Put simply, the film tells the story of a wealthy amateur named Simon, living in a fine apartment with his elderly mother, housekeeper and a range of workmen often noisily moving ladders and tools around to no clear end. Living here too, on a not so comfortable looking divan, is Simon’s lover Ariane, called at night to Simon’s bed by means of an intercom, where she invariably falls asleep (or seems to) whereupon Simon indulges in stolen kisses and frottage, lying astride her like some nightmare vampire. Having exhausted himself, Simon wakes Ariane to send her back to her cramped divan.
But his mastery is an illusion. Simon is driven to distraction by jealousy and curiosity, and is not above stalking Ariane if she leaves the apartment, or sending friends to escort Ariane, and then to quiz them as to every detail of Ariane’s movements. If Ariane takes a singing lesson Simon wants to know who else was there, what was sung, and with whom. He is convinced above all that Ariane is a lesbian and that she is in love with another woman, in particular with an actress of fame (played by Akerman’s regular collaborator Aurore Clément). Crisis comes when Simon listens on the radio to a live transmission from the theatre where he knows Ariane is watching the actress take the lead in a play. The rapturous applause is intolerably loud in Simon’s ears, and in a torment of jealousy he rushes to the theatre to pull Ariane away and beleaguer her with endless questioning. The situation cannot continue and he ruthlessly despatches her from the apartment.
Or rather he does so only then to change his mind, and whisk her off to a hotel in Biarritz, offering her the promise of endless travel to exotic places. Ariane agrees to his every suggestion, before going for a swim. She never returns. Simon believes her drowned. His desire and jealousy have come to nothing.
The film is remarkable for many reasons, but the recent screening at the ICA in London (presented by A Nos Amours as part of a complete retrospective of Akerman’s single screen works) gave a chance to watch the film several times in optimal theatre conditions: with the Dolby optical sound track heard at its best: uncompressed and played back at a high level without any distortion. As it was mixed and intended to be heard.
Loud soundtracks with great dynamic range (that is the interval between loud and quiet), are nowadays the norm in mainstream commercial cinema.
In the classic era of cinema, sound tracks could not reproduce greatly varied volume levels, and cinema until the advent of Dolby stereo optical soundtracks, was a cinema of compressed sound. A crash was not much louder than a whisper. When digital technology arrived, a huge expansion of dynamic range became possible. Explosions can now be felt let alone heard. Even home TV viewing permits a far greater range of sound levels than in years gone by when sound tracks were often mixed especially for the home environment such that there was no discernible loudness variation, as demanded by poor quality speakers and recording technology.
Arthouse cinema has never much played with around with sound. On the whole, naturalism rules. That is to say, soundtracks are made to provide a pleasing sense of ‘being there’ – in the best seat in the house, able to hear what is important, and without jarring disruption of the sense of place and time. Every sound is explicable, and adds to the sense of careful building of illusion. Even the birdsong heard in the distance is season and location appropriate. Music might at times displace all other sound, but the mix is usually suggestive of what he film maker tastefully would like us to hear. Not too much, not too little. Sounds made by the rub of fabric or the fall of footstep are usually placed discretely amid atmospheric background noises. Distant waterfalls are heard in the distance. A close-up of fingers tapping are heard as if from inches away. Voices are always heard front and centre. The perceived geography is rarely confounded by the sound world.
Godard may have at times made sound collages, broken the synchronous link between image and sound, or juxtaposed autonomous sounds with unrelated images, but he prioritises the voice, and generally places his effects and balances all amid the world of background noises. Much of the sound is recorded on location in any case. I have never felt that Godard’s sound tracks are intended to make me feel anything – the goal is not to put me into an enclosed room, hearing more than I can actively discern. The parts of the sound world are all placed and chosen, and can be readily apprehended. I do not need a third ear to catch the intended sense of what is presented. Godard’s game is always, however complex, a game of aspects, like a sound world envisaged in cubist terms. The viewer/auditor is responding from a few steps back, as it were.
Akerman’s La captive seems to be different. I cannot think of a comparable movie soundtrack. The story (for lack of a better word) is simple enough; but the experience is overwhelming. The stifling claustrophobic apartment with its creaking 18th century floorboards, with its many doors noisily opening and closing, with its parade of bothersome workmen coming and going, with its impossible to chart geography is an airless, confined labyrinth – a luxuriantly furnished prison. Though there are no locks, the viewer cannot fathom how to find the exit. No one may move unheard, and voices from other rooms can be heard from everywhere. From his bed Simon talks several times with his mother even though she is in her own bedroom. The laws of nature do not obtain here – this is non-Euclidian space revealed by aural means to be deeply curved space. It is as if exploring exotic physics by means of effects only (like deducing a planet’s presence by means of displacement of stars).
Protagonists come and go, though if they do, they walk briskly. Especially out of doors. Paris by night is a terrain of shadows, blind alleys, inexplicable connections and intersections. To try and recreate the nocturnal stalking, the route taken, would be a folly. The Paris of this film is a nightmare imagined by De Chirico.
In one brilliantly memorable shot, the shadow of Ariane moves one way on a wall, she another passing from view, but the sound stays central and does not recede. Simon is, as are we, left dumbstruck. What metaphysics is this?
The thing that sets this film ablaze however is the sound world. I heard this:
Foreground and background sound mixed equally loudly
All sounds democratically organised – nothing dramatic displaces anything less so
Sounds are not shaped within scenes - if present they stay evenly until the scene ends
If one sound predominates it is played full volume
Quiet passages are very quiet
Rustles and footsteps are loud, in the foreground
Sound is not generally panned to follow action, as is the norm for naturalistic soundtracks
It seemed to me also that loud stretches of music were invariably set in contrast with quieter passages.
And the film seemed at times to build to a climax, while there were times when the sound seemed to ebb completely away. Here therefore is chart of the sound levels through the film (decibels plotted against time):
The sound crew should be applauded:
Nicolas Becker sound effects editor
Thierry de Halleux location sound
Jean-François Schenegg location sound assistant
Valérie Deloof supervising sound editor (as Catherine de Loof)
Assia Dnednia assistant sound editor
Agnes Ravez assistant sound editor (as Agnès Raves)
Nicholas Becker sound engineer
Eric Ferret post synch sound recording engineer
Martin Boissau post synch sound assistant
Stéphane Thiébaut sound mixer
Sadly the names of the foley artists (those who make the rustles and footsteps for the sound track, because such things are never recorded on location) are not listed in the credits, though their performances define the film.
The credits give the sound mixing facility as Les Audis de Joinville, built by Paramount Studios in the 1930s, in the suburbs to the east of Paris. It played a key part the making of so many French films, its logo was all but ubiquitous in the end credits. It was closed in 2010, the work rolled up into the Studios de Boulogne, near the Pont de Saint-Cloud on the other side of the city. The team that made this sound track were old hands, whose credits are countless. What must have galvanised them to make such a boldly modernist soundtrack was of course Chantal Akerman. It is she above all that we must stand in awe of.
Why modernist? What is that to say? This sound track is self-conscious. It does not strive for the invisibility of a naturalistic sound track. It presses itself upon the film spectator (the word is wrong!), startling you with its strange and painfully acute registration of every nuance. It is brash. It is about underlying structural features – we are supposed to notice everything, we have no choice. It is like the painfully detailed and sharp experience of the clinically depressed, where the sound of a sweet paper screwed up at the other end of a bus can be unbearable. The sound world relentlessly highlights the noises that are made, that tap out rhythmically, that impose themselves. They (we) are agents, who impose their will and desire on all. The blank silence that would otherwise prevail is impossible to hold in mind while the soundtrack is experienced. The sound world shapes all, conducts experiments and enquires, imposes its technological mastery to separate and create order. The sound world produced is evidence of Heidegger's will to power – the sound world enfolds all into a unity. The option to separate and disappear into silence, to remove ourselves without audible detection is removed. The questioning will never cease. The film portrays perfectly a very male mode of enquiry – which is quite simply inescapable.
Robert Bresson writing on sound, offers a great insight: the ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer. This may seem to hold the key to Akerman’s project, but I would argue that it is not the spirit of Bresson that inhabits this film, but that of Samuel Beckett, who instructed Billie Whitelaw to attach sandpaper to the soles of her shoes when premièring Footfalls - so that they would be clearly audible. Footfalls is a play all about footfalls, seven one way and seven back. The physical world is a dim and distant one. Fixated thought is embodied by footsteps, not images.
La captive also includes music. Rachmaninov’s great romantic symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead is much used, part of it repeated over and over again (as it should be in a modernist project that wishes us to register design). The music never blends in: it blares, with the full weight of the dynamic range of the soundtrack technology and of the orchestra. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata is played too, the sound seen to be turned on, on screen, by Simon with a remote control. He sets the volume level to high. Simon and Ariane are listening, so are we.
And Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte supplies an aria, sung by the (caged bird) Ariane from her open window in duet with an unseen neighbour, much to the irritation of Simon who catches it on his way out. In the opera, Dorabella and Fiordiligi sing about playing games with their lovers (Prenderò quel brunettino), taking more pleasure in their conspiracy than in the men’s affections they so casually sport with. The singing is without accompaniment, sung into the night, from separate spaces, the sound reverberating on walls. Directionless, inexplicably placed. The singing is untutored, in Italian – and unsubtitled. It is debateable whether it should be since the French film does not subtitle the aria. We are supposed to hear, not listen – the conceit of the opera irrelevant, unless we know it as the duet about how women conspire and enjoy each other – but then Simon’s reaction gives us all that.
To end these comments on the sound world of La captive, note that the word ‘disquiet’ means a feeling of worry or unease. It suggests that by invoking the idea of sound – to dis-quiet. Indeed, La captive is film above all about anxiety, about the predicament of a woman caught and forced to respond to questions, though given no space to answer - and about a man who cannot stop speaking or asking. The dyad is insufferable. We hear as much.
Adam Roberts, A Nos Amours 13.6.15
The Chantal Akerman retrospective continues with Demain on déménage (2004) (aka Tomorrow We Move, 2002) on Thursday 17th September 2015, 7.00pm at ICA cinema, London.