La belle captive (1983)

A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

Given their ubiquity in the public consciousness (who wouldn’t recognize The Son of Man’s [1964] bowler-hatted gentleman with an apple covering his face?), it comes as a surprise that Lucy Fischer’s Cinemagritte (Wayne State, 2019) is the first book-length analysis of René Magritte’s iconic paintings and their relation to cinema. Taken as an art history text, it’s an excellent introduction to Magritte, featuring incisive observations and beautiful color reproductions. However, due to Fischer’s overreliance on plot summaries and tenuous visual associations, it is far less successful as a piece of film criticism.

As noted in the introduction, Fischer’s “intermedial” approach favors imaginative connections between the two mediums over strict interpretation (18). She cites Magritte’s outspoken distaste for attempts to “explain” his art as justification for this method: “‘People cannot know my painting if they associate it with any kind of symbolism, whether naïve or sophisticated,’ since ‘the symbol is always the negation of poetry’” (qtd. in Fischer 25). Indeed, Magritte’s world and the world of film intersect in a number of other ways, from the influence early cinema had on his style (he devoured Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas serials), to his own attempts at filmmaking (an entire chapter covers his home movies, many of which replicate imagery from his paintings) (Fischer 7, 9).

Although one chapter details explicit cinematic “adaptations” of Magritte’s work (including Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La belle captive [1983], which recreates a number of the artist’s images throughout its surrealistic narrative), the book’s majority focuses on more subjective parallels. Its midsection, “Resonances of Magritte in Film History, Theory, and Practice,” tackles various themes (voyeurism, petrification, decapitation), objects (masks, windows, keyholes, and, of course, bowler hats), and philosophical subjects (word-image relations, images as reflections of consciousness) recurrent in both film and Magritte’s paintings. This section is something of a mixed bag, and Fischer’s observations range from the illuminating to the obvious.

One of the most compelling chapters, “Word versus Image,” ties its analysis of Magritte’s oft-cited The Treachery of Images (1929) to three avant-garde pieces by Hollis Frampton. Just as the painting announces that its pipe illustration is not an actual, physical pipe (and that the word “pipe” bears no objective relation to its signified object), Frampton’s So Is This (1982) revels in linguistic ambiguity: “‘[W]hen the film asserts that “this…is/the/signifier,” we are left wondering what is the signifier, exactly? The word this? The language Snow [the film’s narrator] is using? The medium of film? Or perhaps all of the above?’” (qtd. in Fischer 103). The author also explores Magritte’s tendency to choose titles with no clear connection to their corresponding images, a tactic that destabilizes language’s supposed power and frustrates attempts to derive an easy “meaning” from a work’s name (Fischer 97).

While such theory-inclined entries shed light on both mediums’ self-reflective possibilities, other chapters in the “Resonances” section feel arbitrary with their film references. “Petrification, Horror, and Fantasy,” though peppered with the occasional sharp insight (such as Fischer’s proposal that the cinematic freeze-frame is a form of petrification akin to the rock-like bodies populating many Magritte works [128]), devolves into an inventory of plot summaries. Superficial parallels to forgettable B-movies – such as 1957’s The Monolith Monsters, which features human characters turning to stone – do not justify scene-by-scene summaries and read suspiciously like padding. They add little to Fischer’s larger thematic concerns, such as Magritte’s paradoxical fascination with making organic materials (a fish) inorganic (a boulder) in paintings like 1953’s The Wonders of Nature (127, 136).

The Wonders of Nature

Chapters like “Petrification” illustrate a broader issue with Cinemagritte: Fischer’s comparative approach does not allow for enough nuance or complexity to sustain a 250-page book. Her basic technique (discuss an element from a painting, mention a movie that contains the same object, theme, etc., summarize said movie) is repetitive not because she fails to dig deeply enough but because there simply isn’t much else to do with the material, given her analytical strategy; her visual associations are fundamentally intuitive and cannot be explained away. “‘If a picture could be explained in words,’” Fischer quotes Magritte, “‘words would suffice, and the picture would be superfluous’” (91). Perhaps she should have taken this advice more to heart.

Fischer’s prose, though accessible, is similarly repetitive. For example, Magritte’s The False Mirror (1928), with its cinematic focus on a cloud-dappled eye, figures in many of her entries. Almost every reference to the painting includes a parenthetical note that it’s “pictured on the cover of this volume” (Fischer 60) or “depicted on the cover of this volume” (Fischer 101). It’s as if she has sewn together disparate, previously-published writings without retracing her steps and eliminating redundancies. She also commits what many would consider a cardinal sin of criticism: misstating a film title (in Chapter 20, she refers to Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Fischer 220-221]).

Cinemagritte ends on a high note, though, with “Film History, Techniques, Processes, and Modes of Reception.” This penultimate chapter argues that many Magritte paintings transpose filmmaking methods to the still image. For example, Fischer proposes that The Cascade (1961) simultaneously embodies long shots and close-ups: “[T]he framed picture depicts a long shot of the very foliage against which it is tightly wedged. Thus, while a movie might have presented consecutive images – first, a long shot of a group of trees and, second, a close shot of some foliage – Magritte combines the two images into one” (219). This collapsing of dialectics so central to both mediums may have better served as the text’s central focus, rather than the somewhat superficial comparative analyses driving many of its entries.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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