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.

News from Home (1977)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


It’s difficult to put into words what’s ultimately affecting about this rather experimental film of the late-1970s, which I can only imagine would be even more affecting to a New Yorker or one who knows the city better. But to me, it’s like an updated city symphony film — those distinctly utopian 1920s visions of the city’s enthralling power — except that, being the 1970s, the city is rather more crumbling. Akerman both captures the spirit of this city, but also subtly imbues it with the darker traces of the intervening decades of the 20th century (and, with its final shot taking in the World Trade Center, also unwittingly wraps in the close of that century). To my mind, it is one of the great films about New York.

I say “experimental” above due to the form the film takes: lengthy shots observing New York City — largely Manhattan — from various vantage points (street corners, subway platforms, cars), over which the Belgian director Chantal Akerman reads letters that she received from her mother during the two years she lived in the city. It all starts slowly, with quiet and largely empty images of buildings and streets, abandoned lots in the early morning. At length, the first letter is read out, and Akerman’s mother is pleased to have received correspondence, has sent $20 for her, wonders if she has the correct address, hopes to hear back, sends her love and that of Akerman’s father.

This is how the film proceeds, the shots of the city slowly gaining more people as the camera moves a little, first a slow pan around the entrance to the subway with its ticket gates and concession stands, before a long take looking out from a moving train. Likewise, those letters with their wheedling, needy tone (it’s been two weeks and no letter from you; please send a photo) and accretion of the details of bourgeois family life back home, continue to pile on. Accompanying all this — mostly in the background, but occasionally and eventually drowning out the letter reading — are the sounds of the city, a careful orchestration of musique concrète (the sound was recorded separately from the image track).

As with Akerman’s film before this one, her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (1975), there is a clarity of vision to her cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s camera. The strong vertical lines of the city dominate: its tall buildings and signage that line a street leading away to the horizon, or the columns that divide the screen in a long central section filmed at the shabby Times Square subway station. There’s a fascination to watching these native New Yorkers just move about on the streets and the subways, as the camera wants to be among them. Yet those long takes always make you conscious of a certain desperation to the camera’s gaze, which is sometimes met by those of the passers-by being filmed. There is a progression of sorts from the street corners to the subway to a car and a train, and in the final shot, once more empty of people, a boat heading away from Manhattan, watching its skyline slowly resolve itself into the grey smog.

The steady watchfulness of the camera is juxtaposed with the letters being read, in French, expressing Akerman’s mother’s sorrow at her daughter’s distance, fear of the dangers of the city, hope for her success and happiness. Between the image and the sound track lies a film about exile and dislocation, but one that’s never heavy-handed; you could easily read into it some of Akerman’s personal history (her mother was in Auschwitz during the war) but that’s never mentioned or insisted upon. It’s like the film’s images of New York City, which bear the marks of its mid-century decline.

And that’s what I like about News from Home in so many ways, that rather than flashy surfaces, it feels more like a film of what’s underneath, backgrounds and history (whether of the place or the people who move through that place). Maybe that’s a lot of meaning to load on what is after all a series of unflashy long takes of a city on grainy 70s film stock — picture postcards after a fashion — but the film is affecting in that way. And as I said, it’s difficult to put into words.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.


Alongside the name and street address which forms the film’s title, anchoring it in a very specific place, Babette Mangolte’s camera provides the utter piercing clarity of this film, the stark images indelible in the celluloid. There’s very little camera movement, just frontal shots of the title character preparing her home in meticulous detail. When she leaves the frame, often the shot lingers on the environment she’s left, suggesting a permanency, an unchanging constant.

The film starts on Jeanne’s back as she works over the kitchen stove. There’s a doorbell, and she slowly and carefully folds away her apron before answering. The caller is a gentleman whom she ushers away into her room, and there is a cut to later, when it is darker, as he leaves the room and pays her by the doorway. This quickly creates a tension within the narrative, which is otherwise focused on a mother and homemaker. This initial rift soon gets wider, threatening the very stability of Jeanne’s life.

The minuscule focus allows the viewer to notice small details accrete, as tasks which are repeated over the three days diverge ever so slightly. That Jeanne eats the dinner she has prepared for her son with only one hand. The fumbles she makes with some of the dishes during her repeated actions on day two (the days are not consecutive, but they do follow closely upon one another). The lack of focus she shows towards some tasks. Within this dicourse, an act as otherwise mundane as peeling a potato becomes central to the viewer’s understanding of her character. The first potato is lazily done, with little energy; the second she attacks fiercely. The build-up of details seems to augur something, and when that happens on the third day, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Dielman is a progression of sorts from Akerman’s previous films. The black-and-white intensity of Je tu il elle (1974), the fixed camera positions of Hôtel Monterey (1972) observing hotel guests from afar, the monomaniacal and self-destructive short film Saute ma ville (her first film, 1968), along with a dextrous sinuous camera tracking the female protagonist that she’d develop further in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978). All of them are focused and brilliant in their own ways, but Jeanne Dielman seems to synthesise these disparate tactics and use them to elucidate one woman’s liberation.

There’s no doubt in me as to the greatness of this work; the surprise is just how watchable and compulsive it is. No doubt this is due in great part to the lead actress, Delphine Seyrig. But the camera of Mangolte and the unerring narrative sense of Akerman are marvellous co-conspirators.

(Originally written on 22 March 2007; reposted here with slight amendments.)


CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.
Seen at NFT, London, Wednesday 21 March 2007.