'La Belle Captive' Is a Beautiful Nightmare

Part murder-mystery, part erotic fever dream, La Belle Captive is a sumptuous nightmare.

La Belle Captive

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Cast: Daniel Mesguich, Gabrielle Lazure, Cyrielle Clair
Distributor: Olive Films
Rated: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2015-01-20

An often highly misunderstood filmmaker, Alain Robbe-Grillet has explored the same shadowy realms of eroticized surrealism that his kindred spirit fellow director Walerian Borowczyk has. Robbe-Grillet first came to prominence with his highly esoteric novels, which examine the peculiarities of sex and the lovers who are recklessly engaging in it. Elegantly wrought and layered with a multitude of subtextual information, Robbe-Grillet’s writings initiated the reformation of the novel, a movement known as nouveau roman, which experimented with style and implemented a host of new literary ideas. When Robbe-Grillet teamed up with fellow filmmaker Alain Resnais in 1960 to create Last Year at Marienbad, a labyrinthine narrative of understated sexual horror, his status as a provocateur of the arts had been secured. Robbe-Grillet would continue his work as a novelist while exploring the world of cinema with highly unusual and sexually disturbing films.

As the decades passed and times became more relaxed in their attitudes towards sex, Robbe-Grillet took the opportunity to push even further into the erotic universe of his fantasies, unabashedly presenting sexually frank displays of flesh onscreen, weaving entire storylines around threadbare concepts of desire. Released in 1983, La Belle Captive is just one of many films that Robbe-Grillet has written that deeply entwines the erotic with a subversive netherworld intellectualism.

Part murder-mystery, part erotic fever dream, La Belle Captive follows the story of a young man named Walter (Daniel Mesguich) who, one night at a bar, meets an alluring young woman (Gabrielle Lazure, doing her best Isabelle Adjani). After a couple of drinks and a dance with the ravishing woman, Walter drives home only to find the young woman he met at the bar lying bleeding and handcuffed in the middle of the road. Once he has helped her into his car, the two drive off in search of medical assistance. They soon come across a mysterious manor. Inside, there is a group of suited men who seem to be engaged in some kind of ritual: all of the men are gathered inside a hall and, slowly, they encircle the bewildered couple. An elderly man seemingly in charge hands the young, injured woman a drink. Is it wine or blood? Soon after, the two are taken to a private bedroom, where they are locked in for the night.

Robbe-Grillet’s script never comes clean as to what is really going on in the narrative; the thing is, after a while, it's easy not to care. If you allow yourself to be absorbed in the sequence of events rather than an actual story, La Belle Captive is a sumptuously captivating work, with Robbe-Grillet’s highly surreal and lush visuals creating a lavishly attractive nightmare. Much of the film, in fact, is an exercise in translating the works of surrealist Belgian painter René Magritte’s paintings onto the screen. With no CGI involved, save for a few brief flashes of doctored images, or any special camera tricks, Robbe-Grillet manages the jaw-dropping feat of bringing the world of Magritte’s painting to life. If the Belgian painter's works of art are unnerving in their static form, then they are downright terrifying in Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic world of sexual menace.

Adding to the thick atmosphere of dread are the performances. Cyrielle Clair, in particular, is especially unsettling as Walter’s mysterious boss, Sara, who gives him covert (and possibly dangerous) assignments to complete. There’s a chilling smugness to her affectations throughout, and her quietly malicious laughter in the very last scene is enough to make the blood run cold.

Olive Films have done a commendable job on their transfer. The film is just a little over 30 years old, but the transfer is near flawless. With only a few minor speckles and flicks of dirt, La Belle Captive manages to radiate with a lush color scheme that, no doubt, was an intentional reference to the bold hues of Magritte’s paintings. It’s also wonderful to see a healthy amount of film grain in the stock, a clear reminder that we are watching an actual film and not the flat and sterile gloss of digital video.

As stylish, elegant, and moody as La Belle Captive is, it most certainly is not for everyone. Long-winding scenes that seem to circle and go nowhere will test the patience of many viewers who crave action. The fact that this is a mystery with no discernable solution is sure to frustrate those who demand all loose ends be tied by the finishing mark. Robbe-Grillet doesn’t walk the pedestrian roads, so if you want to maximize your enjoyment of the film, it’s best you question nothing and allow him the reins.

Where this home video release particularly fails is in the supplements: there are none to speak of, except for a trailer. Understandably, there couldn’t be an interview with the director, since he is no longer alive today, but something, either a cast interview, a film critic commentary, or even an essay booklet would have been appreciated. Seeing how Robbe-Grillet’s works are already challenging and difficult, it would have been nice to have some further information to give those who are new to his work a way in.

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