Il Cinema Ritrovato: Stuck in the 2000s
I remember very little of the 2000s, since they perfectly coincided with my pre-adolescence – I was turning 14 in 2011. Now, the cinema of those years is extremely intriguing to me, exactly because it’s a chronologically self-evident period whose understanding was hidden from me, just like the 2000 leu note, with its fantasy-like illustration of the 1999 solar eclipse – of which I have no recollection whatsoever –, its translucent halo, porous plastic and Eurovision-esque cosmic disco look: I did not anticipate the new millennium, I didn’t seek to make any prophesy of it by means of natural and cultural symbols (and it’s so interesting that the eclipse was a bit of both), but I grew up within its imagery, which has been meanwhile deeply altered, otherized by both History and myself.
I thought about all this while in Bologna, when I found out that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) was going to be screened on a restored print to celebrate its 20th anniversary: a film that I adored as a teenager, then rejected it after my political coming of age, which I didn’t want to revisit during my time at Il Cinema Ritrovato due to a very good reason – it just didn’t really seem interesting. Anyways, I noticed the Godard pull quote in the festival’s catalog, a reply to Bertolucci’s plea to include his iconic sequence of the Lovre sprint in (1964): „Of course, you may use anything from my film. And remember – there is no such thing as author’s right, just author’s responsibilities”. It’s just that Bertolucci, hypnotized by his own youth in the midst of the ‘68 movement and by Gilbert Adair’s novel, The Holy Innocents (1988, re-written on the occasion of the film and re-titled in accordance with it), was planning to make an irresponsible film. Emily în Paris… at Henri Langlois’ French Cinematheque, the same wavelength as the Y2K cinema – the error that electronic devices showed instead of the year 2000, since they had been set to display numbers starting with 19 –, Titanic by James Cameron (1997), The Talented Mr. Ripley by Anthony Minghella (1999), Cruel Intentions by Roger Kumble (1999), Fight Club by David Fincher (1999), The Beach by Danny Boyle (2000), Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola (2003), and so on. Although very different from one another, all of these American cult films have to do with the inability to break the rules (be they related to morals, class, marriage or simply common-sense) and the consequeces of attempting to do so, which indeed connets them to the cinema of the Sixties; but the tone sets the music, and the pessimistic tone of the nihilistic anguish of Y2K has a heavy ring to it. The Dreamers is one such film.
Another is Chantal Akerman’s La Captive, inspired by Proust’s The Prisoner and Albertine Gone and released in 2000, which I decided at the last minute to re-watch in Bologna. I was surprised to see Stanislas Merhar in his saintly 2000s look, with blue eyes, hair parted down the middle, and the entire Parisian atmosphere of business and leisure in which none of these young people are really doing anything, but they all sure seem very busy. I was delighted by the festival’s decision to show this film now, when Akerman’s cinema is just about to freeze in two frames – one from Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and one from her superb “impoverished” documentaries: News from Home (1976), Là-bas (2006), but also, most probably, No Home Movie (2015). Instead, La Captive, is a glossy film that is apparently hard to reconcile with one of the most definitive titles of the filmmaker: but it is indeed a pure Akerman, and contains her entire cinema in just two hours.
Stanislas Merhar, therefore, as a modern-day John Ferguson (Vertigo): Simon, a young Parisian obsessed with the bisexuality of his much-loved, carefully-kept, perfectly-controlled girlfriend, Ariane (Sylvie Testud). But unlike Hitchcock, Akerman wishes to create a protagonist without a past, without a cause and who resists psychological interpretations: he’s the maniacal beau, a gentleman whose reactions can be read in his eyes, a sleep fetishist, a daytime intellectual and longtime heir, a protective lover and caring nephew. His obsession doesn’t seem to have a beginning that can be precisely pinpointed, nor does it seem like it will end too soon.
Ariane is even less so: a Breton girl that Simon met on the beach – and shot on 16mm film, a reel that he carefully watches at the very beginning of the film, and which he intimately approaches, stopping it over and over again, dubbing it from memory, enjoying his complete control over the image. Little else can be understood of her: nothing much in terms of biography or temperament, which sets the ground for the great humorous moment of the unsuccessful break-up – she, somewhat resignated, he, blinded by rage, decide to give each other another chance: but this is not how the film will end. In fact, what is never said about Jeanne Dielman is that its untimely ending, that improbable murder committed by the taciturn housewife that we have just observed for three hours, is also funny – and how else could it have been, for the filmmaker that debuted with Saute ma ville (1971), a short film in which the protagonist dances throughout her suicide?
Sylvie Testud makes something incredible out of Ariane: her gaze is almost always lost, which gives her strength in moments when she’s scrutinizing the view; along her discussions with Simon she takes breaks, as if she’s considering what to say next and is gathering her courage. In a musical moment on the balcony (since she’s taking singing lessons), she spontaneously enters an erotic duet with a female neighbor, who is perfectly nonchalant and tone-deaf. In terms of acting, she is worthy of Delphine Seyrig, and Ariane’s character is even more radical than Jeanne Dielman: a protagonist depersonalized to the extreme, who lives in discreet, almost secretive micro-gestures, such as the moment in which she asks the driver if she can replace him, so she can avoid Simon’s questions. In contrast to Dielman, Ariane is air-headed, distracted, and essentially utterly uncaring, which gives her a particular mysterious air, as the spectator is never fully sure whether her boyfriend’s paranoia is justified – or not.
And it doesn’t even really matter, because Akerman’s cinema never fully relied on narration, but rather, on mise-en-scene, in everything that happens within the shot together with the story – for instance, the film’s most anthological sequence, for instance, is pure mise en scène: a medium shot of Simon lying in the bathtub; beyond a semi-transparent window, Ariane is humming something stupid. They start a banal dialogue that soon turns erotic, where what matters most is dead times and the cadence with which both are saying “au contraire” to each other. Eventually, the two stand up and stroke their faded images from across the window – he does it passionately, she fakes it. Narratively speaking, these five minutes might as well could have not existed, because all they say about the couple’s unequal level of desire has already been said, and will be iterated again. In fact, strictly in terms of script, La Captive could have well been a short-length film: as a drama, which it apparently is, a lot less time could have been useful to it. But as cinema, it’s perfect just the way it is.
I share the same antipathy that Radu Jude declared (in the newly-published Derive, 1/2023) towards the influence that Jeanne Dielman has exerted upon contemporary cinema; and I perfectly agree with his disclaimer, as well: it’s not the fault of the masterpiece, nor of its master auteur, that slow cinema has become manneristic. I think is is what also attracted me to La Captive, precisely the fact that it looks like something from the aughts, an iteration of Cruel Intentions made with festivals in mind, and I can’t really take it all that seriously, because it’s neither too close to me, nor is it too far away. And any film is much more visible without a halo – it’s too late, but I wish that Akerman would’ve had the chance to direct some music videos, or even some commercials.
Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.
Stanislas Merhar, Sylvie Testud
Suspecting his girlfriend (Sylvie Testud) is bisexual, an obsessed man (Stanislas Merhar) follows her every move and demands complete submission