Almost 30 years have passed since Jacques Rivette‘s Celine and Julie Go Boating—which screens Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of an ongoing Rivette retrospective—made its Chicago premiere at Facets Multimedia (now Facets Cinematheque) in February ’78, a full three and a half years after its initial French release. I still recall the bewilderment and controversy that greeted it, not least in the Reader, which, in one of its more eccentric displays of editorial gamesmanship (or was it just covering its bets?), ran diametrically opposed reviews in the space of a year and half.

First out of the gate and at the bullet end of the argument (zero stars— “worthless” per the everlasting rubric) was Virginia Wright Wexman, film studies prof at UIC (then Circle campus), who spared no pejorative in letting it all hang out (“Rivette Runs Dry,” February 17, 1978—not available online, so I’m quoting here directly):

“Jacques Rivette calls Celine & Julie Go Boating a fun picture. But fun for whom? Not the audience. Rivette, one of the most talented of the original New Wave group in France, has degenerated in his recent work from disciplined, relevant statements of genuine humanistic interest to self-indulgent exercises that are intended solely to please himself and the people he works with. The rest of us can join the party only at the cost of being monumentally bored.”

And further: “Critic James Monaco has constructed a tortured argument to the effect that Rivette’s elongated narratives are necessary to get us into the artificiality of it all. But we don’t need over three hours to realize that Rivette is talking about fantasy here. . . . Rivette could provide his audiences with footnotes to his text, as Eliot did for The Wasteland. But Eliot had important things to say, and that makes the struggle to understand his arcane references worth something. . . . Rivette, by contrast, prides himself on his obscurity.”

Not to mention: “It shocks me that some critics have praised Celine & Julie as a charming, accessible experience, because the movie assumes so little responsibility for the needs of its audience. . . . If Rivette is really interested in the dynamics of creativity, he should take a moment to consider Freud’s idea that art is the product of a sublimated sex drive. Considered as a finished piece of filmmaking, Celine & Julie may have been cheap, but it’s a pretty expensive way to beat off.”

Eliot, Robbe-Grillet, Freud, all that rarefied heavy artillery—more than enough to scare at least one fledgling enthusiast right out of the theater! Which still begged the question of those conspiratorial “insiders.” Were they all just polishing the avant silverware, performing to each other’s looking-glass specifications? Or was there really something to get authentically turned on about? And if there was, might not the rest of us—including knuckle draggers like yours truly—reach out and grab a little of that magic too? Which was pretty much how the Film Center’s B. Ruby Rich decided to go at it (“Fun With Subversion, August 17, ’79—not available online), with an elaborate four-star smooch, plus an alternative selection of high-end critical underwriters:

Celine and Julie Go Boating is an extraordinary French film that continues to attract a cult audience despite the utter absence of critical support on this side of the Atlantic. . . . [U.S. critics] objected to the film’s insistent silliness and broad slapstick style of acting, to the ‘indulgent’ improvisation by its main actresses, to its running time . . . and to the absence of any payoff in its shaggy-dog ending. These are exactly the qualities I prize, for in combination with the film’s central theme and strategy, they make for a work of truly subversive humor. Celine and Julie is funny, entertaining, and the ultimate comment not only on the illusionism of cinema but also on the power of women banded together. . . . Celine and Julie Go Boating effects an unprecedented overthrowing of cinema’s function as spectacle (and, in so doing, explodes woman’s function within that spectacle). In turn, Celine and Julie become surrogates for the real-life cinematic audience: their laughter and refusal to obey the rules is a model for us to assume more active roles in our cultural life, to cease being passive consumers. . . . I can think of no film in recent years that so lavishly repays a viewer’s tolerance of its minor flaws.”

Season liberally with Proust, Henry James, Louis Feuillade, Helene Cixous, and voila!: the mind staggers . . . though arguably both reviews have begun to date, albeit for different reasons: Rich’s for its “morning of the world” feminism (which probably can’t speak to our own jaded times . . . but who knows?), Wexman’s for being on what seems to be the losing side of history. Since Celine and Julie‘s a certified classic, right? But for a close-in look at what goes on in the critical trenches, before the consensus forms and the imprimaturs are officially dispensed, the spectacle of battling ancientes can hardly be improved on—or more calculated to unsettle. Since aren’t these things obvious by now? Or is it always back to the future and forward to the past? Hard to believe we’re in constant revision, as if “history” could never definitively define. There’s always the fresher view . . .