by Julia Lesage
Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp.
At this point in history, the feminist movement as a whole should have sufficient insight to embark on joint lesbian-feminist theory building as an integrative task, but regrettably many feminists and almost all the straight left tends to ghettoize lesbianism into an issue of sexual preference or civil rights. I was originally attracted to the film CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING both because its fantasy appealed to me and because considering the structural oppositions in the film seemed to open up issues of concern for feminist film theory as a whole.
CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING is a modernist, open-ended work. My goal is not to "decipher" the film or to offer a reading of it that will make people "like" it. Knowing that many of my readers may never get a chance to see the film, or that if they did, they might not see in it what I saw, I am offering this interpretation of the film as an occasion for reflecting on certain issues crucial for feminist film theory as a whole. In particular, by using a photo essay I wish to examine the sexual politics of nonverbal communication structures in the film. Furthermore, I also wish to elucidate the potential role of a film like this in commenting on and challenging the patriarchal ideological matrix in which "lesbian" functions as a negative term.
CELINE AND JULIE (CELINE ET JULIE VONT EN BATEAU, France, 1974) has its coterie of fans, including myself and some of my friends who interpret it fondly as a "lesbian" work. The film invites you to its protagonists' apartment to play. Just as Julie (Dominique Labourier) unpacks Celine's things the first time Celine (Juliet Berto) enters her apartment, intending this stranger to stay with her indefinitely, so too this film asks viewers to spend a long time (3 and 1/4 hours) enjoying it. The delight of the film resides in its whacky comedy, fantasy, improvisation, puzzle-like interior fiction, and stylistic inventiveness (especially a heightened use of color and sound).
Not all viewers, including feminists and lesbians, like the film. Many people hate it — feeling "put on" (vont en bateau also means, in French, to put someone on) by its foolishness, its length, the actresses' seemingly uncontrolled silliness in their improvisation, and the repetition of shots over and over in the interior fiction-within-a-fiction. It is a film directed by a man, Jacques Rivette, and so poses all the problems of how to enjoy such a work as a woman-identified fiction. I will make a case that the two protagonists, Celine and Julie, are probably lovers. However, the film is finally ambiguous on that point. CELINE AND JULIE can be appropriated by anybody who wants to see it that way as a "lesbian" film not because of its depiction of sexual activity (none is seen) but because of he kind of intimacy between women it depicts. In many ways the film can be seen to comment on sexuality, but only in terms of relations between characters.
Furthermore, with the film's emphasis on playfulness, if Celine and Julie are interpreted by viewers to be lesbian characters, that "lesbianism" does not occur in a fiction about adult passion but in a fiction about "kidding around." Although I shall interpret this playfulness positively, I also recognize that envisioning women's intimacy only in this way is a limitation of the work — due perhaps to its being directed by a man (I shall discuss later the actresses' role in co-scripting the film). If women's intimacy is depicted as principally childlike, then that makes the film safe, omitting the most threatening, directly sexual elements. Beyond that, any work that implied that lesbian or homosexual impulses were commonly part of adolescence but that we grew out of them would demean gays and lesbians. The old psychoanalytic notion of "arrested development" (which is the theme, for example, of TEA AND SYMPATHY) always enforces compulsory heterosexuality as the adult "norm." However, CELINE AND JULIE does not do this. Instead, it symbolically contrasts "childlike playfulness" with "adult rigidity" to critique the institution of heterosexuality itself.
For a feminist audience, CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING offers a comic dream about how two women can relate to each other intimately. Celine and Julie enter each other's fantasy with little ego boundary between them, and they solve each other's problems either by adolescent hi-jinks or by outright magic, and a pretty tacky magic at that. Play is their means of discovery, tactic for action, and mode of existence. The film uses play as a way of subversion. As in a child's "fooling around," the film exaggerates the expansiveness of some acts, repeats others to the point of irritation, and mixes up ordinary social dominance orders. For feminist viewers, one effect such playfulness can have is to reorganize their perception and understanding of the possibilities of women's lives.
