Je tu il elle, 1974. Je tu il elle opens to the terse and contextually ambiguous, yet personally revealing statement “…And I left” as a nameless young woman – later identified as Julie (Chantal Akerman) – sits on a chair off-side of the frame with her back to the camera as she recounts an autobiographical anecdote into an obscured journal. The fragmentary and dissociated introductory episode provides an appropriate and incisive distillation into the essence of film (and more broadly, to Akerman’s cinema) itself as Julie passes idle time in her austere and sparsely furnished studio apartment by arbitrarily painting the walls in a different color one day to suit her whim (then another color on the next day), repositioning her few odd bits of furniture (a mattress, a bureau, a mirror, and a chair) within the confines of the room, and writing copious, but logically asequential and fractured stream of consciousness notes that methodically chronicle her thoughts, sentiments, and impulsive activities during her isolated, self-imposed solitude. The implicit obsessiveness to Julie’s seemingly Sisyphean ritual of meaningless and ritualistic domestic activity is an image that not only prefigures her seminal film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but also illustrates the filmmaker’s often revisited (albeit, abstractly) theme of perpetual displacement: a sentiment of instinctual, existential rootlessness that carries through to a subsequent – and equally atemporal and indeterminate extended sequence – of Julie in an acute angle crane shot as she stands on the sidewalk of a busy intersection. Accepting a ride from an unnamed truck driver (Niels Arestrup) – the eponymous, referential “he” of the depersonalized title – Julie embarks on a different course of figurative displacement: abandoning her spartan apartment on a self-migration to an unknown destination as she accompanies the driver on his tediously autonomic long distance excursion. A third (and equally jarring) temporal break shows Julie near the main entrance of a nondescript residential building – presumably having earlier parted with the truck driver – as she pays an unexpected visit to her estranged lover (Claire Wauthion) who, despite having admitted her into the apartment, promptly tells her that she cannot stay, then proceeds to further compound the emotional ambiguity of her declaration by obliging Julie’s request for food and implied consent to her instigation of sexual intimacy. Julie’s actions are reduced to the primal and elemental: her consumption of sugar while writing letters in her apartment mirrors a subsequent scene in a bar in the company of the truck driver then finally, in her presumptuous seating at the kitchen table at her lover’s apartment. Akerman incorporates dissociated aural cues that illustrate the heroine’s innate pattern of alienation and estrangement: non-diegetic narration that either precedes, follows, or does not at all correlate with Julie’s on-screen actions; the truck driver’s extended monologues that convey the semblance of intimacy without the physical act; Julie’s momentary reconciliation with her lover that centers around the most fundamental instincts of human behavior. Akerman further reinforces the themes of instinctuality and dispossession through acts of dislocation and migration: physical objects (the re-arrangement of furniture), self (hitchhiking), and emotional attachment (abandonment of her lover). Chronicling Julie’s estranged but illuminating interaction with her environment, Je tu il elle serves an abstract, but intrinsically lucid framework for Akerman’s languid, meditative, provocative, and indelibly haunting expositions on spiritual and existential transience.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975. In the unnerving silence of a sparsely furnished kitchen in Brussels, a poised, anonymous middle-aged woman (Delphine Seyrig) – identified only through the title of the film as Jeanne Dielman – completes her food preparation, places the contents into a large cooking pot on the stove, reaches for a match, lights the burner, and with chronological precision, finishes replacing the matchbox from its original location as the doorbell rings, switching the lights off as she leaves the room. The scene then cuts to an unusually framed shot of a truncated Jeanne at the entrance of the apartment as she accepts a hat and coat from an unidentified guest (Henri Storck) before retreating, out of view, into a bedroom at the end of the hallway. Moments later, the obscured image is reconnected to a familiar referential framing of the darkened hallway as the unknown guest re-emerges from the room and prepares to leave, handing Jeanne a pre-arranged sum of money before confirming their next appointment for the following week. She deposits the money in a soup tureen in the dining room, then returns to the kitchen to attend to the boiling pot, before tidying the bedroom and meticulously bathing and changing clothes after the encounter. And so Jeanne’s monotonous daily ritual unfolds through the tedium of household chores, impersonal sexual transactions, trivial errands, and alienated conversations with her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), revealing the silent anguish of disconnection and systematic erosion of the human soul.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a visually rigorous, uncompromising, and understatedly harrowing portrait of alienation, repression, and marginalization. Using primarily long take, medium shots from the repeated perspective of a stationary camera, Chantal Akerman creates an innately disquieting atmosphere of stasis and monotony. From the opening image of Jeanne facing away from the camera, to her visually decapitated shot as she politely receives clients by the entrance hallway of the apartment, Akerman uses extended, isolated framing that inhibits personal identification of the title character and reinforces a pervasive sense of unconscious, mechanical activity. The repeated filmic cued scene transitions associated with the actuation of light switches throughout the apartment further underscore the fragmented nature and dehumanized automation of her domestic tasks. By presenting the controlled and deliberate gestures inherent in Jeanne’s ritualistic actions that betray an implicit violence beneath the veneer of structure and order – as she bathes (note the similar imagery of cleansing in Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent), knits, shines shoes (a familiar episode from Akerman’s short film, Saute ma ville), and peels potatoes – the film provocatively captures the unarticulated tragedy of estrangement, loneliness, and disconnection.
