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La Belle Captive
(The Beautiful Captive)
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet — 19xx, Country — xxx minutes, color or black & white, aspect ratio 1.xx:1 — Genre
IN BRIEF, surreal erotic thriller about a man’s obsession with a mysterious woman who may, or may not, be supernatural; filmed by Robbe-Grillet from his own novel.
La Belle Captive (1983) has put me on the horns of a dilemma. This engimatic and sensual thriller inspired me to explore other works, all of which proved fascinating, by its writer/director, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He’s perhaps best known for his screenplay to Resnais’s haunting masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad – which is highly representative of Robbe-Grillet. Intrigued by his theories of the New Novel, I buckled down and just read a half-dozen of his books, including La Belle Captive (‘the beautiful captive’), the “prequel” to his film reviewed here. Unsettling but engrossing, his novels continue to burrow into my imagination like postmodern earwigs – exactly as their author intended. In the background section below, you’ll find an introduction to Robbe-Grillet and his works, to show La Belle Captive in a wider context, including how it relates to the surrealist painter René Magritte, whose presence haunts every frame of this picture. That’s the good news. The bad news, in my opinion, is that Robbe-Grillet does not do himself justice in this film. (Others would disagree – for instance, the Berlin International Film Festival nominated this picture for their top honor, the Golden Bear.) The analysis section looks at how Robbe-Grillet the director falls short of Robbe-Grillet the philosopher and artist. That in no way lessens my admiration for his other prodigious achievements; and if you’re interested in Robbe-Grillet, or modern literature and cinema – not to mention film noir and various types of fantasy movies, from the vampiric to the erotic – consider seeing La Belle Captive. Also this film was photographed by the great Henri Alekan (Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire), it influenced Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and it’s the only one of Robbe-Grillet’s ten pictures as director (Trans-Europ-Express, Eden and After) currently available on disc. The DVD has very good image and sound, but only one bonus feature, the original French trailer.
La Belle Captive is the tale of Walter Raim (Daniel Mesguich, James Ivory’s Le Divorce), a 30-ish “secret agent” in a big trench coat. He has a rendezvous in a graveyard with his voluptuous boss, Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Claire, Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent), who assigns him to take an urgent letter to the influential Henry de Corinth, whose fiancée had been murdered a few years earlier at the behest of a political rival. On the way to the delivery, Walter finds a beautiful woman named Marie-Ange (Gabrielle Lazure, 2004’s Secret Agents) lying in the road, handcuffed – the same woman he’d recently been eyeing at a nightclub. He takes her to a nearby villa to get help, and ends up having a large group of mysterious, wealthy men, led by a Dr. Morgentodt (François Chaumette, Marcel Carné’s The Devil’s Envoys), lock him in a bedroom with her… after they gave her a goblet of blood to drink. While she makes love to the passive Walter, he begins having surreal visions of her that blend with Magritte paintings, including images of a beach and a firing squad. In the morning, Marie-Ange has vanished, the now-crumbling villa looks like it’s been abandoned for years, and Walter has two small bleeding wounds on his neck. Was it all just a bad dream? And what’s to become of his mission, when he finds Corinth sprawled on the floor, murdered? Walter begins a film-noirish quest to try to solve the two mysteries – of Corinth and Marie-Ange – which increasingly converge. Along the way, he meets several enigmatic characters, including the baldly sinister Inspector Francis (Daniel Emilfork, The City of Lost Children), a Hysterical Woman (the character’s name in the credits) in a wheelchair screeching opera (Arielle Dombasle, Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained), a jittery young man on a bicycle (Jean-Claude Leguay), a diabolical bartender (Gilles Arbona), and the enigmatic Professor van de Reeves (Roland Dubillard) who may be the father of Marie-Ange who may have died a few years earlier (as the Professor says, “Most of the people you see in the street are dead”). And who is that mysterious reappearing woman, clad in black leather and riding a motorcycle, who bears an uncanny resemblance both to Sara Zeitgeist…. and, we later see, to Walter’s wife?
(You can jump directly to my analysis of the film, or read the following overview of Robbe-Grillet’s life and works, his connection – both literary and cinematic – to the New Novel movement, and his “collaboration” with Surrealist painter René Magritte in both the book and film, La Belle Captive.)
Who is the man behind the novel and film, La Belle Captive?
Alain Robbe-Grillet is a leading author in the avant-garde New Novel (Nouveau roman) movement, begun in the 1950s, as well as its later cinematic offshoot, through his work as screenwriter and director. He was born in 1922 into a family of engineers and scientists; after graduating from the National Institute of Agronomy, he worked in Africa and Martinique, where he studied banana tree diseases. Using elements of the detective thriller – as seen in his exceptional first novels, The Erasers (1953) and Voyeur (1955), as well as in such films as La Belle Captive – he made a conceptual leap from science to art. As he expounded in his influential book, Towards a New Novel (1963), his “theory of pure surface” was intended to refocus fiction on “the ties that exist between objects, gestures, and situations, avoiding all psychological and ideological commentary on the actions of the characters.” The world of his novels and films eschews plot and conventionally “well-developed” characters in favor of recurring images of surfaces and objects, which his narrators incessantly catalog almost everything around them, as seen in his classic 1957 novel of adultery, Jalousie (English: Jealousy). Set on a steamy (in more ways than one) banana plantation, the fraught title refers both to the cuckolded husband’s emotions and, as a metaphorical reflection of his – and the reader’s – limited perceptions, louvred ‘jalousie’ window blinds.