Beyond fun or by means of it, CELINE AND JULIE's fiction and mise-en-scene indicate ways that women's intimacy challenges the ideology of the heterosexual family. In my reading of the film, I find it effective as a woman-identified, subversive fantasy (with this caveat: few viewers ever agree what any long modernist work is "about"). A visual analysis of the film reveals two distinct modes of depicting intimate relations in domestic space. Celine and Julie's interactions in Julie's apartment are filmed as comedy, seemingly improvised by the actresses. Together Celine and Julie share a fantasy about a murderous family in a wealthy house, and that fantasy only reveals itself slowly as they go back to it and to the house again and again. The interior "crime" fiction imitates the visual style of a fifties Hollywood melodrama.
These two styles of mise-en-scene, that depicting Celine and Julie in their apartment and that depicting the family in the "bad house," are so different that they constantly invite a detailed comparison even as one is watching the film. Furthermore, these two visual styles reveal much about the more general cultural coding which the film's mise-en-scene both derives from and comments on, particularly the non-verbal communication indices which our culture commonly assigns to men and women.
Throughout the film there is a contrast between the free body language of women alone or together in intimacy and the constrained body language usually considered "appropriate" for women in social interaction. In fact, in every culture, learned but generally unconscious nonverbal communication behavior supports and creates the social fabric. In our own time, feminists have explained how verbal language enforces women's inequality to men, which the institution of heterosexuality depends on. CELINE AND JULIE contrasts an oppressive domestic space with a "free" one. And the clarity of that symbolic contrast provides a starting point for us to reflect on the sexual politics of non-verbal communication in daily life.
THE ACTRESSES' CONTRIBUTION
Script credit is given to Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, and Jacques Rivette. Berto and Labourier largely shaped Celine and Julie's roles. The film was shot in August 1974, and Rivette was rumored to be absent for much of the shooting. His original plan had been to create a film collectively with two actresses who were already friends, and to finish the film in one summer. According to Berto, she and Labourier imagined creating a combination of PERSONA and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in a film with two female protagonists. Berto said,
Berto and Labourier wanted the phantom characters to be invisible; Rivette wanted them visible. With Ogier, Pisier, and friend Eduardo de Gregorio, they spent the summer working out the decor, costumes, and dialogue of that interior story. According to Berto, the structure was
Berto considers herself an orderly and structured person, unlike the character Celine, so she was fascinated by creating that role and writing dialogue using street language. In her professional life, Berto is a strong figure, prominent in the actors' union. Labourier has long worked in experimental theater because it lets the actresses participate in creating the play. Both women wanted to work with Rivette because he has always allowed his acting ensemble a great deal of creative freedom.
Labourier spoke as follows in an interview about her long-term friendship with Berto:
Berto and Labourier developed the script, the costumes, and the dialogue for the Celine-and-Julie story. Their parts were very much under their own control. I do not know Pisier and Ogier's roles in creating the script, but the editing of the inner story and its shaping as a cinematic and fictional "puzzle" were more of a formal exercise controlled by Rivette. The interior crime fiction was based on two obscure Henry James stories suggested by de Gregorio, The Other House and A Romance of Certain Old Clothes.
This prediction by Dominque Labourier about CELINE AND JULIE's impact on an audience was borne out in three long taped discussions of the film that I conducted with different groups of my women friends. Since I loved the film fiercely, I knew I had to find out what other women thought. As it worked out, these conversations after the film proved to be a heady experience of the way intellectual life often proceeds among women. In each free-ranging conversation, often between women who loved and women who hated the film, the group itself forged an interpretation or a series of interpretations. Many of the women did not quite know what to make of the film at first; the conversation with other women, through a process of intellectual and emotional sharing, allowed them to decide what they thought and so make the film their own. The CELINE AND JULIE discussions were but a slightly formalized version, here an explicitly feminist version, of much intellectual and creative work that goes on constantly in women's subculture. This work is done through an old cultural form that women use for mutual support and for articulating their own identity in a more authentic way than is provided for by the (white, male, bourgeois) mainstream culture — that is, through women's conversation. My own interpretation of the film is freely mingled with my friends' contributions in a collective reading of the work. Did we replicate the actresses' own experience, here in mirror reverse — moving from the film to an intellectual excitement among women who were already friends? I think so.
