30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 23: LA CAPTIVE (2000)

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Day 23: LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Chantal Akerman’s untimely passing; it only seemed appropriate to salute the memory of the great filmmaker by watching one of her films. La Captive often comes up in discussion of great literary adaptations—it’s based on Proust’s La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time—but sadly I can’t speak personally to that aspect of the film; no matter, as there are so many other embedded layers worthy of analysis. This is one of the great films on the act of watching, with much of the running time devoted to observing one man’s obsessive surveillance of a striking young woman; the exact nature of their relationship is one of the film’s central enigmas that is never quite resolved nor fully explained. Simon (Stanislas Merhar) stalks through art galleries, into hotels, and follows in his car to silently pursue Ariane (Sylvie Testud) as Rachmaninov’s brooding—and referentially resonant—symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” throbs Herrmann-like on the soundtrack, revealing Vertigo to be just as significant a point of reference as Proust. The second half of La Captive abandons a sense of Hitchcockian mystery, however, opting instead to dramatize Simon’s increasingly frantic quest to understand the very nature of desire—and specifically the complex desires concealed by Ariane’s impassive face and vague but unfailingly acquiescent answers to his distressed questions.

The pieces finally beginning to fall into place for both Simon and the viewer after he witnesses Ariane engaging a female neighbor in an impromptu rendition of a duet from Mozart’s Così fan tutte from their opposite courtyard balconies, and it feels just as incriminating as if he had stumbled across the objection of his affection in flagrante delicto (Melissa Anderson has characterized it as the most erotic scene of the film, and I unhesitatingly agree). Increasingly desperate, he pays a night visit to a young female couple played by Bérénice Bejo and Anna Mouglalis—how lovely to suddenly have two of my favorite French actresses suddenly, unexpectedly materialize together in the middle of a film!—who try to answer his questions on female sexuality, lesbian relationships, and emotional connection, but like two sibyls they can ultimately offer only further riddles. Not quite as austere as the towering Jeanne Dielman and some of her other films, La Captive displays the characteristic visual and technical rigor of Akerman’s signature minimalist, objective style—immaculately arranged mise-en-scène, an exquisite perception of space and to the passage of time, an incredibly precise attunement to the aural possibilities of cinema, an awareness of life’s unabashed weirdness—balanced by the gorgeous, quietly sumptuous cinematography of the great Sabine Lancelin (this is the second film lensed by her I’ve seen this last week—and both are two of the most visually magnificent films I’ve seen for this project). I’ve really only scratched the surface of Akerman’s oeuvre at this point; this undoubtedly is a situation that needs to change immediately.

[Watch La Captive on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (2009)

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Day 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)

An exquisite little urban idyll of a film, made when its esteemed director was over 100 years old (and he’d make several more before passing away last year at the age of 106). What’s so captivating about watching a late-period Oliveira film is how they feel like they have somehow managed to elude time, or, more precisely, convey the unique perspective of someone who has personally witnessed a span of ten successive decades and is thus attuned to whole different levels of embodied history and life’s underlying rhythms. To the uninitiated Oliveira’s style can come off as stilted and inert, easily dismissed as hopelessly old fashioned. But after viewing several films—which only scratches the surface of his sprawling oeuvre—I’ve come to recognize that he simply approaches his material in a manner contrary to the current trend of making characters in period films seem like “one of us” living today; rather, when using period material as his source—this particular one is adapted from a 1902 short story by the great realist Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós—he suspends his stories within a vaguely recognizable present while the characters function according to antiquated modes of behavior that feel utterly alien to contemporary life. I’m not sure what the opposite of a “bodice ripper” would be, but that’s exactly what Eccentricities is: though it’s central concerns are about love, desire, and grand, instantaneous passion of the type that ruins and redirects the course of whole lives, it is conveyed through the slightest nuances of gesture, facial expressions, and the presence of charmingly anachronistic fetish objects (such as a ubiquitous antique fan). In short, Oliveira films are the type where a character can utter something like “you cannot imagine how happy I am” with an utterly blank face, forcing the viewer to decipher the statement and probe it for obscured meanings.

Catarina Wallenstein is perfectly cast as the titular character (and won a Portuguese Golden Globe for her performance), as her bedroom eyes make instantaneous, irrevocable adoration seem not only plausible, but probable. Sabine Lancelin’s gorgeous cinematography, masterfully capturing various gradations of light, renders Lisbon a luminous physical presence, while Oliveira’s characteristically elegant utilization of windows, doors, and passageways of all kinds to visually signal depths and dimensions beyond and behind the film’s frame is virtually unparalleled. I won’t claim this is easy or readily accessible, but as is the case with most of Oliveira’s films, it’s unlike almost anything else you’ll ever watch.

[Watch Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl on Fandor here.]

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