[11 January 2012]
Jordan Cronk: Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman occupies a similar position to that of a few other directors we’ve touched on in the pages of ReFramed over the months—Thom Andersen, Aki Kaurismäki, Mark Rappaport—whose entire careers need to, in a sense, be reframed. These are all important filmmakers for various reasons, but Akerman represents arguably the most vital of all under-recognized directors. She’s still consistently working and producing at a remarkable level—her newest film, Almayer’s Folly, may be her best work in nearly two decades—but her brief arthouse star seems to have dimmed since her most visible and acclaimed period in the mid-1970s.
And unfortunately, even among cinephiles, her career seems to hinge solely on her groundbreaking 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. That film is a remarkable achievement on many levels and by any standard, bringing as it did a formal rigor and the observational tack of the avant-garde into a narrative framework, but it’s just one piece of a much larger career that encompasses shorts, documentaries, and even musicals. We’re not going to dive into her extreme experimental phase today, but the film we’ve chosen to discuss, 1978s Les rendez-vous d’Anna, is perhaps equally unique in her oeuvre, standing as it does on the precipice of her first wave, more narrative-ly inclined works and her successive hybridizations and experiments with documentary and self-reflexive forms of cinema.
It’s also a kind of sister film to Jeanne Dielman, touching on similar themes of alienation and emotional detachment, marking it as a curiously under-seen and underappreciated work. In fact, the film wasn’t well received at all: Akerman, representing for many arthouse patrons a uniquely feminine alternative to a male dominated industry, chose to, with this film, rebuild her previously all-female crew with a combination of both sexes, prompting many to write off the merits of the film on principle alone.. Which is all very ironic, as Les rendez-vous d’Anna is arguably the most incisive, penetrating, and downright mournful examination of the female psyche in Akerman’s catalogue. What are your thoughts on this period of Akerman’s career, Calum? And where do you think Les rendez-vous d’Anna stands in relation to Jeanne Dielman or other works in the cross-over arthouse scene of the ‘70s?
Calum Marsh: Well, it may not have been particularly well-received, but Les Rendez-vous d’Anna has been called Akerman’s most accessible film, or at least the most accessible she’d made to date, and that’s a telling response—I think it might say more about critical perceptions of her career than it does about how watchable the film itself is. Akerman has always had a reputation for difficulty, and her most widely acclaimed film, Jeanne Dielman, is of one the cinema’s most notoriously imposing classics—an over three-hour study of the daily routine of a housewife and part-time prostitute, it’s a radical reconception of the possibilities of narrative filmmaking that pushes the limits of the form.
Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna isn’t nearly as monumental, and at a comparatively slender two hours it has fewer buzz-worthy talking points working to keep it relevant. Thus, as usual, it’s almost entirely neglected. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, it is widely available in pristine condition on DVD in North America, but not as a mainline title—it’s been relegated to a less prominent position in one of their feature-less “Eclipse”-series box sets called “Chantal Akerman In The Seventies”. So it goes.
And so the status of Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, as well as just about every other Akerman film other than Jeanne Dielman, should be pretty familiar to readers of this column: because one of her films has been universally accepted as canonical, the rest are shrugged off as unimportant, and most languish in undeserved obscurity. You’ll find very little ink spilled over this film and many more like it, which, unsurprisingly, is a real shame; beyond its relative “accessibility” (a dubious claim besides), Les Rendez-vous d’Anna is an audacious, intensely moving character study, one both deeply personal and ambitiously universal.
Cronk: It’s funny, I had written in my introduction that the film was accessible and relatively welcoming compared to some of Akerman’s other work but decided against it at the last moment, as it may paint a somewhat false picture of the film. It’s true that this would be the first film I would recommend to those unfamiliar with her work, but at the same time, many of its best moments are reinforced and enhanced through recognition of Akerman’s slowly expanding aesthetic palette in the ‘70s. Meaning, it’s a beautiful piece of work, but also a bleak portrait of a seemingly traumatized soul.
Of course, her stylistic inclinations—mostly static set-ups or hypnotic horizontal tracking shots—reflect her protagonist’s (in this case Anna, but also Jeanne Dielman and Julie, played by Akerman herself, in her early narrative Je tu il elle) lonely plights in unforgiving environments, together elevating these works to equal levels of thematic and aesthetic interest. But considering her rigid formality and the emotional stasis of her characters, Akerman’s films feel very much to me like works of movement and advancement. The first shot of Les rendez-vous d’Anna is, after all, of a train entering a station, and a key scene in the middle of the film takes place on a train, while the narrative as whole concerns Anna’s promotional tour of Europe behind her latest film (it should go without saying that Anna’s occupation aligns her with her creator in a fascinating manner).
Even Akerman’s non-narrative work—say, News From Home or D’est—are preternaturally concerned with momentum, travel, and displacement. For Akerman, loneliness and yearning manifest naturally, whether one is restless or grounded, successful or struggling. It’s not an encouraging message, but it’s an honest and emotionally pure approach to communication. You get the sense watching these films that Akerman is speaking directly through these characters, and it’s not hard to identify with at least some aspect of each.
Marsh: Very well-said.. You know, Anna is not unlike another film we’ve discussed at length in these pages before, Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray—like this, Rohmer’s film is about a despondent young woman meeting, and largely failing to connect to, other lost souls through Europe. But where Rohmer’s film is lithe and sun-kissed, ending on a note of hope and romance, Akerman’s is in a way quite a dark and moody thing, and in the end it feels more despairing. Though I agree that the film is one of an almost symphonic movement, unfurling slowly but with a precise rhythm, the film also has a sense of a deepening isolation, a loneliness calcifying and a sadness renewed.
