Céline and Julie Go Boating is a pontoon-film: three hours of cinema in the specific employ of whiling away a lazy afternoon; improvisation without limits; endless game-playing. Librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) first encounters stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) after the latter drops her sunglasses in a park, and the former runs after her - and around most of Paris - to return them. Initial resistance to this new connection over, the two women form a weird bond - part that of psychic twins, part stalker and stalkee - and find themselves drawn to an abandoned house whose spooky inhabitants (Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder) form a red-hand gang apparently responsible for the death of a child. Still, this brief synopsis really isn't the half of it. Jacques Rivette's fluid direction ensures the film is, at once, everything and nothing: pursuit thriller, slapstick comedy, inchoate chick flick (the suggestion is that every librarian needs some Céline in their life, and the conclusion will involve the rescue of a princess), ghost story, droll joke (going boating is precisely the last thing Céline and Julie do), murder-mystery, cabalistic incantantion, and advert for the life-changing properties of boiled sweets.
Rivette's films are typically characterised as experiments with time; this one's an exercise in regression, encouraging both its players and audience to travel back to a moment when nothing was more important than to play in or out all day. Amid the not inconsiderable highbrow analysis the film has spawned, the one adjective that appears nowhere near enough is "childish": Céline and Julie will play with dolls and blackboards, incur bloody knees, and make an awful lot of noise in the children's section of the library. You perhaps wouldn't expect it from a film that runs 193 minutes, but Rivette spends much of that time paring down: this is celluloid as plasticine, director as budding afterschool sculptor. All the quirks and kookiness accrued in the first hour go in the second, where the filmmaker puts his head down and begins smoothing away the possible narrative alternatives. Céline and Julie themselves play their part: Céline has to put off Julie's boyfriend, just as Julie has to kill off Céline's career, so that the two of them can concentrate all their energies on the murder-mystery that comes to dominate the third hour. Eventually, they end up just like those of us in the audience: looking straight ahead, watching a story take shape and play out.
If Céline et Julie doesn't quite live up to the towering reputation it acquired among cinephiles in the 1970s, it's because it doesn't ultimately prove anything much, except how susceptible we might be to even the most trivial of ideas if we're locked up with them long enough. Rivette shuts out the world for such an extended duration that his heroines' dressing-up games come to assume the utmost importance while we're watching them. But so what?, you might say. This is, after all, the brain's way of adapting to what it's presented with: sequester anybody with a Scientologist for such a period, and they might well emerge proclaiming that Battlefield Earth was at least a little underrated. The film's signature scene finds Céline and Julie struggling to stifle yawns when faced with the innate repetition of their investigations. They know this trifle is dragging on; we know it's dragging on; Rivette knows it's dragging on, and yet he still seems reluctant to hurry matters along. Such obstinacy - the stubbornness of a child, you might say - makes Céline et Julie an obvious go-to text for anyone teaching alternatives to linear Hollywood three-act structure. And anything that restores Juliet Berto - a beanpole-siren with the most gorgeous combination of eyes, lips and elbows in all cinema - to our consciousness can only ever be commended. Yet perhaps the BFI has done Rivette a slight disservice in restoring a work as mystical as this to full circulation: even if its spell remains unbroken, some of the magic has gone.
Céline and Julie Go Boating is available on DVD through the BFI.