Monday, September 21, 2009

Female European Directors: La Captive

La Captive (1974, Chantal Akerman)

Breaking up is rarely easy, but sometimes there is a feeling that the relationship at hand is simply not going to last for very much longer. It can start as a small nagging feeling, a bitter taste that something is amiss and that things aren’t what they used to be. In Akerman’s pensive look into a relationship on the rocks, La Captive, is as tragic and truthful as it is a slap in the face to all of us who think we, should know everything about our partner and that a healthy relationship hinges on it.

Simon (Stanislas Merhrar) is a well off young gun who keeps a particularly close tab on his lover Arianne (Sylvia Testud). This habit is not limited to seemingly honest questions of ‘what have you been doing today hun?’, although Simon does indulge in pressing Arianne with such queries. No, Simon goes to considerable lengths to keep a watchful and careful eye on his belle. A close friend, Andrée (Olivia Bonamy), is entrusted by Simon with the task of accompanying Arianne on her many outings around town, such as during her singing lessons. But when outside help is unavailable, Simon can take matters into his own hands, most notably by following his beloved around the city, which he does more than once in the film. That’s not the only thing that seems unique about this setup however. There’s the fact that they live in a large condo with Simon’s ill grandmother. There’s the fact that Simon and Arianne do not sleep in the same room and when the two are in the mood for some intimacy, Simon ‘calls’ for Arianne to his room. Finally, there is Arianne herself. Judging from what the viewer sees of her, she is obviously sweet, friendly and happy go lucky. However, it should also be clear that there is something peculiar about her as well, something a bit off. Saying that she is mentally challenged would, arguably, be too rash, but she has some offbeat ticks. She frequently claims to have forgotten important things she told Simon only days earlier, changes ideas and thoughts on a consistent basis, and…I honestly cannot quite put my finger on it, but there is a childlike quality to her behaviour at times. Attention deficit disorder of some kind? She’s simply doesn’t behave like a regular adult would. Her perkiness and whimsical attitude makes her a character who almost seems to belong in another film altogether. Coupled with Simon’s disposition towards keeping a tab on things, this would explain his control freak attitude towards Arianne.

With such a conviction that everything about his lover must be controlled, imagine Simon’s stress level when he begins having doubts regarding Arianne faithfulness. Now, be wary, because I am not implying that Arianne is having an affair with another man, which, according to what we know, she is not. Rather, the source of Simon’s doubts can be found in his fear that Arianne may be tempted by women. No, that’s not a joke.

This was the third Chantal Akerman film I have watched (Jeanne Dielman and Je, Tu, Il Elle being the other two) and none have been anything close to mainstream. In fact, one could potentially argue that of those three movies, La Captive is her most mainstream (it has a much more straightforward plot than the other two), and yet there are a ton of things about it that do not make it mainstream at all. Films with offbeat characters, deliberately slow, scattered and pensive storytelling just means she’s in her comfort zone. La Captive explores a famous theme, infidelity and the breakdown of relationships, but does so through very unique lenses. What’s so interesting about the film and the journey of its characters is how little 100% certain information Akerman gives us. There is enough hinted at to make Simon’s fears of Arianne seem founded enough. Perhaps his beloved is in fact in the process of discovering that she’s attracted to the same sex. Akerman’s camera captures little glances, little smiles and little ticks from Arianne and other female characters in the movie that would make such a ‘fear’ on Simon’s behalf plausible. The fact remains however that we the viewers, and consequently Simon, from whose perspective the story is told, are never privy to quite enough information to make that conclusion definitive. We and Simon could very well be wrong. Arianne herself, in the final third of the film, refutes that any major problems exist between the two. According to her, she never lies (or almost never), and finds Simon a fascinating partner precisely because there are things about him that remain a mystery. That latter element is a crucial one, because it is the same thing that, for Simon, spells the destruction of their love. He tries so hard to know everything about her, from where she is to what she is thinking about at specific times, and yet there is one truth trapped in a nutshell he cannot crack. How could she have changed for the other team? In one of the film’s most intriguing, comical and truthful scenes, Simon pays a visit to two lesbian lovers he knows shortly after arriving at the conclusion that Arianne has become a homosexual. He presses them with queries about the lesbian lifestyle, how does one become a homosexual, when can it happen, etc. They answer his cries for information as best they can, but ultimately he leaves their home with very little consolation except the notion that, for all intents and purposes, you are who you are and that’s that. A bitter pill to swallow for a man like Simon given the apparent circumstances.

