Celine et Julie vont en bateau

Seriousness is two-edged. On one hand we want promises to be kept, deadlines adhered to, guarantees to be meaningful, and aeroplanes to be flown safely. On the other hand seriousness locks us in to situations. When I tell someone a paper will be ready on Monday it is my seriousness that keeps me working through the weekend, and it is my seriousness that keeps me from the fun.

The core of Jacques Rivette’s classic 1974 film Celine et Julie vont en bateau is a melodrama (based on one of Henry James’ less successful novels) played in an abandoned house by what appear to be ghosts. Every aspect of their situation is serious: the pompous dialogue, the expensive clothes, the exaggerated feelings. It seems to prefigure the excesses of the TV series Dallas and Dynasty.

Outside of this mechanical melodrama is the world of Celine and Julie, two young Parisiennes who appear to inhabit a real world, but in retrospect do not. Their world is one of magic, whimsy, ridicule, and spontaneous fun. Even their identities overlap, and they substitute for each other throughout the film. They enter the world of the haunted house by eating boiled sweets, and by using na├»ve ritual magic. They try to influence events in the house and in doing so become entangled with it. In the final scenes they are in a boat on a river and in a frozen moment meet the overdressed ghosts from the house going in the opposite direction.

Celine et Julie has been critically acclaimed, and as such there are many reviews online explaining ‘what it means’. It is easy to see it as a critique of conventional film-making, or an exploration of story-telling. I have watched it several times and the impression I come away with is how much fun it is. An idea I have taken from Buddhism is ‘openness’; that is, every situation in life is potentially open and free and tractable, and it is our seriousness that traps us in recurring situations. Celine and Julie goof around inside the seriousness of the ghostly melodrama, and I find myself seeing this film as an essential commentary on life itself.