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Celine And Julia Go Boating

Subversive fantasy

par Julia Lesage
4 mars 2018

The Roving Department of Celine & Julie Studies is happy to offer this detailed article published in 1981 in the US review Jump Cut. Adopting a feminist perspective, Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, co-founder and co-editor of the review, Julia Lesage analyses the odd and fascinating movie : Celine and Julie Go Boating – a long-awaited restored edition of which is now available on DVD/ Blu-ray.

At this point in history, the feminist movement as a whole should have sufficient insight to embark on joint lesbian-feminist theory building as an integrative task, but regrettably many feminists and almost all the straight left tends to ghettoize lesbianism into an issue of sexual preference or civil rights. I was originally attracted to the film Céline And Julie Go Boating both because its fantasy appealed to me and because considering the structural oppositions in the film seemed to open up issues of concern for feminist film theory as a whole  [1].

Céline And Julie Go Boating is a modernist, open-ended work. My goal is not to "decipher" the film or to offer a reading of it that will make people "like" it. Knowing that many of my readers may never get a chance to see the film, or that if they did, they might not see in it what I saw, I am offering this interpretation of the film as an occasion for reflecting on certain issues crucial for feminist film theory as a whole. In particular, by using a photo essay I wish to examine the sexual politics of nonverbal communication structures in the film. Furthermore, I also wish to elucidate the potential role of a film like this in commenting on and challenging the patriarchal ideological matrix in which "lesbian" functions as a negative term.

Céline And Julie (Céline et Julie vont en bateau, France, 1974) has its coterie of fans, including myself and some of my friends who interpret it fondly as a "lesbian" work. The film invites you to its protagonists’ apartment to play. Just as Julie (Dominique Labourier) unpacks Celine’s things the first time Celine (Juliet Berto) enters her apartment, intending this stranger to stay with her indefinitely, so too this film asks viewers to spend a long time (3 and 1/4 hours) enjoying it. The delight of the film resides in its whacky comedy, fantasy, improvisation, puzzle-like interior fiction, and stylistic inventiveness (especially a heightened use of color and sound).

Not all viewers, including feminists and lesbians, like the film. Many people hate it — feeling "put on » (vont en bateau also means, in French, to put someone on) by its foolishness, its length, the actresses’ seemingly uncontrolled silliness in their improvisation, and the repetition of shots over and over in the interior fiction-within-a-fiction. It is a film directed by a man, Jacques Rivette, and so poses all the problems of how to enjoy such a work as a woman-identified fiction. I will make a case that the two protagonists, Celine and Julie, are probably lovers. However, the film is finally ambiguous on that point. Céline And Julie can be appropriated by anybody who wants to see it that way as a "lesbian" film not because of its depiction of sexual activity (none is seen) but because of he kind of intimacy between women it depicts [2]. In many ways the film can be seen to comment on sexuality, but only in terms of relations between characters.

Furthermore, with the film’s emphasis on playfulness, if Celine and Julie are interpreted by viewers to be lesbian characters, that "lesbianism" does not occur in a fiction about adult passion but in a fiction about "kidding around." Although I shall interpret this playfulness positively, I also recognize that envisioning women’s intimacy only in this way is a limitation of the work — due perhaps to its being directed by a man (I shall discuss later the actresses’ role in co-scripting the film). If women’s intimacy is depicted as principally childlike, then that makes the film safe, omitting the most threatening, directly sexual elements. Beyond that, any work that implied that lesbian or homosexual impulses were commonly part of adolescence but that we grew out of them would demean gays and lesbians. The old psychoanalytic notion of "arrested development" (which is the theme, for example, of Tea And Sympathy) always enforces compulsory heterosexuality as the adult "norm." However, Céline And Julie does not do this. Instead, it symbolically contrasts "childlike playfulness" with "adult rigidity" to critique the institution of heterosexuality itself.

For a feminist audience, Céline And Julie Go Boating offers a comic dream about how two women can relate to each other intimately. Celine and Julie enter each other’s fantasy with little ego boundary between them, and they solve each other’s problems either by adolescent hi-jinks or by outright magic, and a pretty tacky magic at that. Play is their means of discovery, tactic for action, and mode of existence. The film uses play as a way of subversion. As in a child’s "fooling around," the film exaggerates the expansiveness of some acts, repeats others to the point of irritation, and mixes up ordinary social dominance orders. For feminist viewers, one effect such playfulness can have is to reorganize their perception and understanding of the possibilities of women’s lives.

Beyond fun or by means of it, Céline And Julie’s fiction and mise-en-scene indicate ways that women’s intimacy challenges the ideology of the heterosexual family. In my reading of the film, I find it effective as a woman-identified, subversive fantasy (with this caveat : few viewers ever agree what any long modernist work is "about"). A visual analysis of the film reveals two distinct modes of depicting intimate relations in domestic space. Celine and Julie’s interactions in Julie’s apartment are filmed as comedy, seemingly improvised by the actresses. Together Celine and Julie share a fantasy about a murderous family in a wealthy house, and that fantasy only reveals itself slowly as they go back to it and to the house again and again. The interior "crime" fiction imitates the visual style of a fifties Hollywood melodrama.

These two styles of mise-en-scene, that depicting Celine and Julie in their apartment and that depicting the family in the "bad house," are so different that they constantly invite a detailed comparison even as one is watching the film. Furthermore, these two visual styles reveal much about the more general cultural coding which the film’s mise-en-scene both derives from and comments on, particularly the non-verbal communication indices which our culture commonly assigns to men and women.

Throughout the film there is a contrast between the free body language of women alone or together in intimacy and the constrained body language usually considered "appropriate" for women in social interaction. In fact, in every culture, learned but generally unconscious nonverbal communication behavior supports and creates the social fabric. In our own time, feminists have explained how verbal language enforces women’s inequality to men, which the institution of heterosexuality depends on. Céline And Julie contrasts an oppressive domestic space with a "free" one. And the clarity of that symbolic contrast provides a starting point for us to reflect on the sexual politics of non-verbal communication in daily life.

The actresses’ contribution

Script credit is given to Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, and Jacques Rivette. Berto and Labourier largely shaped Celine and Julie’s roles. The film was shot in August 1974, and Rivette was rumored to be absent for much of the shooting. His original plan had been to create a film collectively with two actresses who were already friends, and to finish the film in one summer [3]. According to Berto, she and Labourier imagined creating a combination of Persona and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane ? in a film with two female protagonists. Berto said,

"Each of them could have been the other. To be an actress, that’s to be someone ambiguous. They would pursue each other ; they would meet. That could be magic or not. At that moment, there’d be a mystery with a phantom house and phantom people." [4]

Berto and Labourier wanted the phantom characters to be invisible ; Rivette wanted them visible. With Ogier, Pisier, and friend Eduardo de Gregorio, they spent the summer working out the decor, costumes, and dialogue of that interior story. According to Berto, the structure was

"calculated down to the last millimeter. I moved in with Labourier so as not to lose time. During the filming, we got up early in the morning and told each other our dreams, which the film depended on... We wrote our lines each morning and evening... [and we always] knew what stance we had and why. Everything is doubled in this film, which also talks about the acting profession in its relation to the spectators, whom we often act aggressively toward without real malice." [5]

Berto considers herself an orderly and structured person, unlike the character Celine, so she was fascinated by creating that role and writing dialogue using street language. In her professional life, Berto is a strong figure, prominent in the actors’ union. Labourier has long worked in experimental theater because it lets the actresses participate in creating the play. Both women wanted to work with Rivette because he has always allowed his acting ensemble a great deal of creative freedom.