Anna, Akerman’s surrogate, never finds happiness (with the exception of a monologue in which she recounts a pleasant but unexpected lesbian affair to her mother, which she recalls with genuine fondness, Anna remains distant and morose throughout), and Akerman offers no promise of redemption or emotional “completion”. That makes Anna sort of a bleak portrait, but also one which feels authentic and true. And because Akerman’s formal rigor is so uncompromising, the film never dips into self-pity or sentimentality of any kind.
Cronk: That conversation with her mother reminds me of something that I noticed as I re-watched the film recently: Anna barely speaks in this film. There is, however, a lot of dialogue—probably the most in any Akerman film from the era—almost all spoken by the various people Anna comes in contact with throughout her tour. She meets various men who talk and talk but don’t really say anything all that interesting—or, at least, nothing she finds terribly interesting. The train scene I referenced earlier is almost entirely made up of a long monologue delivered by a stranger. Only when Anna meets up with an ex-lover who falls unexpectedly ill does she open up enough for the audience to learn a little more about her—and this is at the very end of the film. It makes one ever curious as to how Anna ended up in the state she’s in and which she remains as the film closes on a—as you say—despondent note. Which is to say this is incredibly mature storytelling, particularly for a woman who was only 28 years old when this film was released.
It’s interesting to note that the characters she was drawing in the mid-‘70s were all women in their forties. I can’t think of many comparable constructions in modern cinema. Her perspective was keen even at an early age and the divide adds a kind of retrospective resonance as Akerman was soon to leave behind traditional narrative, focusing less on character and more on landscape and the tactile qualities of environment. This has lent her subsequent returns to narrative with La captive and Almayer’s Folly a greater sense of possibility, and the emotion present in each feels like a now older filmmaker reconciling her various preoccupations, expanding her once flat-lined outlook in the process.
Marsh: Yes, and even in this film, where the protagonist is pretty obviously Akerman’s analog (“Anne” is Akerman’s middle name, by the way), the subject is approached in such a nuanced and deeply considered manner that it’s hard to believe it was the product of someone so young. Precocious young filmmakers aren’t unheard of across cinematic history, of course, but the early films of people Akerman’s age tend to be quite different in sensibility and style even if they’re alike in calibre—most of the prominent examples, from Orson Welles and Citizen Kane to Jean-Luc Godard and Breathless, and even right up to someone like Paul Thomas Anderson and Boogie Nights, are marked by an obvious youthfulness and vitality, which might account for why their films still feel so fresh and kinetic today.
Akerman’s early films, on the other hand, are exceptional for their formal and thematic sophistication, and in general for being the kind of serious, audacious experiments of someone significantly older and more experienced. Making an important or even just “great” film at such a young age is an achievement worth celebrating, yes, but producing difficult, challenging works of art like Jeanne Dielman and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna in your mid-20s is frankly astounding.
Which, as you’ve mentioned, is especially interesting in light of her recent work. Akerman is still only a little over 60 years old, and it looks like she’s now entering a new creative phase—like one of her most important inspirations, Jean-Luc Godard, she’s producing work that’s just as interesting in her late period as she ever did in her early ones, and I hope she’s got another decade or more of masterworks.
Cronk: I think she’s stayed interesting for the same reason that someone like Godard has stayed interesting: she’s continued to grow and develop her craft even as it debuted in such seemingly perfect form. Like we’ve said, Akerman has gone onto make a quasi-musical, documentaries, and most recently, literary adaptations, but just like those filmmakers you mentioned, there’s no mistaking her work for anyone else. The ‘70s was certainly her most consistently fruitful period—in fact, she may be the key filmmaker of that era—and as such, Les rendez-vous d’Anna stands as an important reconciliation of all her experimentation up to that point. You can see traces of this style in everyone from Jim Jarmusch to Carlos Reygadas to Pedro Costa, and it’s worth arguing for Akerman as one of the most influential filmmakers to ever come out of Europe, leaving her mark on everything from the New York underground to the European arthouse. And yes, there’s no reason to believe this conversation is anywhere near completion, as she continues to cover new ground with each successive outing.
Marsh: I think you’re right that Akerman’s a major figure and an important influence on many, but few people would adhere to the aesthetic framework she established throughout the 70s as rigidly as these films did. Les Rendez-vous d’Anna pushes boundaries exactly because Akerman pushes the film so far in one direction: she holds takes much longer than a less confident filmmaker might have, allows characters to speak for extended periods, and frames everything in the same measured, strikingly minimal way. The basic style of this film is the standard arthouse practice today, which you can see just by looking at recent festival highlights—Julia Leigh’s debut Sleeping Beauty comes to mind, but even something like Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia contains noticable traces of this spareness and asceticism—but in 1978 it was unheard of to approach a narrative feature with this kind of rigid, experimental formalism.
Akerman was taking cues from artists like Michael Snow, whose film experiments she’d become acquainted with while living in New York, and was marrying those techniques to the emotional and thematic core of a routine character study—which, along with the experiments Godard was working on with video during the same period, helped contribute to a new kind of experimental narrative cinema that would eventually dominate the arthouse landscape. Akerman really is one of the most major artistic figures in recent cinematic history, and I hope the canon remembers that.