Frame Tale: On Christine Smallwood’s “La Captive” and Chantal Akerman

By Lori MarsoApril 4, 2024

Frame Tale: On Christine Smallwood’s “La Captive” and Chantal Akerman

La Captive by Christine Smallwood

IN CHRISTINE SMALLWOOD’S 2024 reading of Chantal Akerman’s masterful and suffocating film La Captive (2000), she quotes Akerman’s stated reasons to take up the project of adapting Marcel Proust’s The Prisoner (1923), volume five of In Search of Lost Time: “I remembered that there was that apartment, and the corridor, and the two characters—I said, that’s a story for me.”

How we cope with captivity is the primary mise en scène of Akerman’s political aesthetics in the 49 films she made before her death by suicide in 2015. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Akerman was no stranger to the many forms that captivity can take. In its most pared-down version, captivity for Akerman consists of a room or the existence of another person. Sometimes closed rooms and other people hold us captive; sometimes we can make an escape by entering other lives, shifting contexts, and seeing ourselves in new ways.

Smallwood’s book, also called La Captive, is published by Fireflies Press as part of their Decadent Editions—“a series of ten books about ten films, one for every year of the 2000s,” each a classic of contemporary cinema. It is a handsome, tiny, mustard-colored book that can easily fit in one’s pocket. Smallwood reports that she was paid $2,000 to write it, one of the many small facts about her personal and material conditions she attaches to insightful readings of Akerman’s film. These small facts begin to accumulate—she is writing the book during COVID-19 quarantine in Brooklyn; she and her family (two young sons, ages four and one, and a husband) have recently moved; her mother makes herself available to watch her sons while Smallwood tries to write; construction noise fills the apartment; she can’t sleep and can’t get her children to sleep; she is experiencing writer’s block.

Smallwood might have seized the chance to escape into Akerman’s distanced and formal aesthetic as a kind of escape from lockdown. But filtering the film through personal frustrations and feelings, Smallwood’s reading gets captured by the narration of her own captivities. Only the reading is contained this way, however, not the film under examination. We keep our eye on Akerman’s corridors.


In Akerman’s La Captive, Proust’s Marcel and Albertine become Simon (Stanislas Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud). Simon and Ariane live with Simon’s grandmother and the nosy live-in maid, Françoise (Liliane Rovère), in a gorgeously deteriorating Paris apartment. Simon is obsessed with Ariane’s movements, thoughts, and desires, and he interrogates her constantly on each and all. He suspects she is having lesbian affairs and wants to know the secret of what women do together.

Viewers never know whether Ariane is having affairs or not, nor what her desires may be. What is obvious is that in response to Simon’s obnoxious questioning, Ariane lies, obfuscates, pretends to forget details of her whereabouts and comings and goings, and then suddenly remembers and reports contradictory facts to Simon. These scenes are, to me, quite hilarious, although Smallwood does not mention finding anything funny in the film.

Neither Simon nor Ariane work outside the home, and so they are free to circle around each other in captivity, not to jobs or material needs but to Simon’s paranoid obsessions, which replace his anxiety about his writing. Ariane takes singing lessons, goes for walks in the park, and swims with friends, all of whom look almost exactly like her. Simon surreptitiously follows Ariane in his car (with his driver) and while walking through the streets. Smallwood puts this in generic context, remarking that if this “feels familiar, it is not only that Akerman is drawing on the generic grammar of film noir. She is paying explicit homage to [Hitchcock’s] Vertigo.”

How does Ariane not notice Simon, only the length of a block behind her, or does she notice and this is part of the game? The partners also take frequent naps in different rooms, but Simon often invites Ariane into his room, tells her to sleep, and then they have sex (fully clothed, a kind of humping). Is she really sleeping, or is she faking it? Is this the sex she wants and consents to? Smallwood reminds us of one of Akerman’s rules: “A secret can, or should, never be revealed.” She elaborates: “The actor must know and then withhold, remain in possession of something that cannot be possessed by the audience. There must be something that the viewer can’t have. That something is what captivates them, holds them captive.”

But unlike Akerman, Smallwood reveals all the secrets. “Writing this essay feels less like shaping time than pouring it into the sink,” she says. She lists the noises that bother her day in and day out with paragraphs of detail following each item: “Hammering”; “Drilling”; “Scraping”; “My mother’s footsteps”; “My second son’s yelling, crying, singing”; “Now he is roaring like a lion”; “Jackhammers”; “The exhaust fan at the ceramics studio”; “The drone of airplanes and helicopters”; “The saws.”

As everything and everyone conspires to interfere with Smallwood’s writing, Smallwood sympathizes more with Simon’s captivity to his writerly frustrations than she does with Ariane’s captivity to Simon’s stalking and questioning. Who is captive in this story, to whom, to what? Simon’s reports on his lack of progress on “my Racine” merge with Smallwood’s reports on her lack of progress with “my Akerman.” Defining adaptation as “repetitions, displacements, substitutions,” Smallwood engages in all three.

Personal frustrations pile up and repeat, and Smallwood’s La Captive starts to eclipse Akerman’s. Simon tries to ease his writer’s block by replacing it with obsession about Ariane’s lesbian affairs; Smallwood eases her frustrations with writing about Akerman’s film by replacing it with stream-of-consciousness reports on her (and her children’s) own forms of captivity.


Smallwood is no stranger to stories about captivity and, for that matter, children. Her highly praised first novel, The Life of the Mind (2021), features Dorothy, an adjunct English professor who can’t stop obsessing about climate disaster. Obsessive thoughts become looming, ever-present captivities that sometimes substitute for, sometimes merge with, other “failures”: a miscarriage, her inability to impress a dissertation advisor, the nonexistent academic labor market, her mother finding a “replacement” daughter, her diminishing ability to have any fun at all.

The miscarriage becomes the through line for the novel, haunting every interaction. Dorothy is childless, her future increasingly precarious. Saying in her La Captive that having children is the “most common” way to live in a redemptive, future-oriented way, Smallwood rightly notes that “Proust, like Akerman, had no children; their work puts forth art as the (queer) alternative to biological reproduction. Whatever else it may be, sleep-humping is non-procreative.”

Counting on the existence of a future, for children or for art, however, is neither Proust’s nor Akerman’s way of redeeming time. We remember that when Proust tastes the madeleine, the sensation sparks a memory that transforms the present and the past, without regard to the future. Akerman is uninterested in redemption across the board, forcing us in her films to endure unredeemed time, to feel time passing.

Smallwood’s Dorothy also feels time passing too acutely and too bodily as blood from the miscarriage keeps flowing like a period that never stops. She becomes entirely unmoored from any foundations or forms as she wallows in the failure of minor gestures to set her free. Written in close third-person, Smallwood’s narrative observes Dorothy and invites us into her thoughts: “In a time of chaos, one had to be prepared for everything. That was it: She had to prepare. She pushed the button to get to the home screen, touched the Notes application, and made a note: Buy panty liners (pink individual wrappers).”

Such a female detail, one of many that permeate The Life of the Mind. It floats above or hums below, explicitly avoiding observations about how gender, capital, or other political and social forms might structure Dorothy’s experiences in the academy, with her boyfriend, or in relationship to pending climate disaster. But this is likely not the point. The point is for the reader to be absorbed in Dorothy’s life of the mind, how she thinks of the world as body, immanence, captivity. In duration, unable to escape. No exit.


Akerman’s only other film adaptation is of Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel Almayer’s Folly. In this 2011 film, Stanislas Merhar, who also plays Simon in La Captive, plays Almayer, a man who, just like Simon, is obsessed with knowing, controlling, and possessing women. Though Smallwood mentions and briefly discusses several other of Akerman’s films, she doesn’t say anything about Almayer’s Folly other than to note that Akerman filmed it in her pajamas. “Going to bed,” Smallwood explains, was Akerman’s adaptation to the overwhelming desire to know her ailing mother, and the pain of having to say goodbye to her, to be separated.

