Wednesday, April 4, 2012

87. WOMAN IN CHAINS (LA PRISONIERRE, 1968)

When a 1964 heart attack brought a sudden end to the filming of L'ENFER ("Inferno"), a projected Op Art film about insane jealousy starring Romy Schneider, it was another four years before Henri-Georges Clouzot was able to get another theatrical feature produced. The resulting work, WOMAN IN CHAINS (also known as FEMALE PRISONER), showed that his fascination with Op Art had anything but abated.

Scripted by Clouzot himself, it's another story of jealousy, this time more sympathetic to the distaff side of the equation. It is a portrait of José (Elisabeth Wiener), a young woman in an open but committed relationship with Gilbert (THE TENANT's Bernard Fresson), an Op artist preparing an exhibit for enterprising gallerist Stanislas Hassler (Laurent Terzieff). One night, while Gilbert is away wooing a woman reporter for professional reasons, José allows herself to be invited to Stan's apartment, where -- in a somewhat Robbe-Grilletian twist -- she is accidentally exposed to evidence of his hobby of pornographic photography, namely a photo of a nude woman in a pose of chained submission. To her surprise, the photo arouses her and she asks to be present at a private modelling session; this arouses her still more and she leaves Stan's apartment in a state of flustered embarassment. Realizing her true nature, José returns to Stan, knowing that he is the only man capable of accessing this untapped side of her nature, leading to disastrous consequences and a jealous meltdown for the supposedly liberated Gilbert.

The early part of WOMAN IN CHAINS is a brilliant, near immersion in the sheer variety of Op Art, showing its principles at work not only in art objects (sculptures, installations and wall hangings) but in furniture and clothing, as well. The middle is psychological drama at its most absorbing, as José finds herself helplessly submitting to Stan's sexual control. When the film reaches its climactic point of crisis, Clouzot jolts the film by going inside José's head for a subjective sequence of disorientation and fantasy that actually parallels the "Stargate" sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which had the better fortune of opening several months earlier. A commercial disappointment, WOMAN IN CHAINS was little-seen and promptly forgotten, yet it is a film of major innovative importance in the respective histories or erotic and art cinema. It's not quite on the level of THE WAGES OF FEAR (LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR, 1953), but neither is it a consolation prize for the unfinished L'ENFER (whose script was eventually filmed by Claude Chabrol in 1994): it is a potent achievement in its own right and deserves to be much better known.

Viewed on DVD-R.

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