A MODERNIST PLOT SUMMARIZED
As a modernist film, CELINE AND JULIE makes us constantly, self-consciously "reframe' our perspective about what is going on. Merely to list events chronologically would not convey the viewing experience, so I shall try to give a sense of mood and cinematic construction as well as the plot. A French New Wave film. CELINE AND JULIE's richness partly derives from visual and verbal borrowings from other films, especially Hollywood films of the thirties and forties, and from French culture. It has a romance narration structure, i.e., an episodically constructed plot that usually contains fantastic love, adventure, miraculous and threatening happenings, and pointless chases and quests. The romance narration contributes to the film's seeming lack of dramatic tension.
The film depends on two interwoven stories, each presented episodically. The exterior Celine-and-Julie story proper begins as follows First, Julie begins a courtship of Celine. Julie sits in a park reading a book on magic and then chases after a woman who'd run by her (Celine) and dropped a scarf. The chase becomes an erotic pursuit through the streets of Paris, which Celine momentarily ends by checking into a small hotel. The next morning Julie turns up at that hotel to return Celine's scarf and to flirt.
Then Celine pursues the courtship. She appears at the library where Julie works and later is found sitting like an orphaned waif outside Julie's apartment with her leg bleeding.
From this point on, most of the sequences in the film alternate between showing one or both of the women in their apartment with showing some other locale, namely the "bad house," the nightclub, or the library. In the apartment Celine tells Julie tall tales about her past life and more recently her troubles working as a nurse in a large house, the place where presumably she got hurt. She was tending a sickly little girl and witnessed some crime involving a man and two women. The next day Julie gets the address of that house from Celine and goes to visit it. We see Julie being ejected in a shaken state there and taking a cab to the Montmartre nightclub where Celine performs as a mag1cian; in the cab Julie finds a hard candy in her mouth.
Back in the apartment, Celine proceeds to find out more about Julie. She opens a trunk and rummages through Julie's possessions, finding in Julie's trunk a photo of the mysterious house. Gilou, a childhood suitor of Julie's, phones, and in a scene parodying romantic musical comedies, Celine meets Gilou in a park, makes him think she's Julie, and gets rid of him. Later, while sitting outside the Montmartre cabaret with her fellow performers, Celine brags to them about her new, rich American friend and artistic sponsor; to "fit in" with that group, she disclaims that her new friend is a "dyke." Julie arrives to see Celine's act. And when she goes backstage, she senses that Celine has been talking about her in a hurtful way.
Both women have now visited the "bad house" and will continue to do so. Later that night in the apartment, Julie sucks the candy and gets flashes of what happened in the house. Proof to her and Celine that the events really happened is the imprint of a bloody hand on Julie's bare shoulder.
The next day Celine goes to the house and is also ejected, again with a hard candy in her mouth. Julie had tried to follow Celine but could not get into the house. In the small house next door, Julie meets her old nurse Poupie, who tells her about mysterious happenings and a dire fate for the little girl next door. Julie puts the disheveled Celine in a cab, always conveniently stationed on this sleepy street, and takes a hard candy from Celine's mouth. That night as Celine sucks the candy, she re-experiences more fragments of the crime. melodrama.
Celine goes to the house the next day. Meanwhile Julie receives a call from Celine's manager who wants Celine to audition for a Beirut booking. Julie goes as her replacement and makes a farce of the performance, hurling insults at the male nightclub impresarios. Back at the house, Celine is ejected again, this time with two candies in her mouth.
That night in the apartment, the friends use these candies to "trip" together. Here they are filmed sitting on a trunk and looking at the camera as if they were spectators at a film. During the various "trips," each woman takes the role of the sick girl's nurse, Angele. When Celine first experiences the trip, she not only sees some of what Julie did but other things as well. When they trip together, each woman is alternatively bored by what she, and not the other, had experienced before, while they experience many new parts of the story together.
They leave the apartment to steal magic books from the library; tripping with the candies had not allowed them to fill in the gaps. Roller-skating through Paris streets at night, they wear tight black leotards and hoods, an homage to the cat-burglar Musidora, the heroine of Feuillade's popular silent serial who flitted across Paris rooftops saving worthy people. With the magic books, they make a brew that allows them to see almost the whole crime.
