Thursday, 23 August 2012

Stumbling Into It

Malcolm Muggeridge is said to have reviewed Ulysses without noticing its mythic superstructure; a source of future scholarly ridicule.  That oversight, and his later fall into spiritualism, his abiding legacy for the few that remember him.  What a monument!  One life wrecked by a footnote. 

Watching this film, and remembering that old sceptic turned convert, I wondered if I should write about it.  Would some academic, obese with the books he has eaten, scoff at my ignorance?  As we were leaving a woman next to me exclaimed: what was that about!  And mentioned a movie of which I have never heard: called The Blue Room, it has a reputation for being innovative, but actually it plagiarises this one, she said.  Confused as I was.

So, what is it about?

Perhaps you can tell me about The Blue Room.  Although there is a film I know that may provide a way into Céline and Julie Go Boating: Mulholland Drive, which, I assume, must be influenced by the original - in too many places it is just too close not to be.  In the later film we spend a couple of hours inside a dream, in which two women investigate the attempted murder of one of them.  It is a search to find a person’s past; the two characters psychoanalysts seeking retrieve the buried memories of Betty now played by Rita, who suffers from amnesia.  They find them!  The dream now turns into a nightmare, wish fulfilment is replaced by reality, and we discover that all the values had been reversed and exaggerated: the heroine wasn’t the strong and talented actress after all; she only wished to be, projecting herself onto her lover during the early happy days of their affair.  For Betty the dream is an escape from an awful act– she has hired killers to kill Rita who has ditched her – but later turns sour when it uncovers her real memories.  It is a perfect piece of Freudianism, though Lynch is closer to the truth than the Viennese sage: decoding dreams can destroy us if the realities are too painful too bear.

So that’s one film.  What about this one?

Let us start with the two women.  Do they meet for the first time in the very last shot?  The biggest reversal of all!  And is the rest of the film, all three hours of it, compressed inside the dream Julie has just before she wakes up and sees Céline walking across the park; in a hurried, shambolic, way?  The very last clip of the movie the first fateful meeting…  The end, the beginning of the real action we will never see.

Let us extend that thought.  The film is a dream of Julie’s, and like all dreams events and personalities are mixed up, reversed and exaggerated; during which a rational but imaginative logic[i] takes over, where real memories are jumbled up with fiction, the ordinary with the gothic. The first crazy scene is a good example.  Céline follows Julie, in a parody of a chase.  Both appear to be self-consciously performing; and it seems Julie wants to be followed, and is making a game of it: there are moments she is like Hansel and Gretel leaving her scarf, later her baby doll, behind for Céline to pick up, ensuring she never loses her trail… until eventually Céline does lose her, at the hotel.  The scene is funny, madcap in a quiet way; with the two characters clearly playing around together in a sort of controlled silliness.  It could be the original meeting reversed (later we discover that the doll may actually belong to Céline) and made surreal.  It is just the kind of thing that could happen in a dream, where those first few tentative and flirtatious steps of a relationship are turned into a comic parody.

And the next morning…

As in a silent film we see a caption; and there are many of these in the film, dividing it into a series of chapters; separating night from day, and dream, we think, from reality; at least we assume so, as we grope our way around the images before us. 

And the next morning… we see Céline walking into the hotel bar to hand back Julie’s scarf.  At last they talk to one another.

There is little development and yet very quickly they know each other very well: we are surprised to see Julie sitting on the stairs outside Céline’s flat; injured by some strange people in a large old house.  We thought they were two strangers…

For a director this is one of the great advantages of dreams: they can compress the action by cutting out all the connecting links, which the audience has to recover for itself.  The film could have been a lot longer (there are times we wish it were – just tell us what is going on!).  Indeed, now I think about it, it is much longer than its stated running time: we later spend hours trying to work it out; picking up from the cutting floor all those causes and matching them to their effects.  Two films for the price of one.  Céline leaving the park is also us walking out the cinema to create another movie…

It is a new friendship or perhaps a love affair?  In one scene when Julie is with her friends she tells a fantastic story about a rich American woman, but denies she is a dyke.  However, after an escapade in an old house (I’ll come back to this later), Céline gives Julie a soft kiss, and all her body language suggests the tenderness of love.

