Could Celine and Julie Go Boating — a semi-obscure masterpiece of French cinema — contain the secrets of proper video game storytelling?
Video games need to stop trying to be movies. You’ve heard it here and elsewhere; the tight, thematically coherent structure that reins in your typical two hour film will just never fit the wily, interactive nature of a game that can be fifty times that long. Games are typically better at moment-to-moment plotting and visceral release, waves of emotional catharsis cresting on the backs of set pieces and trial-and-error player accomplishments. These scenarios can move us; at best, they can insert us into an entire world ripe with someone else’s personality. But for any number of reasons — the audience as an active participant; the variations of player experience; the sheer time investment; the, um, general awfulness of most video game narratives — the common consensus is that games can’t do what movies do, and we are hurting our medium and ourselves by still imploring them to. It’s gotten to the point that cutscenes and nakedly cinematic opening credits sequences are greeted with cringes and eyerolls by most discerning gamers. It’s like we want to tell developers, “Stop trying to invite yourselves to the movies’ Grown-Ups’ Table. Just relax. There’s nothing wrong with the Kids’ Table; we can start food fights here!”
For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. Didn’t Wreck-It Ralph just heartwarmingly teach all of us gamers that fostering community is easier when you actually like yourself? (Um, spoilers?) But as someone with no great love of big-budget genre films — from which video games borrow approximately 99.8% of their cinematic ideals — I sometimes wonder if gaming’s supposed inferiority to movie storytelling is more about misguided inspiration than the true differences between the mediums. Why would games — rambling and easily distracted by nature, or at least since the leap to inhabitable, three-dimensional worlds — try to emulate action and adventure films, easily one of the most tightly scripted and traditionally “plot-driven” movie genres? (The answer, unfortunately, is because man-children like guns and aliens, and usually can’t draw a line between “form” and “content.”) What if there were films out there that could teach us how to deepen and strengthen video game narratives without violating the tenets of the medium? What if we’ve just been watching the wrong movies?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Celine and Julie.
This past June — right around the inception of this blog, coincidentally — the Cinefamily in Los Angeles screened a new 35 mm print of Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating. I had been curious about the film for years; several of my favorite critics ecstatically back it as one of the finest movies ever made, and since it’s currently unavailable on home video in the U.S., I figured this might be my one opportunity to see it outside of an illegal download. I was incredibly excited, and nervous at the possibility I’d oversold myself on a film of which I’d never seen a frame. What I experienced was not the orgasmic love at first sight I was hoping for, but something much deeper and weirder. As the film progressed, it wormed its way into crevices of my brain I didn’t know existed. It fundamentally shifted not only how I viewed cinema, but how I viewed the basic interactions between artist and audience, and audience and narrative.
The film arguably belongs to the old “movies about weird girls who ambiguously swap identities” subgenre, an art cinema staple that includes any number of feverishly beloved cult classics, from Daisies and Persona to 3 Women and Mulholland Dr. But Celine and Julie avoids the existential dread of these films and uses the title characters’ relationship to explore much more light-hearted puzzle boxes and meta head games than the typically academic Bergman joint or Lynch’s unsettling waking nightmare. (And it does so without the adolescent nastiness of Daisies, perhaps otherwise the most tonally similar film on that list. I’ve never seen a movie I felt hated its own characters more than Daisies, and I’ve never seen one I felt liked them more than Celine and Julie, so make of that what you will.) I cannot overstress that, despite its general unwieldiness and above-average runtime (although 192 minutes is basically a Looney Tunes short in director Rivette’s filmography), this movie is fun. It’s oddly inviting, and while it takes a moment to catch on to its rhythm, it’s all in service of a mesmerizing, genuinely funny build-up that climaxes in one of the silliest, most satisfying sequences in any film I’ve ever seen.