Each "vision" reveals only fragments of the interior crime melodrama. From vision to vision, the shots are repeated, sometimes with a certain variation in cinematic composition and often with a variation in emphasis and pacing. For the viewer, putting this interior story together, and then noticing the variations in presentation, then trying to figure what is new, both cinematically and informatively, takes up a large part of the viewing time. All these levels cannot be grasped on one viewing.
The story of what happens in that "bad house" is as follows: In an isolated Victorian-style mansion, wearing clothes from and filmed in a style reminiscent of the forties, a dour young widower, Olivier (Barbet Schroeder, the film's producer), is being courted by both his dead wife's sister, the blonde Camille (Bulle Ogier), and his child's governess, the brunette Sophie (Marie-France Pisier). Camille dresses in her sister's dress to attract Olivier, but she only succeeds in terrifying the child Madlyn. Sophie injects barbiturates into candies to give to her charge so as to keep the child out of the way. Olivier had promised his dying wife not to marry but to devote himself to Madlyn. He leads both women on and flirts with the nurse Angele as well. Camille cuts her hand on a glass when Madlyn cries out in shock seeing her in the mother's dress. The child is smothered with a pillow in her bed after her birthday party, but we don't know by whom.
The sequences in the interior fiction have a distinctive formal structure. The camera is rigid, with an extreme wide-angle lens, reminiscent of William Wyle's style in THE LITTLE FOXES and JEZEBELLE. The women are formally dressed, with the red and blue of their dresses doubling Celine and Julie's informal wear. All the figures, except the child at the very end, have rigid body language and stiff poses. By constantly repeating the same shots and poses over successive "visions," Rivette exaggerates that environment's claustrophobic aspect.
The two story lines and two completely different cinematic styles mesh. This occurs when Celine and Julie go to the house to save the little girl once they have "envisioned" her murder. When they visit the house for the last time, the whole presentation of what's going on there changes from melodrama to farce. They go straight, not stoned, and have as charms and protection only a childlike hand-slapping game and dinosaur-eye rings. Once inside, each dresses as the nurse. The villain and villainess move lifelessly through the house as pasty grey-green figures enacting the same old roles, unaware of the intruders. Once Celine and Julie discover they can move around there with impunity, they shed their fear and turn the whole event into a Mack Sennett-type slapstick routine. Madlyn shows them how to escape.
Madlyn, Celine and Julie magically appear back at Julie's apartment. The next day they go boating in the park. Passing them in another boat are Olivier, Camille and Sophie, frozen in a death-like tableau.
The last sequence is a repetition of the first, but with roles reversed. Celine is now sitting sunning herself in a park. Julie runs by, dropping something, and Celine starts in pursuit... That ends the film.
TACTICS FOR FILM FANTASY
Although Rivette thought that vont en bateau would suggest going on a trip, especially an LSD one, it's not only the candies that provoke a trip into wild imagination. The film as a whole presents itself as a total fantasy. For example, the streets of Paris are shot in such a way as to enhance the fantasy aspects of Celine and Julie's relationship.
The subtitle of the film is "Phantom Ladies over Paris," and the cinematic style makes Paris become a non-contiguous fantasy landscape indeed. Realism, fantasy, a parody of fantasy and magic, social criticism, and character development are all presented in the film on exactly the same dramatic level. With a great deal of artistic discipline, each element is given equal weight. The film never points to its shifts to say, "Now we're doing..." The documentary element in the street scenes comes off as surreal. When Julie sits in the park reading her magic book, the wind blows in the trees as if to signal a mysterious presence; a solitary cat walks across a bench in the same trajectory Celine will follow. Rivette constantly manipulates ambient noise into a "theatrical" element, and here cars sound unnaturally loud, as do Julie's glasses when she folds them with a loud click.
