I had never seen a Chantal Akerman film prior to watching six of them in a row. All that I knew about her prior to this was that she was a feminist icon and, according to J. Hoberman (The Village Voice), “arguably the most important European filmmaker of her generation.” This is a pretty hot endorsement. It is also, as far as I can tell, unlikely.
While these six films represent some fascinating experiments with structure, they are quite uniformly more fun to talk about than to watch. I know that this sounds like a philistine-ish thing to say, and I appreciate that I have stepped into the whole “taste” realm of criticism (which is, we are told, to be avoided at all costs for some reason), but I am here to tell you that as interesting as I found the ideas and images on display in these films to be in the abstract, watching them as they played out (in complete silence in two cases!) was a bit much. So, there’s that.
Akerman’s films, at least those collected here, are slow (in the slowest sense of the word), extremely literal, and deeply unsettling. They represent – each in its own way – microcosmic studies of mysterious (obscured) subjects (possibly Akerman herself, possibly not), apparently offering great detail but never quite enough to fill in the blanks in our understanding.
Deeply influenced by Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, Akerman is interested in the paradox of the private moment captured by the voyeuristic camera, and she seeks to play with the fragmented awareness of the observer. This is especially true of her earliest work, three short(ish) films which are tied to New York City here collected on one DVD. In the first (an 11-minute silent film entitled La Chambre), a camera rotates mostly in one direction in a 360 degree pan of a semi-squalid room in which Akerman lies on a bed, eating an apple.
In the second (Hotel Monterey) we witness an hour-long silent collection of interiors and exteriors of a hotel. In the third (News From Home), we watch footage of New York’s streets for an hour and a half as, occasionally, we hear her read a series of letters from her mother (who is back in Belgium). These latter two films, all shot through with the loneliness of the foreign transplant trying to make sense of her surroundings, of the ache of missed loved ones, of the peculiar nostalgia for the recent past, made me very, very, very sad. La Chambre made me, mostly, confused.
With her first “feature” – it was made two years prior to News From Home – Akerman created among the most astoundingly weird movies I have seen. Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974) follows Akerman (je) as she tries to eliminate all the clutter, all the stuff, all the objects from her already spare apartment, eats great spoonfuls of sugar, and writes a letter over and over again, before taking off her clothes and then eventually going hitchhiking.
The “tu” is, presumably, us, the viewers of this first act (and the ones apparently in on her fragile state of mind before she heads out into the world). While hitchhiking, she meets a man (il) who says nothing for a crazy long time before teaching her how to give him a hand job. The final act sees her appear at the doorstep of a woman (elle) with whom she spends the next 20 minutes or so making love. There is almost no dialogue. The shots are at all times absolutely gorgeous and brilliantly framed. The lengthy sex scene is by turns arousing, charming, and banal. It’s a peculiar film experience.
The final film collected in this set is Les Rendez-Vous D’Anna, an episodic study of a female filmmaker (played by Aurore Clément) as she travels through Europe on a publicity tour. This film is much longer than the others (clocking in at 127 minutes) and could probably have been about half as long. But, clearly, the languid pacing is part of Akerman’s aesthetic approach – there is meaning, apparently, in the enervating shots of the protagonist as she sits in taxis, trains, private cars during which nothing much happens.
Indeed, as a character study, Les Rendez-Vous D’Anna is remarkably unhelpful. Anna remains a dark, bored, borderline inanimate depressive – just as the flat grey landscape of Europe we glimpse from the windows remains bleak and undistinguished. Anna’s trip is no journey of discovery – at least not in any traditional sense. We certainly don’t discover much.