Film

Re-Make/Re-Model

Chantal Akerman, La Captive, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes. Ariana and Andrée (Sylvie Testud and Olivia Bonamy).

THE SINGULARITY OF Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—the passe-partout to unlocking the mystery of cinema’s powers to derange—has never been more eloquently articulated than in Chris Marker’s paradigmatic cine-essay Sans Soleil (1983): “[O]nly one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory,” says narrator Alexandra Stewart, whose hypnotic voice-over consists of passages of letters “sent” to her by Sandor Krasna, Marker’s fictional alter ego. This particular missive dilates on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s crowning masterpiece, who is consumed by the need to re-create the image of the soignée Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman he loved and whose death he feels responsible for, through the coarse shopgirl Judy (Novak again). Krasna/Marker notes that he has seen Vertigo nineteen times; much like Scottie, he—and, by extension, all of those seized by cinephilia—finds himself in the grip of the compulsion to revisit, reimagine, relive.

Traces of Hitchcock’s film abound in multiple titles across several genres, most recently—and perversely—in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, whose release later this summer occasions BAMcinématek’s brilliantly conceived series “The Vertigo Effect.” Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix, which screens as a sneak preview on April 30, follows the bizarre reunion of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration-camp survivor who has undergone reconstructive facial surgery, with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Nelly, who gives her name as Esther, is unrecognizable to her spouse, who presumes she is dead and who has seemingly repressed his most unconscionable acts against her. That debasement continues when he despotically remolds the woman he knows as Esther into his wife. Fully compliant in this brutal masquerade, Nelly may appear to be the film’s most self-deluded character—until the film’s astonishing final scene, an ingenious indictment of Johnny’s, and a nation’s, pathologies.

It’s surely no coincidence that Madeleine, the woman with whom Scottie is so deliriously besotted in Vertigo, shares a name with the pastry that serves as the aide-mémoire for the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; in La Captive (2000), her sublime adaptation of the fifth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, Chantal Akerman makes the connection between that sprawling novel and Hitchcock’s movie even more explicit. Dispensing with the book’s belle-epoque time frame, Akerman’s film takes place in present-day Paris, where the mismatched lovers Ariane (Sylvie Testud) and Simon (Stanislas Merhar) live in his palatial apartment. Feverishly jealous, Simon is obsessed with the years he refers to as Ariane’s “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex. Just as Scottie pursued Madeleine throughout San Francisco in Vertigo, Simon also becomes a possessed private detective, doggedly trailing his inscrutable beloved as she goes from spot to spot in the French capital. His relentless sleuthing eventually leads him to a dyke bar, where he interrogates two friends of Ariane’s. “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he implores—a query to which there is only one sensible answer: “It can’t be explained.”

As the BAM series’ lineup reveals, Vertigo serves as a crucial referent for several other great movies about sapphic desire. Jenni Olson’s Fog City essay film The Joy of Life (2005) devotes part of its psycho-geographical ruminations—“You fall in love with a girl. You fall in love with a lot of girls. You fall in love with a city”—to Scottie’s rescuing of Madeleine after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. (Vertigo figures even more prominently in Olson’s latest nimble cine-meditation, The Royal Road, which closes the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program on April 26.) Dressed in a gray suit that instantly recalls Edith Head’s costuming for Novak, actress hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of abject Diane Selwyn (also Watts), gutted by her breakup with Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). Which brings us back to insane memory: I will return to Lynch’s incomparable work, for easily my thirtieth viewing, when it screens on April 18. Will it unfold exactly as I remembered it, exactly as I want it to? Or will it once again remake me?

“The Vertigo Effect” plays at BAMcinématek April 16–30.

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