When Judge Daryl Loomis feels alienated from society, he calls the Psychic Friends Network to get him back on track.
Please write soon.
Given her body of work over the past three decades, Belgian director Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) has not received the accolades that her formal accomplishments deserve. Using interminably long shots and unapologetically scant narrative, her films deliver a sense of desperate alienation that would give Wim Wenders pause. Criterion, in their ever-expanding Eclipse series, sheds new light on the director's work with Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, a three-disc set that details her early work; five personal, difficult films that show the city, the home, and the alienation that springs from sheer existence.
La Chambre: An eleven-minute silent short that presents us with a still life of a cluttered apartment. As the camera pans around the room over and again, the only change is Akerman herself, who changes position and demeanor on each rotation.
Hotel Monterey: Also silent, this film runs just over an hour and details a rundown hotel in New York City. From the basement to the roof, we see every nook and cranny of the hotel, including some of its less-than-receptive residents.
News from Home: The first feature-length film in the collection is also the first with sound. While Akerman films the streets, buildings, and subways of New York City, she reads letters that her mother wrote to her during her stay in the Big Apple.
Je Tu Il Elle: In Akerman's follow-up to her breakthrough film, Jeanne Dielman, a woman (Akerman) sits alone in an empty apartment, narrating her increasingly erratic behavior. This includes moving the furniture over and over, writing random words and tacking the pages to the floor, and obsessively shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into her mouth. When the sugar runs out, she decides to leave her home and meets a trucker, who drives her around until she goes to meet her ex-girlfriend, whom she sleeps with.
Les Rendez-vous d'Anna: In the only film on the set with a cohesive narrative, director Anne Silver (Aurore Clément La captive) travels around Europe promoting her latest film. In her journey, she meets strangers and people from her past, revealing a life of regret and an increasing disconnect from the world around her.
If there's one word to describe the films on Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, that word is tiring. This isn't a negative; the director proves her formal, structural prowess over and over but, like watching the second hand tick along the clock, the pacing of the films is ridiculously slow. This is obviously by design, and I respect the method for inviting careful viewing and introspection, but these are not easy films to watch. Each, however, is highly interesting in its own way, and the films share aspects that show Akerman as a director with an uncompromised vision.
The first three films on the set are contained on the first disc, designated as "The New York Films" all of which were shot during the director's time in the big city, before she returned to Belgium.
La Chambre is formally interesting though, at a mere eleven minutes, it still feels like one of the longest films on the set. The camera pans at a very deliberate, steady pace over a dresser, a sink full of dishes, and around to Akerman, who gazes back at us from her bed. On the next pass, she's rolling around under the covers. The next, she eats an apple. Over and over we go, and Akerman is the only change. Then, on the final pass, the camera shifts, moving now in the other direction until the film ends. This is the subtlety that sets the stage for the rest of the films in the collection. While nothing much happens on the surface of these films, we are rewarded for careful viewing, as the tiny shifts in tone and mood are the heart of Akerman's work.
Hotel Monterey is an expansion of La Chambre, involving a larger space and considerably more subjects. Akerman brings out the dilapidated beauty of this run-down hotel and devises some beautifully framed shots. This is where Akerman's structural prowess really comes to life. Long static shots from inside an elevator show the rhythm of doors opening, people coming in and out and, in some cases, cowering from the camera. Extended views down a hallway show incredible depth. These are sights we've all viewed many times, but how often do we contemplate what we see? Akerman forces us to, and it's worth it. The only downside is a personal one. An hour of dead silence will put me right to sleep, so I had to put on some music (it was Ennio Morricone's score for Hundra, for what it's worth). It really helped.
Finally, an audio track! Letters from Home is the most compelling film in the set because of its uniquely personal subject matter. Without Akerman's narration, the film could easily have served as a further expansion of the previous films. Visually, it still does. Over these ninety minutes Akerman gives us extended scenes of the New York City streets of the mid-1970s, incredibly interesting from a historical perspective, but the way she frames her shots in the context of the action is brilliant. Whether it's the randomness of cars driving down the street, the graffiti inside the angles of buildings, or people waiting for the subway, she captures the place and time perfectly. The narration on top of these images makes the film. Akerman reads her mother's letters dryly, letting the words breathe without adding any emotion. In one sense, all the letters are the same. Everybody misses her; they want her to come home soon; they went to dinner at a friends house. Over the course of the film, however, the words slowly become more pleading, the questions more insistent. It's a slow ride, but you begin to get a complete picture of her mother's loving, maybe overprotective nature. The final shot, from a boat watching gulls float above the water, is simply beautiful.
The final two discs in the set, at least in relative terms, contain narrative films that deal directly with the alienation inherent in modern life. Je Tu Il Elle appears much the same as the previous films. Akerman, starring as the woman in the apartment, narrates the action off screen as her character on screen performs those actions, though not quite at the same time as it is spoken. This leads to some weird disconnects between voice and movement, giving us the sense that the character's motivation is so lax that she can resolve to do something, but not actually do it for a long time. When she finally leaves the apartment, the tone changes dramatically. When she meets the trucker, there is no longer a narrator. The character is no more talkative than before, but now the trucker serves as the narrator, telling his scummy stories while she sits listening, enraptured that somebody actually is talking to her. The trucker is ditched, without warning, for her ex-girlfriend, from whom she wants one thing. This we see in full explicit view, though there is nothing erotic about it; it is more of a desperate attempt to connect with humanity before the film ends, which is abrupt.
The final film in the set has the most cohesive narrative and is certainly the most cinematic of the group, but is also the least experimental. It's a good film, no doubt, and by the time I got to this point in the collection, I was ready for a more traditional narrative. Akerman continues in her same tradition: long, languid shots, extended monologues, and a main character that is more of a sieve for other people's stories than a personality of her own. That's kind of strange, given the character's international director's status, but it certainly fits the mode of the set. Aurore Clément plays the role with a quiet dignity at first but, as she listens to the stories of the people around her she feels less and less in common with them and society around her, and her eyes take on a desperate sadness that truly makes you feel the unhappiness in her life.
Chantal Akerman in the Seventies looks and sounds as good as could be expected. These are all minimal budget films, and Criterion's Eclipse Series does not have the same kind of restoration standards as their regular line of DVD. None of them look bad and all have had a modicum of restoration, but the images are of mixed quality. Likewise, the sound, which obviously can't be judged on the silent films, but is generally clear with a minimum of noise, though it is almost always present. There are no extras.
Chantal Akerman is an excellent filmmaker whose characters observe the life around them as much as the viewers do. There are images on this set that are technically astounding, but the stories are too obscure and the mood is too disconnected to ever appeal to a mainstream audience. Still, she should not be forgotten, both for what's on this set and her later work.
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Scales of Justice, Hotel Monterey
Perp Profile, Hotel Monterey
Distinguishing Marks, Hotel Monterey
Scales of Justice, La Chambre
Perp Profile, La Chambre
Distinguishing Marks, La Chambre
Scales of Justice, Je Tu Il Elle
Perp Profile, Je Tu Il Elle
Distinguishing Marks, Je Tu Il Elle
Scales of Justice, News From Home
Perp Profile, News From Home
Distinguishing Marks, News From Home
Scales of Justice, Les Rendez-Vous D'Anna
Perp Profile, Les Rendez-Vous D'Anna
Distinguishing Marks, Les Rendez-Vous D'Anna
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