Despite its obsession with narrative structure and storytelling, I doubt a plot synopsis would do Celine and Julie‘s impact much justice. But here’s what you’ll need to know to understand the leap across mediums I’m going to make: Julie, the shyer, more mild-mannered of the two leads, meets Celine, an outgoing stage magician, when she desperately tries to return Celine’s dropped possessions as she bustles around Paris. The two become fast, almost inexplicable friends, soon inseparable and even swapping one another’s love lives and work days for a laugh. But the plot takes a sudden shift when the duo discovers an old-fashioned, abandoned house that might not be as empty as it seems. When one of the girls enters the house, they reemerge hours later, with no recollection of the interim. However, they receive a magic piece of candy at the end of their visit, which allows them to access their memory of the house. Soon, we watch Celine and Julie watch themselves within the house’s melodramatic costume drama; they alternate in the role of the nurse in a stuffy turn-of-the-century family’s sad tale of betrayed lovers and murder. As the girls slowly unravel the mystery of the house, they decide they must take action and save the family’s young daughter from getting routinely poisoned as the story plays out. What follows is a bravura comic sequence and a great payoff to our investment both in Celine and Julie as characters and in their obsession with the house’s narrative. (When they view the scenes play out in flashback, they’re able to joke and comment to each other like filmgoers.) Celine and Julie trade off pretending to be the nurse, flubbing lines and openly messing with the seemingly hypnotized other characters, until an opportunity presents itself to save the young child. They do, but can’t fully escape the story-within-a-story’s other characters; they haunt the couple from a distance, sad but humorous reminders of a world the protagonists are no longer a part of.
I doubt Jacques Rivette has any interest in video games; the man is still not sold on television as a worthy medium, after all. Even if Celine and Julie had been made last year and not in 1974, there are dozens of other things it touches on before video games: how an audience relates to a film, the idea of performance and relating to an actor or character, the fluid nature of identity, the simple pleasure of losing one’s self in a rollicking story. However, Rivette seems obsessed with the ideas of games in general, and that art can challenge and engage an audience the way a game can envelop a participant. (The only other film of his I’ve seen, Le Pont du Nord, finds its characters literally redrawing Paris as a board game.) But there are elements of Celine and Julie‘s main conceit where I couldn’t help but be reminded of what attracts me to gaming. The story-within-a-story operates under rules not dissimilar to playing a game; there’s a set story that can be altered by anyone who enters the house. In this analogy, Celine and Julie are the player characters, and the rest of the house’s inhabitants are NPCs, bumbling around in an unchangeable loop even as the world around them alters significantly. There are scenes where Celine and Julie deviate from the house’s story that remind me of the dialogue scenes in, say, Half-Life; sure, Alyx Vance will be saying the same thing to you no matter what, but maybe this time you’re examining a charred corpse or the contents of someone’s desk. She doesn’t seem to mind.
So how does Celine and Julie use a set-up so familiar to video games — placing characters within a narrative from which they can unpredictably break away — and use it to so thoroughly explore our relationship to art and storytelling, whereas most games can hardly hold the premise to coherency? The “duh” answer is that Celine and Julie is not actually unpredictable; it is a set story about an un-set story, still purely the work of an artist’s guiding hand despite calling that very artist’s input into question. But there are such striking similarities between the film and the general conceit of most video games that I do believe there are lessons to be learned from it.
For one, Celine and Julie embraces its fragmented structure. It has faith in its story to resonate as a whole even if the pieces don’t always fit together in the most obvious way. Julie substituting for Celine at her magic show is never literally tied to their adventures in the abandoned house, but Rivette has faith that the audience can make their own thematic connections between the events. (Just as Celine and Julie must do in the story they discover.) Video games must learn to embrace this sort of sprawl, and trust the player to embrace it, too. The medium will probably never convey stories as tightly as Pixar or Star Wars, so perhaps the solution is to connect events more thematically than linearly. But there’s a frustrating habit of tell-and-don’t-show in an alarming number of “mature” story-driven video games, as if developers are worried we can’t draw our own conclusions about how every side quest and item fits into their master plan. Auxiliary content shouldn’t be exhumed; if anything, it’s part of what makes video games a special medium. But as it stands, there is either too little or too much effort to have it cohere to the whole; few games naturally feel like thematically assembled pieces, and that is a problem in much greater need of fixing than, say, implementing a perfect three-act structure.
While that authorial hand can certainly be invisible, it should never be questioned. Celine and Julie is the work of a singular artist, a person with an incredibly specific and nuanced view on his craft who knows exactly how to express it, even within a freewheeling, semi-improvisational setting. It is wild, weird, shocking, and funny, all adjectives that I wish applied to more games. Sure, we have a handful of semi-auteurs, our Kojimas and Schafers and Blows and Uedas, but they are the exception and not the rule. I’m sick of blandness in video games; I’m sick of developers who slap some ultra-general theme about “morality” or “society” onto their work and call it a day. Not to undervalue the idea of a simple story well-told, but look at the most revered narratives in video games. Portal. Bioshock. Shadow of the Colossus. Braid. All perfectly acceptable on their own terms, but also all blazingly original meta-narratives with something deep and shocking to say about video games. As constructions of reality, games are almost postmodern by default, so it especially tickles us to see one acknowledge that while never letting us peek too far behind the curtain. Celine and Julie is about as self-reflexive as a movie can get, and while I don’t think this style fits every case equally, I’d say that by and large, games benefit from this approach.
