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La Belle Captive (1983) – DVD Review

La Belle Captive DVD cover


Written by: Alain Robbe-Grillet and Franck Verpillat based on Robbe-Grillet’s novel
Directed by: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Starring: Daniel Mesguich, Cyrielle Clair, Daniel Emilfork, Gabrielle Lazure

Released by: Koch Lorber Films
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: No

My Advice: Rent It If You’re Into French Surrealistic Symbolism.

Walter (Mesguich) is in between “assignments” for a secretive organization so he visits a bar for Bloody Marys and some ennui. Things liven up when he dances with a mysterious young woman (Lazure) but she just as mysteriously disappears. En route to deliver a message from his mysterious employer Sara Zeitgeist (Clair), he finds the same mysterious woman lying in the road, hands bound and bleeding. Taking her to a mysterious house where a mysterious party is being held, the two end up having strange mysterious sex. Waking up the next morning with the girl Marie Ange missing and a mysterious wound on his neck, Walter now has a mystery to solve regarding what the hell is going on.

[ad#longpost]First off, forget any concept of plot and narrative. Alain Robbe-Grillet is well known in artistic circles as a major advocate of the Nouveau roman or New Novel movement which worked to break the traditional structures of storytelling and retool it to fit with the latter half of the twentieth century. So he uses both symbolism and the setting instead of character and plot to convey his message. What that message is will be up to the viewer. Robbe-Grillet expects the audience to work at deciphering the movie, looking for clues and Easter eggs to put together their own interpretation. Of course, it is easy to see that one of the major themes is how slippery the consensual hallucination we call reality actually is. The girl Marie-Ange could be real, a succubus, a ghost, or merely a fantasy. Walter arrives at a stately mansion filled with guests at night and the next morning it is a decayed ruin. Characters encounter Walter then claim never to have met him.

The major clue to this is the heavy use of the paintings of René Magritte. Magritte is famous for playing with how people assume an image is reality. For example, one of his better known works, The Treachery of Images, is of a tobacco pipe but the text under it said “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” translated as “This is not a pipe”. At first, you think this is absurd, of course it’s a pipe. However, if you think about it, you realize the statement is true. It isn’t a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. You can’t that the image, put it in your mouth, and smoke it. It makes sense that a movie that questions reality would use a painter who challenges your assumptions about what is real.

Daniel Mesguich and Gabrielle Lazure in La Belle Captive
Ceci n'est pas une popcorn movie

Like many movies, the problem is not with the ideas behind it, but its execution. If you’re going to engage an audience on an intellectual level, you need to keep their interest with strong performances and visuals. None of that is here. The palette used is drab and washed out, which is a shame when Magritte’s paintings are quite bright with color. The actors don’t give any sort of energy to engage the viewer. I understand that this sort of material is hard for an actor to get his head around but that’s no excuse to give a lackluster performance. The DVD is lackluster too. There should have been a biography of Robbe-Grillet and Magritte for those of you new to this genre of film. La Belle Captive is for the advanced student of surrealistic cinema, not for the beginner.

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