Ask any specialist in schadenfreude: giants laid low make fruitful subjects, and what better time than 2009 for the movies to put industrial bigwigs through trials by fire? Lucas Belvaux’s Rapt of that year, shown July 18 at the Museum of Fine Arts’ French Film Festival, is based on the 1978 kidnapping for ransom of the Belgian businessman Baron Empain. During his two-month captivity, the potentate lost the sympathy of the public because of the exposure of his extramarital affairs and extravagant gambling. But unlike the press in real life, Rapt withholds judgment on its hapless protagonist. The real business at hand is to deprive him totally of freedom and dignity and see what’s left–and, more pointedly, what society makes of him. Rapt’s strength turns out to be its ability to contrast what we see of his ordeal with how his family, colleagues, and enemies perceive him.
At first, I doubted the film’s potential for reaching psychological depths worthy of such a subject. The opening scenes drum through at the pace of a television special. Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is at his complacent zenith: conducting business as the chairman of a wealthy conglomerate, visiting his mistress in the afternoon, and losing 50,000 euros at poker, only to wake up the next morning to kiss his wife and daughters good-bye.
These transgressions are laid out in clipped, percussive scenes that stress the transience of his good luck. Then he’s seized from his car, handcuffed, blindfolded and locked in a trunk by masked men. Having hurtled through the exposition and the start of the drama, the film doesn’t pause to linger on the first days of his captivity. Instead, it flashes between episodes of his increasing degradation and the mobilization to retrieve him. His fellow shareholders react to the abduction primarily as a potential financial disaster. Particularly suspect is the dispassionate financier Peyrac (André Marcon), a resourceful negotiator who treats Graff’s disappearance as some kind of impropriety.
Belvaux seeks out every cold heart in Paris, from politicians outraged at the discovery of Graff’s reckless spending, to the victim’s own exquisitely callous mother (Françoise Fabian). Among these rather broadly drawn characters, we find a few complicated enough for our sympathy: certainly his daughters, and above all his wife, who suffers the most from the press’s gleeful exploitation of Graff’s past affairs: Anne Consigny once again conveys the anguish of maintaining a superficial bourgeois calm.
Meanwhile, the film evolves into as bleak, prolonged, and unsentimental a depiction of imprisonment as I’ve seen in the movies. A certain toughness is often granted even to antiheroes in movies, but not here. The audience can’t take comfort in the slightest defiance on the hostage’s part. Attal (nominated for a César for this performance) portrays Graff as a man so afraid of provoking further terrors that he can hardly speak or move, but whose humiliation is all too easy to read on his face.
The mustachioed main kidnapper Le Marseillais (Gérard Meylan) unctuously doles out small comforts along with brutality, a combination more disturbing than simpleminded cruelty. Some of Rapt’s most effective scenes show how the prisoner cautiously accepts his captor’s spurious kindness even as he dreads further trauma. It’s hard to stop a mental wince as Le Marseillais, amiably chatting like a doctor to a nervous patient, fastens a chain around Graff’s neck after the hostage has been allowed to bathe.
Alas for reviewer discretion: the most original part of Rapt is its ending, so rather than neglect it I will resort here to a Spoiler Alert. Graff, like the real-life Baron Empain, survives his two months of torment. Here you might expect some kind of redemption, perhaps a greater self-awareness for the victim. In fact, Graff doesn’t feel remorse. The general hunger for his repentance enrages him. He has recovered his ambition and is determined to scrabble back to power.
When Peyrac warns him that the shareholders will no longer accept him as a legitimate leader, Graff cynically contemplates feigning contrition to the public. Feed the press a story about how his ordeal purified him and made him into a new man, he thinks, and the people will forget his former dissolute lifestyle. He hasn’t yet realized that he has been fatally tarnished in the public eye.
Worse, he has returned to a family furious with him for his hitherto concealed double life. His wife and daughters demand explanations while he expects their unquestioning compassion. The familial scenes push Graff further and further into a state of frustrated isolation. He is forced to cope alone with his nightmares, memories and unbroken anxiety.
Rapt refutes the spiritually purifying power of suffering. A terrible experience can set a man apart from luckier members of society, yet teach him nothing about himself. This idea is so grim, and so unsatisfying to an audience spoiled on catharsis, it’s no wonder that most screenwriters avoid it.
But this idea carries a humanistic implication more profound than most atonement dramas. The helpful MFA bulletin’s summary of the film claims that “the viewer is invited to consider whether the unfortunate man deserves his fate or is worthy of redemption.” To me, the question is moot. Stanislas Graff’s suffering has nothing to do with what he does or doesn’t deserve. What matters is that imprisonment has changed him in ways that no one, not even his aggrieved family, can really understand or appreciate. I’d go as far as saying that Rapt is an exercise in empathy. The protagonist’s faults may be hard to forgive, but what’s more frightening in the end: one man’s selfish recklessness, or society’s appetite for his mortification?
Written and directed by Lucas Belvaux. With Yvan Attal, Anne Consigny, André Macon, Alex Descas. Director of photography, Pierre Milon; editor, Danielle Anezin; Production designer, Frédérique Belvaux. Running time 2 hours 5 minutes.