International Cinema: La Prisonnière (1968) - Reviewed

French master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot was at the height of his career after teaming up with Brigitte Bardot on the courtroom drama La Vérité.  Actress Bardot’s biggest box office success to date and third most popular film released in France in 1960, the film went on to garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and also won the Golden Globe for the same.  Despite hitting a home run with La Vérité, it would mark the beginning of the end of the master filmmaker’s ride on the crest wave of success and happiness with seemingly one insurmountable obstacle after another driving him into the trough.  

Starting with a heart attack suffered by the director (the first of many) which shut down production on La Vérité for a week, things took a nose dive for Clouzot when his wife Vera Clouzot died of a heart attack shortly after La Vérité completed shooting.  After falling in and out of depression following Vera’s death, the director found himself boxed between a rock and a hard place as his films garnered renowned international attention while the French New Wave directors scoffed at his work.  Believing his own films Diabolique and Miquette to have lost their relevancy, in 1964 Clouzot set his sights on the experimental and kinetic thriller of sexual jealousy L’Enfer. 

Ambitious in scope and fixing to be the director’s first color film, actors Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani were cast with longtime cinematographer Armand Thirard providing many of the experimental kinetic, kaleidoscopic imagery.  Three weeks into shooting, however (as chronicled in the excellent documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno), Reggiani dropped out before Clouzot suffered a heart attack and production fell apart.  Leaving the preproduction work and dailies for L’Enfer behind, for the next two years Clouzot kept himself busy working on television documentaries, earning just enough money to finance what would become his first color film and final directing project, La Prisonnière.

Utilizing most of (if not all) the props and camera tests created for the abandoned L’Enfer project and proving to be the master of suspense’s first thoroughly provocative picture, La Prisonnière (translated to Woman in Chains) inhabits a curious hemisphere somewhere in the sadomasochistic yearnings of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour with the psychedelic abstractions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Hallucinatory and tantalizing, the film doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of his abandoned L’Enfer yet still finds the director pushing the envelope dividing (at the time) the invisible line between art and pornography.

Zeroing in on a young couple, TV editor José (actress/singer Élisabeth Wiener) and her avant-garde artist boyfriend Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), the duo wind up at dandy Parisian art gallery owner Stanislas’ (Laurent Terzieff) establishment to show off Gilbert’s work.  After spotting Gilbert mingling with an art critic a bit too closely for comfort, an annoyed José decides to head home with Stanislas to his ornate flat.  In the midst of showing off his photography works, José’s uncharted sexual curiosities are aroused by the sight of a lewd image of a naked woman in bondage.  Though initially disgusted, eventually José’s intrigue persists, leading her deeper into a bottomless pit of sadomasochistic subservience. 

Either a story of true love or the uncompromising portrait of an impressionable youth groomed to be another man’s willing sexual submissive, the final feature film of Henri-Georges Clouzot La Prisonnière is at once a psychedelic psychosexual odyssey and a semi-autobiographical work of self-examination with much of the director’s trademark dispassionate fastidiousness channeled into the character of Stanislas.  Many have read La Prisonnière as exemplar of Clouzot turning the camera on himself and while that might be true to some extent, with the opening montage of Stanislas fiddling with the doll of a naked woman, the film leaves ample room for reinterpretation for the viewer. 

 While not nearly as overtly provocative as, say, The Night Porter or The Image, La Prisonnière unlike those pictures has the capacity to sneak past your barriers psychologically rather than providing mere pure carnality.  The film’s frequent splashes of psychedelic kinetic imagery with rapid-fire cuts and bouts of surrealism interspersed throughout work to keep the viewer within the disoriented perspective of José who gradually abandons more and more of her inhibitions (and arguably common sense) as she falls deeper into Stanislas’ spell. 

Like Belle De Jour, the film is less interested in the mechanics of sex than it is in the hypnotic pull its protagonist cannot break free from.  How we should regard the events of La Prisonnière from a moral standpoint are secondary to the tractor-beam like allure the netherworld presents to our heroine.  Coupled with Andréas Winding’s visually striking, precise cinematography and hyperkinetic editing by Noëlle Balenci, La Prisonnière careens slowly and surely towards its shattering finale which, like any challenging work by a great director, poses far more questions than it answers.

The film’s three leads of course give superb performances with Wiener serving as Stanislas’ (and arguably Clouzot’s) willing muse.  Better known as Allié de Viva in Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, Wiener traverses fearlessly into (at the time) some pretty uncomfortable territory with Laurent Terzieff imbuing Stanislas with implacable menace.  Also strong is Bernard Fresson as starving artist Gilbert who may or may not be onto his girlfriend’s illicit activities with Stanislas.  For those who recall Clouzot’s failed attempt at L’Enfer, Dany Carrel makes a welcome return before the director’s camera as Stanislas’ nude photography model.

As with L’Enfer, Clouzot’s final feature film was dogged with the same production problems that derailed his last from completion.  Despite his reassurance to doctors and insurers he was fine, Clouzot started shooting in September 1967 only to suffer yet another heart attack followed by a seven-month hospitalization before hastily resuming production in August of 1968.  Not long after completion, Clouzot’s health continued to decline with numerous unrealized projects tinkered with for the next seven years.  After an open-heart surgery in November 1976, Henri-Georges Clouzot died in January 12th, 1977.

With many of Clouzot’s works finally receiving their long awaited international releases following the documentary film Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno which gave cinephiles a glimpse into what might have been his first color feature, La Prisonnière finally had it’s day in the UK thanks to a 4K restored blu-ray disc with plans from Kino Lorber to release the disc in the US later this year.  Looking back at the director’s somewhat scandalous swan song, La Prisonnière wouldn’t be the recommended starting point for newcomers to the genius that is Henri-Georges Clouzot (that honor will always go to The Wages of Fear for me).  That said, fans of the distinguished French master of suspense should most certainly give the director’s hyperkinetic psychosexual odyssey a whirl which is sure to leave one Hell of an impression.

- Andrew Kotwicki