In these sequences, in contrast to the cinematic style in the interior melodrama, there is such a variety and lack of closure in the composition and framing that the film almost defies viewers to predict from shot to shot what will happen next in terms of visual composition. For example, in the opening pursuit sequence each shot has a different perspective and vanishing point; buildings appear in varying dimensions in the background since there is a great variety in the camera angles and in the way the characters move into and through the landscape. A filmed chase sequence usually has visual regularity, repetition and continuity of dimension, with a fixed and regular alternation between pursuer and pursued. Here the protagonists alternately sit on a bench, flirt, run through an outdoor Parisian market (where Celine pinches an apple), and try to let the other both know and not know that each knows what is going on. When they go up the steep hill to Montmartre, Celine rides the funicular and Julie chases it up steep stairs. They slow down and speed up, bump into each other, and finally end up with Celine gazing down from a hotel window at her pursuer pacing on the street below. Because there are no established roles for these two women, as there would be in a heterosexual pursuit, the lack of linear regularity and the open-endedness of the cinematic style establish an appropriate new form for depicting a women's "chase."
A READING OF THE FILM
Celine and Julie both suck their candies, sitting on a trunk, looking at the camera and giving the impression that they are watching their "vision" and us as we watch them. The image suggests spectators at a movie. Spectators like them, we go through the same kind of initial process of being fascinated with that interior fiction, especially about the way the adult characters are trying to manipulate each other.
Because of the film's duration and the shots' repetition, we move away from the melodrama's enthrallment. Finally we see the two women learning to ridicule and overcome a process we are usually pulled into. Melodramatic stories, the myths of heterosexual romance and catching a man, tragic love, the devastating politics of the nuclear family — these processes are all related here. And perhaps in a different way, they also are all related to each other in women's daily lives.
The internal story that Celine and Julie keep going back to is the so-called "masochistic" female fantasy, the drama of dominance and submission that originates in the nuclear family and in which everything revolves around the fact of male power. In that interior story the "child" is suppressed, both as a real child in the family and in the personalities of the stultified adults. The interior story resembles the depictions found in melodrama for the last two hundred years and which flourish today in TV's soaps, with the women competing for the man and the bourgeois comfort he can bring them. The "cues" are all too stable in that world; its patterns of destructive interaction are continually repeated.
Celine and Julie's tripping together can be seen as a self-conscious decision to get inside a fantasy they know is destructive. Like so many women, at the crucial moment they are scared, thinking they'll be discovered. But when they go to the house for the last time, specifically to save the child, they see that the melodramatic figures are lifeless, unable to make a move outside of prescribed roles. When they see that they have nothing to lose and that the family and the man have no power over them, they move out of the dark house into sunlight and spontaneity.
Heterosexual women know the role that masochistic fantasy plays in their intimate lives. A better term would be fantasies in which we internalize our oppression, especially our sexual oppression. Such fantasies are part of the mechanism that keeps women sleeping with their oppressors. But the film does not simply develop a destructive fantasy which Celine and Julie then demolish. More important is the external story, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the ways two women could relate to each other intimately. And what are the fantasies that the film initiates?
The women are economically comfortable, both working at symbolic jobs. As a librarian, Julie is the stereotype of the "repressed, shy spinster." Celine, as a performer in tacky nightclubs, is the gypsy, the loser (similar to roles taken up by Liza Minelli). That one woman actively pursues the other in a courtship ritual or pick-up ploy is not, in daily life, a likely event (with the growth of the lesbian movement, women have felt free to explore totally new ways of relating more honestly, rather than repeat fixed roles of patriarchal behavior, such as flirting). Rather, the opening sequences of CELINE AND JULIE offer both a sexual fantasy that is basically role reversal, and a class fantasy. The more middle class librarian "picks up" and "rescues" an orphan waif of another class; the child of the streets is chased and saved by a "nice" motherly type. Their attraction to each other is mutual. Because this fantasy opens the film, class distinctions are demolished, or at least attacked, to allow sisterhood and sex identity.
The film does not concentrate on sexuality per se, but on Celine and Julie's psychological intimacy, playfulness, and daring. The two are physically at ease with each other, often lounging about the apartment together or fooling around with the body language of girls. And each has the chance to enter into and totally burlesque the social role that would potentially limit and take away her friend; each interferes in the other's social world out of jealousy or for the other's "good."
