“Perversion exists; and, to describe it in its most crushing and tragic form, I had to go as far as possible without being afraid of traumatizing the audience.” — Henri-Georges Clouzot
Dazzling and overwhelming, somehow both sumptuous and austere, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s last film is among his most intriguing work. La prisonnière—variously called in English The Prisoner, The Female Prisoner and Woman in Chains—is a film about three perverts, only one of whom, self-aware, acknowledges his pervertedness. All three are left more or less destroyed, specifically, by the lack of self-awareness that afflicts the “normal”-seeming couple whose marital status society has coronated and sanctified.
Stanislas Hassler owns and operates an art gallery that specializes in abstract work with maze-like configurations, psychedelic panache or teasing optical illusions. Currently, he is preparing a show that will include new work by Gilbert Moreau, at whom he is cracking a metaphorical whip to complete something that is truly extraordinary. Stan, also, has an off-hours life that Josée, Gilbert’s wife, enters. Stan is an amateur photographer. In his top-floor apartment, which is lush with art, he photographs willing women in erotic get-ups and poses. When Josée asks him whether prettiness is his highest priority in a model, Stan identifies something else: Submission.
One would not expect Josée to be the least bit attracted to the half-world of male dominance and female submissiveness, for which, of course, the male provides remuneration, thus obscuring possession of “the upper hand.” Josée is “her own woman” as much as she is “Gilbert’s wife.” Currently, she is editing a black-and-white documentary film (Clouzot’s film, in contrasting soft, ripe color, was photographed by Andreas Winding, no less), and she professes dismay and incomprehension at the person who is being interviewed in one part of the film: a sadistically dominated, mentally abused woman. What in common could Josée have with this sick, pathetic victim? We see her pouring over the documentary’s relevant passage; she mimics the victim’s gestures and expression, with stunning back-and-forth cutting combining the two women into a single image of a kind of shellshock.
Ironically, this combination of the two women into an image of one battered, defeated soul suggests, contrarily, the fissuring of either woman’s being. Throughout the film, there are similar examples of doubling from which we infer a fissured personality. Both at the gallery and in Stan’s apartment, espying through “see-through” and “see-around” sculptures, paintings and installations suggests that the one being silently, secretly watched is, somehow, a projection of the one who is watching; concomitantly, this visual penetration as a result of either the artwork’s “porousness” or translucency suggests, contrarily, the denseness, even the opaqueness, of much human experience. So much gives the appearance of “being together” that is, actually, falling apart.
Of at least equal interest is the “doubling” that assigns a human appearance, activity or behavior in Clouzot’s film to some other sixties film to which it baldly, unquestionably refers—to which it, therefore, somehow interacts. Where to begin? Joseé’s ambivalent entry into Stan’s obsessive hidden world, especially as it potentially undermines her marriage, conjures some of the aura of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967). (Josée is not frigid, however.) Stan’s rapid-fire “shoots”—he keeps clicking his camera as though he knows what he wants and what he is doing—conjures images of David Hemmings’s doubting Thomas at work in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). The back-and-forth between Josée, whose face is for us a cinematic image, and the documentary image of the interviewee with which she unexpectedly identifies for all her contrary protestation, cannot help but remind us of Anna Karina’s Nana, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), transfixed by the on-screen image of Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Employing his own brand of Persona-fication (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), Clouzot combines into a single image half of Stan’s and Gilbert’s faces to suggest the tug of claims on Josée’s heart and, perhaps, some hidden kinship between these two lovers of hers. What might that be? In retrospect, we clarify what has been obvious since our introduction to the Moreaus waking up in bed in their seemingly blissful union. With a however light-handed execution (lots of cover-up joking), Gilbert calls the shots for the couple. Gilbert dominates Josée.
We, Clouzot’s ultimate voyeur, watch Stan falling in love for real with Josée, exposing the sexual hang-ups that his posture of command is intended to hide or deny; but does Gilbert even love his wife? Let us admit that their “open” relationship is unconventional; but positively balmy is Josée’s history of employing her partner as a confidant for her extramarital dallyings. (Hardly irrelevant here is Gilbert’s effeminate nature.) This, also, reminds us of another film: Roger Vadim’s Les liaisons dengereuses (1959), which transforms Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s sexually sadistic eighteenth-century schemers into present-day husband and wife. Stan, traumatized by the thought that Josée might “betray” him with her spouse by chattering about their affair, extracts from her a promise not to do so—a promise Josée fails to keep. Upon learning of this betrayal while with her on holiday in Brittany, Stan bolts their seaside hotel and embarks on a course that skirts suicide. (Note how the rooftop of Stan’s apartment building, which includes the ledge he crawls onto, suggests some of his gallery’s maze-like artwork.) Both he and Josée thus lose what may be the love of a lifetime.
None of this, of course, resolves the issue of whether Gilbert loves Josée, and neither does the film’s ambiguous finish at hospital, which only gives the appearance of resolving the matter. Josée paralyzed by ambivalence as to which man to commit her heart to, her car has stalled on tracks just as the train is coming hurtling down; disaster. Gilbert is at her bedside, wearing his soul on his face. Her eyes open, otherwise completely bandaged, Josée seems to recognize the visitor who is lovingly squeezing her hand. “Stan,” she mutters right before a nurse ushers Gilbert away. Has Josée expressed her heart’s desire, or is she redressing the imbalance of power between them, perhaps forever? Does Gilbert love his wife, or is he preparing himself for martyrdom as the only means remaining for possessing her? Are we witnessing love, then, or the mask of love hiding perversion? Clouzot won’t tell us.
This extraordinary moment, which shimmers with Clouzot’s celebrated cynicism and a dire dose of ill health, is preceded by his staggering, exhilarating 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) passage: Josée’s rapid-fire, click-clicking mental trip down Memory Lane—700 shots in seven minutes. Integration? Disintegration? We, the voyeur tripping down somebody else’s mind, may be of differing minds ourselves, depending, perhaps, on how much we are hiding about ourselves. Regardless, all the movie references resonate as the bag of pop culture from which we draw our sense of ourselves, weighting our experience with dubious models, sharpening our consciousness to a debilitating selfconsciousness—shadows in the art gallery of our souls.
It is François Truffaut who encouraged Clouzot to pursue the topic of dominance/submission and make La prisonnière. Perhaps Truffaut felt there was no better way than Clouzot’s discoveries for him to learn something more about himself.
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