Labourier spoke as follows in an interview about her long-term friendship with Berto :

"We’ve always faced the same problems, and the two of us have tried to find an equilibrium that has not been simple ; in this profession it’s even sometimes out of the question. We hardly know how to do it and do not have the means to do it. There is censorship in every sphere. And for us this isn’t just a matter of conscience but something experienced, and the expression in this profession of a whole repressive social system."

"Well, we knew we might be able to make a film, but what film ?... One evening, between the two of us, we talked out the whole past lives of our characters... Jacques found it way too psychological to have a character who has fantasies and who goes back down into them and then who wants to save something from her childhood. But that idea entered logically into my own development as an actress. I needed to understand all that determines us, down to our personal relations. And that influenced what I wrote then." [6]

Berto and Labourier developed the script, the costumes, and the dialogue for the Celine-and-Julie story. Their parts were very much under their own control. I do not know Pisier and Ogier’s roles in creating the script, but the editing of the inner story and its shaping as a cinematic and fictional "puzzle" were more of a formal exercise controlled by Rivette. The interior crime fiction was based on two obscure Henry James stories suggested by de Gregorio, The Other House and A Romance of Certain Old Clothes.

"I’m sure that this film ought to function in a magical sense for a pretty large segment of the public — something you could comprehend like a dream and make your own, which then becomes something else." [7]

This prediction by Dominque Labourier about Céline And Julie’s impact on an audience was borne out in three long taped discussions of the film that I conducted with different groups of my women friends. Since I loved the film fiercely, I knew I had to find out what other women thought. As it worked out, these conversations after the film proved to be a heady experience of the way intellectual life often proceeds among women. In each free-ranging conversation, often between women who loved and women who hated the film, the group itself forged an interpretation or a series of interpretations. Many of the women did not quite know what to make of the film at first ; the conversation with other women, through a process of intellectual and emotional sharing, allowed them to decide what they thought and so make the film their own. The Céline And Julie discussions were but a slightly formalized version, here an explicitly feminist version, of much intellectual and creative work that goes on constantly in women’s subculture. This work is done through an old cultural form that women use for mutual support and for articulating their own identity in a more authentic way than is provided for by the (white, male, bourgeois) mainstream culture — that is, through women’s conversation. My own interpretation of the film is freely mingled with my friends’ contributions in a collective reading of the work. Did we replicate the actresses’ own experience, here in mirror reverse — moving from the film to an intellectual excitement among women who were already friends ? I think so.

A modernist plot summarized

As a modernist film, Céline And Julie makes us constantly, self-consciously "reframe’ our perspective about what is going on [8]. Merely to list events chronologically would not convey the viewing experience, so I shall try to give a sense of mood and cinematic construction as well as the plot. A French New Wave film. Céline And Julie’s richness partly derives from visual and verbal borrowings from other films, especially Hollywood films of the thirties and forties, and from French culture. It has a romance narration structure, i.e., an episodically constructed plot that usually contains fantastic love, adventure, miraculous and threatening happenings, and pointless chases and quests. The romance narration contributes to the film’s seeming lack of dramatic tension.

The film depends on two interwoven stories, each presented episodically. The exterior Celine-and-Julie story proper begins as follows First, Julie begins a courtship of Celine. Julie sits in a park reading a book on magic and then chases after a woman who’d run by her (Celine) and dropped a scarf. The chase becomes an erotic pursuit through the streets of Paris, which Celine momentarily ends by checking into a small hotel. The next morning Julie turns up at that hotel to return Celine’s scarf and to flirt.

Then Celine pursues the courtship. She appears at the library where Julie works and later is found sitting like an orphaned waif outside Julie’s apartment with her leg bleeding.

From this point on, most of the sequences in the film alternate between showing one or both of the women in their apartment with showing some other locale, namely the "bad house," the nightclub, or the library. In the apartment Celine tells Julie tall tales about her past life and more recently her troubles working as a nurse in a large house, the place where presumably she got hurt. She was tending a sickly little girl and witnessed some crime involving a man and two women. The next day Julie gets the address of that house from Celine and goes to visit it. We see Julie being ejected in a shaken state there and taking a cab to the Montmartre nightclub where Celine performs as a mag1cian ; in the cab Julie finds a hard candy in her mouth.

Back in the apartment, Celine proceeds to find out more about Julie. She opens a trunk and rummages through Julie’s possessions, finding in Julie’s trunk a photo of the mysterious house. Gilou, a childhood suitor of Julie’s, phones, and in a scene parodying romantic musical comedies, Celine meets Gilou in a park, makes him think she’s Julie, and gets rid of him. Later, while sitting outside the Montmartre cabaret with her fellow performers, Celine brags to them about her new, rich American friend and artistic sponsor ; to "fit in" with that group, she disclaims that her new friend is a "dyke." Julie arrives to see Celine’s act. And when she goes backstage, she senses that Celine has been talking about her in a hurtful way.

Both women have now visited the "bad house" and will continue to do so. Later that night in the apartment, Julie sucks the candy and gets flashes of what happened in the house. Proof to her and Celine that the events really happened is the imprint of a bloody hand on Julie’s bare shoulder.

The next day Celine goes to the house and is also ejected, again with a hard candy in her mouth. Julie had tried to follow Celine but could not get into the house. In the small house next door, Julie meets her old nurse Poupie, who tells her about mysterious happenings and a dire fate for the little girl next door. Julie puts the disheveled Celine in a cab, always conveniently stationed on this sleepy street, and takes a hard candy from Celine’s mouth. That night as Celine sucks the candy, she re-experiences more fragments of the crime. melodrama.

Celine goes to the house the next day. Meanwhile Julie receives a call from Celine’s manager who wants Celine to audition for a Beirut booking. Julie goes as her replacement and makes a farce of the performance, hurling insults at the male nightclub impresarios. Back at the house, Celine is ejected again, this time with two candies in her mouth.

That night in the apartment, the friends use these candies to "trip" together. Here they are filmed sitting on a trunk and looking at the camera as if they were spectators at a film. During the various "trips," each woman takes the role of the sick girl’s nurse, Angele. When Celine first experiences the trip, she not only sees some of what Julie did but other things as well. When they trip together, each woman is alternatively bored by what she, and not the other, had experienced before, while they experience many new parts of the story together.

They leave the apartment to steal magic books from the library ; tripping with the candies had not allowed them to fill in the gaps. Roller-skating through Paris streets at night, they wear tight black leotards and hoods, an homage to the cat-burglar Musidora, the heroine of Feuillade’s popular silent serial who flitted across Paris rooftops saving worthy people. With the magic books, they make a brew that allows them to see almost the whole crime.

Each "vision" reveals only fragments of the interior crime melodrama. From vision to vision, the shots are repeated, sometimes with a certain variation in cinematic composition and often with a variation in emphasis and pacing. For the viewer, putting this interior story together, and then noticing the variations in presentation, then trying to figure what is new, both cinematically and informatively, takes up a large part of the viewing time. All these levels cannot be grasped on one viewing.

The story of what happens in that "bad house" is as follows : In an isolated Victorian-style mansion, wearing clothes from and filmed in a style reminiscent of the forties, a dour young widower, Olivier (Barbet Schroeder, the film’s producer), is being courted by both his dead wife’s sister, the blonde Camille (Bulle Ogier), and his child’s governess, the brunette Sophie (Marie-France Pisier). Camille dresses in her sister’s dress to attract Olivier, but she only succeeds in terrifying the child Madlyn. Sophie injects barbiturates into candies to give to her charge so as to keep the child out of the way. Olivier had promised his dying wife not to marry but to devote himself to Madlyn. He leads both women on and flirts with the nurse Angele as well. Camille cuts her hand on a glass when Madlyn cries out in shock seeing her in the mother’s dress. The child is smothered with a pillow in her bed after her birthday party, but we don’t know by whom.

