La Belle Captive Review

The film

There are a myriad of things that films can do, but most movies settle for a simple experience of storytelling which follows characters through a moral narrative. Like drama on TV, most modern motion pictures take us through the same stories of good and evil with use of the devices of cinema to make this pleasant or time efficient. Because of this unambitious intention, more and more modern media relies on reheating the old or a spin on the familiar. How we watch films becomes increasingly conditioned to our narrowing experience, and, for me, cinema reduces itself to nothing more than expensive TV where we are simply consuming more technologically and sophisticated versions of the same fodder that comes through our goggle boxes. I find it is a relief when I get to see a film which forsakes formula and the staples of mass media, and La Belle Captive certainly can be seen as an exception to the everyday.

It is a journey through the senses rather than a reassuring story or a contained narrative, it is defiantly enigmatic and requires its audience to surrender their usual expectations of film in order to appreciate it. The film employs the language of dreams and cheekily pokes fun at anyone trying to read it too closely. You might see it as a piece of intellectual whimsy, or a difficult puzzle, and the film works much as similar cinematic sleepwalking like Mario Bava's excellent Lisa and the Devil, or the many instances of dreams in Bunuel's work. Like the latter, the surrealist touches and use of archetypes here are an attempt to explore the nature of consciousness and the role of art as representation or fantasy. Robbe-Grillet's film is inspired by the works of painter Rene Magritte and he ensures that images often compose themselves like paintings and re-creates a number of Magritte's works accordingly.


The story, such as it is, follows Walter in his fascination for Marie Ange whom he meets in a nightclub only to lose her when duty calls. Sent on a mission to blackmail a politician by his boss Sara, Walter finds Marie Ange handcuffed and bleeding in the road and rescues her to a country house. The next morning she is gone and the house deserted with her picture in the newspapers as having beed kidnapped. Unable to find her, Walter continues his mission only to find himself suspected of various crimes.

The film therefore plays a bit like a Chandleresque film noir with Walter complete with trench coat and shady profession caught between his desire for the diaphanous blonde Marie Ange and his duty to the leather clad brunette Sara. Additionally, elements of vampirism are thrown in with Walter suffering from bites to the neck and Marie Ange a spectral presence with a taste for the red stuff. The characters around the trio include a shady doctor who could be part of a conspiracy or a puppet master, a spiritualist who claims to have been at the cinema with Proust the night before, and an insinuating detective with his blackshirt clad death squad.

This is rich stuff, and it allows the viewer any number of readings from sexual betrayal tale to grim reaper analogy to Kafkaesque haunting, yet I think the point is not necessarily understanding the film as experiencing it. There is a lot to appreciate, even if in terms of technique Robbe-Grillet is not a master director. The continuous use of the film's frame and the use of frames within it to show layers of consciousness or imagination is brilliantly done, and the film successfully re-affirms the connection between painting and cinema as visual arts and links the two through the medium of dreaming. This emphasis on non-narrative logic is refreshing and allows the movie to be experienced on emotional and sensory levels rather than be lost in the bottom cleavage of intellectual discussion.

In the erotic moments of the film, there are no two ways about it as the primary motivation is sexual charge and the photography of both the leading ladies and Walter invites their appreciation on this criteria. The scenes when Walter rescues Marie-Ange through to their confinement at the country house is superb - it achieves an intensity that Kubrick looked for and missed with Eyes Wide Shut. Marie Ange's elegant handcuffs, Walter's failure to remove them and her liberation through desire are all topped off with a brilliant composition which puts her behind the bars of the bedstead.

In terms of ideas and images the film is a treasure trove, but I don't know if I can wholeheartedly commend Robbe-Grillet's direction. The cinematography from Henri Alekan is so clever at capturing still or moving image that it seems harsh to criticise how non fluid the film feels at times, and the dreamlike continuity occasionally feels interrupted by flashbacks and experiments in echoing earlier scenes. These criticisms are very much ones that you can make of films adapted from novels where the interior voice of the novel is compensated for in the film structure or exposition, but some of the editing and the shooting feels unsubtle to me. This isn't to say that the director doesn't understand film as a medium as he clearly does in his use of ideas like noir archetypes and the Godard like ending which takes the safe distance of spectatorship away. What I mean to say is that the director's choices are sometimes over emphatic.

La Belle Captive suffers from some eighties fashions, and is undeniably a film that could be criticised for pretentiousness, however it is a wonderful experience for the jaded palate. It will wash away the taste of predictable blockbusters, hackneyed moralism, and second hand feeling. It isn't a masterpiece, it is a literate film that understands that cinema can do so much more. Recommended.

The disc

After their wonderful job on Un Coeur En Hiver, Koch Lorber revert to type with the minimal presentation here. In terms of special features, fans of the film are “treated” to a trailer for the film which is in impeccable condition and four trailers for other releases by the DVD company. For such an enigmatic film this seems a little light and I would have welcomed a commentary or some essays on the director or Magritte for background, but I suppose this is a relatively cheap disc so this is forgiveable. The menu is a version of the still artwork of the film which strangely is presented anamorphically in contrast to the feature itself.

I mention the impeccable condition of the trailer to highlight the quality of the feature presentation, as Koch Lorber have presented the film in merely a satisfactory fashion. The basic print has scuffs and marks, but the transfer is far from exceptional in that it is non-anamorphic, dark and lacking detail. The contrast levels seem far from well graded, the edge enhancement is overdone and the colours look overheated at times. I imagine that time has been taken to colour and contrast boost the transfer but the net result is unremarkable. The audio track has some pops throughout and very minor distortion in the high treble range with dialogue affected most. To further highlight the failings in this release, the disc is single layer.


An intriguing film from a very particular talent gets a fair treatment from Koch Lorber. Given the relative unavailability of the director's works this may remain the only release of this film for English speakers and as such you may be forced to seek it out. Its chief selling point will be that this release seems to be region free.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:52:50

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