The film disrupts the way we usually separate memories from movies from dreams from sexual fantasies. Everything is presented on the same level — from Julie playing Tarot with her coworker at the library to Celine's tacky magic show to the sudden reappearance in Julie's life of a beloved old nanny who offers her cocoa and cookies — and the film maintains this "mix" throughout. There are many things that we have been conditioned to repress from a very early age on and to cease to think of as meaningful, especially dreams, fantasy, and a childlike belief in magic. CELINE AND JULIE, through play, raises these things to a higher level of meaning.
At this stage in our history, such an integration of psychic levels, such a quest, will only be undertaken by female protagonists. The "boys," the two friends in a male buddy film, have an adventure together in the outside world. These women have a psychic adventure. They are willing to make an inner journey together into the painful depths of their own fantasy, and they have such fluid ego boundaries that they take on each other's identity. The women nurture and support each other; they grow together. And they do this both by playfulness and by taking the risk to explore together the intuitive and the previously untouchable and unknown.
MODES OF COMMUNICATION
In the framing Celine-and-Julie story, the actresses' improvisation dominates the fiction. In their physical looseness, Labourier and Berto offer the viewer a repertoire of women's gestures and body language that is rarely seen to such an extent or presented so lovingly in film. Hundreds of meaningful, unpredictable, tiny gestures fill up Berto and Labourier's screen time. Furthermore, the actresses' gestures are filmed in a way that they seem to "take over" the sets of Julie's apartment and the library. Female gestural expansiveness is used here to create an utopian image of women's "turf." In its visual excess (in the color, unusual props and use of props, and lack of closure in the framing), this Celine-and-Julie part of the film is erotic and sensual, especially to many women viewers. It eschews depicting lovemaking, which could be recouped voyeuristically. Rather, it sensually demonstrates all the ways that women can occupy space in a free and relaxed way, both alone and together. The film gives a picture of women protagonists relating to each other or acting on their own, without men on their minds.
The actresses' improvisation encourages us to decipher meaning expressed through multiple channels of their characters' behavior. Sometimes Celine and Julie's gestures are subtle displays of emotion, such as the looks that pass across Julie's face when listening to an outraged Gilou on the phone and the swiftness of her bursting into laughter upon hanging up. Sometimes the gestures are intentional signals given to the other characters, such as the original flirting clues. And sometimes the gestures are "unladylike" ones, which women ordinarily protect themselves from being seen doing. Such gestures communicate many shades of meaning, especially about women's interaction and relation to domestic space.
It is a fantasy that can be read as lesbian for two female characters to initiate and defend intimacy as openly as these two do. As the film begins, they act like aggressive and greedy children trying to hoard something precious, as each advances and protects her newly established relation. But as the film progresses, an increased synchrony is seen in their actions. To depict their psychic unity and growth through mutual support, they are filmed acting constantly as a team. From the first, each was sensitive to the other's body cues, but they finally move in almost magical symmetry.
The interior crime melodrama investigates a very narrow and symbolically heightened range of interpersonal relations. The bad house sequences have a pointedly "period mise-en-scene (about 1940) and the costumes and type of language used by Olivier, Camille and Sophie are dated and extreme. It's a dated, warped family. Specifically it represents the breakdown of the nuclear family or its obvious departure from the ideal; the fact that the mother is dead is what endangers the child's life. Furthermore, in its simplicity and exaggeration, this interior crime melodrama could be read as well as a fairy tale, with a dead mother and competing stepmothers who'd sacrifice the little girl for a man. (But other women, and not a prince, will save that girl.) Heterosexual relations appear in the film as intrinsically marked by destructiveness, and the kinds of roles played out in that awful family parallel common social strategies for the seizure and maintenance of power.
Rivette critiques the possession and emotional manipulation in the family and the myth of tragic romantic love. Every detail of the action, environment, and costuming in this interior fiction speak the same message: that these characters are trapped in their bourgeois, heterosexual, familial roles. The adults are struggling to maintain a self-enhancing social front and are without candor or spontaneity. They are never ingenuous; the child is drugged most of the time; and the women act according to the pressures and boundaries established by the man. The home is a place for the accumulation of possessions, so nothing there is seen out of place.
