In his seminal collection of essays, Pour un Nouveau Roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet launched a polemic against the dominant, realist literary mode characterized by the
absolute time of linear chronology moving to create related event and causality and to fulfill a destiny. […] The role of Balzacian absolute time was to arouse emotion by creating suspense and to provide the psychological satisfactions of meaning, resolution, and closure in a world considered objective, concrete, but nonetheless in the image of man who projected himself and his meanings by analogy and metaphor on the environment. (1)
With the Nouveau Roman or “New Novel”, and his subsequent films, especially La Belle Captive (1983), Robbe-Grillet would attempt to challenge this kind of narrative structure, shaped by the irreversible vectors of personal destinies set in motion by an opaque series of causes and effects.
More implicitly and perhaps more importantly, this new narrative form would also set out to challenge the assumptions of Newtonian physics and Cartesian epistemology that provide the structure for the illusion of the physical world represented in the classical narrative. The Newtonian conception of the universe, which held the atom as the primary building block of all matter, “presented nature as a giant mechanism governed by natural laws that ordered bodies in an absolute space, that is, a space seen as independent from the bodies that filled it” (2). Time was seen as distinct from space, flowing uniformly in a single direction, completely unaffected by the perturbations of the material sphere.
René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy begins with a series of doubts about the existence and nature of the physical world:
I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which [some evil demons] have devised to ensnare my judgment. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or senses, but as falsely believing myself to have all these things. (3)
However, these doubts are quickly assuaged by thoughts that prove the existence of the self, and a clear and distinct conception of the existence of God. And since God is, by definition, an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, he cannot possibly be a deceiver or an evil demon and, thus, perceptions of the external world must conform to its reality and its reality can be known through the mechanisms of perception. In this way, the classical scientific and ontological conception of the world as represented in the traditional, realist narrative can be characterized first and foremost by a transparent and unassailable regularity, guaranteed by natural law on the one hand, and by the existence of God on the other.
The New Novel emerged in France in the late 1950s and early ’60s as part of a revolution in the arts that extended to theatre, visual art, music and film, wherein radical, young artists reacted against the outmoded views of their predecessors. Robbe-Grillet, who was already a vibrant force within the New Novel movement, was also a peripheral figure in the parallel “New Wave” movement in film, having written the script for the film L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), directed by Left Bank auteur Alain Resnais. Robbe-Grillet’s profoundly cinematic sensibility eventually led to his own foray into filmmaking, beginning with L’Immortelle (1963).
While presuppositions about art were being overturned all over Europe, a similar revolution initiated several decades earlier continued to transform the realm of the physical sciences. As theories of quantum mechanics were increasingly elaborated, disseminated and accepted, the classical story of the universe and what could be known about began to appear as no more than a compelling work of fiction. For instance, “In the classical Newtonian picture of nature, all particles (atoms, electrons, light etc.) in the universe were said to have definite properties, such as position and velocity, which possess unequivocal measurable values.” (4) Thus, on this conception, in order to determine the velocity of a moving particle, one would simply divide the distance one particle travelled by the time the trip took.
However, within the quantum picture, the presence of the observer and the act of measurement affect the identity of the particle’s values in a way that makes them indeterminate. The feature that accounts for this indeterminacy is known as the
wave function, which is an abstract entity that cannot be measured directly and is the basis of all particle behavior. The wave function need not be in a state of definite position or velocity. In general, the location of a particle is smeared over a certain range. (5)
This goes for all other variables that can be ascribed to particles (velocity, direction, etc.). It is only once one of these variables is measured that it takes as specific value, at which point the wave function is said to collapse. If another measurement is taken, the wave function collapses into a new value within the accepted range. Thus, it is only when these particles are observed that they can be said to have specific values. Once the observation ceases, they lapse back into indeterminacy.
