Credit: Gemini Films
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Captive — Chantal Akerman

June 1, 2024

The specter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) looms large over Chantal Akerman’s The Captive (2000). At times, it’s to such an extent that it feels like Akerman’s film is like Simon, the obsessive protagonist at the heart of The Captive, adamant on solving Ariane, the object of his desire whose allure — like Vertigo — lies in her irresolvability. Unlike Simon, however, Akerman’s film successfully solves everything by, perversely enough, not embodying Simon’s POV. It most closely aligns with his perverse romanticism. But Akerman’s trademark directorial precision — primarily consisting of long takes and medium close-ups with little to no background score — examines it more than embodies it. Her style creates a critical distance between Simon and us, solving his character (and the film’s inherent mystery) right from The Captive’s first frame: there’s nothing romantic about Simon’s obsessive control and voyeurism; it’s most definitely oppressive and misogynistic. Vertigo tells us the same about its protagonist, Scottie, but only much later. Hitchcock embodies Scottie’s POV for over an hour of its two-hour runtime, troublingly romanticizing his love and obsession for Madeline before revealing it as suffocatingly manipulative by switching perspectives to Judy (the Madeline look-alike).

Now, it’s entirely possible that Akerman only wants to highlight her protagonist’s dangerously obsessive side. In other words, employ a feminist lens as a corrective to Hitchcock’s — self-critical as it may be — male gaze. However, Akerman, when asked if she is a feminist filmmaker, has repeatedly distanced herself from that tag; she sees herself as “a woman who also makes films.” Maybe the whole Vertigo comparison itself is overblown, then: The Captive is most well-recognized as an adaptation of La Prisoniere, the fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. So, the critical perspective changes may not, in fact, be changes at all: Akerman may literally be translating what’s in the novel for the screen. However, Eric De Kuyper, Akerman’s long-time friend and writing collaborator on The Captive, suggests otherwise. In an interview about “Rewriting Proust,” conducted by Annie van den Oever, Professor of Arts Culture and Film at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, he says that Akerman’s sole focus for this film was to explore the theme of “jealousy in a love affair.” For that reason, she only explored the relationship between Marcel and Albertine (Simon and Ariane in The Captive) in La Prisoniere; everything else — crucial characters, historical context, Proustian literariness, and most of all, “obscene” flashbacks — was of little importance to her.

So, we go back to Vertigo, because how do we not: The Captive’s opening sequences are littered with shots and sequences that deliberately call back to the Hitchcock film. First, Simon’s POV shots when tailgating Ariane’s car exactly mimic Scottie’s when he tailgates Madeline’s car in Vertigo. Second, Simon follows Ariane inside an art museum whose centerpiece attraction is the statue of a seemingly expressionless woman — her most distinctive feature being the noticeably vortex-like hair curl positioned at the back of her head. This, of course, is not exactly like Vertigo’s portrait of Carlotta Valdes, which is altogether more resplendent and expressive. But its similar enough features — especially that hair curl — and, most importantly, central implication — Simon sees Ariane as a collectible museum item that he needs to preserve as opposed to a person who may think otherwise — is, again, all Vertigo.

The problem, if one can even call it that, with The Captive’s first two acts is that it emphasizes Vertigo’s point almost too precisely. In other words, each and every sequence in Akerman’s film communicates the tension between Simon’s idealized image of Ariane and her more elusive self in order to critique Simon’s gaze. Take, for instance, the juxtaposition of the film’s first two shots. The first captures the sea during nightime — the high tide’s simultaneously violent and soothing whishing and whooshing making it hard to pin down exactly what the image signifies. Hard cut to the second image, also of the sea, but captured during daytime, with people, and no sound. Well, except the whirring of film reels — Simon is projecting pre-recorded 16mm film-footage of Ariane with her girlfriends on a beach, trying to, forcefully, determine what Ariane coyly said to one her friends. This sharply contrasts with the unresolved mystery of the opening image: Simon repeatedly obsesses over Ariane’s lip movements to create and extract the words out of Ariane. “I really like you,” she seems to say to a former girlfriend, disturbing Simon’s idealized heterosexual perception of her, which he subsequently reasserts by repeatedly saying those words to the on-screen Ariane who seems to quietly, and happily, comply.

Another instance reinforces this reality-versus-image dynamic. This time Akerman frames it as a long take that begins as a wide shot of Simon’s bathroom, positioning him lying down inside a tub, covering the bottom half of the frame, and Ariane, blurred by a translucent glass panel, taking a shower in the background occupying the frame’s top-half. Gradually, however, the camera dollies in to become a medium close-up of Simon, now standing up, imposing himself onto Ariane’s somewhat clearer image. As remarkable as this formalism is, it does still repeat the exact same thing the opening two images clearly did: Simon, obsessively captivated by Ariane, makes her (and, to a degree, himself) a captive of his imagination. And that may as well be Akerman’s point: the form, like Simon (Stanislas Mehrer doesn’t help the film by over-telegraphing his character’s creepiness), is stuck in repeatedly emphasizing only his destructive and jealous side. But unlike, say, Jeanne Dielman and The Meetings of Anna, Akerman’s ‘70s works also preoccupied with filmic repetition, there’s no mystery or heartbreak in seeing what Richard Brody calls the “molecular melodrama” play out in The Captive. There’s discomfort, yes, but one that, after a point, starts to disinterest — or, at least, only interest on a detached, academic level.

That is, until the film’s third act which — quite literally — steers away from just depicting Simon’s obsession. We stick to his POV only, but rather than following in Scottie’s Vertigo steps, Simon decides to break up with Ariane. His reason: she can’t love him the same way she used to love other women. This decision, more than anything, allows the film to get closer to Ariane (Sylvie Testud). The first two acts gave her precious little to do — always keeping her at a distance from us (and Simon). But now, stuck in a car with Simon, who promises to drop her off at her aunt’s house, she speaks about her love for him that’s built not on knowing everything he likes or dislikes, but on not knowing it. She wants a part of her to remain a mystery for him, and a part of him to remain a mystery for her. And while Akerman doesn’t embody her perspective, she honors it. Testud’s almost flat delivery of this “revelation” complicates her character further: it both feels like she genuinely means it and is making it up as a cover up for all the “half-truths” she’s told Simon. This is when she and The Captive become genuinely mysterious and unpredictable; it’s in this where the ghost, not of Vertigo but of Ariane, truly haunts, us and Simon.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon