Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as the screenwriter for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, the famous art film essay about the shifting nature of time and memory. Robbe-Grillet continued on his own as a writer-director of note. La belle captive is a playful exercise in surrealism that uses for its basis Magrittte's painting La belle captive (The Beautiful Prisoner). No matter what irrational things happen to the film's clueless hero, various images of Magritte's painting recur. The Magritte depicts a watercolor of the seashore, positioned on an easel and aligned with a real beach behind it. The artist painted six versions of it across 36 years. The paintings inspired Robbe-Grillet to write a novel, using Magritte's work to extend the definition of surrealism.
Grillet's movie is rigorously surreal. Its mysterious occurrences and characters appear to spring from pop culture daydreams. Reality is subverted; unexpected events topple all rational explanations. It's the high-art equivalent of Porky in Wackyland.
Suspicious reviewers noted that by using nudity and sexual situations, Robbe-Grillet had essentially blurred the art film with an erotic thriller. La belle captive is both more and less than that estimation. It's too inventive to become boring or pretentious; it plays like a latter-day extrapolation of a 1920s experimental short subject.
A blonde in a dance club who refuses to give her name (Gabriel Lazure) charms paid assassin Walter Raim (Daniel Mesguich). He's instructed to contact a government minister by his handler, the motorcycle-riding Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Claire) but forgets all about the mission when he chances upon the blonde lying bound and bloody in the middle of the road. Walter rushes her to a chateau, only to find himself among a mysterious group of tuxedoed sensationalists that behave as if the blonde is there to amuse them. Shown to a private room by Dr. Morgentodt (François Chaumette), Walter is assailed with visions that fracture time and space, making the blonde alternately his lover, and a vampiric attacker. In the morning she is gone and the entire chateau is a now a strange ruin. Walter pursues the truth but the minister he was supposed to contact is dead. The blonde turns out to be Marie-Ange van de Reeves, the daughter of a professor specializing in spiritualism (Roland Dubillard); she is said to have died ten years before. A sinister detective repeatedly names Walter as a suspect while handing him objects associated with an odd painting that has invaded Walter's reality. The painting even shows up on picture postcards. Dr. Morgantodt uses a device to extract Walter's brainwaves -- which form a video image of the same painting. A second painting creeps into Walter's dreamlike experience, a classic rendering of the execution of Emperor Maximillian. Walter is pursued by a sinister squad of men in black, as it becomes clear that he's destined for the firing squad.
La belle captive announces its intentions from the start. Dancing in an alluring see-through dress, Gabrielle Lazure's beautiful blonde interrupts a disco-like scene. She teasingly tells Walter that she may exist only in the future, or only in the past. She may be a phantom of the moment, or Walter may simply be remembering her. For the rest of the film Walter runs through a maze of strange journeys and inexplicable events, all pointing back to the painting by Magritte, itself a playful optical illusion.
Robbe-Grillet establishes just enough of reality to deny reality's influence on his narrative. Walter Raim looks vaguely silly dressed in a Bogart trench coat and hat; his boss Sara Zeitgeist sports a leather cat suit with lace at the wrists and bodice. She rides a motorcycle at night, wearing sunglasses. The cars, buildings and sets are real but the design of the film (by Aimé Deudé) gives them sinister overtones. A convocation of tuxedoed sensationalists in a columned mansion immediately reminds us of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, made 16 years later. The Magritte painting, and objects from within the painting, show up as decorations in strange rooms. 'Ghost' buildings billow with shredded, filmy drapes. In one abandoned mansion, Walter must wade through a flooded, Escher-like staircase.
References and visual themes wander in from a number of popular pulp fantasies. The blonde behaves like a vampire. Her portrait 'comes to life'. Although she 'changes personalities' at one point to sleep with Walter, Sara Zeitgeist otherwise behaves like a one-dimensional comic-strip character. Daniel Emilfork's creepy detective resembles Max Shreck's version of Nosferatu. The professor and the doctor clamp an Ed Wood-approved brain tap onto Walter's head, to produce TV images of his thoughts.
La belle captive is a puzzle picture crafted for art film devotees that carry the proper travel guides to the realm of thematic interpretation. It ends with Walter proclaiming that he's confronting the Angel of Death. The many arresting images and teasing developments come at a pace sufficient to keep viewers amused, even without a background in epistemology.
Koch Lorber's DVD of La belle captive is disappointing, as the unexceptional flat-letterbox transfer does no favors to the stunning cinematography of the master Henri Alekan. Colors are bright but the clever camera tricks that bring the Magritte painting to life suffer greatly. The only extra offered is a trailer. The film begs to be debated by academic film critics with expertise in the kind of intellectual cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais. The language is French with English subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La belle captive rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Fair ++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 4, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson