Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chantal Akerman

The first Chantal Akerman film I ever saw was Les rendez-vous d’Anna. I think that was in 1983, give or take a year; I was just getting into serious movies, and I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything to that point that so plainly embodied film as contemporary art. A female film director travels round Europe, endlessly promoting her latest film. She sleeps with strangers, has a largely meaningless relationship with an older businessman, another with a woman. She’s often filmed naked. The film has very long takes and isn’t realistic – characters enter into long philosophical or self-searching monologues, while their interlocutors stare and listen. Several characters are changing countries, or bothered that they’re stuck in the wrong one; with memories of the war still fairly prominent (it’s 1978) and Europe not yet carved up by dirt-cheap flights, arduousness and alienation lie heavy in the air. In the end, back in the home she hardly ever occupies, she lies on the bed, listening to her messages on the clunky answering machine, each of them in some way testifying to her displaced existence.

Jeanne Dielman

For a perhaps pretentious and certainly remote teenager, this could hardly have been more stimulating. Fortunately having taped it from late night TV, I rewatched it several times and if memory serves even wrote a screenplay that stole heavily from it (I think it was called I Can’t Feel At Home Here, which presumably gets the point across). After that I never ran across the film then. Naturally I tried to see as much of Akerman’s other work as I could, but that’s never been easy. In the 80’s she made a couple of musicals and I loved them, but I’ve never seen them since. I’ve seen a few others at the film festival over the last decade, but they didn’t feel like her strongest work, I did however view her most famous film Jeanne Dielman, made a few years before Anna. Running over three hours, it studies a widowed middle-aged mother though her life’s repetitive rituals – getting up, shopping, preparing meals, going to bed and, in her case, raising some additional income by prostituting herself. The film is like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of domesticity; incongruities and lapses start creeping into the structure, and the quiet, conventional bravery of Jeanne’s perseverance takes on an almost impossible suspense.

Jeanne Dielman came out on DVD two years ago, joined last year by a new boxed set on the Eclipse label, Chantal Akerman In The Seventies. It’s an extremely satisfying item, comprising five films for just over $30, among them Les rendez-vous d’Anna. Seeing it after such a long gap, it was perhaps a mild disappointment, but then I’m not that same teenager any more. The film feels a little strained and schematic now; Akerman’s ideas are still fascinating, but the texture doesn’t seem to breathe. On the other hand, to some extent that’s the point. Reflecting on how little we learn of Anna’s identity and accomplishments as a filmmaker, it’s tempting to think Akerman was in a temporary cul-de-sac, her sense of underlying emptiness too heavy to be turned into fluent art.

The New York Trilogy

The other four films were new to me. She made three of them in New York, where she spent a formative year and a half, and you couldn’t have a more fascinating illustration of a filmmaker’s ideas coalescing and taking on complexity. The first, La chambre, is a single camera movement around the interior of a rather dingy apartment, frequently alighting on Akerman herself lying on the bed. There’s nothing even remotely resembling a plot, but just by varying the scheme as we think we understand it, Akerman imports a remarkable degree of intrigue, both drawing on and subverting a long aesthetic tradition of staring at women. Hotel Monterey silently observes the interior of an equally dingy hotel, concentrating primarily on dark elevators and corridors and corners, until we escape out onto the roof and into daylight, almost carrying the sense of being liberated from a brooding David Lynch-like landscape of the unconscious.

The strongest of the New York trilogy (actually made a few years later, on a return visit) is certainly News From Home. This time Akerman takes her camera out on the streets, in the subway, on the ferry. There’s again no sound within the frame, but periodically on the soundtrack a female voice (Akerman’s own) reads letters written by a Belgian mother to her daughter, who’s living in New York. The daughter, it’s clear, doesn’t write often enough, doesn’t provide enough information; the mother tries not to hector her, but can’t always help it. Again, the theme of alienation is unmistakable, emerging here against an enormously rounded emotional landscape; the varying time that elapses between the reading of each letter and their relationship to the background are remarkably effective in suggesting the daughter’s conflicted, inconsistent perspective on the relationship. It’s a melancholy film: you feel the mother’s longing for the lost connection, but also the daughter’s inclination to lose herself in the folds of the city. Akerman couldn’t have planned it, but the prominence of the World Trade towers in the last shot imports all kinds of suitably turbulent associations.

Je, tu, il, elle

The other film in the collection, Je, tu, il, elle, is equally strong, but very different. The title implies a wrestling with the building blocks of identity, and with just three characters and very little dialogue, Akerman again creates an astonishing network of implication. The human body is in the forefront now, beginning with a woman (Akerman again) who spends days and weeks along in her room, like some kind of outcast unable to kick-start herself into action. Eventually she goes outside, allowing herself to be picked up by a truck driver; she sexually services him, listens to his long self-justifying monologues about his barren life; when he’s last seen, she’s standing in a washroom corner as he shaves and then urinates, taking passivity to a point where it almost becomes strangely dominant. In the third episode she visits an ex-girlfriend, and she’s much more the pace-setter now, leading the other woman into love-making depicted in virtually real time, over just a few long takes; the next day, she gets dressed and leaves.

Usually looking deliberately drab, the film conveys a lot about societal and psychological pressure, but it also portends almost endless possibilities for productive collision. The Eclipse collection is incredibly rewarding, as exciting to this now middle-aged viewer as that first film was to the younger one; the only letdown is that one can’t immediately follow Akerman’s amazing creative personality through to the 80’s and beyond.

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