News from Home, 1977. The film presents a series of abstract and fragmentary images of everyday urban life in 1970s New York City, accompanied by the distinctive narration of filmmaker, Chantal Akerman as she dispassionately reads through her mother’s alternately affectionate, melancholic, and sincere, but maternally manipulative letters from her native Belgium. The film opens to the surreal image and ambient sound of early morning Manhattan, as occasional cars and delivery trucks traverse through an unusually empty streets, punctuated by Akerman’s resonant voice as she reads her mother’s sometimes tangential and anecdotal news from home: “My dearest little girl, I just got your letter and I hope that you’ll continue to write to me often. Anyway, I’ll hope that you’ll come back to me soon. I hope that you are still well and that you’re already working. I see that you like New York and you seem to be happy. We are very pleased even though we’d like to see you again very soon.” As the rhythm of the mundane and episodic fragments of metropolitan life begin to converge with the cadence of the articulated, but unavoidably distanced expression of a mother’s ambivalence over her daughter’s absence, Akerman reflects the alienating and personal struggle of a young artist.
Chantal Akerman creates a visually dissociative, rigorously symmetrical, and understatedly affecting chronicle on alienation, longing, and creative expression in News from Home. Akerman juxtaposes the novelty and indigenous energy of the city with the palpable estrangement from home and family to reflect the dilemma between emotional need and artistic independence: Akerman’s off-camera narration that, in turn, serves as a surrogate voice for her geographically distant mother; the intrusive, distracting, and often overwhelming sounds of the city in motion during the reading of the letters; the dynamic interaction between film and real-life as the idiosyncratic behavior of inquisitive and perplexed subjects are captured before the static and inanimate camera. By illustrating the confluence of environmental stimuli and emotional sentiment, Akerman reveals the personal disconnection and isolating process of cultural immersion inherent in the maturation of an artist.
Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, 1978. The film opens to a shot of an empty train station in an unspecified German city. In near silence, the passengers deboard a parked train and exit through the platform staircase, as a lone woman makes her way towards an empty telephone booth and stops to make a call. Moments later, she emerges from the telephone booth, presumably unable to contact the intended party, and proceeds down the staircase. The severe and rigorously framed scene is an introductory glimpse of the rootlessness and alienation of an independent minded filmmaker named Anne Silver (Aurore Clement) who has been traveling through an endless series of distant, impersonal cities in order to promote her latest film. Anne arrives at a hotel to a waiting message from her mother (Lea Massari) asking her to stop through Brussels for a long overdue visit, and seems surprised by her mother’s knowledge of her constantly evolving itinerary. Alone in the hotel room, she attempts to initiate an operator-assisted telephone call to Italy, only to be informed of a two-hour connection delay. In order to pass the time, she inspects the room, listens to the radio, and makes a reluctant call to an old family friend named Ida (Magali Noel), apologizing for her unavailability to visit. Later in the evening, she returns to the hotel room with a gentle, emotionally wounded man named Hans (Helmut Griem), but inevitably rejects him despite his sincerity and tenderness. The following day, on her way to Brussels to visit her mother, Anna encounters Ida while changing trains at a Cologne station. An unexpected train delay forces a tenuous reunion between the two women, as Ida implores Anna to reconcile with her son and marry, even as she recounts her own growing distance from her husband. Inevitably, as Anna passes through these anonymous stations, the pattern of emotional isolation and missed connection that would invariably define her transient existence emerges.
Chantal Akerman presents a deeply personal, challenging, and affecting portrait of alienation and artistic disconnection in Les Rendezvous d’Anna. Using repeated images of impermanence and isolation, Akerman depicts the role of the artist in society as an objective and dispassionate chronicler of life’s process. The constant movement of trains, indistinguishable hotel rooms, anonymous brief encounters, and prolonged absences from home and family reflect the profound loneliness and personal sacrifice that has consumed Anna’s existence in pursuit of creativity and artistic independence. Strangers, estranged friends, and even lovers attempt to briefly connect with Anna, only to find her withdrawn and unaffected by their attempts at emotional (if not physical) intimacy. In the end, the film becomes a poignant and emotionally conflicted examination of the artist as a perpetual exile and distant spectator of humanity.
