Movie history is haunted by Proust adaptations that never came to be. The actor and producer Nicole Stéphane spent twenty-one years trying to find a director to take him on. “I wrote to the lady-producer that no real filmmaker would allow himself to squeeze the madeleine as though it were a lemon and in my opinion only a film butcher would have the nerve to put Proust through the mincer” was François Truffaut’s response. Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Louis Malle also passed. Luchino Visconti wrote a script and a château was found (he was planning to cast Alain Delon as Marcel, Brigitte Bardot as Odette, Charlotte Rampling as Albertine, and Marlon Brando as Charlus), but when Stéphane asked for more time to raise the five billion lire that the four-hour film required, Visconti either dropped the idea or died; both versions have been reported.
Harold Pinter wrote a script that Joseph Losey was supposed to direct, but nothing came of it. It is said that Godard wanted to film Proust; he never did. In 1984 Volker Schlöndorff directed Swann in Love, a swoony adaptation of the first volume that wouldn’t be out of place on Masterpiece Theatre. No serious critic praises Swann in Love—it seems to exist only to prove the unadaptability of Proust—but I like it. I like the clothes and the interiors. I like Jeremy Irons as Charles Swann, the man obsessed with Odette, the courtesan who is, famously, not even his type. Schlöndorff’s direction is riddled with clichés; then again, so is love.
It feels like a loss that we do not have Truffaut’s Proust, or Rivette’s, or those films by Resnais, Losey, or Visconti. But if we had them we might not have La Captive (The Captive), Chantal Akerman’s strange, hypnotic feature, released in 2000, which takes the Marcel–Albertine relationship and transplants it to contemporary Paris.* In the novel, Marcel and Albertine’s agitated cohabitation is embedded in a populated and historically specific social milieu—family relationships, parties, political events. Akerman’s minimalist case study isolates the lovers. It would be possible to watch La Captive believing Simon and Ariane to be original characters with no relation to any antecedents, but if you know Proust then the mystery to solve is not just why this couple stays together—a question involving a constrictor knot of desire, sexuality, the pressures of monogamy, jealousy, and real estate—but what Akerman is doing with and to Proust.
She first contemplated adapting La Prisonnière in the 1970s, after completing her early masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But she was “too dogmatic” at the time to pursue the idea. In addition to rejecting mainstream cinematic techniques such as soundtracks, cutaways, and shot/countershot, Akerman didn’t believe literature should be adapted to the screen in the first place. Years later, when she was less experimental but more willing to experiment, she returned to the idea. She did not reread the book before writing the screenplay, but went back later to fill in details, so that the film floats free of the novel while also being dense with references—from the partition in the bathroom in Simon’s Paris apartment to a huge bouquet that makes him sneeze.
One might expect that Akerman, when asked why she adapted Proust, would say something like “Marcel Proust is the only artist in the history of the world as obsessed with his mother as I am with mine.” Instead, she talked about architecture. “I remember that there was that apartment, and the corridor, and the two characters—I said, that’s a story for me.” A year earlier she had told a different interviewer, “In all my films, I insist that there be a hallway and doors and rooms. Without them, I can’t work out the staging…. Those doors and hallways help me frame things, and they also help me work with time.”
Akerman is always measuring time. Her instrument is the viewer. She once said that while some people praise certain (presumably entertaining) films by noting how time “flew” by, she considered time flying by, or the viewer not noticing time passing, to be a form of theft. “What I want is to make people feel the passing of time. So I don’t take two hours from their lives. They experience them.” More than twenty years after the film’s release, technological distraction has become so routine for many of us that we scarcely notice how we rob ourselves of our own lives. There is a particular kind of fatigue that results from missing a day because you haven’t noticed it go by. Yet it’s also true that feeling the passing of time, as Akerman asks the viewer to do, can be uncomfortable, even distressing. It is a different form of anxiety that we learn in La Captive. The film is like a tomb. The viewer becomes so aware of time that it almost stands still.
Before she saw Pierrot le fou (1965) at the age of fifteen, Akerman had wanted to be a writer. Afterward, “I had an intuition that if I was going to only write, I will stay in one room all the time and never go out.” Perhaps this explains why she was interested in the character of Albertine/Ariane. She could identify with someone who, once they got into a room, did not know how to get out.
Film scholars have long noted that Akerman was preoccupied with, to borrow the film scholar Genevieve Yue’s phrase, “distance and confinement.” Yue was referring to No Home Movie (2015), in which scenes of Chantal and her mother, Natalia, together in Natalia’s apartment in Brussels are intercut with their Skype calls to each other and shots of desert landscapes in Israel. Am I the only person, watching No Home Movie today, who feels the recent history of the “nonessential” worker’s quarantine hanging over even the most innocent video chat? So many of Akerman’s films now carry an eerie feeling of pandemic space-time: the empty corridors of Hotel Monterey (1973); the outdoor monologues on the streets of New York in American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1989); the hysterical intimacy of Tomorrow We Move (2004).
