Celine & Julie: the typeface | Bleader

Friday, May 25, 2007

Celine & Julie: the typeface

Posted By on 05.25.07 at 06:02 PM

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Sometimes it helps not to know anything . . .

Coming to Celine and Julie Go Boating at the Film Center two weeks ago with "fresh eyes," so to speak (see post and comments for May 15), I wondered what I could possibly find there that hadn't already been analyzed to death—written about, pontificated on, etc. Obviously not a lot, since if someone like yours truly can come up with an idea, then somebody else already has.

So surprise, surprise, from the very first frame: that art nouveau lettering in the titles and credits. Where's it coming from, what's it all about? Nothing I'd read gave even the slightest clue. Lots of literary speculations on antecedents and influences (Henry James, Lewis Carroll, etc). But right up front there's an actual visual motif—it's a MOOOVIE, after all—and nobody's ever bothered to notice, as far as I can check on the Internet. (Though if we're back to rummaging through paper-based archives, musty old libraries of forgotten information, then all bets are off.)

But that art nouveau thing: it saturates the film, or at least the "contemporary" half of it—which is arguably less contemporary than the chamber drama it surrounds, the Jamesian story within a story (30s period in my view, from the deco stylizations, though per Jonathan Rosenbaum, with corroboration from Rivette himself, it actually references 50s Hollywood). It almost seems an homage, if not to Parisian nouveau exactly, then to the Montmartrean belle epoque, which in practice amounts to the same thing: curvilinear fonts and letterings, period streetscapes captured in the verite tracks and pans (including an incredible "ghost" house where the 30s/50s tale unwinds: all that variegated brick, like something out of Raimondo D'Aronco), ornamental graphics in a kid's picture book. Everything is of a piece, inflected by default-styling nouveau. What's odd to me, though, is Rivette's choice of typeface for the intertitles et al: apparently Boecklin standard, a Swiss-German font rather than a specifically French one. You have to wonder why an ostensible period homagist didn't opt for, let's say, Metropolitain, typographic brainchild of axiomatic French nouveau designer Hector Guimard, whose architectural masterwork was—well, of course!—the Paris Metro.

On the other hand, it's possible Rivette didn't consider any of these things—possible but not very likely, since the styling's too consistent to be accidental or haphazard. Or try out this idea (per Jonathan R. again): that the lettering, like C&J's subtitle "Phantom Ladies Over Paris," is essentially an homage to Feuillade—specifically to Les Vampires. Not a bad argument, and it might even have convinced me—if not for the evidence of the serial's own credits! The Gaumont production rubric above the title: it's closer to Benguiat gothic, a deco-style font, than Boecklin standard . . . which, to beat a dead horse, was already a decade out of fashion when Les Vampires was made.

None of which necessarily proves anything—or if it does, then only that, as putative Feuillade homagist, Rivette could be both sloppy and inattentive in his choice of period lettering. Can't have any of that now, can we? But I think there's a better alternative . . .

One final question: does anyone know the fate of the mystery mansion, playfully identified as "7 bis, Rue du Nadir aux Pommes"? Haven't been able to track it down myself, and the address seems mainly a referential jeu d'esprit. Preserved? Restored? Demolished? Or has it simply vanished like a ghost?

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