Monday, August 25, 2014

La belle captive (1983)

As one of the innovators and leaders (if not THE leader) of the “new novel” or nouveau roman movement, Alain Robbe-Grillet along with a handful of other radical literary thinkers completely changed the perception of the novel and what could be accomplished within the medium in terms of style, narrative (or lack thereof as it perhaps appeared to many) and characterization. Its no surprise then that when Robbe-Grillet began to work in film his attitude towards screenwriting and directing was essentially the same as his approach to literature which resulted in his Oscar nominated script for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a work which still manages to perplexe to this day. Just like his novels Robbe-Grillet’s films defy any sort of genre categorization. His films are often labeled “erotic”, certainly not inaccurate as his films do feature plentiful amounts of eroticism, more often than not sadomasochistic in nature, however its impossible to classify his films as straightforward “erotica”. The same goes for the “fantasy” label, or “horror” tag when films such as Eden and After (1970) or Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) are in question, or “thriller” when speaking of a film like witty self aware Trans-Europ-Express (1967), a “film within a film” unlike any other of the sort. Then there’s 1983’s La belle captive, a bewildering blend of surrealist mystery, fantasy and horror that’s as masterful as it is mystifying.  

Walter Raim, an agent working for a secret police origination of sorts encounters a mysterious, nameless blonde woman in a nightclub and is soon dancing with the beautiful stranger before being called away by his boss, the enigmatic Sara Zeitgeist. After receiving his job instructions from Sara, Walter discovers the prone body of the woman he was dancing with earlier bound in the road and drives to the nearest house to look for help, only to encounter a group of ominous men. One claims to be a doctor and escorts the two to a room which they soon find themselves locked in. The next morning, Walter wakes up to find the house empty and in ruins and the blonde woman missing. Utterly confounded, Walter sets out on the odd and potentially dangerous task of uncovering the identity of the blonde woman and figuring out just what happened on that night.

Almost impossible to mistake for the work of any other filmmaker, La belle captive (The Beautiful Prisoner) is a quintessential Robbe-Grillet dreamscape inspired in part by the works of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. Immediately after the opening credits Robbe-Grillet establishes a mood that gives off the sense that what is happening is happening outside of time in another dimension and the further Walter gets in his investigation of the mystery woman the more pronounced that mood becomes. Robbe-Grillet’s languid pacing and Walter’s noirish voice-overs heard throughout the film also add to the films already ethereal abstractions as well and give parts of the film a kind of 1940’s detective story feel. As bizarre as the film is, its must be emphasized that the film is far from being weird for weirdness sake, the central mystery is legitimately intriguing and the stranger it gets it only becomes more so with all the left curves Robbe-Grillet throws in from the added subplot of a murder investigation, the detective always on Walter’s trail, the idea that the blonde woman may or may not be the dead daughter of a man who see’s spirits and the suggestion that she may be a vampire. Of course Walter’s occupation and boss Sara Zeitgeist also come into play which give way to one of the films reoccurring visual motifs, postcards featuring a seaside landscape, just one of many Magritte inspired pieces Robbe-Grillet features prominently throughout the film which in turn also lead to several archetypal Robbe-Grillet beach set pieces.

Robbe-Grillet's novel
Despite the title, La belle captive the film is not an adaptation of Robbe-Grillet’s 1975 novel of the same name. Adding to this confusion is the Magritte influence as the book is illustrated by Magritte’s paintings strategically placed thorough the book. Of course exactly how they relate to the story Robbe-Grillet leaves open to interpretation. As for the film, it was hardly the first time nor would it be the last Robbe-Grillet turned to painting as in influence. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the iconic moment in Successive Slidings of Pleasure where Anicée Alvina channels Yves Klein by recreating one of Klein’s  Anthropométries on the walls of her convent prison cell, albeit in red naturally which was appropriate considering the film whereas Klein preferred blue. There are several references to painting in Eden and After as well with Robbe-Grillet even staging a real life recreation of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2” and Robbe-Grillet found a muse in Eugene Delacroix for his final film Gradiva (2006). Robbe-Grillet also found an interesting inspiration for the character of Sara Zeitgeist’s name which was taken from the titular character Phoebe Zeit-Geist from the comic book The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Certainly an interesting combination of influences, Magritte and comic books yet its perfect for a visionary film like La belle captive, a film that like Robbe-Grillet himself, belongs to its own genre.

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