In La Captive, too, Simon and Ariane seem to be under a stay-at-home order. When they do go out, they are almost never in a crowd—museums are empty, streets are deserted—and if there are others around, Simon hustles Ariane away. When they finally leave the city, they find not the relief of open spaces or expanded possibilities, but a more strangled togetherness.
“For La Captive, I worked a lot in interior spaces,” Akerman said. “The town houses, the cars. Through them, the viewer is projected into a mental universe. At the same time, you escape all psychological explanation. You’re just caught in a machine that moves forward.” This is a machine fueled by the characters’ own desires—to be captive or held, to hold or capture each other. One finishes the film with the disquieting sense that we cannot choose to be free. That we are governed and compelled by desires that make us unhappy. That there is no outside to what we desire, no other world that we can get to, no way off the track that is rushing Ariane to her fated end. And that whatever desire wants, it isn’t actually to possess the thing it’s chasing. (Children understand this better than anyone: it’s the story of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.)
Proust did not depict Albertine as doomed in quite this way. He allowed her to leave Marcel. (One morning while Marcel is sleeping, she simply walks out, leaving behind a breakup note.) He kills her later, in volume six, when she is thrown off a horse, but it is critical to his conception of the prisoner that she can become the fugitive—that she can leave. Her death is a bizarre twist, not a fated culmination.
There is a weightlessness to the performances in La Captive. Sylvie Testud as Ariane is a wan presence; she is thin, halting, half-disappeared, translucent as a jellyfish. Stanislas Merhar plays Simon as a vain monomaniac, combining the girlish mystique of a teen heartthrob with the neurotic sadness of a graduate student. Like Marcel (and Proust himself), he is sickly, complaining of allergies and pollen. He is inscrutable and blank, pale, like a ghost, or someone coming down with a virus.
Ariane is dreamy and vague. She is easily confused about where she goes and who she sees, and she lies. Then she forgets her alibis, telling Simon she was at a singing lesson when she had told him earlier she would be at trapeze class, claiming never to have met someone she later admits to knowing quite well. She seems to be having an affair with Andrée, the one person Simon trusts, but may also be having other affairs; or perhaps she only lies for the sport of it.
Her lies create a zone of privacy—they enforce distance from Simon, marking a territory that he cannot enter. Her other escape is sleep. Like a narcoleptic or a house cat, Ariane possesses the bizarre talent of falling asleep immediately; she can also do it on command. Sleep is the most (only?) harmonious aspect of Simon and Ariane’s relationship, the thing they are in complete agreement about. On the one hand, Simon and Ariane’s relationship is pathological; on the other, it is a beautiful fantasy about true domestic harmony. (All I want is for the people I live with to sleep when I tell them to sleep. To close their eyes and not open them until I say so.)
When Ariane falls asleep—there is no polite way to put this—Simon humps her. The humping (or kissing, groping, etc.) that accompanies falling asleep seems to be the only way these two can experience pleasure, and also the only way Simon knows to wake Ariane up. It isn’t the humping action (which takes place through Ariane’s thin white nightgown) that wakes her; she is roused to consciousness by her own pleasure. This act is so ritualized that it must be anticipated and does not seem unwelcome to her. What the writer Jacqueline Rose has said about sleep, that it “cannot be willed” and “we never know what will happen—or where exactly we are going—when we go to sleep,” seems true of everyone in the world except Ariane. For Ariane, sleep is a royal road not to the unconscious but to a set of prescribed, semiconscious activities. Simon is a man possessed, but because Ariane is asleep, she both is easy to possess and can never be entirely possessed; she is there and not there at the same time.
To sexualize sleep in this way makes visible and meaningful the intense and exquisite pleasure of rest, of doing nothing, of total passivity. Simon summons Ariane by phone when he wants to sleep-hump her and dismisses her when it’s time for sleep-sleep. She must be glad not to sleep-sleep in his room. His bedspread is a putrid shade of yellow. It matches the hideous padded headboard and folding screen. The textures of the room are repellent; the whole thing reeks of a furniture display at a museum. No wonder they do not completely undress; no wonder Simon, near the end of the film, chooses to sleep all night in an armchair while wearing his coat. The bedspread looks slippery, like you would get pushed off the edge and attacked by ruffles.
“Work well,” Ariane says into Simon’s room on her way out the door to her singing lesson. He flips to a blank page in his notebook, picks up his fountain pen, and stares into the middle distance with an improbably sad expression. Then he puts the pen down and leaves the apartment to follow her, as if he had hired himself as a private dick. (The trials of the self-employed—you’re never off the clock.)
Simon is obsessed with what Ariane does all day. The question ought to be what he does. Where he goes. Who he is with. There are indications that Simon is too sick to go out, except sometimes he does; his relationship to his health is as inconsistent as Ariane’s relationship to the truth. The fact that he is sometimes well enough to leave the house does not prove that at other times he is not, but when he walks through the woods without sneezing, or when he disrobes to reveal a vigorous and muscular body and swims with powerful strokes into the cold, dark ocean, one no longer feels that “sickly” exactly describes his condition.