To better understand the far-reaching implications of such a revelation, it helps to examine an experiment proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In this experiment, a cat is placed in a locked room with a sealed vial or poison and some kind of mechanism from breaking the vial. Triggering the apparatus is a particle detector that measures the velocity of an electron. If the speed is above a certain value, the apparatus is activated and the cat dies. If it is below that value, the apparatus is not triggered and the cat survives. A single electron is sent into the detector, but, since no observation has taken place, no specific value is established. It merely inhabits an indeterminate range of possible velocities and, as a result, the cat inhabits an indeterminate range between ‘aliveness’ and ‘deadness’. It is only when someone enters the room to determine the reading that the cat could be said to be properly dead or alive. The cat’s wave function collapses into a ‘live’ or ‘dead’ state upon the moment of observation.
In 1957, Hugh Everett proposed a theory of wave function collapse that had far-reaching implications for classical notions of time and space. His theory, known as the “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”, proposes the idea that, rather than collapsing upon observation, the wave function splits. “Each copy corresponds to a valid picture of reality in one branch of the universe. In that manner time and space are constantly bifurcating.” (6) Applying this theory to Shrödinger’s experiment: once a person enters the room to discern the result of the experiment, the wave function splits in two, and he finds himself in either of two distinct realities, one in which the cat is alive, and one in which the cat is dead.
Time has forked, with the observer setting out on one of the paths. Note that there are now two copies of the observer. The replica experiences the alternative outcome of the experiment. To him, this alternative result is the one reality […] Each is unaware that the split has taken place. (7)
It is impossible to determine in which reality the observer will find himself, which of the possible worlds will end up becoming the ‘actual world’. It is possible that, if the observer bends down to tie his shoe before entering the room, rather than just going right in, the result might be different – the course of his life changed forever, albeit in a very small way. On this theory, formerly linear time becomes a labyrinth of forked paths, in which each choice, each interaction with the physical world leads to a different possible reality.
I will argue that the temporal scheme that Robbe-Grillet employs in his film La Belle Captive is in many ways equivalent to the “Many Worlds Interpretation” in that the film seems to represent a number of distinct possible realities. In compliment to this fractured spatial/temporal landscape and epistemic cynicism, the film also revels in the fracturing and penetration of the body through the use of sado-masochistic and vampiric iconography in its portrayal of sexuality. Thus, within Robbe-Grillet’s work, these two planes of the physical – the body and the universe – come together to create a new and uncertain vision of reality.
The film La Belle Captive is named after a painting by Surrealist artist René Magritte, and is also the name of a 1975 picto-roman of the same title written by Robbe-Grillet and illustrated with Magritte’s paintings (8). However, the film is not a straightforward adaptation of the book. In fact, the two narratives bear little resemblance to one another, though they are both strongly influenced by the Greek myth of the “Bride of Corinth”, further immortalized in the 1797 poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In my view, the paintings and the myth serve inter-textually to heighten the temporal and spatial dislocation and epistemic uncertainty that characterize its physical schema.
As the film begins, a man (Daniel Mesguich) we later learn is named Walter is sitting in a bar. His eye is caught by a beautiful blonde woman (Gabrielle Lazure), who he asks to dance. She refuses to give her name and claims not to have a telephone, saying, “I’ll find you when you when I feel like it, maybe tomorrow, maybe yesterday, time does not exist for me.” It is later revealed that Walter works for a mysterious agency, operated by a woman named Sara Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Clair), who gives him a letter to be delivered to le Comte Henri de Corinthe. Driving off to fulfil his mission, he sees the bloodied body of a young woman lying in the road with her hands chained behind her back. He recognizes her as the same woman he had danced with earlier that night. He stops for help at a large villa populated by a group of strange men who seem to recognize the young woman. They lead Walter and the woman to a spare bedroom and lock them in. The formerly unconscious, clothed and bound woman springs to life and, suddenly, sans both clothes and chains, throws herself at Walter, who is paralysed in her embrace.