Robbe-Grillet also used Jealousy’s ‘love triangle’ device in his first screenplay (yielding perhaps the most highbrow Oscar nomination of all time), for Alain Resnais’s labyrinthine masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). As in Jealousy, and his other novels and films, Robbe-Grillet incorporated his trademark features in Last Year at Marienbad: a “scientific” style supposedly free from authorial comment, the ambiguous relationship between objectivity and subjectivity, a nonlinear narrative structure marked by dislocations in time and space, the use of subtle “repetitions, contradictions, and omissions” (quoting Robbe-Grillet’s novel Topology of a Phantom City), themes of memory and desire, and – for all of the “objectivity” – an uncanny sense of dread. We piece together both the story, and the intense if submerged emotions, through odd details and breaks in the repeating scenes (the primary image in Jealousy is, incredibly, a squashed centipede; in Last Year at Marienbad, it’s the series of rendezvous between the enigmatic – and perhaps ghostly – lovers). Considering Robbe-Grillet’s attempt to remove “psychology” from his works, it’s ironic that his technique most closely resembles psychoanalysis, with its attempts to bring repressed fears into the conscious mind through free association and dream interpretation (few authors and directors have so consistently dreamlike a body of work, very much including both versions of La Belle Captive).
His later novels include In the Labyrinth (1959), The House of Assignation (1965), Project for a Revolution in New York (1970), Topology of a Phantom City (1976), the “autobiographical” trilogy of Ghosts in the Mirror (1984), Angelique, or the Enchantment (1987) and The Last Days of Corinth (1994), as well as several “collaborative” works with select painters (Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg; the book La Belle Captive incorporates 77 works by René Magritte), photographers, and musicians. Robbe-Grillet’s ten films as director – reviews indicate that all of them feature his New Novel-inspired techniques – are The Immortal (1963 – mysterious woman and conspiracy theory), Trans-Europ-Express (1966 – reality and illusion trade places during a train journey with Jean-Louis Trintignant), The Man Who Lies (1968 – war drama about a possible traitor, with a lesbian subplot), Eden and After (1970 – philosophical S&M fantasy thriller), N. a Pris les Dés… (1971 – “randomly” re-edited version of Eden and After), Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974 – modern-day witch), Playing with Fire (1975 – kidnapping and kinky torture), La Belle Captive (1983), The Blue Villa (1994 – possibly ghostly sailor returns to the scene of his possible crime), and It’s Gradiva Who Is Calling You (2006 – ghost movie starring James Wilby, Maurice). Although I have not been able to see any of his other films, and despite my many reservations about La Belle Captive, I would see them, out of interest in his fiction and philosophy. Robbe-Grillet’s legion of awards, both literary and cinematic, was capped by his election to the Académie Française in 2004.
Now, let’s look more closely at the “New Novel” movement, and how it influenced Robbe-Grillet as both author and filmmaker. Although some critics consider him the leading theorist and author of the New Novel, its other practitioners include Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and two authors who have made lasting contributions to cinema through their original screenplays for Alain Resnais: novelist Marguerite Duras, who scripted Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959 – she ultimately wrote over 70 novels and directed 19 films), and poet/novelist Jean Cayrol, who wrote both the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955) and the fictional Muriel (1963). Despite the airless quality of New Novel fiction, not to mention the film La Belle Captive, it did not emerge from a vacuum. In literature, the antecedents of the “objective” – you might almost say camera-eye – New Novel include Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884; translated as both Against the Grain and Against Nature – this unnerving tale of a bored aesthete’s experiments in decadence, with its depersonalized voyeurism and obsessive cataloging, is perhaps the closest antecedent of Robbe-Grillet’s work), Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897), André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures (literal title, The Caves of the Vatican, 1914), Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (literal title, In Search of Lost Time, 1913–1927), and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – by the way, these were all bisexual or gay authors.
The New Novel rebels against the “realism” of 19th century fiction, which never questioned the underlying assumptions of its era. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) is both superior to and typical of the classic novel. She employs profound psychological deconstruction of characters yet, like her contemporaries ranging from Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy to long-forgotten scribblers, she feels compelled to lead us readers by the nose with the assumed omniscience of her narrative voice, interpreting everything through essay-like passages that sometimes comprise the bulk of a chapter. In other words, we are not free; the narrator selects what we will see, then provides a supposedly definitive interpretation: case closed.
From Aristotle to soap operas, both art and popular culture have been based on such so-called realism, the supposed imitation of nature. Robbe-Grillet in fiction and cinema, and Magritte in painting – among other modern artists – want to highlight (or, if you don’t like their work, ‘shove down our throats’) how unreal and deceptive “realism” really is. Take the key image of “the beautiful captive:” perhaps the earliest well-known ‘damsel in distress’ was the mythical Andromeda, of ‘sea serpent and Perseus’ fame, from over 2,500 years ago. Magritte worked for four decades on his extended series of over a dozen “La Belle Captive” paintings. (Although his primary subject in that series is the easel, suggesting ‘art and reality held captive,’ he employs a decidedly flesh and blood “captive” woman in other canvases.) In Robbe-Grillet’s book, the “beautiful prisoner” is a character, symbolic but fleshly enough to be sacrificed in a “special expiatory ceremon[y]” then processed, canned and sold “under the label Salmon & Spice.” In the book’s filmed version, the character type is embodied as Marie-Ange. The “beautiful captives” in these works certainly seem “real” enough, but of course they are no such thing, any more than the recurring stock figure of the “beautiful prisoner” in the super-villain Fantômas adventure books (by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre) and movie serials (directed by Louis Feuillade), from the 1910s, that directly inspired both Magritte and Robbe-Grillet. On one level, they would say that we are all “captives” of realism’s deceptions.
As a verbal illustration of what Robbe-Grillet is up to, here’s a representative passage from his “posthumous collaboration” with Magritte (who died in 1967), in the book La Belle Captive (1975). As you might guess from reading his other novels, it’s a surreal detective story about the enigmatic narrator – if you can believe him – investigating the murder of a beautiful girl who was abducted, held prisoner in a factory, ritually sacrificed, then processed and packaged as canned salmon! Images in the following passage, like “the fanatical temple,” are just as (purposefully) ambiguous even if you’ve read the entire novel. Also note that Robbe-Grillet summarizes the basic tricks of his aesthetic trade (that we outlined above), including an ambiguous narrator, the queasy interplay of “outside” and “inside,” and narrative “retelling[s]… contradictions… gaps.”
