La Captive
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Chantal Akerman. Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Sylvie Testud, Olivia Bonamy, Françoise Bertin, Liliane Rovère, Vanessa Larré, Jean Borodine, Aurore Clément, Sophie Assante. Screenplay: Chantal Akerman and Eric De Kuyper (based on the novel La prisonnière by Marcel Proust).

This review is for Irina, another invigorating explicator of Proust.

Photo © 2000 Gémini Films/Canal+/CNC
Chantal Akerman's elegant and admirably committed updating of Proust disentangles the notion of the controlling, possessive lover from the commercially overworked figures of either the brutish Svengali, throwing his weight around along with his fists, or the imperious hedonist of either gender, wielding a charismatic erotic arrogance that pitifully abjects the lover who just can't seem to say no or cry foul. By contrast to these enduring types, the sexual captor in Akerman's movie is a pale, ageless, rabbit-eyed, neurasthenic male of the Ian Bostridge stripe, whose physical frailty ironically contrasts but hardly neutralizes the vigor of his proprietary impulses. His name is Simon Levy (Stanislas Merhar), and though he's too restless, mobile, attentive, and jealous to be a simp, he often makes comments despite his cream-complexioned youth that call to mind those aging, terminally incommoded women who nonetheless rule their respects roosts with barely contested authority in any number of 19th-century English novels. Bathing before a pane of frosted and beveled glass, on the other side of which his coveted lover Ariane (Sylvie Testud) also languishes in a tub, Simon rhapsodizes in his peculiar, semi-detached way about the visual, textural, and aromatic wonders of Ariane's body, her skin, her vagina—while nonetheless imploring her to give herself a good scrub. "If it weren't for my allergy and all the pollen you bring in," he says, "I almost wish you'd never wash," a line that would work as either a wry or a broad comic indictment of brattish, whey-livered romantics who guard, relish, but find themselves intimidated by the robust materiality of the women they idolize and thereby objectify. Akerman, though, following Proust, is less interested in poking fun at wanly passive-aggressive romantics than in exploring just how imperially they can colonize their love objects, but also how the irreducible complexities of other(ed) people and the innate dynamics of solipsistic desire guarantee that no one else can ever be sounded, held, or vouchsafed: not sexually, not romantically, certainly not in the broader terms of knowability.

To communicate this sense of mystified yet envious, finally suffocating love, Akerman relies on her characteristic long takes, on elliptical montage, and on a surreally bounded cast of characters and repeated events that bring an undertone of Buñuelian fable to the otherwise langourous and stylistically austere proceedings. La Captive lacks the plush and burnished designs of Raul Ruiz's Time Regained or that film's knack for the uncanny ephemerality of people and spectacles, but in its more restrained way—which certainly has a pearly, cornflower beauty of its own, however limned with sallow greens—La Captive feels just as plausibly and suggestively Proustian. Merhar has a tough task making Simon particularly accessible or illuminating, and the driving dynamics of the film are nothing profoundly new, particularly among the rarefied caste of European masters to whom Akerman belongs and among whom this film seems designed to augment her reputation. But the other actors, particularly that odd androgyne Sylvie Testud as Ariane, are freed of any potential burden to perform "mystery" or "unfathomability," given Akerman's skill and panache for installing those contexts at the level of form. Testud plays Ariane simply and frankly, and she carefully adheres to the mystery of why Ariane so often seeks the companionship of women friends and mentors, and why she seems so increasingly rapt by her appointed singing lessons, despite an untransporting voice. More richly, Testud, Akerman, co-writer Eric De Kuyper make La Captive's portrait of the sexually possessed as unique and counter-intuitive as that of the formidably enfeebled possessor. Ariane barely seems to notice the invasiveness and authoritarianism of Simon's questions and directives; she comes and goes at his whim and genuflects to his will in a manner so casually passive it looks an awful lot like willowy contentment. Simon's project of patrolling and consuming Ariane is frustrated, then, rather than enabled by her own refusal of radical will, though this dynamic also evinces traces of sly parody ("If I had any thoughts, I'd share them, but I don't," she testifies), of canny offstage strategizing, perhaps with the aid of a whole cadre of women friends, and of an incipient inclination toward more outward forms of repulsion. Late in the film, during a typically long and austerely filmed car trip (though elsewhere the photography and especially the soundtrack surge with more evocative moodiness), Ariane starts to buck a little at Simon's maddeningly limp forms of effective control. He simply can't believe that, as she reports, she has only ever lied to him a couple of times. "But what's two lies? Give me at least four," Simon implores, in another highlight of the film's deadpan but powerful masochism, amid a bucolic drive that's filmed with no less watercolor beauty or pared-down severity as the aristocratic estates or the urban maze.

La Captive's aqueous finale that finally breaks, in a rather overdetermined way, from the film's insistent idioms of stasis and dryness, and in truth there may be a bit too much of the static and dry, despite the accentuating ironies and structural ingenuities. La Captive is a little too slow for its own good and might well have benefited from some Beau travail-style compression, without any loss of thematic resonance or meaning. The intellectual and emotional upshots are not unfamiliar, but they are presented in revealingly eccentric and deftly oblique ways, proving once again that in the last decade or two, the French-language cinema has eclipsed all rivals at raiding the vaults of canonical Western literature without settling complacently into heritage-film frippery or downy nostalgia. Akerman's style, even when teasing out her own original material, inherently ensures against her ever crossing over to a huge audience. Despite having a major impact on the world festival circuit, La Captive never even played commercially in the United States, but for the high-minded, literary, and formally invested viewers who are receptive to how she works and what she worries about, the film offers a starkly insinuating exercise in the contemplation of love. Grade: B+

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