In the film, Almayer lives in an unspecified Asian colony in the 1950s, where he obsesses over his never-achieved fortune; his lack of control over his mixed-race daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion); and his desire to keep Nina separated from her mother, a local woman named Zahira (Sakhna Oum). Against Zahira’s will, Almayer sends Nina away to London, hoping this will whiten and educate her. The film is shot in dark and moody colors, in the jungle. Humidity and green moss permeate everything. Almayer is a broken, brooding, troubled man who does nothing but sweat, scratch his insect bites, and listen, slumped over in a chair, to European pop music and opera on his record player.

In keeping with all Akerman films, the viewer does not have access to his or anyone’s thoughts but can glean from posture, gesture, expression, and feeling that Almayer is deeply disappointed by his own “follies” (having a child with Zahira, imagining he would become wealthy, living in the jungle).

To an interviewer at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Akerman said that her adaptation has “almost nothing to do with Joseph Conrad”—his story is too “masculine,” and overly concerned with “redemption and guilt.” Because she is Jewish, Akerman says, redemption and guilt have nothing to do with her version. Instead, she was moved by the father’s desire to keep the daughter, and by the impact of the London school on killing the girl’s heart. Ultimately, Nina disdains her Western birthright and, once back with her father, finds her freedom by running off with a native man whom she does not love but uses for her escape.


My favorite part of Smallwood’s writing on La Captive is when she reminds us that the classicist, poet, and playwright Anne Carson also wrote a book about Proust’s Albertine, The Albertine Workout (2014), in which Carson says, “There are four ways Albertine is able to avoid becoming entirely possessable […] by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian or by being dead.” Smallwood continues, “To this list of ways to save oneself, Akerman adds another: making art.”

To illustrate what she means by Akerman’s depiction of Ariane as an artist, Smallwood brings our attention to the moment Ariane steps out onto the balcony and sings a duet with a woman on another balcony (stranger? friend?). “It is unclear if Ariane and the other singer can see each other, or only hear one another,” Smallwood says. “But perhaps Ariane has had enough of being seen. She wants to listen and be heard. She doesn’t, given the constraints of the secret, have anything in particular to say. What matters is the quality of her voice.”

By quality, Smallwood means not that Ariane’s voice is professional but that it is heartfelt and vulnerable. Smallwood says that Ariane is Akerman’s model of an artist because she sings “from the confines or the cage that she herself has chosen and will choose again” and that she “doesn’t […] have anything in particular to say.” Smallwood concludes that by filming Ariane through a window, Akerman “puts a frame on the world and turns it into art.”

In the scene Smallwood is citing, we do see Ariane, framed by a window, singing Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Smallwood is right to note that she is not singing as an accomplished soprano. But what she doesn’t note is that the lyrics speak of infidelity and captivity, and so maybe Ariane actually does have something particular to say. Ariane shares not just her voice, but her voice as mediated through an iconic opera, with another singer, and with viewers. It’s the form, and the different way she occupies it, that makes Ariane an artist, not her vulnerability, and not a frame.

Nina also sings in Almayer’s Folly, in a sleazy nightclub as a background dancer. Violence erupts in the club, and while the other dancers scatter, Nina stares into the camera and sings an a cappella version of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. Adapting Mozart, her singing transforms her Western education, the heritage of her mother’s race, and her father’s folly.

Linking the film to her own life’s circumstances, as she is wont to do, Smallwood continues to reject forms as such. She professes to speak to readers “from the confines or the cage that she herself has chosen and will choose again,” without anything “in particular to say.” But she still has her voice. She learns from an instructional video, she tells us, that maybe if she records her voice for her small sons and then teaches them how to hit a button and hear this voice whenever they need her, they will sleep better. But what happens instead is that her younger son “showed me a different way of using the button. He deleted my voice and recorded his own.”

Though Smallwood doesn’t say this, we might surmise that her story of the recording and erasure of a mother’s voice illustrates a contrast between two ways of doing art. Smallwood makes art by recording her voice not saying, by her own account, anything in particular. Her son makes art by erasing his mother’s voice and recording his own over it. Akerman gives us a third way: she invites viewers to make new meanings of experiences, not by framing them, but by inhabiting old forms in new ways. Mediation, distance, and discomforting feelings are her corridors.


