Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).

Global Cinema 17: Belgium – Tomorrow We Move (2004)

Aside perhaps from Agnès Varda (who was born in the suburbs of Brussels but spent most of her life in France), the country’s most famous filmmaker may be Chantal Akerman. The film I’m using of hers today is a French-Belgian co-production (which as far as co-producing nations go, is a fairly common combination, as the Flemish/Dutch-language cinema is largely separate) and is actually set in Paris, but I think Akerman always honoured a certain spirit of her Belgian roots, while always making films that were ultimately her own.


Belgian flagKingdom of Belgium (België/Belgique)
population 11,493,000 | capital Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles) (179k, but 1.2m in the wider capital region) | largest cities Antwerp (523k), Ghent (260k), Charleroi (202k), Liège (197k), Brussels | area 30,689 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (29%) | official language Dutch, French, German | major ethnicity no information | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .be

A West European country bordered by France, Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, it is the 6th most densely populated country in Europe and is divided into three largely autonomous regions: the Flemish in the north (60% of the country’s population speaks Flemish Dutch), Wallonia in the south (French-speaking) and the Brussels-Capital Region (where French is dominant). The name comes from the Latin word used by Julius Caesar. There is evidence of prehistoric settlement, but the Belgae were the inhabitants of Northern Gaul during the Roman era; when this collapsed, it came under Merovingian rule, and the Frankish lands evolved into the Carolingian Empire. In the 9th century, the Treaty of Verdun more or less created the boundaries of modern Belgium as the Middle Kingdom, later Lotharingia, ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. A succession of European rulers eventually led to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814, and an independent Belgium was declared in 1830. The installation of King Leopold I on 21 July 1831 is celebrated as the National Day. The late-19th century saw imperial expansion in the Congo under Leopold II, the brutality of which quickly became an issue that led to the Belgian state to take over control. Germany invaded in WWI and WWII, and the collaborationist Leopold III was forced to abdicate. There is still a monarch and a parliamentary democracy, but political institutions are complex due to the linguistic and cultural divisions in the country.

Likewise, there are essentially two cinemas in Belgium: Flemish/Dutch-speaking and Walloon/French-speaking. The first public screening was in 1896, and the first studio founded in 1910, though the first real attempts at cinema came in the 1930s. Subsidisation in the 1960s led to a new generation of filmmakers, though modern Belgian cinema became best known in the 1990s with films by the Dardenne brothers and black comedies like Man Bites Dog.


Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004)

It’s fair to say that mother and daughter relationships loom large in Akerman’s work and here again we have one such, in a broadly comic vein. A mother moves in with her daughter in Paris, but they need more space so are on the market for a new flat. Rooms are ritually aired of their mustiness, fridges are opened, furnishings are moved around, little jigs are done (it’s almost a musical) and there’s a surpassing neurotic tendency to these characters’ behaviour, as befits screwball. But then again there are moments of pathos and sadness every so often and one is reminded of Akerman’s own story.

Tomorrow We Move film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Eric de Kuyper; Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Aurore Clément, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Natacha Régnier; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 July 2016.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.

La Captive (The Captive, 2000)

The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).

The Captive film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017.

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: Le Cinéma de Chantal Akerman (I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, 2015)

This is a documentary about a great filmmaker, one who sadly died shortly after its completion, presenting interviews with her contextualising her films and work, as well as clips of the films, and fragments of her working on her latest (and as it turns out, last) film, the brilliant No Home Movie. It doesn’t slavishly copy Akerman’s own style but it imparts a sense of it (heightened obviously by the clips), staying grounded in Akerman’s own words and experiences. Luckily, she’s a voluble speaker and a fascinating screen presence. It may not itself dig deep into Akerman’s oeuvre but it allows plenty of jumping-off points for further discussion and research, and that itself has some value.

