More Than Just Film
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivett, 1974) opens with Celine (Juliet Berto) dashing through a Parisian park, leaving behind a trail of her personal effects which bemused on-looker Julie (Dominique Labourier) decides to follow. This scene, and the opening twenty-five minutes in which Celine and Julie stalk each other in a platonic courtship ritual, are edited by Nicole Lubtchansky and Jacques Rivett in a predominantly conventional manner, providing temporal and spatial continuity and a match on action within each shot. In contrast, the narrative deprives audiences of ‘expected certainties’, such as context, character motivations and an overall comprehension of cause and effect, and can be seen as working against the conventions of classical realist cinema. This places Celine and Julie Go Boating within the surrealist tradition, a point emphasised through the insertion of silent-era title cards which do little to clarify matters.
As soon as Celine moves into Julie’s apartment and their friendship is cemented, events take an even more abstract turn. When visiting an old manor house, a short taxi ride away, they discover the ability to transport themselves in and out of a parallel dimension/fiction which appears to be set in the late nineteenth century. This film-with-a-film, titled Phantom Ladies Over Paris, charts the attempts of Camille (Bulle Ogier) and Sophie (Marie-France Pisier) to win the heart of eligible widower Olivier (Barbet Schroeder) in a tale of conspiracy and murder. When Celine and Julie take turns entering this mysterious realm they adopt the role of Angele, nanny to Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar), Olivier’s child from his first marriage and victim of this murder mystery.
In contrast to the events that take place in the ‘real world’ of contemporary Paris, Phantom Ladies Over Paris adheres to classical realist fiction (it is based loosely upon the Henry James short story, The Other House). Its narrative logic is disrupted to the point of incomprehension as the footage is fragmented through the use of jump cuts and black frames. This violation of continuity editing can be traced back to the cinematic aesthetic of the French New Wave of the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Along with fellow film critics François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Rivette made the transition from berating the unadventurous nature of 1950s French cinema to making films which were characterised by being formally and politically radical.
First used in Godard’s Breathless (1959), jump cuts gained infamy for breaking spatial and temporal continuity. Whether they were the subjective expression of its protagonist’s psychotic state of mind, the scars of its running time being cut by an hour or, as suggested by Godard, intentional ‘filmic anarchy’, they ushered in an era in which editing no longer strived for invisibility and instead shattered the rules of continuity and classical composition.
The use of jump cuts and black frames in Celine and Julie Go Boating punctuate the pan-dimensional transitions and represent the complicated and traumatic process of remembering. When Celine and Julie are ejected from the other house after several hours playing the role of Angele, they emerge as if from a nightmare; exhausted, traumatised and unable to recall or express what had happened to them. Upon leaving, Celine and Julie find boiled sweets in their mouths which when consumed later unlock the lost memories. The disjointed and fragmented manner of the flashbacks of the other house after the first two trips, which sometimes comprise of a single word or action, are the result of the boiled sweets being broken when consumed. Only after repeated visits and recollection sessions, and the creation of a magic ‘memory wine’ that allows them to recall complete scenes, are Celine and Julie able to piece together the temporal order of the narrative and identify the killers.
Whilst the jump cuts are used to create a sense of unease and otherworldliness (as opposed to the use of visual effects or expressive camera movements), it is the use of black frames which provides Celine and Julie Go Boating with its most arresting motif. These moments of blank screen vary in length between a half to two seconds and their impact is heightened by an absence of a fade to ease audiences in or out. They all occur between Celine moving into Julie’s apartment (at twenty-five minutes) and the last time they experience flashbacks of the other house (at one hundred and sixty minutes). Within this timeframe though there is seemingly no consistent methodology in the placing of these brief but striking cuts to black. That is not to say that they are applied randomly though. There is a logic to their uses within the context of the film to the point that the viewer can begin to anticipate when they are likely to occur.
The most common usage is to mark the end of a recalled memory from the other house and the transition back to Celine and Julie in the ‘real world’ of France of the 1970s. And yet there are numerous occasions when black frames are not applied. The sudden blank screen is often used to punctuate a key piece of information becoming apparent to the protagonists as we cut to their shocked or delighted expressions. And yet several revealing moments from the other house go unpunctuated.
Breaking entirely away from the more conventional use of a black screen to notify a change of timeframe, location or theme there are three cuts to black which heighten their impact by occurring mid-scene. This first occurs when Celine appears outside Julie’s apartment. We see Celine, with grubby face and bleeding knee, sat beside the front door. She hears Julie approaching up the stairs and pretends to be asleep. When Julie sees her she playfully shouts out to her landlady that a stray cat has got inside the building. The screen cuts to black and when it returns to the scene a second later, Celine wakes up as if she is genuinely shocked at where she has found herself. This point marks the start of their friendship as well as fore-shadowing the trauma they will experience when transitioning from one fiction to another.
Rivette had originally planned to portray Celine and Julie as editors, constructing montages from the disjointed footage from the other house. This is fitting as montage and discontinuity editing were the base of the director’s style. The first time both are combined in Celine and Julie Go Boating occurs after Julie’s first trip to the other house. We see her ring the doorbell and the door opening and closing seemingly of its own accord as she enters. The action cuts away to a lengthy scene involving Celine and when we return to the other house we see the door open and Julie ejected, also by unseen forces. Like the audience, she has no idea what had happened inside. This marks the beginning of the short and precise montage. It cuts to black frames for approximately a second and then we see the black and white photo of the other house that Celine had just found in Julie’s trunk of toys. It again cuts to black and then we see a brief colour shot of the front of a neighbouring house. We cut to black frames and then back to Julie outside the other house. Next to her on the door step is a stray kitten, linking the scene to when Celine arrived outside her apartment and the film’s first use of a cut to black. The montage, aggressively punctuated with cuts to black, draws attention to its own form and its potential significance within the film’s narrative. In subsequent scenes we discover that the neighbouring house is where Julie was raised by a nanny, and that her childhood best-friend who lived in the other house had disappeared without a trace. This hints that the film is about Julie’s attempts to recall repressed memories via the fantasy world of Phantom Ladies Over Paris which is located at the site of the trauma. Other readings are available.
Rivette suggested that the film isn’t a puzzle to solve and that it can be easily comprehended in a single viewing. He also confessed to enjoying placing ‘traps’ in his films for critics to fall into by reading too much into certain aspects. This may suggest that the inclusion of black frames were not so much ‘filmic anarchy’ but more a case of ‘filmic mischief’. Regardless of their intention, what the jump cuts and black frames achieve is a dramatic fragmentation of the cinematic discourse and continuity editing that Rivette deemed out-dated. In doing so, he places the audience within the minds of its protagonists. We share the sense of dislocation through memory loss as well as the pleasure in piecing together what did actually happen during their adventures across space, time and fiction.