Julia Lesage… [in a] pioneering analysis of female characters in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating… shows that the abandonment of the classic story based on male-female distinctions produces new and previously unimaginable narrative mutations….(The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink)
I simply don’t see it. As I argued in a previous post this film is an attempt to recreate both the dream and love worlds of two people infatuated with each other. It could as easily have been done with a man and a woman; although the details would have changed. Indeed, it has been done, using different cinematic and narrative techniques, in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. A film that the same book regards as conservative(!) in its views about gender.
The style and content of Rivette’s film has less to do with sexuality than with the then recent tradition of the 1960s New Waves, both in the movies and in literature; where, particularly in France and America, there developed a corpus of self-referential fiction, which used the forms of art as material. To interpret this film it is thus necessary to understand these contemporary artistic developments, rather rely on some dubious feminist theorising.
This is not to say that the choice of two female characters doesn’t give the director certain freedoms in plot construction and presentation. The two women lovers, and we also see this in Mulholland Drive, allows for a greater technical flexibility in exploring the emotional reactions which are common to both sexes. Thus it would be very hard to convincingly show the mixing up and merging of a male and female lover, as Rivette does here. Although in a completely different way, Toshio Matsumoto gets around this problem by using transvestites in another Sixties classic, Funeral Parade of Roses.i Another movie that captures the feel of the times, and which also uses the techniques and ideas of particularly the French New Wave. It is also another movie that the critics would like to reduce solely to sexual politics.ii
That is, although highlighting how lesbian characters can be useful technical devices, Lesage’s analysis ultimately fails, because it wants to make too big a generalisation on an important but small insight. It is like trying to build The Gherkin on two square foot of land.