The sequences in the interior fiction have a distinctive formal structure. The camera is rigid, with an extreme wide-angle lens, reminiscent of William Wyle’s style in The Little Foxes and Jezebelle [9]. The women are formally dressed, with the red and blue of their dresses doubling Celine and Julie’s informal wear. All the figures, except the child at the very end, have rigid body language and stiff poses. By constantly repeating the same shots and poses over successive "visions," Rivette exaggerates that environment’s claustrophobic aspect.

The two story lines and two completely different cinematic styles mesh. This occurs when Celine and Julie go to the house to save the little girl once they have "envisioned" her murder. When they visit the house for the last time, the whole presentation of what’s going on there changes from melodrama to farce. They go straight, not stoned, and have as charms and protection only a childlike hand-slapping game and dinosaur-eye rings. Once inside, each dresses as the nurse. The villain and villainess move lifelessly through the house as pasty grey-green figures enacting the same old roles, unaware of the intruders. Once Celine and Julie discover they can move around there with impunity, they shed their fear and turn the whole event into a Mack Sennett-type slapstick routine. Madlyn shows them how to escape.

Madlyn, Celine and Julie magically appear back at Julie’s apartment. The next day they go boating in the park. Passing them in another boat are Olivier, Camille and Sophie, frozen in a death-like tableau.

The last sequence is a repetition of the first, but with roles reversed. Celine is now sitting sunning herself in a park. Julie runs by, dropping something, and Celine starts in pursuit... That ends the film.

Tactics for film fantasy

Although Rivette thought that vont en bateau would suggest going on a trip, especially an LSD one, it’s not only the candies that provoke a trip into wild imagination. The film as a whole presents itself as a total fantasy. For example, the streets of Paris are shot in such a way as to enhance the fantasy aspects of Celine and Julie’s relationship.

The subtitle of the film is "Phantom Ladies over Paris," and the cinematic style makes Paris become a non-contiguous fantasy landscape indeed. Realism, fantasy, a parody of fantasy and magic, social criticism, and character development are all presented in the film on exactly the same dramatic level. With a great deal of artistic discipline, each element is given equal weight. The film never points to its shifts to say, "Now we’re doing..." The documentary element in the street scenes comes off as surreal. When Julie sits in the park reading her magic book, the wind blows in the trees as if to signal a mysterious presence ; a solitary cat walks across a bench in the same trajectory Celine will follow. Rivette constantly manipulates ambient noise into a "theatrical" element, and here cars sound unnaturally loud, as do Julie’s glasses when she folds them with a loud click.

In these sequences, in contrast to the cinematic style in the interior melodrama, there is such a variety and lack of closure in the composition and framing that the film almost defies viewers to predict from shot to shot what will happen next in terms of visual composition. For example, in the opening pursuit sequence each shot has a different perspective and vanishing point ; buildings appear in varying dimensions in the background since there is a great variety in the camera angles and in the way the characters move into and through the landscape. A filmed chase sequence usually has visual regularity, repetition and continuity of dimension, with a fixed and regular alternation between pursuer and pursued. Here the protagonists alternately sit on a bench, flirt, run through an outdoor Parisian market (where Celine pinches an apple), and try to let the other both know and not know that each knows what is going on. When they go up the steep hill to Montmartre, Celine rides the funicular and Julie chases it up steep stairs. They slow down and speed up, bump into each other, and finally end up with Celine gazing down from a hotel window at her pursuer pacing on the street below. Because there are no established roles for these two women, as there would be in a heterosexual pursuit, the lack of linear regularity and the open-endedness of the cinematic style establish an appropriate new form for depicting a women’s "chase".

A reading of the film

Celine and Julie both suck their candies, sitting on a trunk, looking at the camera and giving the impression that they are watching their "vision" and us as we watch them. The image suggests spectators at a movie. Spectators like them, we go through the same kind of initial process of being fascinated with that interior fiction, especially about the way the adult characters are trying to manipulate each other.

Because of the film’s duration and the shots’ repetition, we move away from the melodrama’s enthrallment. Finally we see the two women learning to ridicule and overcome a process we are usually pulled into. Melodramatic stories, the myths of heterosexual romance and catching a man, tragic love, the devastating politics of the nuclear family — these processes are all related here [10]. And perhaps in a different way, they also are all related to each other in women’s daily lives.

The internal story that Celine and Julie keep going back to is the so-called "masochistic" female fantasy, the drama of dominance and submission that originates in the nuclear family and in which everything revolves around the fact of male power. In that interior story the "child" is suppressed, both as a real child in the family and in the personalities of the stultified adults. The interior story resembles the depictions found in melodrama for the last two hundred years and which flourish today in TV’s soaps, with the women competing for the man and the bourgeois comfort he can bring them. The "cues" are all too stable in that world ; its patterns of destructive interaction are continually repeated.

Celine and Julie’s tripping together can be seen as a self-conscious decision to get inside a fantasy they know is destructive. Like so many women, at the crucial moment they are scared, thinking they’ll be discovered. But when they go to the house for the last time, specifically to save the child, they see that the melodramatic figures are lifeless, unable to make a move outside of prescribed roles. When they see that they have nothing to lose and that the family and the man have no power over them, they move out of the dark house into sunlight and spontaneity.

Heterosexual women know the role that masochistic fantasy plays in their intimate lives. A better term would be fantasies in which we internalize our oppression, especially our sexual oppression. Such fantasies are part of the mechanism that keeps women sleeping with their oppressors. But the film does not simply develop a destructive fantasy which Celine and Julie then demolish. More important is the external story, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the ways two women could relate to each other intimately. And what are the fantasies that the film initiates ?

The women are economically comfortable, both working at symbolic jobs. As a librarian, Julie is the stereotype of the "repressed, shy spinster." Celine, as a performer in tacky nightclubs, is the gypsy, the loser (similar to roles taken up by Liza Minelli). That one woman actively pursues the other in a courtship ritual or pick-up ploy is not, in daily life, a likely event (with the growth of the lesbian movement, women have felt free to explore totally new ways of relating more honestly, rather than repeat fixed roles of patriarchal behavior, such as flirting). Rather, the opening sequences of Céline And Julie offer both a sexual fantasy that is basically role reversal, and a class fantasy. The more middle class librarian "picks up" and "rescues" an orphan waif of another class ; the child of the streets is chased and saved by a "nice" motherly type. Their attraction to each other is mutual. Because this fantasy opens the film, class distinctions are demolished, or at least attacked, to allow sisterhood and sex identity.

The film does not concentrate on sexuality per se, but on Celine and Julie’s psychological intimacy, playfulness, and daring. The two are physically at ease with each other, often lounging about the apartment together or fooling around with the body language of girls. And each has the chance to enter into and totally burlesque the social role that would potentially limit and take away her friend ; each interferes in the other’s social world out of jealousy or for the other’s "good."

The film disrupts the way we usually separate memories from movies from dreams from sexual fantasies. Everything is presented on the same level — from Julie playing Tarot with her coworker at the library to Celine’s tacky magic show to the sudden reappearance in Julie’s life of a beloved old nanny who offers her cocoa and cookies — and the film maintains this "mix" throughout. There are many things that we have been conditioned to repress from a very early age on and to cease to think of as meaningful, especially dreams, fantasy, and a childlike belief in magic. Céline And Julie, through play, raises these things to a higher level of meaning.

At this stage in our history, such an integration of psychic levels, such a quest, will only be undertaken by female protagonists. The "boys," the two friends in a male buddy film, have an adventure together in the outside world. These women have a psychic adventure. They are willing to make an inner journey together into the painful depths of their own fantasy, and they have such fluid ego boundaries that they take on each other’s identity [11]. The women nurture and support each other ; they grow together. And they do this both by playfulness and by taking the risk to explore together the intuitive and the previously untouchable and unknown.

