The Captive

(La Captive, Chantal Akerman, France, 2000)


Rather than aim for a synoptic sweep of Proust as Ruiz did in Time Regained (1999), Chantal Akerman and her Belgian collaborator, critic-historian-filmmaker Eric de Kuyper, focus on one section, The Prisoner, lightly modernise it, and distil it to its steely essence. The result, while scrupulously faithful in many respects to the spirit and letter of the book, is in the end the sly realisation of every cineaste’s dream: to remake Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and get away with it.

Akerman’s films, whether melodrama, comedy, musical or avant-garde (and sometimes all these things at once), have always agonised over a central mystery: the tearing inscrutability of the Other whom you love and desire. Simon (Stanislas Mehrar) seems to possess Ariane (Sylvie Testud) as one might possess a precious toy. Theirs is an odd, perverse, glacial relationship which depends, at least for Simon, on a hands-off intensity. Like James Stewart for Hitchcock, Simon is all gazes, fantasies, projections.

The complications in this exquisitely, almost unbearably tense tale arise when, to feed the strange affair, Simon is compelled to nourish his own paranoia and jealousy, pursuing Ariane at a distance. Ariane’s otherness is truly and wholly other to Simon, because (as he increasingly suspects) it contains a secret lesbian passion involving Andrée (Olivia Bonamy). And so he must also (in a wonderfully comic "investigation" scene) try to understand the nature of the woman-to-woman bond that drives him insane because he can never share it, never break it, never possess it.

Seemingly so crystalline and measured, The Captive has a rage brewing in its placid lake. The jewel of a magnificent career, it is among Akerman’s finest, most perfectly realised and stylised films. As always, the emotion is carried not in the carefully undercut emoting of her dazzling Bressonian actors, but in the colours, the music, the crisp sound effects, the camera movements. And so The Captive must be seen on a big, loud screen, for it carries (as Raymond Bellour has remarked) "a magisterial cinema-effect too rarely experienced today".

MORE Akerman: Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, Golden Eighties, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, A Couch in New York, Saute ma ville

© Adrian Martin June 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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