The L Word

Melissa Anderson on La Captive

Chantal Akerman, La Captive, 2000, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes. Simon and Ariane (Stanislas Merhar and Sylvie Testud).

ONE OF THE FINEST literary adaptations ever made, Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000) distills La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s sprawling In Search of Lost Time, to a spare, inventive rumination on the author’s key themes: jealousy and possession. Akerman, who co-wrote La Captive with Eric de Kuyper, dispenses with the novel’s belle epoque time frame, setting her film in present-day Paris. Marcel and Albertine, Proust’s mismatched lovers, become Simon (Stanislas Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud), who live together in Simon’s enormous apartment. A neurasthenic writer, Simon is feverishly jealous, first seen studying Super 8 footage of Ariane playing on the beach with a group of women—a time he refers to as her “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex.

Ariane is inscrutable in those home movies, as she will be throughout most of La Captive; Simon becomes a possessed private detective, tormented by Ariane’s lesbian past and determined to solve the “mystery” of sapphic desire. Vertigo is a key referent for Akerman’s film: Like Scottie pursuing Madeleine in Hitchcock’s movie, Simon doggedly trails Ariane throughout Paris, spying on her in the Musée Rodin as she transfixedly approaches the marble bust of a woman with a chignon—mirroring the scene of Madeleine’s prolonged gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair is arranged in a similar swirl, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Beyond Akerman’s inspired interventions in this page-to-screen transfer, La Captive’s greatest achievement is its exploration of love between women, a topic that runs throughout In Search of Lost Time and that the director herself has keenly depicted in Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994). Simon, again in relentless P.I. mode, takes a taxi to a lesbian hangout to interrogate two friends of Ariane’s, a couple named Sarah and Isabelle: “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he asks. “It can’t be explained,” Isabelle responds. Akerman has never been interested in “explaining” lesbian desire, either—only in demonstrating, sometimes elliptically but always powerfully, its pull. The most erotic scene of La Captive features two women who may not even be looking at each other: On Simon’s balcony, Ariane hears a woman from an apartment above singing an extract from Così fan tutte. Ariane, enraptured, sings back; though the timbre and quality of each woman’s voice is quite different, they reach a climactic moment during their duet. “What goes on between two women” may defy simple explanation, but it can be heard.

La Captive screens June 29 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.