A greater respect for a single vision also inherently means a greater respect for editing, which — let’s face it — almost all video games sorely need. Having a non-traditional structure and embracing tangents and side quests does not give games license to include completely unnecessary or superfluous tasks. There is still this weird philosophy, a holdover from when video games were still considered merely toys, that the amount of content is more important than the content itself. Not only does it render the medium as pure product, but it cheapens what could be a spectacular truncated experience by cramming it full of unnecessary bloat. Celine and Julie is all over the place as a film; it’s long, choppy, and riddled with tangents. (“Go boating” is a play on words in French that roughly translates to “tell a shaggy dog tale.”) But nothing feels superfluous, and at worst, a scene or shot adds to the tone of the film, if not the plot or theme. Designers must become less worried about game length. Celine and Julie is long for a movie, but short in game terms, and I will happily revisit it time and time again, discovering new facets and ideas. Expertly pruned games like Portal, Braid, and Another World are the same way, without sacrificing their “game”-like narrative structures. I have no problem with long games, spending time getting to know a world and its inhabitants. But the entirety of a game’s content should have something to say, whether it lasts for forty-five minutes or hundreds of hours.
Celine and Julie also uses repetition in a more clever, thoughtful way than most games. Let’s face it, games are repetitive; there are only a certain amount of controls you can implement in one title before it becomes overwhelming, so actions repeat, areas are revisited, missions are played again and again. Celine and Julie go through something similar when they decide to rescue the little girl; they “play through” the house’s scenario multiple times, learning lines, observing new details, and essentially getting adjusted to the rules of this new world. Many video games implement a similar system as players adjust to that specific game’s controls and limits. But what if they took it a step further? What if a player observed rooms and scenarios in the sort of detail where the reward for playing through them felt more like it actually sprang from inhabiting that space? What if replaying a scene actually revealed infinite new depths and details, so you were rewarded for learning more about the game’s world? What if a game could make you familiar enough with the basic beats of a story, so when you broke from them, it felt like a genuine triumph?
It’s that last inquiry that I think would be toughest for games to implement, but one that could truly create a more exciting medium. Despite how funny the scene is, when Celine and Julie go on their rescue mission, there is genuine tension, too. How are these other characters going to react when the script is broken? How is the scenario finally going to change now that the audience is familiar with it? Sandbox games have elements of this experimentation, as do pave-your-own-way adventures like Dishonored, Thief, and Deus Ex. But far too often, the joy of this freedom feels happenstance, descending into frustrating player error at worst and glib, violent slapstick at best. The reason I believe this sort of scenario will be difficult to truly nail is it involves making the player input feel as thematically coherent as the path the artist provides; the break from the story cannot be any different from the story itself. Again, this is where Celine and Julie has an obvious advantage: it’s a film. It’s finished.
Many games already include these elements brilliantly, but not with the consistency or forethought I feel is necessary. I would encourage you to track down a copy of Celine and Julie Go Boating, if you can. It’s a fantastic movie on its own, but as a game enthusiast, I think you’ll be open to the connections I’m making. Too often we associate “narrative” with “structure,” while some of the most compelling stories ever told consciously don’t adhere to those guidelines. Video game narratives are messy, spastic little beasts, and that’s part of why I feel they have so much potential for greatness. There’s beauty in sprawling, hyperactive storytelling ruled more by theme and tone than plot mechanics. Celine and Julie Go Boating made me think harder about art and stories than nearly anything else I’ve ever come across, and its many parallels to video games made me hope that such a masterpiece might emerge from the medium someday. Game makers should embrace the ideas they can explore through non-traditional narratives, not continue to shoehorn an experience into a structure that doesn’t suit it. Maybe I’m just an insufferable twat who lives in a fantasy land where games resemble a three hour French art film way more than they resemble The Avengers. But watch the French art film and see if you disagree.
Like on Facebook for future updates.