Céline and Julie go to the library

Dominique Labourier (Julie, left) and Juliet Berto (Céline) in Céline et Julie von en bateau
Dominique Labourier (Julie, left) and Juliet Berto (Céline) in Céline et Julie von en bateau

At the British Library (the institution which kindly helps me keep body and soul together) we regularly make promotional videos. They are snappy little numbers, designed to show what a bright, inviting and relevant place the Library is. The editing is brisk, the graphics float informatively over the screen, and the music is toe-tapping.

Yet you feel that when any production company is handed a commission to make a promotional film for us that their heart sinks. How on earth does one make an interesting film out of a library? It is nothing but books and manuscripts, shelves upon shelves upon shelves, quaintly amusing staff, and a solemn clientele all of whom are sitting down, reading. There can be little more joy involved in the production of such videos than instructional guides for factory processes, or advertisements for banks.

Tout la mémoire du monde
Tout la mémoire du monde

And yet, what if your filmmaker is a poet? The finest documentary made about a library – perhaps the only fine one ever – is Tout la mémoire du monde, produced in 1956 by Alain Resnais. Ostensibly an film informing us about the operations of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, in practice it is a disquisition on fear and memory. Over lingering tracking shots of unending, Borgesian corridors of books, the commentary interweaves factual information with thoughts on the human motives behind such a vast undertaking. Humans dread forgetting, so they collect, yet they dread being overwhelmed by the knowledge before them. They strive to catalogue and thereby to gain mastery over that which cannot be controlled, not least because it is never-ending. The books are released from the vaults where all are equal, to the reading rooms where they become personal, and where the readers collectively engage upon an activity which seeks to find an answers to all the questions that there may be, and thereby discover happiness.

Perhaps one of the makers of the British Library’s promos will go on to make his or her L’Année dernière à Marienbad – they may be dreaming so themselves. At any rate I encourage them to look out for the BFI’s DVD of Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating), made by the late Jacques Rivette, on which Resnais’ masterly film is included as an extra.

Julie's book of magic
Julie’s book of magic

But what is it doing there, accompanying Rivette’s fantastical and very long 1974 film about two women’s adventures through Paris, which lead to uncovering and taking part in the stories that lie within a hidden house? Well, it’s because Céline and Julie go Boating is the quintessential library film. Julie (played by Dominique Labourier) is a librarian; Céline (Juliet Berto) is a magician. She’s not a very good magician, nor does Julie appear to be much of a librarian (she spend her time smoking, playing with tarot cards and playing with the ink of a book stamper), but it’s not the reality but the imagined that counts. Céline and Julie merge into one in any case – the film opens with Julie (reading a book of magic) chasing after Céline after the latter drops something (in imitation of Alice in Wonderland); it ends with the same scene but the roles reversed. They each play the same role in the film-within-a-film. They have interweaving identities. It’s a film about the magic underlying the real world, and about how stories all interweave with one another, in a labyrinthine journey through the imagination – much like a library.

The film spends relatively little time in the library where Julie works (they return to it later on to steal some books). Instead it plays upon the idea of the library as a metaphor for the world of stories. Céline and Julie Go Boating (the title alludes to a French term for shaggy dog story, though they do actually go boating towards the end) is about storytelling. It references Lewis Carroll and Henry James (the central film-within-a-film is based on two minor James stories, but there is something about the trapped child theme that reminds one of What Maisie Knew). It mimics numerous modes of film genre, or storytelling techniques, as well as specific films – Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires.

Céline and Julie Go Boating is endlessly fascinating for how it plays with narrative and logic. At just over three hours long it is a challenge for some audiences – when I first saw it at a film society screening many years ago, half the cinema had walked out long before the end – especially when it is not always clear what is happening. Céline and Julie’s conversations do not always flow logically (sometimes one seems to give an answer before the other asks the question, while other talk is constructed among seemingly absurdist non sequiturs). Viewing it again recently I found the Jamesian film-within-a-film a bit tedious at times, and felt that the film lost something of its special quality when things in its later stages started to make sense. But a three-hour, semi-improvised film is bound to have its weak points. Other films are nothing but weak. Céline and Julie Go Boating is an adventure through mind and memory – which is what connects it to Resnais’s film, and what makes it the perfect library film. It’s not the time spent among the books, but the time spent inside them.

Tout la mémoire du monde
Tout la mémoire du monde

Documentarists may have struggled with libraries, but fiction filmmakers have long relied on them. Libraries looms large in Three Days of the Condor, The Name of the Rose, Citizen Kane, Blackmail, The Music Man (the ‘Marion the Librarian’ number), Attack of the Clones (looking remarkably like Resnais’s Bibliothèque nationale), The Breakfast Club (the library as prison), All the President’s Men and any Harry Potter film. Librarians themselves are often lazily caricatured – just think of the awful alternative fate envisaged for Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life: unloved, plain and the town librarian, or the memorable rude librarians played by John Rothman in Sophie’s Choice and Judi Dench in Wetherby. Just occasionally a librarian gets portrayed sympathetically: Greer Garson in Adventure, Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play, Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, and of course the favourite of many a librarian or archivist, Stephen Poliakoff’s TV series Shooting the Past, where the staff in a photographic library are the defenders of knowledge and humanity in the face of a soulless age.

The movies understand libraries, or at least know how to use them. But Resnais and Rivette understand something more. They understand that libraries are a part of what it is to be human. They collect our hopes and fears, and guide our discoveries. They represent the battle against the fragility of memory. They are the coming together of the prosaic and the magical, so that eventually one cannot tell the one from the other – Céline and Julie.

Céline and Julie finally go boating (dressed identically, note)
Céline and Julie finally go boating (dressed identically, note)

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