Modes of communication

In the framing Celine-and-Julie story, the actresses’ improvisation dominates the fiction. In their physical looseness, Labourier and Berto offer the viewer a repertoire of women’s gestures and body language that is rarely seen to such an extent or presented so lovingly in film. Hundreds of meaningful, unpredictable, tiny gestures fill up Berto and Labourier’s screen time. Furthermore, the actresses’ gestures are filmed in a way that they seem to "take over" the sets of Julie’s apartment and the library. Female gestural expansiveness is used here to create an utopian image of women’s "turf." In its visual excess (in the color, unusual props and use of props, and lack of closure in the framing), this Celine-and-Julie part of the film is erotic and sensual, especially to many women viewers. It eschews depicting lovemaking, which could be recouped voyeuristically. Rather, it sensually demonstrates all the ways that women can occupy space in a free and relaxed way, both alone and together. The film gives a picture of women protagonists relating to each other or acting on their own, without men on their minds.

The actresses’ improvisation encourages us to decipher meaning expressed through multiple channels of their characters’ behavior. Sometimes Celine and Julie’s gestures are subtle displays of emotion, such as the looks that pass across Julie’s face when listening to an outraged Gilou on the phone and the swiftness of her bursting into laughter upon hanging up. Sometimes the gestures are intentional signals given to the other characters, such as the original flirting clues. And sometimes the gestures are "unladylike" ones, which women ordinarily protect themselves from being seen doing. Such gestures communicate many shades of meaning, especially about women’s interaction and relation to domestic space.

It is a fantasy that can be read as lesbian for two female characters to initiate and defend intimacy as openly as these two do. As the film begins, they act like aggressive and greedy children trying to hoard something precious, as each advances and protects her newly established relation. But as the film progresses, an increased synchrony is seen in their actions. To depict their psychic unity and growth through mutual support, they are filmed acting constantly as a team. From the first, each was sensitive to the other’s body cues, but they finally move in almost magical symmetry [12].

The interior crime melodrama investigates a very narrow and symbolically heightened range of interpersonal relations. The bad house sequences have a pointedly "period mise-en-scene (about 1940) and the costumes and type of language used by Olivier, Camille and Sophie are dated and extreme. It’s a dated, warped family. Specifically it represents the breakdown of the nuclear family or its obvious departure from the ideal ; the fact that the mother is dead is what endangers the child’s life. Furthermore, in its simplicity and exaggeration, this interior crime melodrama could be read as well as a fairy tale, with a dead mother and competing stepmothers who’d sacrifice the little girl for a man. (But other women, and not a prince, will save that girl.) Heterosexual relations appear in the film as intrinsically marked by destructiveness, and the kinds of roles played out in that awful family parallel common social strategies for the seizure and maintenance of power.

Rivette critiques the possession and emotional manipulation in the family and the myth of tragic romantic love. Every detail of the action, environment, and costuming in this interior fiction speak the same message : that these characters are trapped in their bourgeois, heterosexual, familial roles. The adults are struggling to maintain a self-enhancing social front and are without candor or spontaneity [13]. They are never ingenuous ; the child is drugged most of the time ; and the women act according to the pressures and boundaries established by the man. The home is a place for the accumulation of possessions, so nothing there is seen out of place.

The minimal information presented in each shot invites us to reflect on family life, and the plot of the interior story invites us to equate family life with a crime. Repeating the same shots many times creates a symbolic, not "documentary," cinematic analysis of adult heterosexual relations. The heightened gestures, the minimal information in each shot, the relation of the figures to the architecture — all these bear a readable leaning about limits, structures and stances characteristic of family life [14]. In fact, such a reading depends as well on the stability of connotative cues in the society at large. In particular, most people experience as relatively stable the cues for acting and for reading and responding to others emotions within family life ; and emotional development is shaped by these cues. Deception, rigidity, lack of imagination, an obsessive rehashing of the past, desire for status, woman’s availability and her waiting around for the man, and destructive emotional games are elements of the bourgeois family, which this film depicts in an exaggerated way but which have long been the staple of literary fiction as novelists have described t tensions and conflicts defining family life [15]. As in a soap opera, in Céline And Julie the characters body posture is rigid, the women well-dressed and coiffed, and housework invisible. The man maintains and achieves his own fantasy about what he wants and deserves — status as devoted pater familias, and service by attentive women who walk around with him constantly on their mind.

The fact that the costumes are from the 1940s reinforces the impression that this interior story may well represent Celine and Julie’s journey into their own past. In this way the filmic fiction is particularly significant for feminists. The psychological labor of rescuing the female child is one which our whole generation must mutually undertake — to save the daughters, our own child-aspect, and future female generations. It is a historical task of "recuperation, which an oppressed group coming to political consciousness begins.

Between the framing story and crime story are certain salient, paradigmatic, seemingly mutually exclusive oppositions : pleasure vs. pain, playfulness vs. rigidity, looseness vs. constraint, adult women who act like children vs. adults of both sexes who repress their childlike aspect, psychic unity between two women vs. manipulative interpersonal communication between men and women and between adults and the child. What do these oppositions have to do with lesbianism, or with the film’s version of it ?

When together, Celine and Julie act as if they have regressed to that stage which heterosexual women often remember as the last model they had for feeling relaxed and free and loose with their women friends : puberty. As at a slumber party, when not having to be "on stage" and to appear their best for the opposite sex, Celine and Julie lounge around in their bathrobes, touch each other freely, hang out on the couch lying against each other, try each other’s things on, mime, tell tall tales, and act deliberately silly in a" girlish » way [16]. Girls can run fast and jump high and their aspirations have not yet been lowered by society’s pressures. Celine and Julie go back to that child.

What does it mean that the film has mature women take on the agility — and foolishness — of girls ? Celine may have cut herself to make Julie care about her. While on the phone to Gilou, Julie scratches herself with a sculpted red hand she uses to store her rings and she picks her toes. The last time in the "bad house" in their comedy routine, Celine and Julie stick their fingers up each other’s noses. In their gestures, costumes, and roles in the plot, they are associated both with the little girl they save and with the intrinsic child that peeps through all their actions. With the childlike part of themselves freed up from the inhibitions learned as part of "getting a man, Celine and Julie are shown as relating to each other along the continuum of superego (especially nurturant mother), ego (as demonstrated by Celine and Julie’s polishing off Gilou and the Beirut contract), and childlike modes of interaction.

Here we can assess the limits to which Céline And Julie can be interpreted as a "lesbian" film. If Rivette were mainly responsible for the interior crime melodrama, then we could say that he accurately saw the problems of his own sphere — male power, heterosexual love, the nuclear family under capitalism. He could ask two actresses who were already good friends to collaborate on the script and could allow a strong depiction of women’s healing and nurturing friendship as a foil to the "dangers" of his own sphere. But the film keeps men and the problems they generate in the fiction. It does not depict the contradictions and conflicts of lesbian existence, nor does it broach in a political way the menace lesbians always face from a heterosexist society. Celine and Julie’s relation is kept safely at the level of the child. They never express adult passion, which keeps the depiction of that relation "safe" for both male and female viewers, who might choose not to see the women as lesbian at all. Is this Rivette’s responsibility, the actresses’ decision in scripting their parts, or an unspoken decision made according to the exigencies of producing a feature film ? I do not know.

Theoretical implications

At this point I would like to draw back to present the larger implications of my critique of one film. To establish the outlines of my argument about feminism’s need for lesbian theory, I’ll have to shift the tone of my prose, moving from the discussion of a very positive and playful film to a more analytic discussion of how patriarchal ideology conceives the terms "woman" and "lesbian." There is a structural opposition in Céline And Julie which I shall discuss later, that is revealing about the ideological "matrix" from which the film comes and in which audiences receive it. Within patriarchal ideology, the term "lesbian" plays a particular role as a negative sign. I will first examine the ideological structures which depend on using "lesbian" as a negative term, then consider how the oppositions in Céline And Julie challenge that ideological framework, and then draw certain conclusions about feminist theory’s need to incorporate a lesbian perspective.

We all have seen instances in which institutions such as the church defend established roles for women as "natural" ; this "naturalness" of women’s maternity, self-sacrifice, emotionalism, weakness, etc. then becomes institutions’ excuse for maintaining women’s inferior status. The "natural" or the given signal what people take for granted when they do not challenge or look closely at the structures under which they live. Feminists have to scrutinize everything previously taken for granted, finding all phenomena in fact "odd" and worthy of investigation. We should ask why in our society fucking defines heterosexual intercourse, why women mother, and why women and not men worry about "how to combine a family and a career." We must especially challenge all attributions about gender and sexuality, because we know this is the specific locus of women’s oppression. For example, we see that institutions punish certain kinds of so-called sexual "deviance" but not others : schools fire gay teachers, courts take children away from lesbian mothers, and police arrest prostitutes but not the men who go to them. These "punishments" not only have legal sanction but also reveal society’s need to maintain heterosexuality as an ideological and prescriptive category and maintain male power over that category.

Most cultures designate certain people as marginal and treat those people as « polluters » [17]. These outsiders bear the onus of being defined as "bad." Furthermore, within the ideology of a particular culture, marginal people get labeled as "dangerous" because their example seems dangerously contagious. It might spread. For example, from my perspective here in the United States, I see that pejorative attitudes that people direct toward the welfare mother, Third World women — and their presumed role in a global "population explosion — and the lesbian have something in common. In daily conversation, we can often hear these women being held responsible for the economically and socially more powerful sectors’ problems. Common moral prejudice in our society assigns these women the epithets "bad" and "dangerous," assuming that, as if taken by the devil, they are supposedly dominated by a sexual drive gone out of control. For this reason, their behavior presumably calls out for social containment through institutional constraints. Accusations about homosexuality, leveled against both homosexual men and lesbians, are based on charges of "sin," "sickness," "unnaturalness," and "corruption of youth."

Such beliefs about women’s sexuality and about homosexuality do not just serve a moral function. These beliefs and this mechanism of assigning blame have a social usefulness. They shape people’s behavior and reinforce social pressures. In particular, notions about "dire consequences" are projected onto women, especially lesbians, who forge a satisfying emotional and sexual life for themselves outside the confines of the heterosexual couple or the family. Without any understanding of the liberatory aspects of the lesbian experience, teachers, parents, and institutions such as the law and medicine all parrot similar prescriptive notions about the "dangers" of that way of life.

Ideas about sexual dangers are often used analogically ; they become metaphors for many kinds of social fears. A society’s concept of sexual relations often mirrors the social order, and thus contributes to shaping the social order, especially in giving metaphorical lessons about the presumed dangers a society faces. For example, we can easily observe that notions about sexual dangers occupy an inordinately large place in the childrearing practices of many people, and these notions are used to curtail girls’ freedom and range of activity. Correspondingly, boys’ conversations, in their half-joking accusations about homosexuality, reflect the boys’ intuited understanding of the relation between their learning to define sexuality in the dominant way and their "legitimate" acquisition of patriarchal power [18].

Anthropologist Mary Douglas has written extensively on the way the worst dangers in a society are treated as pollutions that have to be contained. Their continued existence would threaten the society’s institutionalized definition of itself and of reality. As Douglas puts it,

"Many ideas about sexual dangers are better interpreted as symbols of the relation between parts of society, as mirroring designs of hierarchy and symmetry which apply in the larger social system .... Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating, and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created. » [19]

What feminists are trying to do — and it is an intellectual project the magnitude of Marx’s and Freud’s, but here forged collectively — is to take "male and female" out of the category of analogical referent or metaphor for everything else and to look at woman for what she is, has been and can be. For example, too often people use rape metaphorically to describe the devastation of countries, oppressed groups, forests, and anything else that is unjustly wiped out. Such a metaphoric use of rape diminishes society’s understanding and attacking rape for what it really is : a specific experience of woman and a specific tool of male dominance over women (and other men designated to be weak and inferior). As long as sexuality stands for everything, women’s oppression is perpetuated. This is because the category of the female or the feminine is used as an equivalent for the impure, the emotional, the unformed, the mover-to-the-rhythms-of-the-earth, the inferior, and the non-leader culturally, religiously, and militarily [20]. And within the male-female or masculine-feminine opposition needed to buoy up so many cultural structures, the term "lesbian" has no place [21]. The term "lesbian," an understanding of the dimensions and possibilities of the lesbian experience, and the very existence of real lesbians living out their lives unashamed create a huge threat to cultures that depend on the antithesis of male-female and male dominance. Lesbianism seems an unabsorbable anomaly, for if understood fully, the culture would have to create a new pattern of reality to make place for the anomaly. Ordinarily people and, even more so, institutions need to make ambiguities fit into their cognitive whole. They reject discordant cues, ignore or distort facts that refuse to be fitted in, and create labels so as to have the confidence that they do indeed know where this "odd fact" can be fitted in. Otherwise, their whole structure of assumptions would have to be modified.

Institutions that deny lesbianism have much socially sanctioned authority to draw on. The institutions that we can observe enforcing heterosexuality as a compulsory institution include law, education, medicine, the social sciences, religion, art, the press, finance, industry, organized labor, and the family. People depend on institutions to create the basic patterns of their lives, and the very fact that these institutions do and can "order" ideas and values has a great feedback effect in reinforcing their authority. These institutions control lesbianism as a "disturbance" in the following ways : They declare that this is an aberrant case, not indicative of a general principle, and thus containable. When authorities claim that a certain small percentage of any population is biologically determined to be homosexual, they do so partly to acknowledge what is a social fact — homosexuality — but also to contain the "problem" and to relegate it to being caused by some kind of genetic damage. Many times moral and cognitive conflicts are reduced and contradictions flattened out by people’s establishing a single, simple focus from which they will discuss the "problem." For example, there is a great pressure on many people to declare, "I’m for women’s liberation," but to separate themselves from lesbianism in the same breath [22].

That society defines lesbianism as a "moral abomination" has practical social applications. Women in child-custody cases know that the man will be told by his lawyer to look for lesbianism as the infraction that will get him the children. What two women do together is easily blown up into a huge public offense, and the very term abomination can be used to marshal public opinion on the traditional "side of right." The category "abomination" also strongly affects women’s own self-image, so that many women cannot fantasize about lesbianism as a possibility ; even when women face no immediate practical sanctions, the fear of being an abomination deters many women from what is potentially a liberatory experience. Most frequently, lesbianism is materially punished and controlled : by electroshock treatment, job loss, overt social contempt, physical harassment attendant on public displays of intimacy, threat of eviction, and rupture of relations with family — including parental rejection and loss of children [23].

Societies do not just reject discordant or ambiguous elements. They develop ways to deal with them. On a daily level, discordant things may repulse or shock people, or people may react by laughing at them (in terms of subcultural resistance, "underdogs" use laughter as a relatively safe form of attack). On a public level we can observe many actions formally used to keep women in their place. Some are extremely punitive, such as those prohibiting abortion to poor women, jailing "welfare queens," and punishing lesbians. All these formal legal and economic moves are like social rituals or "performances" ; in addition to the immediate reason for which they are carried out, they also function as visible external signs that define and reaffirm the ideal social order as a whole.

