On a mission for the mysterious “Organization” headed by leather-clad biker angel Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Clair), the enigmatic Walter Raim (Daniel Mesguich) stops off at a dreamy nightclub where the beautiful, blonde Marie-Ange (Gabrielle Lazure) flaunts herself before his voyeuristic gaze. Shortly thereafter he returns to the road only to find Marie-Ange lying there, handcuffed, her dress in tatters, smeared in blood. He brings the semi-conscious woman back to a villa where a gaggle of debonair yet menacing gentlemen resuscitate her with a glass of suspicious red liquid. Locked in a bedroom together, Walter and Marie-Ange end up in the throes of passion, until the next morning he discovers the girl has vanished, the villa is eerily empty and his neck is bleeding. Then things get really weird.
Writer, filmmaker and essayist Alain Robbe-Grillet is one of the heavyweights of the French avant-garde. Hugely influential, he straddles the art-house/pop culture divide with admirable aplomb in his native France, drawing parallels between experimental literature, pornography, pulp fiction, gothic horror, comic books and classical art, but is barely mentioned in the English language world save for being the screenwriter of Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Throughout his often controversial career Robbe-Grillet has had a fair few commercial successes without compromising his surreal-erotic impulses, including Trans-Europ-Express (1966), Slow Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and Playing with Fire (1975), but La Belle Captive is commonly considered his most accessible film.
Inspired by the same-titled paintings by René Magritte and Edouard Manet, that were also the basis of a photo-novel Robbe-Grillet authored in 1976, La Belle Captive’s dreamy, ethereal plot gives the impression of being free-flowing but is remarkably cohesive, more a case of elliptical storytelling than surrealism for surrealism’s sake. Robbe-Grillet revisits familiar themes and imagery that go all the way back to Marienbad: the gulf between men and women bridged by desire; deja-vous; dislocations in time and space; dreams within dreams; eerily deserted and luxurious mansions slowly ravaged by time; the irresistible allure of amour fou.
As authors Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill observed in their indispensable “Immoral Tales”, the nearest comparison to what Robbe-Grillet sets out to achieve with his elegant essays in sado-eroticism can be found in the horror-porn ghettoes inhabited by Jess Franco or Jean Rollin. This is the closest Robbe-Grillet has come to making a horror film in its implication that Marie-Ange may be either a vampire, a vengeful spirit or some spectral apparition conjured by her parapsychologist father (Roland Dubillard) with his brainwave machine. From there it’s not too far a jump to Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969) or Rollin’s Fascination (1979). And yet certain elements like the elegant soiree where sharp-suited playboys abuse women for their pleasure or the cruel twist that reunites one character with the alluring Angel of Death, foreshadow mainstream efforts like Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or Angel Heart (1987). Although, for all his sado-erotic impulses, Robbe-Grillet is far less despairing than Stanley Kubrick and less pretentious than Alan Parker.
Beneath the magical atmosphere conjured by the incomparable cinematographer Henri Alekan - whose visual gifts illuminated La Belle et la Bette (1946) and indulges some primitive but still striking use of video effects here - runs a vein of gleefully silly humour. Note the messenger boy doing weird things with his bicycle, or Sara’s motorcycle residing right beside her 18th century boudoir, or the opera-singing mental patient played by sexy Arielle Dombasle (who appeared in Lace around the same time! How’s that for contrasts?).
Scored with sublime snippets of Schubert, La Belle Captive carries a palpable erotic frisson whenever Gabrielle Lazure and Cyrielle Clair grace the screen. Frequently undraped and lovingly bathed in Alekan’s golden hues, they’re suitably captivating angels of death although, as ever with Robbe-Grillet, the question remains whether they are prisoners of our gaze or we’re prisoners to their’s.