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.
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.