Maria Giménez Cavallo reviews the landmark 1974 art film, a new 35mm print of which is playing at Film Forum through Thursday, May 10.


Jacques Rivette traces the history of cinema itself through this apparently unassuming film. He first presents us with the silent era as Julie (Dominique Labourier) follows Céline (Juliet Berto) through the streets of Paris without the use of any dialogue. Slapstick antics ensue as Julie disguises herself and chases Céline, as if they were in a film noir. Rivette uses older nonverbal methods of giving information to the spectator. We learn Céline’s name and occupation from a written card and the occasional inter-titles establish the setting. These titles quickly become emblematic of Brechtian alienation as they interrupt the action and acknowledge the film’s self-reflexivity. The remainder of the movie is characterized by a postmodernist style, as the protagonists interact with characters from a highly-stylized film within the film. Throughout, Rivette references many different genres – such as the musical when Julie takes over Céline’s role at the cabaret and theatrical drama when Céline dons a white gown and emphatically speaks of love and poetry while pretending to be Julie. Rivette amazingly manages to make these whimsical happenings flowing naturally from one to the next in this plot wrapped up in truth and fantasy.

Rivette comments on voyeurism and how its expression in film has evolved over time. During the silent sequence, the protagonists take turns observing each other. Julie follows Céline, letting us watch from her perspective, until Céline boards the tram and then in turn allows us to watch Julie through the frame of her window. This transference of viewpoints makes us equally connected to both protagonists and encourages us to question spectatorship. Later, they both dress-up as and impersonate the other, perhaps in order to better understand their opposite points of view. After the investigations of their lives is complete, Rivette takes us on a journey with these characters as they go on a journey with the characters from another film. These characters who are being watched, Céline and Julie, transform themselves into narrators who watch others. In doing so, we are able to identify more with them and unquestioningly accept the images they show of their memories as reliable.

Rivette also redefines the art of storytelling as Céline herself tells them in circles, accompanied by interspersed flashes of memory which cut back to reality through radical montage. In fact, the film they watch is nothing more than fragments of memories, symbolic of how we ourselves perceive the past. Each time the protagonists go to the house where the second film takes place, they discover a new element of the story and come closer to solving the mystery. Rivette shows images of Julie and Céline acting out the same role, cutting in a carefully crafted yet seemingly random way, to depict the act of repetition. Towards the end, they reciprocate the audience’s feelings by saying that they do not want to return to the house because they simply do not care enough anymore. By the third hour, I was just about fed up with their going around in circles and became desperate to leave. However, by the end I was glad to have stuck with the characters during their whirlwind adventure. The whole film is, in essence, a repetition of itself as the same images are played out again and again with subtle changes until all of the puzzle pieces make sense. One appreciates this movie for the same reason one might enjoy minimalist music or a Philip Glass opera. This epic of over three hours is more of a meta-cinematic experience than a film, which is well worth one’s patience.