I originally saw La Belle Captive
as an Nth generation bootleg without subtitles a year or two ago. I still watched the movie eagerly, savoring the bizarre internal logic and beautiful images which had meaning that I knew I couldn't comprehend with my meager understanding of French. Regardless, I enjoyed the film and knew that I would enjoy it even more once I had an opportunity to see the film with some sort of English options, which I wasn't expecting to happen anytime soon.
Luckily, Koch Lorber has recently released the film on DVD with English subtitles (a first for a Robbe-Grillet directed film), so I have finally had the opportunity to view and evaluate the film while actually understanding the dialogue. And as per usual in a Robbe-Grillet film, the dialogue is a key element to the film, revealing elements that are not implied or ignored by the visuals themselves.
Walter is passing the night at the Matchu Club. He ends up drinking quite a bit, and catches the eye of a beautiful blonde woman. She refuses to give him her name or telephone number, but they dance and laugh all night. Eventually Walter's fun is interrupted when he gets a call from his boss, who needs him to deliver an urgent letter to Henri de Corinthe. On his way delivering the letter, in the middle of the night, he encounters the beautiful blonde woman from the club, lying in the road, injured. He gets her into his car and arrives at the first house he can find with a light on, where there appears to be a mysterious meeting occurring.
He takes the woman to a room where a doctor says he will help her. The doctor then locks the door, and the woman wakes up, appearing nude, and seducing Walter into a night of sex. When he wakes up the next morning, the woman is gone, there is nobody in the house, and the house itself appears to be in ruins. He also has mysterious wounds on his neck.
Walter goes to a nearby cafe, where he picks up a newspaper. The front page of the newspaper alerts Walter to the fact that the beautiful blonde woman was set to be married the next day, and she has been abducted. With his mysterious meeting behind him, Walter spends the remaining running time of the film trying to piece together exactly what happened. Different clues point to the woman being Marie-Ange, Henri de Corinthe's former fiance who died seven years ago. Is the woman a ghost? If the woman who disappeared is a ghost, why are the police still looking for her? While all of this is going on, scenes are repeatedly broken up by Sara Zeitgeist, Walter's boss, riding her motorcycle at night.
La Belle Captive is a brilliantly constructed mystery, begging to be solved by almost every character in the film, as well as by the viewer. It is meticulously elliptical, repeatedly coming back to the same semi-ending (which is even referenced by a character in the film, calling to the fact that it is indeed a film the viewer is watching) in which Walter comes to his demise. Robbe-Grillet drops many clues, some of them add up to something, others just create more confusion.
Watching the film with subtitles is honestly such a eye-opening experience, as it reveals how, for the first time, Robbe-Grillet remains utterly complex while being (somewhat) more accessible than he usually is. Really, the internal logic of the film is easy to access, not half as esoteric as the logic of his films like Eden and After or even Last Year at Marienbad (which he wrote while Resnais directed).
Robbe-Grillet also brilliantly incorporates Magritte like work, which is obviously what inspired the 'novel' that shares a title with this film, as well as the film itself (although, contrary to the DVD case, this is *not* a film adaptation of Robbe-Grillet's own novel, there are similar themes, but the narrative strand is utterly different). Where Magritte used the frame within a frame to construct his 'alternate word' that exists and echoes the real world, Robbe-Grillet uses the technique to add a layer of depth to the alternate 'realities' that are co-existing in the film.
These interior juxtapositions also create a structuralists wet dream; aside from the connective images that flash on screen, Robbe-Grillet takes the theory one step further, emphasizing connections between shots and frames within the frame and in relation to the frame-- in other words, the structural elements of the film are so strong it's virtually impossible to view the film without being completely aware of Robbe-Grillet's desired ideas and themes, yet these juxtapositions are handled so well it never seems heavy- handed.
While many have commented on the film in claims that it exists as a sort of "art-house erotic thriller," in reality Robbe-Grillet retains the same sort of icy disconnect from the "erotica" present on screen as he often does in both his books and other films. There is nudity and sex, but it is approached more as a narrative transition towards something further, less as eye candy or an erotically charged moment. Walter and the possible Marie-Ange's initial sex-scene serves only to further a sort of obsession between the two and to introduce the vampiric markings on Walters neck. Marie-Ange is, as a nude, very enticing, but that's the whole point; she's entrancing the character of Walter, pushing the story forward.
A very interesting element of the story is Robbe-Grillet's subtle approach towards vampirism. The "Marie-Ange" character leaves bite marks on Walter's neck, and when Walter discovers Henri de Corinthe dead, Henri has the marks on his neck too. However, instead of turning into a vampire himself, in the traditional mode of vampirism, the marks simply seem to extend Walter's connection to the vampiric character; Marie-Ange is not 'stealing' Walter's blood, she's 'stealing' his mind by utterly occupying it.
What remains utterly satisfying about the film is that ultimately, it is a simple love story between the living and the dead. It is in this aspect that the film attains a humanistic element that is generally ignored in most of Grillet's films. The only aspect of the film that remains unsatisfying to me is the ending, which is a play on the "was it just a dream?" ending that has almost become cliche; yet that I can excuse as it exists as another window into another world; which is what the film repeatedly does over and over again. However, there is a sort of bizarre coda to the film, a voice-over narration while Sara rides her motorcycle, dressed in black leather; commentary on the 'angel of death' that seems bizarrely out of place.
Regardless, overall the film exists as one of Robbe-Grillet's most successful films to date, and it's release on DVD with subtitles is truly something remarkable.
Mike Kitchell, 2007