Here I am for the moment, alone in the early gray dawn, before daylight, in front of my own open window that is waiting for me at the center of its façade, which, for the most part, has been condemned. A big mirror that occupies all of the visible wall behind the table (always the same one) reflects the bluish image of the house opposite, as though the outside of the room were on the inside, a deployment that is reminiscent of the fanatical temple whose outline I painfully retrace, day after day, through the retelling, the contradictions, and the gaps.
(As you can imagine, the French never let Robbe-Grillet get away with writing like that, and he was parodied mercilessly – and some would say deservedly– by comedians of the day. You can almost still hear the gales of laughter… but listen very closely and you can also make out the faint footsteps of Monsieur Robbe-Grillet, titan of postmodernism, on his way to the Académie Française… and just perhaps to a future Nobel Prize for Literature…)
Robbe-Grillet – like Magritte – uses a highly artificial materialism to free us from “realism’s” limiting, and inherently false, strictures. Ultimately, the New Novelists, and filmmakers, want us to – borrowing a slogan too little used these days – Question Authority. As Robbe-Grillet theorized in Generative Literature and Generative Art (1983 – the same year as this film’s release), “Today we have decided to fully assume the artificiality of our work: there is no natural order, either moral, political, or narrative; there are only human, man-made orders – orders that are necessarily provisional and arbitrary. And we laugh when such and such a critic scolds us for not writing naturally, as writers before us used to.” Talk about today’s polarizing buzz-phrase, ‘moral relativism’ (for example, ‘turn the other cheek’ to your enemies versus ‘smite them with a sword,’ depending on the context which you get to decide).
The great critic Roland Barthes clarified this philosophy, during the early days of the New Novel movement, in his 1954 essay, “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet,” saying that by establishing the novel (and thanks to Resnais, we can add cinema) “on the surface” we can experience the “inner nature” of the objective world without the false “shield [of] a psychology, a metaphysic, or a psychoanalytic method…. [We] no longer look at the world with the eyes of a confessor, of a doctor, or of God himself (all significant [perspectives] of the classical novelist)” but with the eyes of a person walking “with no other horizon than the scene before [us], no other power than that of [our] own eyes.” In other words, Robbe-Grillet is an affirmation of humanity against nature, as well as – implicitly – the supernatural/divine. But he achieves that ‘reality-based’ freedom by pushing materialism to the breaking point, and there is a price to pay. Behind his icy, minutely detailed descriptions you always sense the narrator’s obsession, a desperate struggle to hold onto sanity that makes it next to impossible to predict what will happen after the final page. Take the volatile cheated-on husband who narrates Jealousy, what will he next resort to: passive resignation? breakdown? murder?
Robbe-Grillet understands his deep, if perhaps not immediately obvious, kinship with Magritte, which is why he chose the late Belgian painter as his partner on La Belle Captive, giving him full co-author credit. René Magritte (1898 – 1967) had been formally trained in art school, but after discovering the haunting work of Giorgio de Chirico he embraced Surrealism, as seen in his best-known transitional work, and one that Robbe-Grillet uses prominently in both versions of La Belle Captive, “L’Assassin Menacé” (“The Murderer Threatened,” 1926), inspired by a scene from Louis Feuillade’s third Fantômas film, Le Mort Qui Tue (The Murderous Corpse, 1913). Magritte’s major addition to Feuillade is the murdered “beautiful captive” in the mid-ground. Employing a flat representational style, Magritte repeats throughout his body of work certain images – such as middle-class men in bowler hats, women’s torsos, oceans and beaches, rocks that hover in the sky, articles of clothing that sport human flesh – and uses dislocations of space, time, and scale, to create his enigmatic paintings. Robbe-Grillet and the New Novelists knew exactly what Magritte meant by his 1940 remark that he revels in “that pictorial experience which puts the real world on trial.”
Magritte breaks down the natural boundaries of the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds to create new “anti-natural” laws, just as Robbe-Grillet transgresses “realistic” narrative by eliminating character, story, and chronology. You could say that Magritte and Robbe-Grillet are both trying, in their respective media, for the ultimate mash-up, and mash-down. They try to kick out all of the conventional assumptions about art, both painterly and literary, until we the audience understand the arbitrary, and ultimately man-made, “nature” of our social world. They want our full participation, both analytical and creative. Some people will find this expectation disturbing, because what they’ve been trained to see as absolute and immutable is no such thing. Others will embrace the new freedom; perhaps they will take comfort in the fact that science (Robbe-Grillet’s ‘road not taken’) continues to demonstrate that people are “hard-wired” for fairness and essential morality, even while it’s become open season on other social givens, such as the “inferiority” of women, other races, and minority sexual orientations. None of those themes are directly addressed in La Belle Captive, although that’s where the underlying ideas can lead: to greater freedom – which some people fear as anarchy. Paradoxically, Robbe-Grillet allows us, but not his often-doomed characters, these insights: just look at poor Walter in La Belle Captive.
Robbe-Grillet extended the reach of his ideas from literature to an array of cross-media forms, including music, the visual arts as in his Magritte collaboration on La Belle Captive, and most notably cinema. His film adaptation of La Belle Captive is not a straight adaptation, the movie has been called a “sequel” to the book since it retains such key elements as the split narrator, enigmatic quest structure, scenes of interrogation (although none as funny as the extended one in the book, whose telling humor pits a too literal-minded inspector against the way too symbolically-inclined narrator), “beautiful captive,” and of course the Magritte connection. The film even contains a sort of seal of authenticity, as the actual book itself makes a cameo appearance, propped up inside a large mirrored cabinet.
