they’re to stay afloat on a surface of status-exchanges: one must have a particular major or a particular career to avoid collapsing (or, worse, fearing collapse) in the eyes of interlocutors. The great irony is that these knowings are mostly mutual illusions whose imitation of certitude is the inevitable downfall of their disguised ignorance: they are maintained for some sort of secure assurance despite mystery and questionability being the more transformative and captivating (if potentially frightening) qualities.
Because of the initial game and the flippant giggly mercurial manner in which Céline and Julie interact, we don’t really know what to believe about them. One seems to work as a librarian, and the other is a nightclub performer (singing, performing magic tricks), although on an apparent whim the former fills the latter’s shoes during an important audition. When they answer the phone, we don’t know what to believe about what they say, and whether they answer with the correct name. We don’t know what to think about a romantic relationship whose dramatic termination is stagily performed in public, in view of a crowd of children (looking overtly at the camera, with no effort made in editing to hide this), with the man’s pants down around his ankles. Identity and self-definition feel fluid and interchangeable, this augmented by the alternating turns the women take in visiting a strange manor and recounting their memory (with the help of colorful pieces of candy) of the experience that follows to the other.
This experience that they keep trying to remember and are laughing at incessantly appears gradually to be a kind of film itself, but they never refer to it as such, and they recall the scenes out of sequence, so we don’t really know what’s going on for a while – when we do, as with every discovery we make in the film, it is us who come to that determination; nothing is ever forced upon us. It’s similar in some ways to Memento, though that movie has a much more grim and serious view: the memory problems of the protagonists mirror the slippery grasp any filmgoer has of the fleeting frames. Whereas Leonard Shelby in Memento deliberately destroys and rewires his awareness of the past to live in a more heroic world for himself, Céline and Julie giddily recapture the past to such an extent that they can enter and alter it even though they were never really in it in the first place.
As one watches them doing this, one does start to know what’s going on, or at least comes to develop a very exciting idea about it. Only this excitement – so distinct from typical cinematic excitement – is something directly within oneself at the same time as it is on the screen, and it heightens as the typical boundary between the two dissolves. Time thickens; one ceases to be aware of it altogether, entangled in a revelatorily epiphanic somatic-spiritual exaltation. To say that words can’t to do it justice – “one realizes that participation is possible even in the stupidest and most seemingly passive contexts” is a shallow approximation – is to affirm that cinema has a unique power through which its means alone are capable of expressing a particular consciousness. This is a power that is shockingly underemployed by most craftsmen of the medium, and that fact is undoubtedly essential to the gapingly agog attunement to this film.