Hanging above their bed is a slightly altered facsimile of Magritte’s painting “La Belle Captive” (9), which appears throughout the film and serves as the key to its quantum or labyrinthine temporal structure. In the painting, a makeshift proscenium arch with red stage, curtains tied back on each side, stands on a beach, where dark blue waves meet a light blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds. In the centre of the arch stands an easel with a painting on it representing the same patch of sky that it covers up. In the corner of the larger painting – where in the original Magritte painting there would have been a red ball – is a single, black, high-heeled shoe, its strap undone, lying in the sand. The painting gives the impression that the wearer of the shoe escaped through the arch, leaving it behind.
As the scene in the bedroom continues, it is clear that the blonde woman is not merely kissing Walter, but is actually sucking blood from his neck. The camera cuts away from his lifeless form and zooms in toward the painting, which magically begins to stir. The waves crash, the curtains billow in the wind and there are sounds of seagulls. This “real-life” version of the painting reappears several times during the film. For instance, when Walter awakes the next morning to find the girl gone and the villa flooded and deserted, there is a flashback to the beach scene as he examines the two fresh puncture wounds that have materialized on his neck.
He suddenly remembers the letter and renews his attempt to contact the Count of Corinthe. When he arrives at the Count’s villa, which strangely resembles the one where he had spent the night, he finds a bloody shoe exactly like the one in the painting, lying out on the sidewalk. Once inside, he finds the dead body of the Count hooked up to a strange machine, while a police investigation proceeds around him. He learns that the deceased Count had been the prime suspect in the murder of his fiancée who had recently gone missing. A newspaper article reveals that the mysterious blonde woman is, in fact, the fiancée in question, whom we learn is named Marie-Ange van de Reeves. A close shot of the Count’s body also reveals that Walter and the Count are identical in appearance. Leaving the villa, he opens the letter intended for the Count, which contains a photograph of a woman’s bloodied shoe, with a message that reads, “My dear Count, remind you of anything?”
Walter returns to the nightclub hoping to obtain information about Marie-Ange, and is informed by the barman (Gilles Arbona) that she had reportedly died six or seven years earlier under mysterious circumstances on a sailing trip with the Count off the Atlantic Coast. The barman then tells Walter to talk to Marie-Ange’s father, Professeur Van de Reeves (Roland Dubillard), who is a psychiatrist and expert in dreams. Van de Reeves, whose house resembles the first two villas, confirms the bartender’s story, saying that many people have reported seeing Marie-Ange since her death. He directs Walter to a spare bedroom, where he has a dream or hallucination that references his initial encounter with Marie-Ange and ends with his attempted assassination by the men from the first villa. It is soon revealed that Walter is actually being held captive by Marie-Ange’s father who has hooked him up to a machine – the same one attached to the dead Count – that feeds images from Magritte paintings into his head while he sleeps, directing his dreams.
When Walter wakes up from the dream experiment conducted by Professor van de Reeves, he is in an apartment filled with boxes and Sara Zeitgeist is revealed to be his wife. It is as if everything that had come before had merely been part of an elaborate hallucination. However, when Walter ventures outside he sees Marie-Ange lying in the street, just as she had been at the beginning of the film. As he contemplates the situation, Sara Zeitgeist, who was supposed to be inside the apartment, drives up in a van with the men from the first villa and orders his execution.
The scene with the dream machine marks the final return of the animated version of the Magritte painting. This time, however, the camera penetrates all the way into the image, passing through the proscenium arch and into the seascape itself.
In this work the painting within a painting is at once separate and indistinguishable from the sky beyond. It too is a passage between two worlds. More importantly there is not way to decide which is less real – the sea and sky on stage behind the curtains, or the seascape on the canvas that blends with it. (10)
This kind of ambiguity can also be found in the temporal indeterminacy of the cinematic image, in that it lacks a tense structure of the kind present in the literary medium, where past and future events are characterized as such through specific grammatical and syntactic indicators. In a similar way, there is no intrinsic distinction in cinema between a dream or fantasy image and one that is part of the “real world” of the narrative. Robbe-Grillet, who extolled the virtue of cinema’s present-ness in Pour un Nouveau Roman, takes special advantage of this quality in La Belle Captive, revelling in the seemingly timeless and objective appearance of each image rather than seeking to minimize it in service of a linear story.
