ReFramed No. 17: Chantal Akerman's 'Les Rendez-vous d'Anna' (1978)

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

For their first foray into 2012, our team takes on an arthouse visionary from the '70s whose still incredibly vital today.

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.

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