Complexly, a culture not only perpetuates but also mediates the contradictions contained within it. The conservatism of the institutionally and ideo­logically maintained order — its stasis, its role in summing up past ideals — is also socially recognized. Often aberrant elements are allowed to creep back into consciousness, to be talked about in art and jokes. We have established institutions to channel the freedom of art, and art becomes a socially allowable way of breaking through old forms. Yet usually artists sufficiently veil threatening material so that even "daring" or "rebellious" movements can eventually be co-opted and reabsorbed (as with Surrealism and Punk).

Sometimes art expresses an oppressed subculture’s identity and experience. When tied to a social and political movement for change, its power escapes containment and actually promotes social change. Since the late 60s, for example, the women’s movement has seen both a flourishing of women’s art and has searched the past for our own cultural roots. It is not just a question of searching for new women-created aesthetic experiences (although it is also that), but of defining for ourselves in a whole new way who we are. Good art always asks us to consider things and forms previously unnoticed. Much of women’s experience and the structures of their lives have yet to be newly "named" from a non-colonized perspective. For us at this point in our history, women’s art plays a crucial role.

It is in the context of my having used women’s art and feminist criticism as a way of newly defining what lesbian means that I find Céline And Julie Go Boating significant for feminist concerns. The opposition between the framing story in Céline And Julie and the interior crime melodrama speak both to what women already know and to what they are able to know. The film progressively extends the process — begun by the women’s movement — of redefining our notions of sexual structures and boundaries and of reconsidering our sense of "woman’s place" within our image of society as a whole. Two elements already present in our culture make my reading of Céline And Julie possible. First of all, to use the film as a commentary on women’s intimacy, as I do, depends on my having participated in an on-going intellectual and emotional dialogue within the women’s movement about women’s lives.

The existence of a feminist dialogue has indelibly marked and will continue to mark whole definitions of social structures and of "reality" throughout the world. However, that dialogue depends on and speaks to a deeper level of cultural formation — the split between the public and the domestic sphere. Cross-culturally, women are placed in the domestic sphere, where their unpaid labor is the index of their inferior status [24]. Because the division public/private corresponds to the division male/female across many periods of history and across many cultures, there has been a strong and definable sub-cultural formation of women’s networks and women’s "lore" within the domestic sphere. And women’s understanding of it is the locus of a potential feminist subversion.

The oppressed subculture is both "colonized" by hegemonic, dominant ideology and established institutions, and it has its own counter, subversive, and shared understanding of the way things run. Subcultural resistance depends on the understanding by those who are structurally and materially marginal that the "emperor has no clothes." Céline And Julie speaks to women’s understanding of the structures, contradictions — including destructiveness, and liberating potential of personal intimacy in the domestic sphere. The film recognizes, through its witty depiction of Magic, that sphere’s power, potentially subversive, potentially political. It also speaks about the hegemonic fear of women, which men translate personally and institutionally into open contempt.

Because women are officially outside the circles of economic, political, and religious power, they are associated with images of anarchy, dark powers, emotion, and blood. They are felt to be an intrinsic source of disorder (e.g., the Bible’s view of Eve and the fall of Man). As Mary Douglas puts it (without, however, applying her analysis to women’s oppression), a social division of the empowered and the disenfranchised in any culture sets up a cognitive and emotional antithesis. The empowered areas are seen, through self-definition, as "structured," and the politically marginal areas are felt to be unstructured, unformed, and dangerous. To acknowledge fully the experience of the marginal groups would alter the cherished definitions of nature and experience propagated by and giving authority to the established centers of power, dominated by men.

Hokey magic, humor, healing psychic interchange among women friends, and equating the category "family" with "murdering the child" — these are ways that Céline And Julie lures viewers away from established notions of "womanly virtue" and "woman’s place" and "woman-tied-to-man." Everything in the film is doubled and reversed, especially cultural notions about "appropriate" women’s body language, woman’s empowerment, her use of public and private space, and her interpersonal relations. The film sets up new oppositions and antitheses, related to understandings within women’s subculture that were formerly repressed because of institutionally enforced definitions of women’s roles. And the new set of oppositions established in the film is both recognizable and either pleasurably subversive or threatening.

Valorized elements, presented positively, vs. rejected elements, presented negatively

Let us look at these oppositions more closely, and examine the general social structures to which they speak :

Women’s friendship vs. heterosexuality and competing for man

Lesbians vs. nuclear family

Spontaneity vs. rigidity

Healthy child vs. sick child

Personal relation shapes use of possessions vs. property shapes personal relations

It would be simplistic to summarize a social intent for the film, such as : "Céline And Julie demonstrates that the nuclear family is murderous to little girls, and lesbianism is what will save us." First of all, the nuclear family in the film is an exaggerated and symbolic depiction, and secondly, the women’s friendship is clearly an utopian one. What is more interesting to note is that this opposition — evil family with its crime vs. women’s friendship with its psychic quest — makes sense artistically, that is, viewers receive it as a significant and understandable opposition. Furthermore, as a modern1st work, the film rejects certain commonly used narrative forms, especially narrative closure. Open-endedness does not just depend on aesthetic playfulness, although its genesis and referent is often play, but it is also a tactic waged against certain forms of mental and political closure, as in the novels of Virginia Woolf. We live in an historical moment where art in the state capitalist era can produce this opposition and expect it to be understood — Bad Family vs. Women’s Friendship. In fact, the readability of that opposition means that there is a widespread understanding, for many on a preconscious level, of the kinds of historical changes that the contemporary women’s movement has generated, of the political and emotional force driving those changes, and of the fact there will be no going back to an older definition of women’s roles. One of the things that Céline And Julie suggests is that the audience looks at woman-identified women as growing and healthy and at male-identified women as anachronistic. Due to Berto and Labourier’s improvisation, the audience spends a long time looking at women in roles largely under their control.

The symbolic oppositions in the film are fascinating in that they reveal a rather widespread cultural understanding that women will never return to their "place." The Celine-and-Julie story, the visibility of women seen on women’s terms and not as markers in a male fantasy, represents a historical and cultural change which many people intuit as desirable. The bad family in the film is a schematic depiction of many other fantasies, stories, and fictions that conventionally represent life in the domestic sphere. Through the interior story’s negative imagery and plot, the film opposes all those other fictions. It opposes their closure and repetition of the same, their manipulativeness, their bourgeois prestige and salability, their valorization of male authority and control, and their murder of the child, especially the girl child. We know the fictions about women that are operative in advertising, wedding ceremonies, adventure stories, medical practice, the law, and work situations — all of those institutions that depend on a reification of women’s place.

Most notions propagated about "woman" are fictions enforced by multiple social institutions, which support and embody a certain power and profit structure — and that structure is hidden behind the fictions it generates. The conservative impulse of institutions always resists a redefinition of boundaries and priorities and limits, so that people often have to sense historical change on a gut level long before institutions are forced to acknowledge that change. The women’s movement has formalized the knowledge of women’s subcultural experience and history in a new way. We are still trying to redefine the experience of that subculture in woman-identified terms. Feminist art and criticism intervenes in the interstices of this historical moment.

Significantly, none of the previous critics writing on Céline And Julie discussed the lesbianism in the film. If the possibility that Celine and Julie were lovers was acknowledged, and that happened only rarely, it was not considered an important element in interpreting the film. The critics stuck to a discussion of fantasy, doubling, modernism, or cinematic innovation. Yet the major oppositions in the film are largely "about" what lesbianism might mean, at least in psychological terms. Much of the film is clearly a fantasy-lure for an alternate way of life, and such utopian fantasies are commonly found in contemporary feminist art to help women articulate the most desirable directions for social change. The film’s oppositions therefore speak specifically to feminists as well as to a more general artistic tradition about the stultifying effects of capitalism on personal life.