Toute une nuit, 1982. Toute une nuit presents a series of brief, disconnected, near silent vignettes that capture the inherently intimate episodes that transpire throughout the course of human relationships. A woman (Aurore Clement) deliberates on placing a telephone call to an absent lover before deciding to hail a taxicab to his apartment. A man and a woman sitting at adjacent tables of an anonymous bar exchange reluctant, fleeting glances as they wait in vain for their respective lovers to arrive, and eventually succumb to an impulsive, awkward embrace. An unconcerned young woman smokes a cigarette as she sits in a diner with two young men before being confronted to choose between them. A hurried man misses an opportunity to meet his lover outside her home. A middle-aged couple awaken to the noise of an off-the-air television set and decide to go out for the evening. A woman hurriedly packs her belongings into a suitcase and sneaks out of the apartment only to return home at dawn to her oblivious, sleeping husband. Lovers consummate their relationship or part to their separate ways at entrances and stairwells of impersonal apartment buildings.
Chantal Akerman presents a structurally challenging, yet emotionally honest, understatedly humorous, and visually compelling choreography of motion, rhythm, and passion in Toute une nuit. Using short takes, minimal dialogue, and fragmented narrative, Akerman distills the visual narrative into the brief, yet essential moments that define the spectrum of human interaction: separation, attraction, reconciliation, reunion, intimacy, absence, rejection. Filmed as a narcoleptic journey through a sultry and languorous evening in summertime Brussels, Toute une nuit becomes a subtle and relevant validation on the singularity of human existence – a chronicle of the irrepressible passion and vitality that lay beneath the surface of an alienating urban landscape.
The Eighties, 1983. The decontextualized sound of a feminine voice repeatedly delivers the ambiguous, singular declaration, “At your age, grief soon wears off” against the dissociative sight of an extended duration black screen, as the unseen actress subtly modulates her articulated tone from somber resignation to pragmatic trivialization, to optimistic encouragement, and finally, to compassionate reassurance at the guiding instruction of an off-screen director (Chantal Akerman). The opening sequence provides an insightful glimpse, not only into Akerman’s deliberative and exacting methodology, but more broadly, into the filmmaker’s familiar expositions on such amorphous themes as identity, repetitive ritual, and identification of the speaker. Segueing into another seemingly illogical – and equally contextually indeterminate – isolated shot of women’s legs promenading, dancing, scurrying, and even occasionally strutting on a cobblestone road (in a fractured, musical interlude that playfully recalls the introductory sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), the film’s fragmented structure soon begins to reveal an intrinsic logic to its seemingly disconnected assembly of episodes as a disembodied pair of feet slips out of a pair of practical black boots and into a more visually striking pair of red medium-heeled shoes before walking out of frame. The wardrobe-changing sequence is then followed by the screen test of a young actress who, having received a set of stage directions given by the filmmaker, delivers an impassioned (and perhaps over-emotive) performance of selected excerpts from the script, depicting the heroine, Mado’s crushing revelation of her unreciprocated love for her employer’s son, Robert. However, a subsequent actress (Lio) provides a more distilled and enigmatic interpretation to a similar set of directions – an emotional opacity that is highlighted by a freeze frame close-up from her screen test – as Akerman provides constructive criticism on her captivating, but intentionally muted performance. Like the aesthetic change in footwear in the earlier sequence, the filmmaker has replaced actresses for the role of Mado, a decision that is seemingly (and idiosyncratically) punctuated by the sight of the actress’ awkward, improvisational dance to the tune of an ensemble musical sequence from the film project.
Composed of interrelated vignettes of script reading, casting, dress rehearsal, and vocal recording, and culminating in completed excerpts from the film’s completed musical sequences, The Eighties captures the rigor, discipline, and meticulous attention to detail inherent in the creative process. Using repeated, identical directions to assorted actors and actresses and presented as culled, day-in-the-life vignettes from the rehearsal process, Akerman revisits the distilled fragmentation and intrinsic choreography of Toute une nuit in order to create an intriguing narrative puzzle that, in the absence of knowing the unfilmed musical’s underlying plot, nevertheless conveys its emotional essence. Moreover, the extracted, dialogue-less acting exercise provides, not only an insightful examination into the interchangeability of role and identity in human relationships, but also as illustration of emotional (or more broadly, spiritual) transience and dislocation – the absence of the “true” speaker – a pervasive theme in Akerman’s oeuvre that is often visually manifested in her non-fiction films through extended takes of desolate environments and featureless landscapes (News from Home, Hotel Monterey, D’Est, and From the Other Side), and in her feature films through disembodied framing (most notably in the static, decapitated shots of the heroine in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles). It is this amalgam of repetition, fragmentation, and displacement that inevitably defines the film’s idiosyncratically curious, yet infectious, alchemy: a choreography borne of role-playing, existential ambiguity, and quotidian ritual.
