Both the first and last twenty minutes of Jacques Rivette’s celebrated but rarely screened, ambitious but not impenetrable 1974 film are absolutely sublime. Those first twenty consist of an extended chase between the two titular characters and the last twenty finds them attempting to rewrite the story they’ve mysteriously been written into. I’m less certain how successful everything is in-between these two sequences, though I wonder if the conclusion would still carry the same impact without them.

We first see frizzy redhead Julie sitting on a park bench, reading a fat red book with the word MAGIC in big letters on its cover. Dark-haired Celine nonchalantly strolls past and accidentally drops her sunglasses. Julie calls out, but Celine continues on her way. Thus begins a gentle game of cat-and-mouse between the two women as Julie pursues Celine through the streets of Montmartre. Celine is obviously aware of Julie’s presence, leading her from one locale to another; Julie trails her as if she almost wants not to get caught while also making sure that Celine knows she’s still on her trail. This entire sequence is playful, mischievous and a little flirtatious and it deftly transpires with nary any dialogue. It also sets a tone of beguiling wonderment for the whole film, as if anything can happen and probably will.

What does happen over the next two hours or so sustains that tone but does so with far less focus. Celine, a magician who also sings and Julie, a practical librarian prone to daydreaming forge a friendship less due to a meet-cute than some sort of spiritual or perhaps inexplicable force pulling them together. Gradually, we witness each woman separately finding herself a participant in a domestic drama continually reoccurring in an old mansion involving a man, two women and a sick child. Depending on who’s participating, either Celine or Julie appear as the child’s nursemaid. The sequence of events always concludes with the child dead from poisoning and either Celine or Julie suddenly out the street with a hard candy in their mouth, which, when sucked on allows them to witness the sequence of events again.

Like for Celine and Julie, it takes multiple occurrences for us to figure out exactly what’s going on. We also get scenes that seemingly have little to do with any of this, like Julie’s lengthy, hysterical audition for what appears to be a singing magician job we’ve seen Celine already perform. Is Rivette suggesting that his heroines are two sides of the same coin, illustrating the intense psychic depths of their connection or simply just using the two-character setup and medium of film to explore the relationship between the viewer and the viewed and how adding in a little magic realism subtly turns that relationship inside out?

It could very well be all these things, given how open-ended and inconsequential but simultaneously engaging and fun CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING is. Eventually, the domestic drama’s pieces fall into place via many reiterations and Celine and Julie consult the MAGIC book to insert themselves together into the drama in order to save the little girl. The results anticipate by decades anything from Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch regarding use of meta-narratives and dream logic. Such logic and a leisurely pace (the whole thing is just over three hours long) has limited the film’s audience outside of hardcore cineastes (unavailability on DVD/Blu-Ray in this country hasn’t helped, either). However, unlike various other challenging marathon-length 1970s art cinema, it’s relatively accessible and rewarding enough if you just go with its flow and gently sail towards the final two scenes, both of which serve as lovely grace notes. In the first, our heroines discover how reality and fiction often become—and remain—intertwined; in the second, CAJGB delightfully turns itself into a Möbius strip, suggesting that the stories we tell don’t necessarily have beginnings and endings but live on in perpetual motion.

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