Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Friday May 03

Tuesday May 07

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

Friday May 10

Rating:  Unclassified 15+
Duration: 118 minutes
Country: Belgium, France
Language: French (English subtitles)
Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Sylvie Testud, Olivia Bonamy
Director: Chantal Akerman



The jewel of a magnificent career, it is among Akerman’s finest, most perfectly realized and stylized films…the sly realization of every cineaste’s dream: to remake Vertigo (1958) and get away with it.” - Adrian Martin

Updating Proust’s ‘La Prisonnière’ from Remembrance of Things Past to modern day Paris, Chantal Akerman follows a wealthy young writer and his obsession with a girl who lives with him in his enormous apartment. He won’t let her leave alone, and when she is alone, he secretly stalks her believing she is involved in a love affair with another woman. The complex nature of sexuality is once again tackled by Akerman in this beautifully photographed and designed film that questions relentless obsession, romantic love and desire between, and within, the sexes.

Introduced by Helen Grace at Ritz Cinemas and Philippa Hawker at Lido Cinemas.

Possibly her best work since her widely acknowledged masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” – James Travers

One of the finest literary adaptations ever made.” - Melissa Anderson, ArtForum

This film represents a perfect match of filmmaker and material. Akerman’s fondness for long, static takes and circular recurring dialogue perfectly suits the maddening repetitions that set the tone of Proust’s darkest work.” - Ken Fox

By Janice Tong
“The most important thing we have in life is time and duration. It’s very important that you feel the duration, because when the duration is given to you and  you feel that you are living. When you see a film and then at the end you say “Hey, I didn’t feel the time passing by”, I really feel that you have been stolen.”  – Chantal Akerman

The name Chantal Akerman has become synonymous with that of Jeanne Dielman, from her film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), made when the director was only 24 years old. It’s not possible to unlink the two; when you think of one name it immediately conjures up the other. Whilst Jeanne Dielman is not Akerman’s alter ego, she is a character that took on an existence that is larger than life, and over the years has grown in presence and status, so much so that the film topped the recent 2022 BFI Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll. When it first screened in the Director’s Week at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, people walked out. Akerman recalled the loud “clacking” sound that could be heard as the seats flipped up one by one. Marguerite Duras, who was at the festival for her own film, India Song (1975), which also starred Delphine Seyrig, allegedly stood up in the middle of Akerman’s screening to loudly declare, ‘This woman is crazy’, before exiting the theatre.

The following morning however, Akerman received fifty offers to screen her film at festivals. This was how she became an overnight sensation – suddenly hailed as a successful filmmaker, and not just that, but a “grand cineaste”, at just 24 with her third feature film. So, where to from here? Perhaps we need to start at the beginning.

Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 in Brussels. She came from a family of Polish Holocaust survivors; her mother, whom she was very close to, was sent to Auschwitz. The horrors of the war never left her family.

When she was young, she’d thought films were too traditional and rather boring until she saw Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Fool, 1965) when she was 15 years old. She always said that this was the film that propelled her to becoming a filmmaker. She spurned conventional schooling; having enrolled in the Belgian film school, INSAS, she left before even finishing the first semester in 1967; and she repeated the same disappearing act at Université Internationale du Théâtre in Paris later. She simply wanted to make films her own way.

Smart, savvy and self-confident it was manifestly clear that Akerman already knew her own mind and had her own style when she made her first short film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1971), when she was only 17: a rather violent parody of Jeanne Dielman’s housewife. She funded the film by making a stock book with which she sold certificates on the Diamond Bourse at $3 a page, and she subsequently used this short film to promote her work. It mattered little that she was untrained as a director, and even less when no one wanted to act in her films; she acted in her own film and even jauntily hummed-sang the entire soundtrack as a displaced non-diegetic insert (Ed: diegesis refers to the fictional world), whilst at the same time providing the film with a slightly odd but affecting internal voice.

In 1971 Akerman moved to New York for a couple of years, and hung out with experimental filmmakers like Michael Snow and Stan Brakage before returning to Belgium in 1974. She cemented her partnership with Babette Mangolte, a French cinematographer living and working in New York at that time with Hotel Monterey (1972). This beautifully conceived and gorgeously shot silent documentary explored the transient nature and otherness of a cheap Manhattan hotel and its occupants. Although Mangolte was uncredited in the doco, they went on to shoot Jeanne Dielman together. The theme of transience and the inability to take root was reprised and evolved into a feature film, Les rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna) (1978).