D’Est, 1993. The opening image of D’Est is of an unhurried, stationary shot of a green hazed, obscured highway at twilight, as the intermittent hum and audibly shifting Doppler frequency of a distant, revving engine from an occasional traversing vehicle – some errantly never materializing on screen – provide the sole, false anticipation of a visual break from the seeming interminable view of the desolate, anonymous urban landscape. A subsequent montage of quotidian shots establish the season as summer in Eastern Europe: a daylight interior shot of an open window overlooking a lush meadow, a Cyrillic café sign swaying in the wind, a man wearing a sleeveless undershirt leisurely sitting on a public bench while smoking a cigarette (with a beer bottle politely set to the side of the frame at the foot of the bench for the duration of the shot), an elderly couple playing a board game by an open window, a group of revelers spending a lazy day on the beach, a crowd gathering at an amphitheater for an outdoor concert. Three instances of relative motion in the early sequences of the film reinforce the underlying dichotomy of these introductory images: an extended dolly shot of an elderly woman slowly (and laboredly) walking uphill as a sprightly child on a bicycle momentarily whisks past her; a car longitudinally speeds past a lone tree on a rural dirt road before a plodding, horse-drawn cart eventually reaches the same intersection and transects the vertical axis of symmetry demarcated by the tree on the horizon; a motorcycle crosses a rural intersection at full throttle as another horse-drawn cart lumbers through town and turns to travel in the opposite direction. In each episode, the apparent relativism of the subjects’ coincidental juxtaposition serves as a visual metaphor for the transitory juncture (and intersection) between past and present (or more appropriately, future), traditional and modern ways in the rapidly transforming socioeconomic landscape of the region in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is this cultural climate of uncertainty, directionlessness, and supplanted expectation that is inferentially punctuated in Chantal Akerman’s ingeniously metaphoric transitional shot of a billboard outpost sign in the unusual shape of an upended cross that serves, not only to indicate the bellweather changing of the natural seasons (and political climate), but also the film’s thematic progression from a sense of stasis to physical transience and migration as a group of people are shown walking through dirt roads and empty streets carrying suitcases, visual imprint that are thematically presaged (and figuratively set into motion) in a preceding, double entendred, culminating shot of peasant women cadently harvesting potatoes (a root vegetable) into galvanized steel pails in an open field at the end of the farming season.
The film’s intrinsic diurnal rhythms of isolated, interior spaces (people sitting at their dinner tables, applying cosmetics, watching television, or eating alone) and crowded, anonymous exterior spaces (most notably in the ghostly, nocturnal silhouette of people passing through the streets amidst the sound of a rock and roll tune from an overdriven radio that eventually dissipates – and is visually reduced – to the entrancing syncopation of alternately blinking, red traffic lights) similarly carries through to the blue-hued, winter images of perpetual displacement and migration as sinuous, hyperextended tracking shots of foot traffic and endlessly winding queues begin to dominate the latter half of the film. As in the earlier sequences, coincidence and synchronicity play an integral role in the resolution of the images as bystanders alternately engage, challenge, appear bemused by, or confront the camera, while others appear (perhaps deliberately) oblivious of its presence (in an understatedly insightful episode, an attractive, handsomely dressed woman feigns indifference at the approaching camera, but inevitably finds the temptation to look too irresistible and is captured betraying a momentary gaze directly into the eye of the apparatus). (Also note that the initial, transitional, nighttime image of a public queue as people stare out into an undefined space is similarly incorporated by Philippe Grandrieux in the post-apocalyptic prelude of La Vie nouvelle, a film that similarly hints of the collapse of a political bloc, in this case, the break up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Balkan Wars.) A delirious, sweeping panning shot through the atrium of a grand, central train station reinforces its figurative representation as an existential weigh station for lost souls as interminably waiting travelers come in from the cold and encounter even more queues within for the use of telephone booths, ticketing, train boarding, and departure. Concluding with a truncated traveling shot of yet another, seemingly ubiquitous public queue, the film reveals an intriguingly transitory and unresolved intrinsic reality: a haunted and indelible reflection of spiritual rootlessness and inertia in the wake of a crumbled ideology, human abandonment, and directionless revolution.
