Persistence of Memory

As Simon (Stanislas Merhar) casts his shadow on the screen, eclipsing the phantom object of his desire, so Akerman casts him in a version of Vertigo. He pursues Ariane's car as it glides through a posh, empty Paris, stalks her in an art gallery, ravishes her in her sleep. Ariane (Sylvie Testud) can be provocatively plain—even homely—but she is fetishized by the unwavering force of Simon's obsession. Like Proust's Marcel and Albertine, the two live together in his family's apartment, but it is what Ariane does when she is apart from him that most fascinates the tormented Simon. (As Proust's narrator explains, "It was in myself that Albertine's possible actions were performed. Of each of the people whom we know we possess a double. . . . ")

In adapting Proust, Akerman eschews the temporal pyrotechnics of Raul Ruiz's Time Regained. Visual as La Captive is in its rigorously formal compositions, the filmmaker is straightforwardly concerned with language. She filters her Proust through the old nouveau roman of Duras or Robbe-Grillet to fixate on recurring phrases: "au contraire," "if you like," "you think so?" Similarly, Akerman takes situations from Proust and elaborately defamiliarizes them. The novel's brief description of Marcel and Albertine's adjoining bathrooms occasions a long scene in which the unseen Ariane sings as Simon sits in the tub, instructing her on the precise details of her toilette. (Outrageously, much of the conversation is a deadpan discussion of Ariane's intimate physiognomy, vaginal secretions, and body odor. "If it weren't for my allergy and all the pollen you bring in, I almost wish you would never wash," smitten Simon says wistfully.)

Bedtime is another droll, even more complicated ritual. "Do you want me to come?" Ariane asks, meaning to visit him in his boudoir. "No, not yet," Simon replies so that he can scurry back to his room and then call Ariane on the phone to invite her in. The rules dictate that they play draughts as a prelude to Simon's real desire—absolute knowledge of her past and future whereabouts. Then she sleeps, or pretends to, allowing for the only time—literally as well as figuratively—that Simon can have her, even as she eludes him. (His practice of rubbing himself against her unconscious form until he climaxes is also taken from Proust.)

Reverse transcription: Pearce in Memento
photo: Newmarket
Reverse transcription: Pearce in Memento


Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
A Newmarket release
Opens March 16

La Captive
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Written by Akerman and Eric de Kuyper from the novel by Marcel Proust
Walter Reade
March 15, 16, and 18

The seething vacuum known as Simon is animated only by his jealousy. As blank and well turned out as a mannequin, the impassive but twitching Merhar gives an extreme Bressonian performance. He watches, he listens, he checks up on Ariane: following strangers in the street, bursting into some soiree and dragging her out. Whatever he does, Ariane is neither angry nor surprised but rather pliant and unreadable. Always obliging, she suggests a machine on perpetual standby. Refusing to acknowledge Simon's surveillance, she blandly deflects his interrogation. When he demands to know what she's thinking, she replies, "If I had any thoughts, I'd tell you—but I don't."

Like the hero of Memento, Simon is a freelance investigator. Suspecting that Ariane is having an affair with an opera diva (if not the woman he has assigned to watch her), Simon interviews a lesbian couple to see if they can offer any insight. "It's different," they tell him. Tormented by Ariane's absence, he picks up a hooker in the Bois de Boulogne. She may resemble Ariane, but she can't play her. Her feigned sleep is too feigned. This material is brilliantly suited to the filmmaker's objective technique. Simon's passion isn't so much mad love as it is impossible love.

Few things are more pathological than Simon badgering Ariane to tell him her lies so that he can rewrite the past in terms of "real memories." The breakup—as dogged and excruciating as everything else—takes its dialogue from Proust but feels like Vertigo once more. Akerman has fashioned a great negative love story, a long stare into the abyss of the night.

Amy Taubin's reviews of "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema," Part 1 and Part 2

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