The decision to have the story told from Simon’s perspective, in the sense that he is the character we see most and all we can know is what he knows, is a fascinating one. There can be something undeniably unsettling for a young, healthy, good looking man who does genuinely have affection for his lover to learn that he is no longer a suitably catch. If a guy (guys will be guys after all, so let’s stick with that idea) learns that his partner, with whom he has shared intimate moments and great passion, has suddenly discovered that she is in fact a homosexual, it can be particularly difficult to digest. It isn’t as if the reason for her departure has to do with a personality trait or a habit on his behalf that is sickening the lady and that requires effort to rearrange. No, this is something he can do nothing about. Nothing. For a lot of guys, that’s not an acceptable proposition and for a while it will eat them inside. In truth it has nothing to do with the guy, it really doesn’t. It literally has everything to do with girls, but that probably won’t compute at first for the male, and this is exemplified in Simon’s grim and defeatist attitude. It makes the scene in which he interrogates his homosexual female friends all the more compelling. He wants to understand it, but the way his mind is programmed is making that difficult. His fragility takes over in the latter stages of the film.

There is another clever factor added to the film by having Simon as the main character. Akerman’s past work, the work that I have seen at least, focussed on women and either their social condition at the time, as in Jeanne Dielman, or their emancipation through sexuality, as in Je, Tu, Il, Elle. Here is a film that has a woman’s issue at stake, but it is told from a male perspective, and a conservative male perspective at that. He wants to control her movements as much as possible, and the prospect of Arianne being a lesbian forces him into an uncomfortable position, to the point where he tries to understand it in a way that isn’t productive. It’s almost as if Akerman was turning her own style on its head, although the conclusion of the story, and the effect it has on Simon, dramatically debunks that possibility.

Furthermore, Akerman gives the viewer a female character that is difficult to decipher at times. As I outlined above, there is little doubt that she’s peculiar, although in a more subtle way than one might expect. We also don’t get to see her enough to make an informed decision about her sexuality, yet are provided with subtle but certainly noticeable hints that may or may not point towards Arianne being a closet homosexual. The scenes that involve her and their friend Andrée, including the home video which opens the film, tease the audience with that possibility. All these support Simon’s paranoia, but not his conclusion.

On a more technical level, Akerman certainly crafts a fine, fine film. The acting from everyone involved is stellar, and especially from Berhar, who carries much of the film on his shoulders. His character isn’t given any favours when one considers his personality traits and the situation he finds himself in. The fear that he may lose his lover for reasons beyond his control, a power he typically wields like a master strategist, is too much to bear. The films is also equipped with a passionate symphonic score, which at times supports the scenes with subtlety and other times points towards the obvious emotional hurricane stirring within Simon. I was under the impression that, with the intense emotions running amuck and the thrilling music accompanying the story, La Captive could make for a great opera. The camera work, while never vying for shots that scream ‘Hey, I’m a technically spectacular!’ is smooth and confident. There are, in reality, plenty of ‘screen cap’ worthy moments that remind us, once again, that Akerman knows how to frame her scenes.

While not soaring to the heights of some of her previous works, Akerman nonetheless delivers a compelling feature which dives into emotionally murky territory. La Captive aptly demonstrates that Akerman is never one to take the easy route when telling a story. It’s not her most challenging effort, but still makes for a satisfying experience.


CS said...

Sounds very interesting, I may need to rent this one.

edgarchaput said...

Give it a try. It has a rather dark tone overall which is appropriate I guess. The perdormances from both leads are really excellent.