I do not wish to suggest that Simon ought to provide an account of his activities. No writer can account for their days. When writing has occurred one can never say exactly how it happened; it seems to require some amount of disappearing from the experience itself; writing gets done in the absence of the writer. This is why it is so silly when films show writers writing; when it’s happening, there is nothing to see. Akerman’s shot of Simon waking in bed, surrounded by his notebooks, shielding his eyes, groggy in the cruel midmorning sun, gives us important information about where he likes to write (in bed) and how late he likes to sleep (very), but it cannot tell us anything about what is on the page. When he opens his eyes Ariane is already awake down the hall. We hear her singing, like a bird.
In the essay “The Child as Writer,” Lydia Davis, who translated Swann’s Way in 2003, notes that the reader of Proust knows something that neither character nor author knows, which is that Marcel will grow up to be the famous writer of the novel she is reading. Proust was aware of a little more than his character—he knew that he was actually writing the book that Marcel only dreams of or defers writing—but he could not have known how successful he would be, how transformed his very name, referring beyond the person, signifying literary greatness itself.
Marcel, for the reader of the novel, may be a spoiled, petulant, rich young man who does things like summon a dairymaid to his room under the false pretense of delivering a letter that hasn’t been written; he may ruminate on the need for a constant stream of new girlfriends to spark his interest and insist that his current girlfriend not attend parties where she might run into her lesbian friends; but he is still, or will one day be, the author of In Search of Lost Time. His actions and thoughts are, if not the actions and thoughts of a great artist, at least part of the story of the formation of a great artist, the backstory of great art. We read knowing that plot is preamble, that all this time will be regained, that he will put aside his partygoing and take to his bed—the place he most liked to work.
But in La Captive, Simon is not transformed or redeemed by art. Simon is Marcel if he’d never written a great novel. He is the man Proust describes who, on the morning of a duel, says that if he survives he will come home and settle down to work but who instead, after surviving with nary a scratch, takes a holiday. He is Marcel as Marcel experiences himself to be in the moment he is living the events of The Prisoner. Akerman allows us to—insists that we—see him not with the inevitable hindsight of the reader of Proust but in the unfolding present of his miserable, solipsistic obsession. In the passage itself, not looking back.
By giving us a Marcel without genius, Akerman also gives us the real time of literary production: the time of frustration, of wanting to write and not writing. The time of turning on the radio and looking out the window, listening to the noises in the hall.
The first time Marcel sees Albertine she is carrying golf clubs and “hanging her head like an animal that is being driven reluctant to its stall.” The first time he speaks to her is at Elstir’s studio. Elstir is not yet the well-known impressionist painter that he will become, but he is already something of a role model for Marcel. So Marcel is surprised to learn that Elstir is the same person he had grown up hearing stories about, the society painter who frittered hours away at silly parties and fashionable salons. But that, Elstir explains, is hardly a contradiction; it is merely life. “There is no man,” Elstir says,
however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it…. We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.
These mistakes that Elstir is speaking of do not grant some general or generic wisdom; they define a person’s unique point of view, and point of view, for Proust, is art. Or rather, art crystallizes that point of view, making it available to others. It transports us from the corroded habits of daily life and allows the reader or viewer “to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”
This idea that time is not really wasted, because the mistakes of youth will form the point of view that is synonymous with art, means something more than that life can function as research, or that life will shape whatever art one makes. It means that without life—without mistakes, experiences, the passage of time—there can be no art. Art is a record of the waste. It holds the waste, and changes it. Its material is time, and it makes time material.
Proust uses Marcel and Albertine to tell a story about desire and what holds lovers in captivity and how one’s understanding of the past is changed in time. Akerman’s story of Simon and Ariane is the same story of jealousy and desire, but it lacks the dimension of retrospect; trapped in an unfolding present, it can’t look back. “I am without memory,” Simon tells Ariane. He is Marcel before he tastes the madeleine.
The continual slippage, for the reader of Proust, between the author and the narrator, the impossibility of ever holding them definitively apart, means that Akerman not only gives us, in Simon, a nonheroic Marcel; she gives us a nonheroic Proust. She rejects the idea of lost time redeemed by art. Her work is, by necessity, un- or anti-Proustian: it posits that duration itself can be art.
In the end, it is Ariane/Albertine, not Simon/Marcel, who is Akerman’s model of the artist—Ariane the singer, not Simon the writer. Ariane is the artist as student, hobbyist, dilettante, liar. The artist who is always accompanied, who is never alone, who performs only at home, in the bathtub or lying in bed; whose moment of greatest expression is not a solo performance for a paying audience but a duet sung out the window with a neighbor; who works in privacy from the confines of the cage that she herself has chosen. That this character is so radically unknown, a cipher or absence—her name, Ariane, echoes a-rien, “nothing”—only focuses the viewer more intently on the passing of time, its disappearance, like footsteps down the corridor.
After decades of no Proust, we got two adaptations within two years. La Captive was in production when Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999) was released. Unlike Truffaut, Resnais, or Rivette, Ruiz did not see any problem with putting Proust on-screen. “Film is a very Proustian medium,” he said. “At any given moment, you can be kidnapped by the past.” ↩