Gilles Deleuze makes special note of the unique feeling for the present that permeates Robbe-Grillet’s work:
We find ourselves here in a direct time-image of a different kind of time-image from the previous one: no longer the coexistence of sheets of past, but the simultaneity of peaks of present […] In [Robbe-Grillet’s] work there is never a succession of passing presents, but a simultaneity of a present of a past, a present of a present, and a present of a future, which makes time frightening and inexplicable. (11)
However, rather than representing distinct presents in a linear stream of past, present and future, the temporal peaks of La Belle Captive represent the presents of three distinct temporal realities. Thus, the symbolic penetration of worlds via the painting, and the literal penetration of Walter’s throat via the woman’s vampire bite and his penetration of her body during intercourse – a meeting halfway between the realms of the living and the dead – mark Walter’s transition into another reality.
The puncturing of flesh which allows Walter to jump to an alternate temporal path is analogous to the wave-splitting function of the “Many World’s Interpretation”, and the three different versions of the villa he visits during the film represent three different realities: one in which he is Marie-Ange’s victim; one in which he is her murderer, the Count; and one in which it has all been a dream. This reading seems to be reflected in Robbe-Grillet’s purported choice to shoot the film, with the exception of the beach scenes, entirely within the same villa:
The different decors are successive transformations of the same rooms in that villa. For example, there was a nightclub painted in black and then a clinic in white. It is the same room, which was painted white during the night. (12)
Thus it is as if each incarnation of the rooms constructed an alternate reality of the same space.
Walter’s first sexual encounter with Marie-Ange, which marks his initial transition into the temporal labyrinth of the film’s narrative, closely resembles Goethe’s representation of the Bride of Corinth myth, which tells the story of a young man from Athens who comes to Corinth to ask for the hand of the beautiful daughter of one of his father’s friends. Upon arriving, he finds that the girl no longer lives, having been offered as a sacrifice to God upon her mother’s recovery from a fatal illness. Before returning home, he is allowed to stay overnight in her room, where she appears to him as a white-veiled apparition, with whom he falls in love at first sight. After promising to revive her with his passion, the young man persuades the ghostly girl to lie down with him, at which time she sucks his blood until he is dead. In this way, intertextual knowledge of Goethe’s poem aids the viewer in understanding and interpreting the events of the scene. Although it is not clear that Walter dies of his wounds, the poem would tend to encourage such a reading. This interpretation is also supported by the movement of the camera through the frame of the animated Magritte painting, which could be read as symbolizing a transition into another world. When Walter wakes to discover the marks on his neck, the camera stops just short of the canvas that sits in front of the red curtains, where one can see the body of Marie-Ange laying sprawled, unconscious on the beach. This shot provides the transition to the next reality in which Walter is Marie-Ange’s murderer.
In this version, Walter arrives sans puncture wounds and without any discernable travel or transition at the second version of the villa, the home of the deceased Count of Corinthe, with whom Walter is revealed to be identical. They are, in fact, the same person, which is confirmed by Walter’s opening of the letter, and his possession of the bloody shoe that the painting and the postcard represent. This moment of realization is reminiscent of the ending of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963), wherein the protagonist realizes that, as a child, he had witnessed his own death. However, it is also in keeping with the multiple-worlds picture of quantum time, in which each wave-function split creates a replica of the observer and the observed. Walter subsequently learns from the bartender that Marie-Ange, his/the Count’s fiancée, who he/the Count is suspected of murdering, also has a second identity, which is derived from an embellishment on the Corinth legend taken from the novel La Belle Captive. In a chapter called “The Difficult Crossing”, whose title is taken from another Magritte painting, Robbe-Grillet tells the story of a woman who might have been the fiancée of the Count of Corinthe, who is bound, raped, murdered with an unidentified phallic object (possibly a harpoon, and thrown into the sea, by someone who might have been the Count of Corinthe. (13) The woman in the story is called Vanessa, which is the name the bartender uses to refer to Marie-Ange when Walter shows him her picture. In this instance, knowledge of the story recounted in the novel allows the spectator to fill in the gaps in the recounting of Marie-Ange/Vanessa’s mysterious death at sea.
