Because of its complex and introspective nature, the works of the great French novelist Marcel Proust have been difficult to translate to the screen in spite of some very fine attempts by Raul Ruiz and others. Chantal Akerman's La Captive is no exception. Inspired by the fifth of seven volumes of Proust's epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the film captures the obsessive quality of the relationship between Simon (Stanislaus Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud) (Marcel and Albertine in the novel), but is unable to project onto the screen the novel's exquisite prose, psychological subtlety, or depth of feeling. While Simon is given a thoughtful treatment, he comes across more as strange and unpleasant than the deeply sensitive, poetic young man of the book.
La Captive begins at home with Simon viewing films of Ariane and some friends during their summer together in Normandy. Repeatedly viewing the footage, he carefully utters the words "I really like you," but it is unclear if the sentiment is his, or if he is vocalizing what he imagines to be the thoughts of his mistress. Set in Paris, Akerman updates the story from its turn of the century milieu and transports it to the modern era with automobiles and well-lit boulevards filled with traffic replacing the horse and carriage. Simon is a somber, well-to-do young man who lives in an ornate Paris apartment with his grandmother (Francoise Bertin), housekeeper Francoise (Liliane Rovére), and girlfriend Ariane (Sylvie Testud).
Though they claim to love each other, each keeps their distance. Ariane lives in an adjacent room and only comes to see Simon when he sends for her in an ongoing ritual. Dialogue is sparse and mostly consists of Simon asking Ariane questions that elicit noncommittal responses such as "if you like," "I can't say," or "you think so?" Mimicking Bressonian models, the actor's facial expressions range from enigmatic to blank, and, aside from some perfunctory kissing, the only time that passion shows up is when Simon rubs up against Ariane's body while she is asleep (or pretending to be). When Simon demands to know what Ariane is thinking, she replies, "If I had any thoughts, I'd tell youbut I don't." Some situations would be comical if they were not sad. As Simon watches Ariane from an adjoining bathroom while sitting in his tub, he tells her how much he admires the odors between her legs and says that if it weren't for his illnesses, he would rather that she would never wash. On another occasion, he probes to find out the number of lies she has told him, insisting that two lies are not enough, he wants at least four. The jealous and insecure Simon has accumulated evidence in his own mind that Ariane is physically attracted to women but it is not made clear (either in the novel or the film) whether his suspicions are real or imagined.
Nonetheless, Simon is preoccupied by the part of Ariane's life that he believes she is withholding from him, following her in an art gallery and physically removing her from a performance of Carmen at the Trocadero out of his fear of her friendship with the actress Lea (Aurora Clément). When Simon is unable to leave the house because of an asthmatic condition, he assigns their mutual friend Andrée (Olivia Bonamy) to track her whereabouts and report back to him. He even goes so far as to question lovers Sarah (Bérénice Bejo) and Isabelle (Anna Mouglalis) about what they think about when they make love.
Although the characterizations in La Captive are very real and quite haunting, the film covers only a small portion of Proust's fifth volume, omitting the colorful characters that make it so special: Charlus, Morel, the Verdurin's, Brichot, and Mme de Guermantes to name a few, and there is no hint of the music, society, and themes of memory, nature, and awareness of time and place that dominate the narrative. Though the pacing is deliberately slow to capture the enigmatic quality of the relationship, the film, while absorbing, is static and does not draw us deeply enough into its mysteries to compensate for its dramatic inertness.
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