Robbe-Grillet’s interest in cinema extends far beyond any mere ‘repurposing’ of his books, as he crisscrosses the various media he employs with his recurring themes, and sometimes characters, as with the figure of the “beautiful captive.” La Belle Captive was his eighth of, to date, ten films as director. His intermittent move from fiction to cinema, commencing less than a decade after switching from agronomy to literature in the ’50s, is not surprising, since his literary style always had been inspired by film. As he once noted, “It seems that the conventions of photography (its two-dimensional character, black and white coloring [sic], the limitations of the frame, the differences in scale according to the type of shot) help to free us from our own conventions.” He turned to cinema not because it’s more “realistic,” as a photographic medium, but paradoxically because it offers greater potential than the novel to explore subjective experience, by how it lets you manipulate both time and space. He explained that this is so “First, because it operates in the dimension of time, thus reproducing the behavior of thought, and second, because it is composed of objective photographs that, thanks to editing, enable the fantastic to be integrated with the real, thus restoring to reality its profundity” (as quoted in Yves Duplessis’s Surrealism, 1974). He also understands the connection between Sergei Eisenstein’s (Battleship Potemkin) classic theory of editing as “collision” and – of special relevance to his Magritte collaboration – surrealism’s “colliding” of divergent realities. Both techniques stimulate the imagination, and create powerful new meanings, that are much greater than the sum of their parts. All of these elements form integral parts of Robbe-Grillet’s ultimate philosophical – and political – aim, which is freedom.
For all the trademark anxiety in Robbe-Grillet’s novels and films, we can choose to focus on their underlying liberating potential, that he clarifies in his philosophical theories (that can also be applied to Magritte’s art). We have the ability to realize that the shadows on the cave wall – or movie screen – are nothing more than shadows, and that around the corner lies our real, and perhaps even joyous, potential. Only through such understanding and liberation, Robbe-Grillet argues, can society progress.
Robbe-Grillet’s theories, so extraordinarily rich in insight, are fascinating on paper – and even more so when filtered through the individual imagination and reason of each reader – but what happens to them when he tries to film them in La Belle Captive?
(SPOILER ALERT! Among other things, this section reveals, and analyzes, the film’s would-be shocking “plot twists.”)
For all of my admiration for Robbe-Grillet’s ideas and literary achievements, as detailed above, I did not connect with this film on either of two viewings, although I disliked it less the second time. There seemed a yawning chasm between his auteur-ial ambitions – as gleaned from his writings – and their unsatisfying realization onscreen. Still, my fascination with his writings – and his undeniable importance to modern literature – would compel me to see his other nine films, although none of them is available on DVD, not even in France (!) according to Amazon.fr in March 2007. (Of course, several novelists have succeeded as filmmakers, including New Novel author Marguerite Duras (novel The Lover, film India Song), Richard Brooks (novel The Brick Foxhole, film In Cold Blood), John Sayles (novel Union Dues, film Matewan), Neil Jordan (novel Shade, film The Crying Game), Michael Crichton (novel The Andromeda Strain, movie Westworld), and Clive Barker, the greatest horror author of our time (novel Imajica, film Hellraiser); even such esteemed authors as Samuel Beckett and Yukio Mishima made a film or two, but only Jean Genet created a cinematic masterpiece, with his one film Un Chant d’Amour (1950), whose complex interlaying of multiple perspectives, in both his novels and this film, anticipates the New Novel by several years.)
Before dissecting La Belle Captive, I want to highlight two extraordinary talents associated with it. Producer Anatole Dauman (1925–1998), both individually and through his company Argos Films, brought out some of the greatest works by such pantheon filmmakers as Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, La Guerre est Finie), Jean-Luc Godard (Masculine-Feminine, Two or Three Things I Know About Her), Chris Marker (La Jetée), Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette), Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion), Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire), and Volker Schlöndorff (Coup de Grâce, The Tin Drum). Cinematographer Henri Alekan (1909–2001) molded light and shadow to create images of luminous precision in over 80 pictures, yet could adapt his style to a wide range of directors. Arguably his greatest work was on Jean Cocteau’s sublime Beauty and the Beast (1945), with other career highlights including William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), Joseph Losey’s The Trout (1982), and Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987).
If only La Belle Captive deserved a place among these exceptional films. On one level, its failure seems to be logistical – with inadequate design, costumes and sets, and ill-directed actors (although Robbe-Grillet had already made seven features) – but of course that affects the presentation of the all-important underlying ideas. Part of the problem seems to be a matter of too little, shooting the picture in just three weeks, and way too much, spending an entire year on the editing.
Robbe-Grillet’s direction is all over the map – make that, labyrinth – with the major characters, Walter, Marie-Ange, and Sara Zeitgeist, uniformly bland, while several bit parts are so out of control that they steal the movie… or rather, stop it dead in its tracks. There’s the so-called Hysterical Woman in a wheelchair, channeling Queen of the Night coloratura bits from The Magic Flute, or the ultra-jittery guy on the bicycle (one hopes he’s not the bike-riding serial killer from Robbe-Grillet’s novel The Voyeur). They break the picture’s flow both from their sheer looniness and from forcing us to ask, What do they Mean (capital M)? As we’ve seen, one of Robbe-Grillet’s hallmarks, so powerful in his best novels, is the effect of ‘the strange within the familiar.’ But here, it’s as if he just cut the actors loose. Unfortunately, that’s not a function of the byzantine plot (where you’d expect it), but rather a seemingly weak directorial hand.
Alekan’s effective cinematography manages to be both lush and film-noirish. He uses a rich autumnal color palette, then fills the edges with menacing shadows. Unfortunately there is one visual tick, as endearing as chalk grating against a blackboard, that I suspect was not Alekan’s decision: dozens of gratutious ‘sparkling starburst filter’ effects. They cheapen the film, making it look like a glittery spread in Playboy – although they’re not confined to soft-focus shots of the not-infrequently nude Marie-Ange. They pop up every couple of minutes on almost any reflective surface, from supernatural motorcycles to bed frames. Whether or not they were intended as some form of irony (one hopes), they come across as tacky… and endless. By contrast, there is only one ‘starburst’ effect in all of Last Year at Marienbad – when the unnamed Delphine Seyrig character, startled by a near revelation, shatters a crystal goblet – but in Resnais’s film the brief visual flourish adds to the intense strangeness of the moment. What seems clearly ironic is how Robbe-Grillet peppers the soundtrack with defeaning thunderclaps, beginning in the scene at the macabre mansion, every time something spooky happens, which is about as often as a starburst effect pops up. A year in post-production, eh?
As we saw above, Robbe-Grillet’s fiction is about scrutinizing the objective world. But here, it isn’t concrete, it’s chintz and cardboard. The costumes seemed off the rack – too new, too polyester. (The costumer, Piet Bolscher, worked on a half-dozen other pictures, most notably Costa-Gavras’s State of of Siege (1972); the production designer was Aimé Deudé, who has only one other film credit.) Even worse, the sets are wrong – not in an aesthetic/thematic way, to provide the desired effect of dislocation, but cheap. When Robbe-Grillet does use real locations – as with all of the exteriors and several interiors – he’s let down by shoddy set decoration. When Walter awakens, after his vampiric rendezvous with the woman of his dreams, and finds the mansion now a dilapdidated, long-abandoned wreck, it doesn’t help that the effect looks slapped together, with phony ripped billowing curtains and sprayed-on cobwebs. This should be a key moment of high creepiness; instead it’s ill-executed and flat. If Robbe-Grillet was going for the effect of ‘art as breakable illusion,’ you can achieve it brilliantly, as Godard did in his evisionist science fiction/film noir, Alphaville (1965), which transforms workaday Paris in winter into another planet, without any special effects, and with likely no more budget than Robbe-Grillet had on La Belle Captive.
Cumulatively, this is a failure of Robbe-Grillet providing himself with the essential materials of his art: performance, image, sound, design. Instead of transforming the real world into something enigmatic, as he does in his novels or in Last Year at Marienbad, everything just looks ordinary, under-dressed, and with no resonance.
Although Robbe-Grillet seems to be going for an interesting amalgam of pop culture (film noir, vampire movies) and high art (the New Novel aesthetic), neither is realized with sufficient depth. Since I’ve already duly posted a SPOILER warning at the head of this section, I can guiltlessly reveal that Robbe-Grillet employs some of the hoariest clichés of horror and suspense pop/pulp fiction, while never enlivening them through postmodernist posturing – or vice versa. If you’ve read Ambrose Bierce’s riveting 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – or seen French director Robert Enrico’s superb 1962 half-hour film version (top awards at Cannes, BAFTA, and the Oscars, even broadcast on The Twilight Zone) – then you know within the first five minutes that Walter, for all of his enigmatic dreams-within-dreams, will buy it in the wannabe “twist ending.” Ironically, he’s been chasing his own seductive death (beautiful dominatrix on a motorcycle: get it?) all along…. like so many other generic characters before, and after, him.
This “twist” – the protagonist who has been hunting himself and/or doesn’t know that he’s already dead – has been trundled out by hundreds of thrillers. Here are just a few, in ascending order of merit: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962 – indebted to the superior 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker”), Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), and in the greatest of all horror anthology films, Dead of Night (1945, made by four directors): the frame story (‘strangers at a country house’) and the tale of the hearse driver with “room for one more” (both segments were written by E.F. Benson, the gay author who succeeded in both horror (story “The Caterpillars”) and comedy (Lucia and Mapp), and directed by Basil Dearden who made the pivotal 1961 British gay film, Victim). And let’s not forget the cinematic granddaddy of them all, Robert Wiene’s expressionist landmark, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – now there’s a dream-within-a-dream “twist ending” to make your flesh crawl. If Robbe-Grillet wanted a revisionist “vampire film” with impeccable artistic credentials, and full-blooded ambiguity, he should have studied Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1967).
But for all of the movie’s pop cultural leanings, Robbe-Grillet may have had more mythic thoughts in mind – not only because his body of work is filled with mysterious, and bloody, ancient rituals popping up in the modern world (like the murder of the girl in the book La Belle Captive), but because he knew that the (forgive the pun) mother lode of ‘heroes unwittingly pursuing themselves’ is the myth of Oedipus. In fact, Robbe-Grillet’s literary reputation began its ascent when critics of his debut novel, The Erasers, eventually realized that it wasn’t just another thriller, but rather a serious literary work that deconstructed Oedipus as well. Regarding his use of supernatural thriller conventions, as noted above, Robbe-Grillet is certainly shooting for more than even a revisionist reworking of genre. But he does himself, and us, a disservice by failing to get under the skin of those classic types of stories and making them vital, as Herzog did in Nosferatu or Kubrick in The Shining. If only Robbe-Grillet had learned the lesson of his own The Erasers, which is both a gripping genre thriller and an evocative metafiction. Unfortunately, his crypto-artistry in this film is less successful.
