Saturday’s Bastille Day double bill at the National Gallery of Art is not exactly storm-the-barricades stuff, but it is very Gallic. “Celine and Julie Go Boating” and “Souvenir” ponder such issues as memory, reality and the nature of storytelling. The first movie is a classic of the French new wave. The second is more of a curiosity, but it’s surely the Frenchest film ever made by a guy from Baltimore.
Released in 1999, but little known and rarely screened, Michael Shamberg’s “Souvenir” is the bilingual tale of an American sportswriter in Paris. Orlando (Stanton Miranda) covers basketball, but her thoughts are frequently way off-court. She obsessively remembers family traumas and her late brother, Charles, and replays in her head childhood conversations between them. The movie is intentionally choppy, with frequent fades to black; sound and image are also variable; and moving pictures sometimes yield to sequences of still photographs.
If this sounds a bit like “La Jetee,” the 1962 Chris Marker short that uses stills for all but one shot, that film is clearly an inspiration. In fact, Marker designed the graphics for the computer system Orlando uses in an attempt to recapture lost sensations. (In French, “souvenir” can be mean a memory as well as a keepsake.)
Shamberg, who lived in Paris before returning to Baltimore, never directed another feature. But by the mid-’90s, he had worked for years as a producer of music videos, notably for New Order. (Last year, that band reunited to play two benefit shows for Shamberg, who is now seriously ill.) The music-video work gave him entry to the world of fiction filmmaking, and “Souvenir” shows the extent of his connections: Kristin Scott Thomas plays Orlando’s boss, and Christina Ricci and Adam Hann-Byrd (who worked together in “The Ice Storm” around the time “Souvenir” was made) provide the voices of the young Orlando and Charles.
At 74 minutes, “Souvenir” is a little sketchy. That’s not the case with “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” which runs more than three mesmerizing hours. It’s far from the longest film by its director, Jacques Rivette, whose “Out 1” can be almost 13 hours. (There are multiple versions of the movie, some much shorter.) Made in 1974, “Celine and Julie” is about two young women — one a librarian, the other an amateur magician — who stumble upon a haunted house where the same homicidal drama plays out again and again. In other words, it’s a movie house — but Celine and Julie eventually decide to be more than spectators: They think they can infiltrate the action and save the daily victim, a little girl. And maybe they can, because they might have conjured the whole scenario to begin with.
In “Souvenir,” the stories a woman tells herself impede her like heavy chains. But “Celine and Julie” lightheartedly suggests that people can rewrite such tales, freeing themselves from the way their scripts “ought” to end. Which, come to think of it, is very much storm-the-barricades stuff.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
“Celine and Julie Go Boating” screens Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and “Souvenir” screens at 4:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW.