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La Captive

Debilitated Eros                                


Who is the captive we may ask while watching Chantal Akerman’s film of the same title? Adapted from Proust’s La Prisonniere, is it Ariane (Sylvie Testud)  who is constantly under the watchful gaze of Simon (Stanislas Merhar), or is it Simon himself, captivated as he is by the loved one’s every gesture? We could go along with Martine Beugnet when she says in Cinema and Sensation that Ariane “walks, legs cutting through space like scissors, heels clicking; followed by Simon’s relentless obsessive gaze, yet forever eluding it, she traverses the film and manages to weave her way through the controlled and obsessive spaces where he hopes to keep her captive.” But we might only half agree. Ariane would seem to have far more freedom than that, and indeed it might be the very freedom that Simon gives her which shows how deeply captive they both are: Simon because he insistently follows her around Paris when she does go out; and Ariane who may realise that captivity resides in far more than the apartment space: it includes the whole city.

In interviews about the film Akerman reckoned it is “always the imaginary which gives pleasure”, and reckons their sexual encounters and more generally the relationship “is a ceremony very much between the two of them, up until the moment when his jealousy and his permanent questioning start to carry more weight than their shared pleasure.” What happens isn’t so much that Simon keeps Ariane captive, but that he is captivated by her, still endlessly fascinated by the signs she gives off where it would seem for Ariane Simon has nothing to give her – “what is important is that a partner fires your  imagination – if not, there is no sensual pleasure”, Akerman believes.

This ties in with some of philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s ideas in Proust and Signs, where he insists that much knowledge, philosophical knowledge, “arrives at only abstract truths which compromise no one and do not disturb.” Deleuze quotes Proust saying, “the ideas formed by pure intelligence have only a logical truth, a possible truth, their election is arbitrary.” Deleuze wonders what knowledge can give thought urgency, and surely there is no better example of the urgent truth than that of the jealous lover looking for signs from his loved one.

This would be why as Deleuze says, “a mediocre love is worth more than a great friendship: because love is rich in signs and is fed by silent interpretation.” Where Beugnet sees a woman who looks to escape the obsessive gaze; we might be more inclined to muse over not the caged element of Ariane’s life, but the lack of curiosity she feels towards Simon. Near the end of the film Simon and Ariane are driving to the coast accepting their relationship is over, and while Simon says he wants to know everything about her, Ariane says she doesn’t want to know everything about him. “I love you because there is a part of you I don’t know. I imagine you’ve this world I cannot enter.” Are they both lying to themselves more than to each other? Simon may say he wants to know everything about Ariane, but it’s surely that he doesn’t feel he knows everything about her that would, taking into account Deleuze and Akerman’s comments, keeps the fascination going. Ariane doesn’t ask because, finally, she isn’t curious enough about Simon to find out.

Ariane would seem to have everyday perceptions about Simon that may even exemplify the idea that she doesn’t love him. When Deleuze says “each sign has two halves: it designates the object, it signifies something different…to the exploration of encounters we have preferred the facility of recognitions,” does this help explain the difference between Simon and Ariane’s feelings towards each other? Let us put aside for the moment the possibility of different dispositions – that Simon is given to enquiry; that Ariane is less curious – and say that what Simon’s curiosity proposes, and that Ariane’s absence of it reveals, is that the relationship is over because while the imaginary still gives Simon much pleasure, however tortuous, for Ariane it would seem no longer to fire her imagination.

Now obviously anyone who knows Akerman’s career will be aware that Akerman is, in Ellen Oumano’s words in Film Forum, “a leftist feminist, a filmmaker, a director well aware of notions of the male gaze, of cinema’s capacity to give the man subjectivity, and make the woman the passive receptacle of the look.” But as Deleuze says of Akerman and others in Cinema 2 – The Time Image, “female authors, female directors, do not owe their importance to a militant feminism.” Akerman could have made a film that militantly called into question the male gaze through that master gazer Proust, but instead she quizzically enquires into the nature of fascination, of the power dynamic that is within the relationship, not an external enquiry into its a priori inequality.

Central to this power dynamic is nevertheless the apparently conventional idea that Simon observes while Ariane acts, or rather that Simon gazes while Ariane performs. Shouldn’t Akerman the feminist filmmaker be wrestling the gaze from the man and giving it back to the woman in a radical retelling of Proust? Perhaps, but instead Akerman goes in the other direction and sticks pretty exclusively to Simon’s point of view, and yet at the same time contains that point of view by a filmic perspective beyond that of Simon’s. Take for example the scene early in the film where Simon follows Ariane around Paris. In many ways of course a homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its swelling score and point of view shots, it also has moments that generate a point of view beyond Simon’s. After Ariane parks the car, Simon follows her on foot to a hotel, and most of the shots show Simon entering  the empty frame, and on a couple of occasions entering into an empty frame that we may at first take to be his point of view. It becomes not so much what is Simon observing, but what are we looking at as Simon watches Ariane. Rather than reinterpreting Proust, Akerman pushes the sense of observation further, creating a troubled gaze on the troubled gazer.

The film’s question isn’t so much how does Simon oppress Ariane, nor how might Ariane escape that oppression, but more what is it that so attracts Simon: what are the signs to which he is responding? The distanced perspective, the way Akerman creates a position of observation beyond the story, beyond Simon’s perspective, is to create the space to ask questions about Simon’s desire rather than to create a point of view leading to identification. For of course if Ariane remains a mystery to Simon, Simon remains a mystery to us – Akerman generates the very fascination for Simon that Simon has for Ariane. Why for example does Simon tell a friend who visits him that he is alone with his grandmother, when moments before he has ushered Ariane into another room? Why does he not go on outings with Ariane and a mutual friend, but instead watches them from a distance? Why does he agree to take his mother to the doctor and then suddenly change his mind?

Ariane may not have too many questions of Simon, but Akerman generates questions about Simon as Simon generates questions about Ariane. Thus in both the framing and in the narrative Akerman creates the meditative space for the viewer that Simon creates for himself. This potentially raises an interesting question, and, to help explain it, it might be useful to mention Akerman’s idea of a hierarchy of images, the Mizoguchi notion that certain images create cruelty in the viewer, and Raymond Durgnat’s belief in the hypochondrial interpretations of Hitchcock’s work.

When Akerman talks of the hierarchy of images she means the way that certain images are more obviously narratively dramatic than others – guns, bombs and drugs would all be high up on the scale, and ties into the general idea that to bring a gun into the movie you’ve almost automatically created suspense. Mizoguchi is interested in the sort of viewer that is created by the cruelty he often shows on screen, and Durgnat believes that people read into Hitchcock’s work their own hypochondrial fears, no matter if there is plenty of space for them narratively as Hitchcock deals with Oedipal complexes, kleptomania, voyeurism and vertigo.

How does all this relate to La Captive? Let us return to our comments on Deleuze, and the importance of signs in Proust, and their equal importance to Akerman. Akerman doesn’t undermine Simon through removing his gaze, but she makes the viewer, if you like, neurotic through the multiplication of signs that are not hierarchically narrativized. If we take Vertigo for example, it is the case that Scottie obsessively watches Madeleine, but it is also the case that narratively this is justifiable: he’s being played by Madeleine’s husband and the film acknowledges enough aspects of the thriller narrative to give credence to Scottie’s obsessions. Akerman pushes that obsessiveness into the unequivocally neurotic by virtue of the equivocation of her images, by their refusal to generate narrative momentum.

Now Deleuze wrote the Proust book almost twenty years before his two books on cinema, but there are ideas in Proust and Signs that become vital to the film books, and help explain the type of images that Akerman is interested in creating. When Deleuze says in Proust and Signs that each of our impressions has two sides, “”each sign has two halves: it designates an object, it signifies something different,”we can often see that our desire for designation, for categorical meaning, can rob us of the multiple possibilities in the sign. This idea of designation and signification becomes central to the film books where we might very loosely say that most movement images, of which Hollywood is the master and that lend themselves well to narrative, are opposed to time images, where the signs’ ambiguity come into their own. Akerman is of course very much a filmmaker of the latter, and thus central to creating low images on the hierarchy scale is the need to generate thought around an image rather than a designated narrative around it.

This takes us back to Akerman’s comment where she says that “what is important is that a partner fires your imagination”, and the notion that Akerman explores is how do people fire each other’s imaginations in love. Does Ariane want less to escape Simon than generate the most searching and perplexing questions in the other? Is she in love not so much with Simon, but with the mysterious side of herself that Simon generates?

Yet there is also the problem of the two sides to the sign: the fascinated and the neurotic. As long as the lover is fascinated the loved one can continue generating energy out of this fascination, but if the lover turns the affirmative gaze of fascination into the resentful gaze of jealousy, the loved one is no longer in the creative role of generating fascination, but in the captive role of mitigating jealousy.

Is this what happens to the dynamic between Simon and Ariane in The Captive? In one scene in the second half of the film Simon drags Ariane away from a group of gay friends and in another asks a couple of gay women about lesbianism. Ariane was after all before meeting Simon involved with women, and Simon finds himself increasingly wondering about these relationships. But the question we may ask is whether it is more jealousy than fascination, more oppressive thought than liberating possibility? If we’ve proposed, through Deleuze, that there is designation on the one hand and the ambiguous sign on the other, what happens when the sign that can give space to subjectivity, splits again, and the fascinating becomes the neurotic?

This would seem to be the problematic at work in Akerman’s film, consistent with her claim that “this is the subject matter: man’s pain facing something which constantly escapes from him, when he doesn’t accept the unsatisfied part of the woman he loves, whereas that could be the best fuel for an amorous relationship.” But if the sign topples over onto the side of jealousy over fascination, eros can become very sick indeed.


©Tony McKibbin