Although the lesbianism of the protagonists of Céline And Julie is ambiguously developed, that lesbianism is then "invisible" to critics in their interpretatlon of the film is no accident. Lesbianism is also either invisible or ghettoized within feminist criticism and theory, too. However, the feminist project of being able to see and discuss women’s experience in uncolonized terms can only be effected if a lesbian perspective is embraced. There is no other way for feminists to establish a theory free from using the divisions male/female or masculine/feminine, which already serve as a metaphor to buoy up and reinforce all the institutions that depend on the "natural division of the sexes" for their functioning and for the way they define reality. To continue to use such a conceptual division is not a neutral act. It perpetuates the institutions by accepting that division as a given and gives credence to the hierarchy of social practices built up around it.

Furthermore, the terms of the division are corrupt. Masculine always signifies powerful, and feminine always bears the connotation of inferior. "Feminine’ does not ever tell us anything about women, but is only the negative term in the opposition powerful/powerless as stated from the point of view of the powerful. [25]

That is, all constructs that refer back to the division of the sexes, to gender constructs, as some kind of "natural" fact or "given" implicitly are also defending the "naturalness" of male power. This kind of conceptual division is socially needed to justify and explain away women’s oppression and thus to shore up the patriarchal structuring of social institutions as a whole.

The same ideologically biased dichotomizing plagues all the biological and social sciences-from sociobiology to anthropology. When Claude Lévi-Strauss comments that in all cultures, women are a means of exchange, his very theoretical formation perpetuates the system that he describes. Women are still not looked at by him on their own terms as women, but as means of exchange in his study of myth, The naturalnessof heterosexuality and its construction as a compulsory social institution must be challenged by feminists, or else our theory reinforces the very structures we know oppress women throughout the world.

We do not wish to turn the masters into slaves. Nor do we want to mould ourselves into the construct masculine/male or accept the inferiority of the construct feminine/female, it is not a question of discovering what the "feminine" truly is or might be, or of glorifying it. We have to redefine the boundaries and parameters of sexuality, in its broadest sense, and to disengage the old, corrupt male-female dichotomy from its metaphorical use as an acceptable "model for the collaboration and distinctiveness of social units. » [26] We have to establish a whole new set of significant oppositions, emerging from yet growing away from the cultural milieu in which we are embedded. I traced out the oppositions in Céline And Julie Go Boating because this is what I thought the film achieved. Part of the project of stepping out of the old framework of gender definitions has already been accomplished by women’s art, especially lesbian art. At this point, it is only by articulating and defending lesbian theory as part of their whole project, that feminist theorists can start to define a new cultural analysis and vision that will be healing and generative for us all.

Postface : Photo Essay


This text originally appeared in Jump Cut, Nos. 24/25 in March 1981. It is here published with the author’s authorisation.


[1When I say that the film’s fantasy is congruent with mine, I mean this in the sense that I see and experience a continuum in women’s sexual identity between heterosexual and lesbian that the film speaks to. My own sexual practice is heterosexual, yet my relation to women is deeply intimate with a great deal of emotional commitment, including a whole range of sexual feelings. For me, lesbian indicates that part of the womanly continuum that includes sexual practice between women but is not confined to that. Céline And Julie Go Boating speaks to the lesbian element in all women’s experience, which is something that heterosexual women often fear to acknowledge and personally explore, even in fantasy. Yet for feminists to acknowledge, openly and consistently, this sexual continuum between all women, especially in the areas of feminist theory and political practice, would release for us two sources of strength. Lesbians’ rich analysis and descriptions of the lesbian experience and lesbian struggles would not be isolated by other feminists into a "special case" or an issue of civil rights. And all of us would understand in a much clearer, more woman-identified way, the dimensions of the struggle against patriarchy. I am addressing this essay primarily to heterosexual feminists, but hope it’s of use to a lesbian readership as well.

[2The introduction to this Special Section discusses the problems with the explicit depiction of lesbian sexuality in mainstream film and our consequent search for subtexts as we establish the history of lesbians in film. The problem has also been broached by women working in the area of lesbian literature and history. In particular, in "The Historical Denial of Lesbianism," Radical History Review, Special Issue on Sexuality in History, No.. 20 (Spring-Summer, 1979) and "Women Alone Stir My Imagination : Lesbians and the Cultural Tradition," Signs, 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1979), Blanche Wiesen Cook argues against needing to find references to explicit lovemaking between women before we can assert a lesbian presence in history, literature, and art. Referring to the 47-year-long relation between Mary Wooley, president of Mt. Holyoke, and professor of literature, Jeanette Marks, Cook writes :

"Even if they did renounce physical contact, we can still argue that they were lesbians : they chose each other, and they loved each other. Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to form a living environment in which to work creatively and independently are lesbians. Genital ’proofs’ to confirm lesbianism are never required to confirm the heterosexuality of men and women who have been living together for 20, or 50, years. Such proofs are not demanded even when discussing ephemeral love relations between adult women and men. » ["Denying Lesbianism," p. 65]

For further discussions of methodology in this area, see Barbara Smith, "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," Conditions : two, 1977 ; Harriet DesMoines’ address to the 1978 MLA Panel on Lesbians and Literature : Transcending the Boundary between the Personal and the Political, reprinted in Sinister Wisdom, No. 9 (Spring, 1979) ; and Judith Schwartz, "Researching Lesbian History," Sinister Wisdom, No. 5 (Winter, 1978).

[3"Phantom Interviewers over Rivette," article and interview by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, and Gilbert Adair, Film Comment, 10, No. 5 (September, 1974), 20.

[4Interview with Juliet Berto, Positif, No. 162 (October, 1974), p. 23 (my translation).


[6Interview with Dominque Labourier, Positif, No. 162 (October, 1974), p. 29.

[7"Jacques Rivette," interviewed by Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky, Sight and Sound, 43, No. 4 (Fall, 1974), 198. Of interest also in that issue is the critical review of the film by Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction." The Henry James novel and the short story which the interior crime melodrama is based are characterized by misogyny, claustrophobia, bitter rivalry between sisters, distrust of "treacherous" female passion, and the murder of the female child.

[8I use the word reframe here in the sense used by Erving Goffman in Frame Analysis (New York : Harper and Row, 1974). Goffman, following Gregory Bateson and Mary Douglas, asserts that we define situations according to implicit social principles of organization that govern events and also to our subjective involvement in a given situation. Goffman’s discussion of "framing" illustrates well both the imaginative permutations and the directive force of ideology — if less well ideology’s material foundation and the historical contradictions that lead to change. He writes,

"Given their understanding of what it is that is going on, individuals fit their actions to this understanding and ordinarily find that the ongoing world supports this fitting. These organizational premises — sustained both in the mind and the activity — I call the frame of the activity. » [p. 247]

Feminists can usefully apply Goffman’s concept of "frame" to analyze simultaneously the institutional and imaginative mechanisms that would "enforce" heterosexuality as well as our lively subcultural resistance to that ideology.

[9Rivette acknowledges his debt to William Wyler in "Phantom Interviewers over Rivette. »

[10For a feminist analysis of film melodrama and soap opera, see Tania Modleski, "The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas," Film Quarterly, 33, No. 1 (Fall, 1979) ; Sheila Wawanash, "TV’s Medical Center Sells Sexual Self-Determination, » Jump Cut, No. 16 (November, 1977) ; Carol Lopate, "Daytime Television : You’ll Never Want to Leave Home," Radical America, 11, No. 1 (January-February, 1977) ; Charles Kleinhans, Notes on Melodrama and the Family Under Capitalism," Film Reader, No. 3 (February, 1978) ; Lillian Robinson, "What’s My Line ? Telefiction and Women’s Work," Sex, Class and Culture (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1978).

