English and American fantasy films have thrived on a curious compromise.1 They are made about children and supposedly for them. It is adults to whom they are more or less covertly addressed. In The Wizard of Oz, The Thief of Baghdad, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, we follow little heroes and heroines who have some special access to a world of imagination. The fun is in eavesdropping on this world. We are allowed into it through the child's privileged consciousness. The film provides an experience specifically denied to the adults who people it. Yes—the grownups in Dorothy's life reappear once she gets to Oz; Dorothy, however, is the only one who retains her memories of that visit. The film recalls to us a quality of mind we once possessed but have forgotten. Such is its implicit claim.
E. T. follows this well-established convention. Despite the busloads of children arriving at the theater, despite the babe-in-arms who has seen the movie twenty times and is interviewed by Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune, despite the rocketing sales of Reese's Pieces, E.T. is not simply a children's movie. In the grand tradition, it exploits a supposed gap between adult and child. The mother is admitted last and admitted reluctantly into the knowledge of the space creature. She remains mom, a wistful, isolated figure: essential to this narrative yet somehow peripheral within it. She cannot even see E.T.—cannot pick him out—until her offspring help her. E.T. alone manages to be adult and child alike; the synthesis, unfortunately, is more confusing than coherent. Space creatures transcend social and perhaps biological divisions; then they leave forever.
No matter how false in themselves, such conventions can underlie wonderful films. At some point they start losing this power. E.T. is not so wonderful as The Wizard of Oz; its romanticized notion of childhood begins to seem a little thin. Director Stephen Spielberg can laugh all the way to the bank; the rest of us may start wondering just how fantasy film could be revived—could be cast in form true to this time and not a willful regression.2
Help comes from France, where fantasy films have followed a very different line of development. Directors like Méliès, Feuillade, Clair, and Cocteau made films which can be enjoyed by children. Children, on the other hand, are seldom conceived as mediators, perceivers of a world which adults could never grasp. The French tradition insists that fantasy is for adults.
This brings us to Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau, 1974), which shares common ground with E.T. Celine's two protagonists communicate telepathically, thus establishing a secret life on heroic terms. Throughout the story Rivette shows himself sympathetic to E.T.-style romanticizations of childhood. Only ... he turns them inside-out. Parts of his film are like Glair's Paris qui dort; he recalls Reuillade by dressing his heroines in sinister black outfits. Within these reminiscences, Rivette dramatizes the rescue of a child and childhood. Instead of insisting on divisions, unbridgeable gaps between child and adult viewpoints, he opens up the possibility that anyone can be that mythical romantic child.
The first scene of Celine: Julie the librarian sits in a Paris park. An oddly-attired young woman rushes past, dropping her glasses. Julie runs after; the odd young woman flees. A chase across Paris eventuates in the two of them becoming friends. The odd young woman is Celine, a Montmartre magician who believes herself the object of conspiracies. Julie, the stable one, is intrigued. Together Julie and Celine embark on an extraordinary folie a deux.
Here is the center of the film. Julie and Celine take turns visiting a mysterious house. Inside is enacted—daily!—a Victorian-style murder mystery. At first we catch the mystery in flashes only, for that is the way Celine and Julie recall it. By eating a curious candy, the only thing they can take away from the house, they bring back fragmentary memories which can then be pieced together. After numerous visits to the rue du Nadir des Pommes (Nadir of Apples) and much sucking on mnemonic candy, they figure out that a widower is being pursued by two determined women. One of the women kills his daughter Madlyn, for whose sake alone he has refused to remarry. Julie/Celine plays the little girl's nurse, thus becoming the witness to many sordid events.
Once they learn the truth, Celine and Julie come to a quick decision. They must rescue Madlyn from her daily smothering. They must pluck her out of this horrible, constantly-repeated tale. The two of them enter the house together. The house's narrative machinery breaks down around them, in a kind of grotesque comedy (the fall of the House of Nadir?). The widower and his aspiring brides become zombie-like automatons. They are not at all the human beings they seemed. Celine and Julie mock the story that surrounds them and Madlyn. The little girl points out an escape route; they regain consciousness in Julie's apartment, Madlyn now with them.
In the film's last minutes, Celine, Julie, and Madlyn go boating. A boat across the lake contains the characters from the murder story. They float past, trance-like. Then the film reverts to its opening scene in the park, with Celine this time playing Julie's role.
The subject of Rivette's film is a crazy friendship, a sympathy so close that it creates an entire fantasy world and plucks from it reality. One critic said of an early Rivette film: "The life of Paris, in a cinematic sense, is put in a new light. For the first time, the stones and the streets have a secret grace which is that of the imaginary." These sentences could describe Celine, whose Paris is transfigured in its heroines' games. The world is not a given. Celine and Julie perform a rescue, thus earning the right to their own story, their own eternal (but not imprisoning) cycle of adventures.
Celine is a French-language film. It is also three hours long. For these two reasons it will never be commercially released in American theaters. We might suppose a third reason for Celine's restricted appeal. The film, it could be argued, is sophisticated fare, addressing itself to urban elites. Experience suggests otherwise. My projectionist, a carefree soul, remarked the other day, "I liked the one you had last year about the ladies in the haunted house." Rivette's own words on the film support this reaction. He made Celine, he says, "to get out of the dumps that we all felt we were in, make a film for as little money as possible and, we hoped, amuse people." Where E.T., the pop film, overwhelms us with an almost driven meaningfulness, the art film is willing to amuse. Far from working at its playfulness, it gets there idly in a kind of enchantment. As Proust readers will recognize, Madlyn = madeleine, the little cake whose taste takes Marcel back to a vivid period in his childhood.
Telling stories about wonderful childhoods and children can often betray a tremulous lack of confidence. The rest of life (it seems) is not so good. If only we were kids again! Rivette, like his English and American colleagues, understands that adulthood can be a drag on the spirit. All the same: where a movie like E.T. is defeatist—much more so than we normally realize—Celine takes effective action. It wakes up its heroines; it wakes us too. The zombie adults go floating by. When we leave the theater, however, we do not feel that we have to go back to being them. Like Celine and Julie, we remember. Memory opens the gates of imagination.
1This is the second of two Cresset columns to emerge from a summer of viewing fantasy films. The first, titled "The Perils of the Cinematic Romance," appeared in the September issue. James Monaco's The New Wave (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) provided information on Jacques Rivette used in the present essay.
2I am not going to discuss Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It seems to me, however, the same kind of "willfull regression" as E. T.