When Walter visit Marie-Ange’s father in the third incarnation of the villa, where the animated painting appears for the last time, the viewer sees alternating shots of Marie-Ange dancing near the water in a flowing white gown, and laying dead or unconscious on the sand with her hands bound behind her back. In a sense, these two images represent the two different pictures of Marie-Ange/Vanessa as incarnated in the different versions of the myth. On the one hand, she is the immortal vampire who drained the life from the suitor who tried to save her; on the other hand, she is the bound, murdered fiancée of the Count of Corinthe. In the same way, Walter/the Count both murdered Marie-Ange/Vanessa and was murdered by her.
However, another layer is added to Walter’s story by the addition of Professor van de Reeves’ dream machine. Another reality is constructed in which Walter is an ordinary man, who has finally awakened from a long, strange dream. In a more conventional narrative, this would explain everything, revealing the previous events of the narrative as an extended fantasy sequence. However, the sight of Marie-Ange’s body in the road and of the bite marks on Walter’s neck, in addition to the seemingly simultaneous presence of Sara both in the apartment with Walter and in the van with the assassins, reveals that the dream is not over, but rather that, like Magritte’s painting within a painting, it is merely a dream within a larger dream, which has imprisoned its dreamer forever in a temporal labyrinth of infinite alternatives and uncertain knowledge.
Professor van de Reeves, with his dream machine is the narrative equivalent of Descartes’ evil demon, projecting images of a physical reality that can neither be falsified nor verified. The uncertainty that remains at the end of the film asserts the demon’s ultimate power, leading one to doubt the existence of either a benevolent agent or a set of unwavering laws at work within the narrative world that would ensure an ordered universe or yield a concrete explanation of that universe’s workings. Thus, it is ultimately impossible to know which filmic reality is the true one, or whether this kind of truth is even available in a narrative space marked by such radical uncertainty.
In a very real way, this decision is left up the each viewer of the film, who is the ultimate observer to an experiment that seeks to manipulate conceptions of time and space, knowledge and reality, through its transcendence of the limits of conventional narrative structure. Like most of Robbe-Grillet’s films and novels, La Belle Captive is an “‘open’ work in the making and unmaking of which, as Robbe-Grillet has always claimed, the reader is invited to participate” (14). This unique narrative agency afforded to the spectator by the quantum indeterminacy within the text allows her to penetrate and interact with the filmic world through her interpretation of events, in the same way that Walter entered Marie-Ange’s world by passing through the frame of the Magritte painting. Though this extreme variety of narrative freedom and its attendant spectatorial responsibility might seem disconcerting, within the quantum picture, indeterminacy is simply another word for infinite possibility. For in ‘making and unmaking’ La Belle Captive, the viewer takes possession of the Cartesian dream machine, playing benevolent God, evil demon, or even both at once.
- Raylene L. Ramsay, Robbe-Grillet and Modernity: Science, Sexuality, and Subversion (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992), p. 8.
- René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy”, Selected Philosophical Writing, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 79.
- Paul Halpern, Time Journeys: A Search for Cosmic Destiny and Meaning (New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1990), pp. 127-8.
- Ibid, p. 128.
- Ibid, p. 130.
- Ibid, p. 131.
- Alain Robbe-Grillet and René Magritte, La Belle Captive (Lausanne and Paris: Cosmos Textes, 1975). The English edition, translated and with an essay by Ben Stoltzfus, is La Belle Captive: A Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
- Roch C. Smith, “Generating the Erotic Dream Machine: Robbe-Grillet’s L’Eden et Après and La Belle Captive”, in The French Review 63 (1990), p. 497.
- Ibid, p. 499.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: the Time Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 101.
- Anthony Fragola and Roch C. Smith, The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), pp. 107-8.
- Alain Robbe-Grillet and Rene Magritte, La Belle Captive: A Novel, translated by Ben Stolzfus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 29.
- Ramsay, p. 166.