'La Belle Captive' Invades Your Dreams

This Alain Robbe-Grillet film can get under the skin of anyone susceptible to its languid spell.

La Belle Captive

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Cast: Daniel Mesguich, Gabrielle Lazur
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1983
US DVD release date: 2015-01-20

Last year, several of Alain Robbe-Grillet's surreal erotic puzzles were released on DVD and Blu-ray by Redemption. Now, Olive Films has released one of his last films, La Belle Captive, which harks back to his debut with L'immortelle 20 years earlier. The male leads are similar, and both involve the hero's obsession with a woman who might be a ghost, with both having a traffic accident motif. One of the main differences is that the later film opens the possibility that the hero might also be a ghost, perhaps one of those he's told walk the streets disguised as the living.

After highly artificial shots of a leather-clad woman on a motorcycle -- she will prove to be Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Clair) -- the opening scene takes place in a nightclub where Walter (Daniel Mesguich) dances with a woman (Gabrielle Lazur) who coquettishly refuses to give her name. Even though that's all that happens, it's too simple a description of a sequence based on discontinuous editing that presents several lines of action: sometimes he's dancing with her, sometimes he's watching her dance with someone else, and sometimes she's by herself. This entire scene is cast as memory by his voiceover.

The whole movie, while tentatively following a narrative line, will freely edit around like this, sprinkling in flashbacks to connect different images, shot lustrously by Henri Alekan. This technique is part of the movie's dreamlike effect, so it's neither surprising nor disappointing that Walter wakes up at one point (well, more than once) to believe that everything was a dream. But why does he always have those vampiric bites on his neck? Does the woman's evocative name, Marie-Ange Van de Reeves, imply an "angel of dreams" or an angel of death?

The surface plot has something to do with Walter working as an agent for Zeitgeist and his gumshoe-like investigation of the identity (or identities) of the dancing woman, which takes him to an abandoned house, a crazy doctor, and a spiritualist. This happens all while he's shadowed by a crespuscular police inspector (Daniel Emilfork, who should have been cast as the Vulture in a Spider-Man movie). Much of the film consists of erotic imagery of that woman in various stages of undress, sometimes with her wrists bound, sometimes lying dead.

The ulterior plot has to do, of course, with the inevitable attraction of death, a psychosexual appointment with destiny that refers to paintings by Magritte (with a detour to Goya's firing squads). The title is taken from a Magritte painting that inspired Robbe-Grillet's novel of the same name (using paintings as illustrations), although the film is more of an artifact tangential to the book than an adaptation. An adapted version of the painting is used throughout the film: a beach landscape with part of the landscape captured within the frame of a painting. A bloody high-heeled woman's shoe appears in various contexts as well. Apart from being a fetish object, it seems to signify reality or serve as a wake-up call, since its use on a postcard is intended to prod the receiver/viewer into remembering something.

Quoting a Robbe-Grillet interview in which he revealed that the film's interiors were always shot in the same house, which recurs as different houses throughout the story, Lisa K. Broad in Senses of Cinema concludes that Walter's "puncturing" (neck-wise and otherwise) leaves him free to wander in three realities: one in which he kills Marie-Ange, one in which he's killed, and one in which it's a dream. (She also points out the links to Goethe's "Bride of Corinth".) I'd add there are even more possibilities than this; one could give her brain's left hemisphere a breakdown by trying to chart them.

The movie, based on the power of the inexplicable or uncanny image, can get under the skin of anyone susceptible to its languid spell. Olive's Blu-ray essentially contains the same content as the Koch Lorber DVD of several years ago (including the trailer), now presented anamorphically in high resolution with new subtitles.

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