What’s in a name, one may ask? In this picture, too much – and too little. “Dr. Morgentodt” is a sly play on the vampire legend: it literally means ‘morning death,’ since sunlight kills the undead. This film’s McGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term for a device that serves merely to trigger the plot, is the never-seen (alive, anyway) Sir Count Henry of Corinth. As footnote fans will know, Corinth recalls both Oedipus (left to die by his own father – who tried in vain to short-circuit the prophecy that his son would kill him – the boy is raised by the King of Corinth) and, paralleling the Walter/Marie-Ange storyline, the Greek legend of the Bride of Corinth (recounted by Phlegon of Trallesin in the 2nd century and popularized by Goethe in his wildly influential 1797 poem “The Bride of Corinth”), about a young man who unwittingly falls in love with a vampiric female ghost (shades of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), among others). But wait: there’s more. Although unable to obtain a copy, it looks like Robbe-Grillet may have connected “himself” to this mythically charged locale, since he entitled the third volume of his “autobiography” The Last Days of Corinth (1994).
The most eyebrow-raising moniker in the movie is, of course, Sara Zeitgeist, whose last name – from a term apparently coined by the philosopher Hegel, who was of interest to the New Novel crowd – literally means ‘spirit of the time.’ Here she’s both a James Bond-ian “super secret agent” and the Angel of Death (in leather-fetish garb), not to mention, in a late scene (after we think we’ve escaped the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-…), Walter’s pleasant wife. Is that heady brew – adventure/ death/ pleasantness – supposed to be Robbe-Grillet’s assessment of our fractured age?
Marie-Ange is the film’s most interesting, if vaguely defined, character because of her double nature. She is alternately heavenly (Ange/Angel, while Marie/Mary recalls Jesus’s mother and/or Mary Magdalene) and demonic, as her seducing then sucking Walter’s blood reveals. (At least Robbe-Grillet didn’t stick her with a super-clunky symbolic name like, say, Lilith-the-Demon/Ange.) Unfortunately, it’s a singularly anemic vampire scene: yes, Robbe-Grillet is striving for higher philosophical goals, but there’s no reason why he couldn’t inject some life into his undead characters. Marie-Ange’s last name, “van de Reeves,” suggests that she is (dare one say, literally) ‘of dreams.’ She also recalls, from the book La Belle Captive, the brief appearance of the ‘golden girl’ on the beach, whose ritual murder forms the core of the, ahem, story. The book’s character also suggests the duality of the film’s Marie-Ange, in that she is is both an “innocent” virgin (a prerequisite for ritual sacrifice victims) but also feral, a “beautiful animal with blonde hair,” as described by the all-but-panting narrator who admits that “for several weeks now I have been observing and registering, episodically, the lithe contortions of her body….” She may be reflected in the final Magritte painting that Robbe-Grillet uses, entitled “Anne-Marie and the Rose” (1960), which depicts a real-life Anne-Marie Crowet (and doesn’t “real life” seem especially refreshing right about now?). If you’re looking for a superb depiction of the liminal state, between consciousness and the unconscious, check Henri Alekan’s résumé for Wings of Desire or, even better, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Robbe-Grillet uses a lot of Cocteau in this film (what fantasy film doesn’t), including those reality-bending mirrors (introduced in Blood of a Poet, 1930) – that serve as portals between this world and another; and Death on a motorcycle in black leather debuted in Orpheus (1949), although Robbe-Grillet switches the gender. In fact, he should have paid particular attention to Cocteau’s Orpheus – as, say, Godard did in realizing Alphaville – to see how effectively, and economically, a parallel world can be depicted using carefully selected real locations and a combination of documentary-like style and simple in-camera effects.
Especially with Marie-Ange and Zeitgeist, but also somewhat with the Waitress and wheelchair-bound Hysterical Woman, there is a hint of misogyny; the book contains none of these specific characters but it also contains problematic depictions of objectified, not to mention murdered, women as viewed through the narrator’s blinkered perspective. The movie’s women characters seem used not only as symbolic figures and compositional objects in the frame – literally the case with the framed portrait of Marie-Ange in which she ‘comes to life’ to tease Walter – but as Objects (capital “O”), with the metafictional/philosophical overlay possibly used to “elevate” male heterosexual desire to a more rarefied plane. I certainly don’t know enough about Robbe-Grillet’s psyche to push this suggestion any further, but S&M fantasies, invariably including beautiful young female captives (who are sometimes ritually sacrified), are a staple of his fictional universe. Also note what happens when the handcuffs come off Marie-Ange: she turns into a blood-drinking, castrating vampire, then later pops up as a seductive angelic character… who ultimately gets her revenge by teasing Walter all the way to his doom. Why? Apparently he murdered her, years earlier, at the behest of Henry of Corinth’s “political rival” – although now he’s forgotten about it because of amnesia and hallucinations. Anyway…
The character names are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but instead they land with a thud… like Walter’s back-story. Compare the subtle literary in-jokes in, say, Jean Cayrol’s screenplay for Resnais’s Muriel, which perfectly balances compellingly realistic drama with labyrinthine meanings (like all New Novel works, the labyrinth is one of time, memory, and consciousness). Cayrol gives us two casual references to the “upstairs neighbors” named Borges – a tip of the hat to the great Argentinean metafictional fantasy author Jorge Luis Borges, whose best-known book is not-coincidentally entitled Labyrinths (1962). That’s subtle and effective: if you get it, a little knowing smile (and also another critical access point to the film as a whole); if you don’t, no problem. Now, I shudder to turn to Walter’s last name…
Raim comes from the German word Raum meaning ‘space, room, chamber’ (it’s also connected to räumen – ‘to empty, evacuate the bowels’) – as well as, heaven help us, the legendary demon Raim, a Great Earl of Hell, who steals kings’ treasures and destroys cities and men’s dignity (the nerve!), even while he can simultaneously see things in the past, present and future (shades of the New Novel’s temporal ambiguity). The murky symbolism of Ms. Zeitgeist seems positively “scientific” compared to Walter’s last name… if it, in fact, was intended to mean any such thing. Yet demon Raim’s basic attributes relating to space, time, and subversiveness are all earmarks of the New Novel. But if sad-sack Walter is supposed to be some kind of poster boy for the movement, one hopes that the intention is very ironic. Who knows?
