As a teenager in the 1970s, I was a frequent visitor to an art gallery in Liverpool called the Open Eye. When they started a film club, promising to show all the stuff I had read about but would never otherwise get a chance to see, I signed up like a flash.
It was a humble affair: a bare room with temporary blackouts on the windows, a makeshift screen at one end, a projector at t’other and a dozen or so ill-assorted chairs inbetween, but I loved it. For me it was a magic grotto: a portal to another place of endless fascination and discovery. It was here that I had my first exposure to the works of Buñuel, Renoir, Fritz Lang; Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera”; the experimental shadowgraph animations of Man Ray; David Lynch’s Eraserhead and, unforgettably, “Céline et Julie vont en bateau”.
Even for one as keen on “Art” cinema as I was, Céline et Julie was a bit of a challenging prospect: a low-budget French thing about god-knows-what, by a director I’d never heard of, that we were warned would run over three hours without interval. Little did I know, as the opening credits rolled, that from then on time would mean nothing and I would be held captive; enthralled; the hours slipping by unheeded, as when dreaming.
It is this quality that, for me, makes this film so special. European (especially French) cinema is full of works that lay claim to the label “Surrealist”. I have to say that in my opinion most of them have little to do with the truly surreal at all. More often than not they are simply a cocktail of absurdism and social satire.
Céline et Julie, on the other hand, is a genuinely surreal film possibly the ONLY genuinely surreal film ever made (!) – insomuch that its narrative (and hence the experience of watching it unfold) is uncannily dreamlike. From the outset the viewer is drawn inexorably forward by a teasing sense of curiosity. Frequently along the way there seems to be far too much going on that is unexplained, and little hope of fitting it all together, yet one cannot help but remain in the story. In time, we become aware that our mixed sensations as viewer are mirroring those being experienced by Céline and Julie and thus we find ourselves in that familiar condition of the dreamer: of being simultaneously both onlooker and protagonist in our own drama.
Afterwards, I was left feeling curiously elated, yet struggling to recall its details with any precision. The impressions it had left behind were powerful and thought-provoking, yet intangible, and recalled but imperfectly, in the manner of one who has just awoken: with a frustrating uncertainty as to exactly what had occurred, to whom and in what order. Any attempt to explain it to a third party was equally doomed. Just as with a half-remembered dream, the very act of telling caused the peculiar para-logic of the narrative to disintegrate, and I’d be left speechless.
It’s been part of me ever since. Over the last 30-odd years, the themes and images of this film have, in the nicest possible way, haunted me: lurking in the shadows of consciousness, beyond the clumsy reach of rational query, quietly informing my imagination, to appear, unbidden, in subtle and unexpected ways in my own creative output.
The whole strange business has been made all the more uncanny by the fact that, throughout those 30-odd years, the film itself has been lost to me. Having experienced it the once, I was never able to find Céline et Julie again, nor any reference to it, even in the pages of famously trusted and supposedly ‘comprehensive’ movie guides. Likewise, whenever I mentioned the film in conversation I could never come across anyone who had ever heard of it. Having worked its mischief, the contrary creature had melted back into the half-light, leaving no trace of its existence.
Then, in October of 2006, a miracle: there it was, right in front of me, listed in the TV schedules! Film4 was showing it at the suitably unconscious hour of 3am. Unwilling to risk losing it for another 30 years to the vagaries of my video recorder’s dodgy timer, I sat up, my finger hovering nervously over the Record button…
A few days later, having found an afternoon in which we were free of commitments, my partner and I settled in to watch it: she with some scepticism that she would be able to maintain her interest for the whole 3 hours, and me both a-quiver with anticipation and privately praying that, in the hard light of reality, this thing of treasured half-memory would not prove itself to be The Worst Load Of Pretentious Tripe Ever Made.
I needn’t have worried. No sooner had I hit “Play” than that fragrant, familiar magic began weaving itself all over again. I am delighted to report that Céline et Julie is just as powerful an experience now as it was in my youth.
What I had forgotten, or perhaps never noticed at all on first viewing, was just what a rough-edged, homespun creature it is in technical terms. It was shot entirely on location, on 16mm and with a very small crew, and it shows. The soundtrack is patchy in places and frequently prey to whatever ambient sounds were present when the camera rolled (usually Parisian traffic noise). Now and then the acting is self-conscious, and some of the reaction shots are clumsily done. In the end, though, none of this matters a damn. Indeed, it is the film’s very lack of studio polish that gives it much of its special flavour. Céline et Julie is an imperfect creation, but an honest one. It is also charming, playful and frequently hilarious. As such, I recommend it unreservedly.