[11Women’s exchanging identity within intimacy was clearly one of the themes Berto and Labourier wanted to develop, as seen in Berto’s reference, cited earlier, to Persona. In literature, women’s "exchange of identity" was presented by Virginia Woolf in Orlando, and it receives its theoretical exposition in Nancy Chodorow’s description of how women develop psychologically, with fluid ego boundaries and with deep ties to other women, especially within the domestic sphere (The Reproduction of Mothering, Berkeley : University of California Press, 1978). Since Freud and more recently Christopher Lasch in his popular Culture of Narcissism pejoratively associate homosexuality with narcissism — and since that thesis has credence in the social sciences — we must be careful to delineate the ways that women’s intimacy is of a profoundly different order than "narcissism. »

[12For a good overview of non-verbal communications research that applies to women, see Nancy Henly, Body Politics (Englewood Cliffs : Prentice Hall, 1977). According to Henly,

"Persons in agreement will show high synchrony, and those in disagreement, dissynchrony. The effect of power may be seen in a group by considering whose motions the other interactants are in harmony with — it is the high power person whose behaviors will be unconsciously reflected by others. » [p. 128]

See also Shirley Weitz, ’Sex Differences in Non-Verbal Communication," Sex Roles, 2 (1976) ; and Irene Hanson Frieze and Sheila J. Ramsey, "Non-Verbal Maintenance of Traditional Sex Roles," Journal of Social Issues, 32, No. 3 (1976).

[13Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, and also his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York : Doubleday, 1977).

[14This readable meaning is about the politics of the family, well-articulated in the works of R.D. Laing (e.g., Politics of the Family and Other Essays, New York : Pantheon, 1971).

[15Christina Stead memorably delineated the cruel extremes of family politics in The Man Who Loved Children (New York : Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1965).

[16In face-to-face encounters between the more powerful and the less powerful, or between those who like or dislike each other, "immediacy" indicates how people relate to each other. Non-verbally, "immediacy" (liking, trust, and interest, or else an attentiveness due to a need to please) is signaled by forward lean, eye contact, direct orientation of the shoulders toward the other, frequent smiling, no finger tapping, moderately open arms and legs, sustained rather than very brief periods of speaking, and frequent nodding and smiling to keep the conversation going. Verbally, immediacy is indicated by the speaker’s using the collective first person and terms like "here" or "this" and not many qualifiers. Thus a boss who introduces the woman next to him as "my secretary," "Mary," or "my co-worker," indicates mutuality or "us" in the last term, which makes that the term of immediacy and respect. For a further discussion of both verbal and non-verbal immediacy and the power relations which immediacy signals, see Albert Mehrabian, Non-Verbal Communication (Chicago : Aldine-Atherson, 1977).

[17This analysis is drawn from the work of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, in particular her Purity and Danger : Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966) and Implicit Meanings (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975).

[18Freud’s description of the boy’s oedipal stage can also be read as a description of the way that heterosexuality and its concomitant ordering of male power and female "inferiority" become imbedded in the boy’s psyche as a metaphor for the entire social order and his "natural" right to be heir to it.

[19Douglas, Purity and Danger, pp. 3-4.

[20For an exposition of the symbolic implications of and power differentials implicit in the division between domestic and public spheres, cross-culturally and trans-historically, see Michele Z. Rosaldo, "Woman, Culture, and Society : A Theoretical Overview," in Women, Culture and Society, ed. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1974). For a summary of the anthropological literature detailing women’s status in specific cultures, see "Anthropology : A Review Essay," Rayna Rapp, Signs, 4, No. 3 (Spring, 1979).

[21Many British and French psychoanalytic and feminist critics have perpetuated this metaphorical division of masculine vs. feminine. In France, although their work is otherwise very different, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous have both asserted that women’s strength and source of resistance reside in the realm of the emotional, the "imaginary," and negation — versus women’s being effective agents in the cultural, symbolic, and political realms.

In England, in contrast, not glorifying "feminine" traits, the Lacanian-influenced women’s publication m/f perpetuates in is title and articles a simple bifurcation of sexual and gender identity, following the path of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Apparently in an attempt to criticize essentialist arguments coming out of some parts of cultural feminist thought, British feminist critics have often gone in the opposite direction, denying that women have a separate identity, consciousness or identity. For example, Laura Mulvey, speaking of her first film, made with Peter Wollen, stated, " Menthesilea we were saying women’s language and culture have disappeared under patriarchal culture. » (Wedge, No. 2, Spring 1978, p. 4) By insisting upon the overwhelming influence of patriarchal structures on all aspects of women’s lives, these critics rely upon a dichotomy of masculine-feminine in which the "feminine" is always subordinate. Lesbian realities are ignored within this critical framework, and heterosexuality as an ideology is not challenged. Rather, heterosexuality, as an ideology, is the given upon which the Lacanian-influenced feminist critical method depends.

[22The Radicalesbian Collective signaled this as a problem in 1971, but things have not changed much since then. They wrote that as long as women seek acceptance from mainstream society for women’s liberation, "the most crucial aspect of the acceptability is to deny lesbianism — i.e., to deny any fundamental challenge to the basis of the female." [Radicalesbians, "The Woman-Identified Woman," Notes from the Third Year : Women’s Liberation, 1971]

[23In this discussion of "abomination" and "pollution" I am talking about an ideological construct, specifically about the role of sexual accusations within ideology. This is not to imply that lesbian oppression is the worst oppression, nor that lesbians of different races and classes have a unified experience, nor that this ideological oppression is so overwhelming that lesbians succumb to self-hatred. In fact, lesbian oppression is part of women’s oppression. The violence against lesbians is part of a more general violence against women. For example, we see the abuse and containment of our sexuality in every aspect of our daily life — in people’s ordinary comportment, in jokes, and in the media. Politically in the U.S. we see this containment and abuse in the failure to stop rape, the refusal of abortions to poor women, and forced sterilization.

Furthermore, women’s oppression at this point in history is intimately tied to class and race oppression. A greater institutional and/or personal acceptance of lesbianism in the U.S. would not automatically make any beneficial changes in capitalism or directly affect racism. Yet an observable global fact has convinced me that an analysis of what lesbian means, ideologically, is crucial for left and feminist theory at this time : Communist countries also institutionally uphold the nuclear family and they institutionally "contain" homosexuality.

Lesbian oppression is related to the oppression of homosexual men, particularly ideologically, as both are often considered "abominations." Yet cross-culturally men have had more access to the public sphere and thus to power than have women. I have to ask : What are the contradictions that will produce lasting change for women ? What now limits our vision of the dimensions that change should take ? I am committed to fighting capitalism and racism and homophobia. Here I hope to demonstrate some of the ways that lesbian has a significance as a social category which should more profoundly affect those struggles, and affect post-revolutionary communist societies as well.

Beyond this, I recognize that my discussion of how patriarchal ideology conceptualizes the terms lesbian and woman does not speak out of or describe the lesbian experience. Clearly that experience must be so positive as to disprove the dominant ideology. Otherwise lesbians would not choose to live as they do. And within that experience, there are contradictions, many interrelated elements, and whole different sets of personal expectations. To understand these, we must listen to lesbians as they speak in their own voice.

[24Michele Rosaldo, Women, Culture and Society.

[25"A man cannot be a predator unless there is something in need of protection. And he cannot protect unless there is something ’vulnerable’ to predation. These concepts structure reality and our understanding. The boys appear to describe reality when they talk of measures they must institute to ’protect’ us, but in fact they create a particular conceptual framework." — Sarah L. Hoagland, "Coercive Consensus," Sinister Wisdom, No. 6 (Summer, 1978), pp. 86-87.

[26Douglas, Purity and Danger, p. 4.