Early films like Je tu il elle (I, You, He, She, 1974) on the one hand can be seen to be an exploration of female sexuality; but in fact, her subject matter was often aligned with the idea of exile, where there is no “home” but only an interiority. In the documentary, News From Home (1976), its pulsing and always moving images of the Big Apple are juxtaposed with Akerman’s voice-over reading letters she’s received from her mother, the contents of which seem trivial and of the everyday, but nonetheless provide a rudder in the sea of “otherness”. In Là-bas (Down There, 2006) Akerman filmed most of the film inside the Tel-Aviv apartment she was living in, and often through the same window.  For Akerman, “là-bas” is also a metaphor for “down memory lane”, as well as the literal “down below” of the street, of reality and a country she at once feels a sense of “belonging” to, but has been exiled from. While it is necessary ‘to los[e] everything that made you a slave’, Akerman also realised the difficulty of getting out of a prison of your own making (1). In search of her roots, this haunting documentary made her a “ghost” – we can hear her, but we can’t see her. We hear footsteps, Akerman brushing her teeth or tinkering in the kitchen.

Akerman was prolific; in her 44 active years, she made 46 films, 15 installations and 9 books. She regularly moved from documentary to feature films and back again, interspersing these with shorts – it’s as though she never wanted to miss an opportunity to express herself. She was a rare director who could also be regarded as an artist, and many of her collaborators saw her as a writer above all. Regardless of genre, her films were avant-garde in terms of filming style and her use of sound. Her shots are always about durée and she has always maintained that a scene has to go through your own body to have been lived, because it is only then that it becomes your own music.

Akerman liked working instinctively. Even though operating by intuition can sound a little haphazard, she was singular in her vision and conception of scenarios, gestures, movement, sound and text, so that thinking and feeling for her were entirely conjoined. She would often use little known actors, because she hated the idea of making “idols” or “gods” out of their images, preferring the notion that when she shoots an actress they are the “other” to be approached by the viewer (who is also and equally “other”). Akerman didn’t want anyone to bow down to screen images; hence Seyrig had to be reduced to performing mundane household tasks in Jeanne Dielman. She also refused any attempts at labelling her films; she called this being “ghettoised” if they were deemed “intellectual”, or was told they should be shown in feminist or gay film festivals.

Chantal Akerman ended her own life on October 5th, 2015; a month after the premiere of her film, No Home Movie (2015), at the Locarno Film Festival. This documentary is an intimate portrait of her relationship with her mother, Natalia, the only person who, Akerman always maintained, understood her films best and, by the director’s own admission, she was ‘the centre of my oeuvre’. In some sense, this film contains all the elements Akerman loved putting on screen: making an “invisible woman” visible; to really feel time passing, so that as a viewer you’re confronted with your own sense of being; and the displacement of sound and image (the first words uttered in the film by Natalia are, ‘It’s displaced’). This encounter with time and its subsequent displacement was evident in her signature shooting and editing style – many of the shots had the camera set up inside her mother’s apartment but without any direct interaction within the frame. Sometimes we’d catch Akerman walking away from the shot, or directly into the camera until all is blurred. Voices and conversations with her mother seemed halting and at times difficult to hear. Some shots looked out of focus or too dimly lit to make out the image. These are not idolised images, but personal ones; and that is what makes this very intimate film Akerman’s elegiac finale.

The opening shot of La Captive is of a beach, where a group of young girls (Sirens? Nereides?) can be seen frolicking in the waves. The footage has the quality of a home video, and the images are fragmentary and without sound – laughing faces with no laughter; and yet, the sound of the ocean with its thrashing waves can be heard. As a viewer, you begin to notice that this is not the sound from the filmed footage. Rather, the origin of the sound of the waves is displaced and not locatable within the frame; it slowly becomes mixed in with a ticking sound created by the film spools of a projector where Simon (Stanislas Merhar) is standing. He’s watching, interpreting, and lip-reading the footage. ‘Je’, ‘je’, ‘je’, he stutters whilst repeatedly rewinding the spool to decipher the soundless message that Ariane (Sylvie Testud) is saying to camera.