The minimal information presented in each shot invites us to reflect on family life, and the plot of the interior story invites us to equate family life with a crime. Repeating the same shots many times creates a symbolic, not "documentary," cinematic analysis of adult heterosexual relations. The heightened gestures, the minimal information in each shot, the relation of the figures to the architecture — all these bear a readable leaning about limits, structures and stances characteristic of family life. In fact, such a reading depends as well on the stability of connotative cues in the society at large. In particular, most people experience as relatively stable the cues for acting and for reading and responding to others emotions within family life; and emotional development is shaped by these cues. Deception, rigidity, lack of imagination, an obsessive rehashing of the past, desire for status, woman's availability and her waiting around for the man, and destructive emotional games are elements of the bourgeois family, which this film depicts in an exaggerated way but which have long been the staple of literary fiction as novelists have described t tensions and conflicts defining family life. As in a soap opera, in CELINE AND JULIE the characters body posture is rigid, the women well-dressed and coiffed, and housework invisible. The man maintains and achieves his own fantasy about what he wants and deserves — status as devoted pater familias, and service by attentive women who walk around with him constantly on their mind.
The fact that the costumes are from the 1940s reinforces the impression that this interior story may well represent Celine and Julie's journey into their own past. In this way the filmic fiction is particularly significant for feminists. The psychological labor of rescuing the female child is one which our whole generation must mutually undertake — to save the daughters, our own child-aspect, and future female generations. It is a historical task of "recuperation, which an oppressed group coming to political consciousness begins.
Between the framing story and crime story are certain salient, paradigmatic, seemingly mutually exclusive oppositions: pleasure vs. pain, playfulness vs. rigidity, looseness vs. constraint, adult women who act like children vs. adults of both sexes who repress their childlike aspect, psychic unity between two women vs. manipulative interpersonal communication between men and women and between adults and the child. What do these oppositions have to do with lesbianism, or with the film's version of it?
When together, Celine and Julie act as if they have regressed to that stage which heterosexual women often remember as the last model they had for feeling relaxed and free and loose with their women friends: puberty. As at a slumber party, when not having to be "on stage" and to appear their best for the opposite sex, Celine and Julie lounge around in their bathrobes, touch each other freely, hang out on the couch lying against each other, try each other's things on, mime, tell tall tales, and act deliberately silly in a" girlish" way. Girls can run fast and jump high and their aspirations have not yet been lowered by society's pressures. Celine and Julie go back to that child.
What does it mean that the film has mature women take on the agility — and foolishness — of girls? Celine may have cut herself to make Julie care about her. While on the phone to Gilou, Julie scratches herself with a sculpted red hand she uses to store her rings and she picks her toes. The last time in the "bad house" in their comedy routine, Celine and Julie stick their fingers up each other's noses. In their gestures, costumes, and roles in the plot, they are associated both with the little girl they save and with the intrinsic child that peeps through all their actions. With the childlike part of themselves freed up from the inhibitions learned as part of "getting a man, Celine and Julie are shown as relating to each other along the continuum of superego (especially nurturant mother), ego (as demonstrated by Celine and Julie's polishing off Gilou and the Beirut contract), and childlike modes of interaction.
Here we can assess the limits to which CELINE AND JULIE can be interpreted as a "lesbian" film. If Rivette were mainly responsible for the interior crime melodrama, then we could say that he accurately saw the problems of his own sphere — male power, heterosexual love, the nuclear family under capitalism. He could ask two actresses who were already good friends to collaborate on the script and could allow a strong depiction of women's healing and nurturing friendship as a foil to the "dangers" of his own sphere. But the film keeps men and the problems they generate in the fiction. It does not depict the contradictions and conflicts of lesbian existence, nor does it broach in a political way the menace lesbians always face from a heterosexist society. Celine and Julie's relation is kept safely at the level of the child. They never express adult passion, which keeps the depiction of that relation "safe" for both male and female viewers, who might choose not to see the women as lesbian at all. Is this Rivette's responsibility, the actresses' decision in scripting their parts, or an unspoken decision made according to the exigencies of producing a feature film? I do not know.
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