Still, a great actor in the role of Walter might have injected enough life to make compelling. I intend no disrespect to Daniel Mesguich, a talented actor who continues to enjoy a long and successful career, but imagine in the part, say, French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut’s ‘double’ in the five Antoine Doinel films – in fact, Mesguich also appeared in Love on the Run). Léaud might have broken through all of Robbe-Grillet’s (ironic) symbolism to captivate us emotionally; he would certainly have brought more depth to the character. Mesguich’s Walter is too ‘un-psychological’ and emotionally uninvolving even for an “objective” New Novel character. Also, Léaud, by his mere presence, would have extended this film’s web of associations to French New Wave cinema, which has some key elements in common with New Novel ideas (not least, cinematic, social, and personal liberation).
Another reason that Walter is such an unsatisfying character is because Robbe-Grillet uses a different actor, Michel Auclair, for the arch voice-over narration (among the first things he says in the movie is, “I felt empty, translucent… I don’t exist in time.”). Even a first-rate veteran actor like Michel Auclair (Ludovic in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Clouzot’s Manon, Donen’s Funny Face, Zinnemann’s Day of the Jackal) can’t pull this off. The effect doesn’t work on a psychological level, if the two voices are supposed to reveal the split within Walter, since the result is too subtle. The trick also fails aesthetically. The book La Belle Captive is defined by its ambiguous narrator, who not only pointed lies at various times but who slowly reveals himself – or does he? – as being perhaps another character, the sinister doctor. These are complex narrative dislocations that essentially define the novel’s aesthetic and philosophical strategy. But in the movie, the vague disconnect between the youngish Mesguich and the distinguished tones of the off-screen Auclair comes across as little more than lax voice casting.
On a deeper level, the film also falls short – where the book succeeds intriguingly – in morphing Magritte’s paintings into Robbe-Grillet’s larger vision. He loses sight of the difference between the book’s abstract interplay of text plus image, and film’s united visual/aural field. This film is divided against itself. You can’t just take Magritte and slap his paintings onto a screen in ‘living tableau’ fashion, as here. Of course, there have been successful experiments in “recreating” painting in film, but always for clear thematic reasons. Pasolini’s boisterous impious short film La Ricotta (1963 – starring Orson Welles as The Director) features an in-the-flesh depiction of a Renaissance painting of Jesus gone haywire. Raoul Ruiz’s enigmatic pseudo-documentary, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), is quintessential Robbe-Grillet, although he is not connected to the film, which in fact is based on the novel The Baphomet (1965) by Pierre Klossowski (the painter Balthus’s brother). Ruiz’s film has two narrators – an onscreen art collector and a never-seen interviewer in voice-over – scrutinize reproductions, using live models, of six 19th century paintings by a (fictitious) artist, searching errors (in perspective, placement of shadows, anachronistic details) for clues to a missing seventh painting in the series, which may reveal the secret of some labyrinthine conspiracy. Godard’s Passion (1982) succeeds in its transformation of Valasquez and Goya into living images because of Raoul Coutard’s brilliant photography, in which frames appear chaotic until, little by little, the characters move into the correct – i.e., original painters’ – compositions.Godard uses this as a metaphor for their gradually less chaotic lives, as well as (if you want to go further) the nature of cinema. Of course, a less literal transformation of painting into cinema is none other than Alekan’s own work on Beauty and Beast, which transfigures Vermeer and de Hooch into black and white cinema, creating a living world whose fantasy is undergirded by the realism of those Dutch masters.
For all of his Magritte allusions, Robbe-Grillet’s images are too literal, and clunky. They deny us the power of our imagination, his greatest ally in making novels like Jealousy or In the Labyrinth come to life, for all of their postmodernist “engineering.” His film images aren’t just flat, both literally (often shallow depth of field) and figuratively (paper-thin symbolism), but overly constrictive. They don’t resonate like, say, Herzog’s do in Nosferatu (1979) – an even more astonishing achievement since he often virtually duplicates shots from Murnau’s original Nosferatu (1922), perhaps the most influential horror film ever made, while adding his own subtle and unfailingly right variations. (Robbe-Grillet may be tipping his hat to Herzog since, both under the opening credits and at the ‘vampire mansion,’ he has the same music that Herzog used to underscore Nosferatu’s castle: Wagner’s moody orchestral prelude to his opera Das Rheingold (1869).) And to say the least, surrealism fits cinema like a fleshy glove, as seen in works ranging from such extremes as Buñuel and Dali’s eye-opening Un Chien Andalou (‘An Andalusian Dog,’ 1928), to animator Hiyao Miyzaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), a gorgeous homage to Magritte and much more.
In his book La Belle Captive, which incorporates 77 of Magritte’s paintings, Robbe-Grillet typically – and significantly – places the art works on the right-hand page, while on the lower half of the left page he lays out his text, with a large white gap above. He might as well have included a sign saying, ‘Dear Reader, Your Imgination Goes HERE,’ as he fully expects each of us to play our part in bringing this multi-layered collaboration to life. As becomes apparent from the first page, the paintings are in no way a mere illustration of the story. In fact, Robbe-Grillet creates a (dare I say) throbbing gap between his surreal murder-mystery text and the even more enigmatic Magritte pictures. Makes you wonder if even that large white blank on the page could give us enough space to bring the text, the images, and our own awareness together in a ‘meaning-full’ way. But in this movie, no such luck.