I Don't Belong Anywhere film posterCREDITS
Director Marianne Lambert; Writers Luc Jabon and Marianne Lambert; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at JW3, London, Wednesday 14 December 2016.

No Home Movie (2015)

Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.

No Home Movie film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015.

Là-bas (Down There, 2006)

A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.


I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.

Down There film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Akerman and Robert Fenz; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.

Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)

Continue reading “January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)

As the apparently-forbidding auteur of such austere 1970s masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, the last thing you might expect Belgian director Chantal Akerman to do is a musical, but that’s exactly what she did in the mid-1980s, even prefacing it with a work-in-progress feature of the same scenario called Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983). Of course, it may be somewhat unsurprising that the resulting product hardly throws its arms round the generic clichés of the musical romance, but it certainly shows an awareness of them. If it has a line of descent, it would be Golden Era Hollywood filtered via French director Jacques Demy (of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame). There’s a quotidian drabness to these shopworkers, almost entirely confined to a subterranean shopping centre, where Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband run a fashion boutique opposite a well-staffed hair salon belonging to the flirtatious Lili (Fanny Cottençon), while between them is Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) and her small bar which in the opening number almost seems to entrap her. There’s also a similar eye for the brightly-coutured; where Demy’s most famous film’s credit sequence opens with a top-down shot of umbrellas passing, here we get a ground-level shot of women’s feet moving briskly across the imitation-marble floor of the mall.

The differences come mostly from the tone. Romantic entanglements are not all-consuming as they can be in Demy, but are here dealt with brusquely, as the various couplings are set up and then swiftly knocked down, until eventually no one seems to end up with the person they wanted most. Jeanne’s son Robert (Nicolas Tronc) is in love with Lili, though she is stringing along the mall’s owner Monsieur Jean, while hairdresser Mado pines for Robert. Meanwhile the married Jeanne runs into an old flame, Eli (John Berry), while Sylvie gets letters from her lover, now based in Canada, though she later despairs that he may be returning after all. All this whirl of displaced attention, as characters march decisively into and out of the film’s frame, is backed up by two choruses: one made up of the four men who linger around Sylvie’s bar, and another of the all-female staff at the salon (including a young Nathalie Richard as a shampoo girl), commenting on these various couplings taking place under their ever-observant eyes. Their songs are the most joyous and unrestrained of the film, particularly one featuring the women paying scant attention to their customers as they express shock at Robert sleeping with Lili. While much of the film features very frontal staging with high-key lighting, the musical numbers are mostly done directly into the camera’s lens, which lends particular humour to a sequence with Lili and a jealous M. Jean, as he periodically looks towards the camera quizzically, as if wondering to whom Lili is addressing her song.

While this mischievous rondeau of affections is going on, there’s an underlying banality to the setting, which mocks the emptiness of the era’s capitalistic grasping. The shops in this strip-lighted, poorly-ventilated underground space have bland anglophone names like Elegance and Ice Cream, while a cinema shows trashy English-language movies. People are seen trying on and shucking off the garrulous clothes, but few seem to buy anything. Jeanne’s husband mouths platitudes about how his business will always do well as no one wants to walk around naked, but there’s little evidence of any success here, to the extent that M. Jean’s trashing of the salon doesn’t seem to bother any of the staff unduly. They are most excited when there’s evidence that it’s raining, as being underground they don’t have much exposure to the elements.

Chantal Akerman’s musical has its occasional longueurs with a directness to its staging (no nimble dance routines here), but there’s a charming quality to the often very droll songs, all written by Akerman herself. If the 80s doesn’t exactly seem golden in this rendering, it at least displays some other nicely-saturated colour of its own.

Golden Eighties film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman, Leora Barish, Henry Bean, Jean Gruault and Pascal Bonitzer; Cinematographers Gilberto Azevedo and Luc Benhamou; Starring Delphine Seyrig, Fanny Cottençon, Nicolas Tronc, John Berry, Myriam Boyer; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 17 July 2014.