Reading Christine Smallwood on La Captive

La Captive
March 18th 2024

The Decadent Editions, which will eventually consist of ten pocket-sized monographs—each devoted to a film from the 2000s—is a more intriguing and exciting critical undertaking than the BFI’s long-running book series Modern Film Classics. A stated goal of the Australian publisher, Fireflies Press, is to “shift attention away from the entrenched classics.” Each book is just over four inches wide by five inches high, contains around 180 pages, and is minimally designed—a monochromatic cover, elegant paper and typography, and no illustrations. It’s all about the text, as is evident in the first four books from the series, which feature the deeply informed and engaging writing of well-known critics on underappreciated gems: Nick Pinkerton on Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), Erika Balsom on Ten Skies (2004), Dennis Lim on Tale of Cinema (2005), Melissa Anderson on Inland Empire (2006).

The fifth volume in the series, La Captive, has just been published. It engages with Chantal Akerman’s rarely-screened 2000s masterpiece about romantic obsession and sexual desire. Written over a two-year period, during the suspended time and the eerie isolation of the pandemic (apt conditions, as it turns out, for a deep consideration of an Akerman film), the monograph is the work of Christine Smallwood, a novelist (The Life of the Mind) and prolific culture critic. Previously, Smallwood has written about topics including Britney Spears, Laura Dern, Hilton Als, Noah Baumbach’s White Noise (2022), Werner Herzog, and Claire Denis. While Denis’s Beau Travail was surely on the list of possible titles for the Decadent Editions book series, it was on many year-end top ten lists while La Captive’s claim to critical fame that year was making Film Comment’s Top 10 Unreleased Films list—it still has no U.S. distributor.

Akerman admirers will be grateful that Smallwood chose La Captive as her topic. She went into the project with more experience writing and thinking about Marcel Proust, whose story The Prisoner from The Remembrance of Things Past inspired La Captive, than about Akerman. Yet among the many achievements of her slender but potent book, in addition to the precision and depth with which she unpacks the film, is that she gives a comprehensive and concise overview of Akerman’s life and work; this may well be the best English-language book about Akerman currently in print. The British film director Joanna Hogg, who organized a two-year long Akerman retrospective in London from 2013 to 2015 (which tragically ended just after Akerman took her own life) writes in the back-cover blurb: “a portrait of Akerman and her films—the most illuminating I’ve read—and a portrait of herself.”

Smallwood decided to include herself and her experience of writing the book during the pandemic into La Captive, a decision that was likely inspired by Akerman’s own autobiographical writings and films, including My Mother Laughs, her memoir about her inseparable bond with her mother Nellie, a concentration camp survivor. Of her own consuming relationship with La Captive, Smallwood writes in the foreword, “like any relationship, criticism involves idealization and fantasy, avoidance, hostility, and disappointment; the desire to know and a fascination with what is unknown […] in the pages that follow I have tried not to hate Chantal Akerman, even as I have to come to hate writing this essay.” These words echo Akerman’s own pangs of self-doubt in My Mother Laughs: “I wrote it all down and now I don’t like what I’ve written.”

Obsession—artistic and sexual—is the underlying topic that Smallwood examines. Akerman distilled Proust’s book to its essential relationship, between the writer Marcel and his lover Albertine, who he suspects of being attracted to women. Akerman, who Smallwood labels “the Proust who has seen Vertigo,” changes the names of the main characters to Simon and Ariane, setting La Captive in an indeterminate time period that simultaneously evokes the present, Proust’s era, and the 1950s of Vertigo, the Hitchcock film that, as Smallwood observes, haunts every moment of La Captive. It is ironic that Akerman, who cited Vertigo as her favorite film, made Jeanne Dielman, the film that replaced Vertigo in the 2022 edition of Sight and Sound’s “Greatest Films of All Time” critics poll as the greatest film of all time.

Smallwood’s ability to move fluidly between Akerman and Proust is captured in a passage describing the opening of the film, a paragraph worth quoting in full for its powers of description and analysis:

From the black sea that opens the film Akerman cuts to Super-8 footage of a grey blue sea, and a cluster of long-legged girls frolicking on the sand in steely daylight. This is Proust’s ‘little band”--the young girls in flower’ who Marcel cannot disaggregate, who have more appeal as a group than each does on her own. They are having fun. Fun is something that we never again witness in La Captive, except for a few minutes when Andrée is tipsy and wearing Ariane’s scarf, and then once more when Ariane is having some champagne at the theater with her girlfriends before Simon barges in and drags her away. Fun is something that by definition excludes Simon, that he intrudes on or interrupts, that he can record but usually ruins.

The film feels like a classical, masterfully constructed romantic melodrama, but the decorum thinly veils the oddness of the behavior it depicts. Simon can only have sex with Ariane by dry-humping her while she sleeps. And Sylvie Testud makes Ariane completely enigmatic, through a brilliantly controlled impassive performance, reminding us that Robert Bresson was one of the biggest influences on Akerman. Smallwood observes “her performance throughout the film has a practiced vacancy, like a doll.”

Smallwood reminds us that Akerman works in many different registers, both in this film and throughout her career. One reason that many of her films have tended to be neglected or misunderstood is that Akerman, in nearly 50 films, continuously redefined what an Akerman film was. Smallwood spends some pages here on Akerman’s delightfully oddball comedy Tomorrow We Move (2004), which stars Sylvie Testud as a porn author whose mother moves in with her. The film is as loose and playful as La Captive is carefully controlled, yet it shares some of the same concerns by focusing on the inner life of a writer and the defining relationship between a mother and daughter. That Smallwood draws such interesting connections between these very different films is typical of the ease with which she connects Akerman, Proust, Hitchcock, and herself, and continually comes back to the themes of sleep, creativity, sexual desire, writing, and romantic relationships, and mother-daughter relationships. Though Smallwood may have entered her relationship with La Captive with trepidation, her book more than does justice to a great film and filmmaker.

“Christine Smallwood on La Captive” is an illustrated lecture that will take place tomorrow evening, March 19, at Light Industry.