As Resnais showed us in Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet’s vision can be filmed, not just successfully but as a work of cinematic genius which frees both our imaginations and – if we hope to make any sense of what we’re seeing – reason. Resnais transforms Robbe-Grillet’s cryptic screenplay into one of the most disturbing, sublime, and haunting – in more ways than one – films ever made (I watched it yet again, in preparation for my reviews of this film and Muriel). Because of Resnais’s inspired mastery of image, even the most portentous of Robbe-Grillet’s voice-over narrations – which are also typical of his novels – works. When a voice intones about “traverse corridors leading to deserted salons” and it’s coupled with Resnais’s sinuous, almost disembodied, tracking shots, it’s eerily effective. Resnais also knows how to direct actors, both stars like Delphine Seyrig and even the myriad “extras” so artfully composed the background (often in frozen poses), so that when Robbe-Grillet’s narrator speaks of “these still, silent, perhaps long-dead people,” it’s not ludicrous, as similar lines are in La Belle Captive, but profoundly unnerving, and unforgettable. As Resnais, and Robbe-Grillet, knows, it’s not just the ideas, but how you embody them – the tale is in the telling.
Of course, Robbe-Grillet is hardly defined by this one movie; and his impact on film, as on literature, is considerable. For instance, there are some uncanny similarities between La Belle Captive and Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), made 16 years later. Some of that may be attributed to Robbe-Grillet presumably knowing Kubrick’s classic source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle (“Dream Story” – link is to the unabridged text, only available free in German). Since Kubrick follows Schnitzler closely, that could explain Robbe-Grillet’s and his narrative similarities. But there are some shots in Kubrick, including specific angles, which may have been directly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s film, including those of the car driving along the deserted road, the mansion, and the mysterious circle of wealthy decadents. Kubrick’s film reveals richer layers of ambiguity with each subsequent viewing; it’s come to haunt my imagination much as Robbe-Grillet’s novels and ideas do, but alas not his film La Belle Captive. Extending the Kubrick connection further, there seems to an extended play of influences that would likely delight Robbe-Grillet: from the ghost stories and New Novel ideas in Last Year at Marienbad to Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977 – transplanting the haunted hotel, and topiary, to the Colorado Rockies) to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980 – which replaces King’s topiary with a hedge maze similar to the one seen in paintings in Last Year at Marienbad) to the film La Belle Captive (1983 – the bartender is stylized, and even photographed, like the one in Kubrick’s Shining) to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – with its possible borrowings from Robbe-Grillet) to… Well, then there’s Mullholand Dr. (2001), arguably David Lynch’s finest work – as much creepy, sexy, mind-bending fun as an avant-garde picture can be; the lesbian aspect also connects to subplots in several Robbe-Grillet works like The Man Who Lies (and earns Lynch a spot on my list of 50 outstanding GLBT films).
There is much more about La Belle Captive that Robbe-Grillet would undoubtedly like us to ponder, including its connections to: (1) film noir (if only this movie had been as good as even an obscure low-budget noir I just stumbled on, Maxwell Shane’s hallucinatory Fear in the Night (1947 – based on a Cornell (Rear Window) Woolrich novel, starring DeForest (Star Trek) Kelley), which fully achieves Robbe-Grillet’s intended effects of dislocation and menace, albeit without the philosophical intentions); (2) the ‘interrogation of the image’ (compare Robbe-Grillet on Magritte to Godard and Gorin’s Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972), in which they deconstruct Jane Fonda’s antiwar activist posture by examining a single photo from ever conceivable angle); (3) further relationships to art history (such as Edouard Manet’s 1867 painting “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” which is mimicked in the shot of Walter and the firing squad) or (4) cinema (there’s a good deal of Buñuel in this film, not least his shoe-fetish movie El (US title: This Strange Passion, 1953) and Robbe-Grillet’s literalization of the high-heeled shoe motif from Magritte); and (5) the cerebral web that joins the New Novel with a long philosophical tradition (from, say, the 18th century Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley – who believed that only the mind allows the continued (apparent) existence of material objects (Robbe-Grillet takes the name of another famous Empiricist, John Locke, for the lead character in his latest ghost film, It’s Gradiva Who Is Calling You) – to such 20th century Phenomenologists as Husserl and Heidegger). If Walter thought he was in a labyrinth, it pales in comparison to the vastly larger, and more fascinating – if daunting – one that Robbe-Grillet has constructed around La Belle Captive, successfully in the book if not, it seems, the film.
As Robbe-Grillet has shown in his philosophical writings and novels, if we can pierce through that maze – which mirrors the encrusted illusions and limitations of “realism” – we can begin to end our ‘captivity,’ and see the objective world for what it is: plain but mysterious, free… and beautiful.
- Written and Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, adapted from his novel
- Produced by Anatole Dauman
- Executive Producer Bernard Bouix
- Cinematography by Henri Alekan
- Edited by Bob Wade
- Production Design by Aimé Deudé
- Costume Design by Piet Bolscher
- Sound by Gerard Barra
- Video Effects by Frank Verpillat
- Music: Franz Schubert’s String Quartet 15; (uncredited) Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold, from The Ring of the Nibelung
- Daniel Mesguich as Walter
- Gabrielle Lazure as Marie-Ange van de Reeves
- Cyrielle Claire as Sara Zeitgeist
- Daniel Emilfork as Inspector Francis
- Roland Dubillard as Professor van de Reeves
- François Chaumette as Dr. Morgentodt
- Gilles Arbona as the Bartender
- Arielle Dombasle as the Hysterical Woman
- Jean-Claude Leguay as the Bicyclist
- Nancy Van Slyke as the Waitress
- Denis Fouqueray as the Valet (voice)
- Michel Auclair as the off-screen voice of Walter
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Koch Lorber Films‘ DVD of La Belle Captive has very good image and sound, but the only special feature is the original French trailer. If you’ve read the review above, you know that this film – more than most – shouts out for extensive information about context, not to mention many more interpretations than the one I share.
- Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Dolby Digital sound
- Original theatrical trailer
- Trailers for other Koch Lorber releases
- $29.98 suggested retail
Reviewed March 20, 2007 / Revised October 24, 2020