Within these first few minutes we are already plunged into a complex space of the “dreamic”: where Proust’s desired but fictional lover, Albertine, the feminine manifestation of Albert (Proust’s chauffeur and companion), is transformed to become Ariane; and Marcel has become Simon, a name that bears the half-recalled name of Simonet, Albertine’s surname. We find ourselves in a double game where an ever so subtle transfiguration or displacement of characters and authors, sound and image, come together to challenge traditional narrative conventions.

The Captive is a very loose adaptation of Book V: La Prisonnière (The Prisoner) of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) where Albertine/Ariane is held captive in Marcel/Simon’s apartment. Sure, there is an element of control where Simon seems to plan Ariane’s routine and selects her companion for outings. But let us not forget that, in the mythic realm, it is Ariane who has the thread that would eventually lead Theseus out of the labyrinth.

Here, Ariane’s thread is a sonic strand: the sound of her heels tapping along Place Vendôme; her humming; the duet she sings with another woman (unseen by her), and even through the mute opening sequence; it is she who leads Simon, but this time, she leads him further into a labyrinthine web of desire and intrigue. The hand has been reversed, so that it is Simon who is held captive – captivated and transfixed by Ariane. Akerman perfectly inverts the relationship of the captive and the captor.

In Akerman’s cinema, the sonic and visual worlds form a complex relationship. The repetition and variation of music and especially song, and the diegetic and non-diegetic use of vocalisation or humming, all form a direct correlation to Jewish cultural and liturgical traditions. Other sonic elements, like the rhythmic tapping of footsteps that vary and recur, are used to create a web of metronomic patterns that not only guides the characters, but the audience too.

As with her other films, Akerman favoured windows or partitions, seen in the famous bath scene. This liminal space separating the us and them is also the sacred space of a confessional chamber, within which we only ever tell our inner desires and our admissions to ourselves – even though the act is interpreted as two-way. Akerman talked about how, as a child, she would always look out of her window, watching the world go by, and how at that moment of observation she came to realise that she was already an “old” child. So too are the characters in The Captive; they are situated in the modern day but do not act as though they are of their time. Their actions and gestures and their manner of speech all seem to be from another time, as does the mise-en-scène. Simon’s apartment is cloistered, anachronistic, more like relics from an antique shop than the lodgings belonging to a young man.

Akerman has always worked intuitively and that’s why she cast two relative newcomers, Merhar and Testud, and handed them precise directions: the volume of their voice, their silence, the pace of their footsteps (Merhar had to take walking lessons with a choreographer to learn how to walk like a jealous lover). For Akerman, it is emotions and what they evoke from gestures and body language that were crucial to the texture of the narrative. As with the closing scene that seemed so grave and virtuosic, it was, in fact, completely ad lib. In this scene set against Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead, Akerman said that they just kept the boat moving very slowly towards the camera; sometimes there would be talking and then lulls of quiet; the sound of the river was sometimes heard and the actor would look at the camera from time to time without shifting his position. The whole filmed sequence lasted ten minutes, and only a segment was used. This scene bears an uncanny echo to Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name, Isle of the Dead; but in reverse – situating us on the island…and perhaps this interpretation opens up an alternate ending to the narrative.

  1. Élisabeth Lebovici, ‘No Idolatry and Losing Everything that Made You a Slave: Chantal Akerman’, Marian Goodman Gallery.
Restored in 4K in 2022 by courtesy of Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in collaboration with Fondation Chantal Akerman, from the original 35mm negative. Grading supervised by director of photography Sabine Lancelin. Funding provided by Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles.

Director: Chantal Akerman; Production Companies: Gemini Films, Arte France, Paradise Films; Producer: Paolo Branco; Script: Chantal Akerman, Eric de Kuyper from the novel La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust; Photography: Sabine Lancelin; Editor: Claire Atherton; Production Design: Christian Marti; Set Decoration; Jannou Shammas; Sound: Valerie Deloof, Thierry de Halleux, Nicholas Becker; Musicians: Imogen Coooper, Sonia Wieder-Atherton; Costumes: Nathalie de Roscoät

Cast: Stanislas Merhar (Simon), Sylvie Testud (Ariane), Olivia Bonamy (Andrée), Liliane Rovère (Françoise), Françoise Bertin (Grandmother), Aurore Clément (Léa), Anne Mouglalis (isabelle).

Belgium/France | 2000 | 118 mins | 4K DCP | Colour | French with English subtitles| UC15+

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