La Captive, 2000. An outwardly fragile and introspective man named Simon (Stanislas Merhar) stands in a darkened room poring over an audioless film footage of a group of holiday revelers at a seaside resort in Normandy. Repeatedly cueing the film to the excerpt of a beautiful young woman, Ariane (Sylvie Testud) and a friend, Andrée (Olivia Bonamy) overlooking the beach, Simon attempts to decipher Ariane’s passing comment, concluding that her inaudible articulation to an unseen, off-camera listener must have been “I really like you”. The enigmatic and curiously alienated prologue provides an insightful, yet forbidding glimpse into the relationship between the reclusive Simon and his lover Ariane: an obsession that is also manifested in the image of Simon trailing behind the oblivious Ariane as she drives alone to a secluded residential hotel (in a slow, labyrinthine pursuit that pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Relegated to a life indoors due to chronic allergies and the entrusted care of a frail, elderly grandmother (Françoise Bertin), Simon has brought the seemingly acquiescent Ariane into his suffocating, insular household where he has furnished an adjacent room for her so that he may summon her at his discretion (deriving profound intimacy from observing her sleep), and has made arrangements with Andrée, an accommodating and trustworthy mutual friend (and reliable spy), to accompany her on brief excursions into town to stave off boredom and restlessness. However, as Simon becomes increasingly suspicious of Ariane’s time consuming personal activities and mystified by her complacent inscrutability, he embarks on a consuming and ultimately destructive quest to possess his elusive lover completely.
Perhaps the most Bressonian of Chantal Akerman’s minimalist and dedramatized cinema (most notably, in the bookend structure and psychological deconstruction of A Gentle Woman), La Captive is an elegantly sinuous and provocative exploration of obsession, madness, and intimacy. Although inspired by Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of his epic masterwork In Search of Lost Time, Akerman distills the lush texturality and baroque elements of Proust to create a spare and essential portrait that nevertheless retains the thematic density and emotional ambiguity of the psychological novel. From the estranged opening sequence as Simon studies a celluloid image and speaks for a silent and physically absent Ariane, Akerman establishes the film’s subjective point of view and implicit objectification of – and control over – a voiceless (or more appropriately, silenced) Ariane. Visually, Akerman further reflects Simon’s literal projection of Ariane through disorienting images of converging and diverging shadows cast on anonymous streets and an unfinished alabaster sculpture at an empty museum that represents both idealized perfection and dimensional incompletion. Moreover, Simon’s perception of Ariane’s untenable opacity is subsequently illustrated through an oddly distanced, non-coital sexual encounter between Simon and an unconscious Ariane – her impenetrable thoughts occluded by sleep. By presenting psychological interiority through an overarching narrative circularity and incorporating visually austere and oppressively isolating landscapes, Akerman creates a haunting and irresolvable odyssey of possession, passion, disconnection, and myopia.
Tomorrow We Move, 2003. In the film’s droll, double entendred opening sequence, a breathless woman, Catherine (Aurore Clément), speaks off camera in dulcet, anxious tone as she provides a series of guiding, seemingly appetent directions against the image of a grand piano craned precariously overhead, culminating with a stray tear that falls from her cheek at the point of pleasant resolution. The introductory, tongue-in-cheek correlation between relocation and sexuality provides an appropriate context to the inconvenient domestic arrangement in the film as the nurturing, vivacious piano teacher has decided to move in with her only child, Charlotte (Sylvie Testud), an insulated (and introspective) pulp novelist of erotic fiction following the death of her husband only to realize that the apartment is too small for their needs and that the only practical solution is to move again. Recalling the effervescent lyricism of Window Shopping and the intrinsic humor of the domestic displacement comedies, Night and Day and A Couch in New York, and fused with the burlesque theatricality of late period Alain Resnais, Tomorrow We Move playfully encapsulates thoughtful, recurring themes within Chantal Akerman’s oeuvre: displacement, perpetual migration, artistic isolation, cultural disconnection (in the triggering of indirect, sentimental memories by a fumigated apartment during Charlotte’s apartment-hunting trip with the real estate agent Popernick (Jean-Pierre Marielle)), surrogacy, and the identification of the female speaker (in a poignant discovery of the grandmother’s diary, a Polish Jew who had perished in Auschwitz). Juxtaposed against the underlying theme that the act of moving represents a figurative death of a relationship (whether through physical separation or change in life circumstances), the film serves as an understated, whimsical, and elegantly realized exposition on the sentiment of rootlessness and perpetual exile.
Acquarello 2001-2005 [reprinted]