Yet we cannot trust anything…

Never mind.  In love the first experiences are more intense, but a close friendship can produce something similar: a new world full of hallucinating mystery.  It is a time when the lover’s life can take on the quality of fairy tale: our new partners are both vague and tremendous; and they, and their lives, are turned into a sort of novel or film – we make them so.  Only later, when we know them well, are they reduced to the knowable and mundane.  So that in the earliest, deepest, love our past and present lives are mediated more through imagination than cool analysis; through sentimental talk and sometimes fanciful recollection; heightened by obsessive closeness - in those first few weeks and months lovers tend to meet few other people.  During that time our lover’s family and friends exist only in our lover’s words, and our own imaginative creation; and this cannot be otherwise.  Then slowly these exaggerated stories merge into real life, as these characters become actual persons for us.  Their real selves now mixed up with the lovers’ own private language, of in-jokes, stories, silly fantasies and potted histories about former partners and lost acquaintances.  There are, inevitably, long discussions about good times and bad; and there is the recounting of obsessions and personal oddities.  Both believe they can fix their loved one’s broken lives: the emotional loss of a dead parent; the coldness of their father’s mistress...  For a brief period life is lived like a Hollywood film.  Everything is fantastic!  And love is the magic cure…  Then there is the tendency to copy one another: we become very plastic, incredibly open to influence, and so we imitate manners of expression, of clothes; even tastes in books and records.  In this film the power of both Céline’s and Julie’s attraction is so great that they want to merge themselves into one being.  Inevitably there is synchronicity.  Not surprising when two people are living together so intensely, and are often thinking about the same thing.

Céline makes a Bloody Mary. Julie unaware of this says she could kill for such a drink.  Céline drops the glass in shock!  Later, when Julie is removing her makeup after a show (she is a cabaret artiste, a kind of magician) Céline drops by and describes herself as a rich American…  It is Julie’s turn to be stunned (remember her previous conversation).  Magic!  Really?  Yes, in a way it is.  It is the vibrations in the atmosphere that love produces, which in turn appears to cause actions at a distance; and all made by human hands.

So it is love?  It could be.  I think it is.

In the most curious part of the film the two women repeatedly return to a large house (of which there is an old photograph in Céline’s trunk, the place where she keeps her dolls), that on the outside appears deserted.  The action is disjointed, but revolves around a man, two attractive women, and the man’s daughter and a nurse.  One woman is the sister of the husband’s dead wife; the other we assume is the mistress of the house.  Both want to marry him; although the sister seems slightly deranged – she not only loves him but also wants to replace her sister entirely; to become her, it seems.  There is a problem though.  His wife stipulated that he should not marry until their daughter has reached maturity.  Endless frustration!  Although there is hope: the child is not well.  The nurse at first seems to be Céline.  This story is repeated night after night, with different bits occurring at different times, and with now Julie, and now Céline, appearing in the role of the nurse.  At first they are trying to find out what is going on. They are like detectives.  Later they realise the daughter is to be murdered, and together they decide to intervene.  Both jump into the dream to save her.  Now it is not so much a dream but a kind of strange play, which Céline acts out (with the help of Julie).  Inevitably she gets the lines wrong, as she cannot remember them accurately.   It is a bravura performance…

What is this about?  I think it is about Céline’s early years, the loss of her mother, and her father’s later relationships, which she felt destroyed her childhood; by taking all her stories away – they killed it with kindness, replacing the exotic lands of her imagination with their real equivalents.  A disaster, surely, for a child.  That final play is an investigation into those early years: the psychoanalyst and her adult patient jumping into the dream to pull out Céline from that stultifying and murderous past.  And they are successful.  In the last scenes of this play-within-a-film the faces of the principle characters increasingly display a death like pallor; for by saving the child they are at last killing off the adults.   The oppressive memories are being taken away…

When suddenly the child pops up in the present!  Love has recovered it.

In a final majestic scene we see them all floating down the river; an extraordinarily beautiful tableau.  Love has found an alternative reality to replace the broken one of old.  It can even make the painful past look wonderful.  It glides away... and disappears… like magic.

[i] This is Freud’s biggest weakness: he assumed dreams were irrational.  If they were he couldn’t have interpreted them.

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