Put another way, we need not be stuck in a room with our mother’s voices on replay, but we also shouldn’t be quick to delete them.

Separating from women (primarily the mother), which is what Smallwood’s son seems to both want and not want, and what Simon and Almayer both want and don’t want with their girlfriends, mothers, and daughters, has been the masculine way of art. I see Simon and Almayer as acting out of their fear of losing their place in the order of things, worried that another way was/is emerging. They both are obsessed with what women do when not in the presence of men, what women make and make possible. An important detail that Smallwood seems to miss (or ignore) is that in Akerman’s adaptations, Simon and Almayer are obsessed with learning women’s secrets, keeping them apart from one another, silencing their voices.

Mother and daughter are brought together in Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie (2015). In this film—a documentary of sorts, but “no home movie”—Akerman plays with the idea of not having a home, and of simultaneously only having a home where her mother resides. Critics, including Smallwood, often note that Akerman’s films are always about her mother in either oblique or clear ways. In this one, it’s crystal clear that it’s all about her mother. Chantal Akerman and her sister, Sylviane, are living in their mother’s Brussels apartment where the mother, Natalia, is slowly disappearing. Chantal is trying to keep her mother present by filming her as she goes about her days in an “apartment,” a “corridor,” and with “two characters,” a perfect setup for an Akerman film. They are also present to each other while Chantal is away on her film sets, capturing her mother on her laptop screen as they Skype, and neither can ever say goodbye.

Smallwood considers No Home Movie with Akerman’s Tomorrow We Move (2004), which she calls “a berserk piece of cinema.” Tomorrow We Move is a story of a woman who lives with her aging mother, but for unexplained reasons a young woman gives birth to a baby in the apartment, the older mother moves out, and then the younger one and the baby move in. Smallwood comments that this might be the ending Akerman wanted for Ariane, “a chaotic and joyful queer domesticity.” She adds that these are the questions Akerman’s “biography” raises: “[W]hat does it mean to be unable or unwilling to survive a separation? To seek and desire captivity? For art to be a house where you live with your children or your mother?”

I’m not convinced that Akerman sees art as a house where you live with your children or your mother. Although Akerman died by suicide after the completion of No Home Movie (my own personal “small fact”: I was standing in line to see the film at the New York Film Festival when festival organizers told us of Akerman’s death), the film is more than Akerman’s personal story.

Akerman inhabits the home movie genre to make her mother available to us. In a way, she makes her mother our mother, elicits our ambivalence around our captivity to our own mothers, to old and tired ideas of what a mother is. Via Akerman’s camerawork, itself a form of motherwork, we can think and feel this ambivalence about our mothers and the mother role; we can rethink and refeel the relationship between Chantal and Natalia as a way to inhabit a new form of “motherhood.” In contrast, although Smallwood foregrounds her own role as mother in her iteration of La Captive, her experience stubbornly remains hers alone, unavailable to readers and impervious to transformation.


In Akerman’s films, we witness the pathologies of colonial, patriarchal, and racialized ways of knowing as possession, the forms of captivity they create and reproduce, and how we can do more to transform these with others than we can do alone. Most important, though, and important not to miss, is that her films feature women inhabiting forms and scripts (motherhood, art, music, love, sex, friendship, colonialism, captivity) in new ways.

We are always captive to others, to our work, to the work of others; there are rooms that are nearly impossible to escape. But we can surely do more than “buy panty liners (pink individual wrappers).” Akerman’s filmmaking transforms our experiences of captivity by staging multiple encounters with others. These holding spaces of encounter become cinematic corridors leading us out of rooms we can no longer bear to occupy.

LARB Contributor

Lori Marso is the author of several articles and books, most recently Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter (Duke, 2017); editor of Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016); and co-editor of Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier (Oxford, 2016). She is Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York, currently living in New York City, and her new book, Feminism and the Cinema of Experience, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.


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