The negative connotations of this article’s title may already render Béla Tarr’s murky 1994 Hungarian feature Sátántangó an unappealing cinematic venture. Clocking in at 450 minutes, in black and white, it concerns a squalid farmland, bedraggled in relentless rainfall and its self-centred inhabitants who deserve not even a small sum of our sympathy. Without beating round the bush, it’s the running time that makes this picture a formidable commitment. Yet with each viewing my temporal senses have been displaced, my anxieties of an endurance test are alleviated, becoming calmly enthralled by this narrative beast.
You never know what’s round the corner inside Chantal Akerman’s fertile warren of films. That said, it’s starting to get pretty difficult to describe her work at this stage of the retrospective. I’m even beginning to run out of words that haven’t been used in previous articles.
Notoriously known for a group of unwaveringly rigorous shorts and features throughout the 1970s (though Jeanne Dielman is usually the most frequently praised), the filmmaker’s humour is often overlooked. All films of this decade were lightly spread with amusements. When Toute une Nuit (1982) was screened, besides my iffy view of this fragmentary multi-narrative of lost, stolen and forced romances, the visual gags became hilariously emphatic. In 1983, with Les Années, not only are Akerman’s jovial qualities more pronounced, but also her impeccable ability to surprise audiences and continually redefine her output is intact.
Les Années was designed to aid towards the funding of The Golden Fleece, a musical later entitled The Golden Eighties (1986). Yet the end product feels like much more than this. The rhythmic assortment of taped footage becomes an insightful and joyous examination of the creative process, charged by Chantal’s palpable zeal. Guided by the director’s familiarly soft voice, her delicate commands and instructions are given to a series of actors during the “auditions” phase. Fragments of the script are rehearsed, providing a slender plot outline revolving around a female hairdresser’s love for a man who has feelings for someone else.
The first run-through is initially heard against a black screen. A warm, disembodied voice (presumably Akerman’s) utters: “At your age grief soon passes”. These tonal inflections establish the on-going search for emotional meaning. Having each performer, intimately framed in close-up, sing directly to the camera was another instance of this investigative journal in emotive expression. Later on, during a recording for one of the featured songs, Akerman seems to have captured the slippery, vivacious essence of her project, urging on the actress/singer. The beaming energy transmitted from this sequence is a remarkable testament to a director already – at the age of 33 – past what is considered her opus (Dielman) and opening her arms to other cinematic forms.
Much of this is revealed in the second half, switching to a series of test screenings. The filmed sequences, shot in a vibrant colour scheme, are reminiscent of Jacques Demy and, in some respect, the sprightly spirit of Akerman’s 1968 debut short Saute Ma Ville. What first appeared as a shoddy looking, spontaneous diary of rehearsals is transformed into an elegantly choreographed set of scenes tying into the former. It’s only once this section caught me off guard did I truly begin to fall for its charm and think back to how Les Années is a wholly beguiling piece of work.
There are already a few repeated words and variations on phrases present in this entry. Judging by the unpredictable nature of Akerman’s vision, however, there’s always room for expansion. For such an infamous exhibitor of compositional austerity, her latest addition proves the endless amount of filmic avenues present for filmmakers to venture down. A full-scale musical of overtly synthetic proportions isn’t what one would expect. Yet looking back on the measured rotations of La Chambre (1972) or Delphine Seyrig’s eloquent rubato in domestic procedures from Jeanne Dielman there’s always been a certain musicality to these films.
Les Années raises an exciting question: what will Chantal Akerman offer us next? Masterfully segueing from household oppression and the Holocaust to a mirthful genre of exaggerative heights, we’ll have to wait for further showings of this delightfully innovative catalogue of rarely seen works. Hopefully slack film preservers and distributors will clock onto the public need for more of these to be made available on home video.
Dis-Moi: First Impressions of New and Expanded Interests
Slipping into 1980, Chantal Akerman widened and polished her scope of interests with Dis-moi (aka, Aujour’dui dis-moi). While Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) hauntingly alluded to the Holocaust, this short performative documentary engages with its harsh remnants. Commissioned for French television, focusing on grandmothers, the 30-year-old Belgian filmmaker decided to interview numerous survivors. Including her mother, whose hushed voice is spread across the film’s narrative, the four testimonials tend to dwell on their family lives before the Ashkenazi Jews’ insufferable avalanche of systematic murders.
The performative qualities can be discerned by the director’s own presence. By constructing sequences with reverse angle shots, presenting her and the speakers, there lies a clear wish for personalisation. After the first two visits, a camera peers up onto the elderly women’s balconies. Cutting down to ground level, outside the apartments, a solemn Akerman stares up with fascination and respect for her subjects. Being the daughter of a lady sent to Auschwitz as a child, its ceremonial nature is unsurprising. As an unspoken fifth member of this story, she comes from a disparate generation of European children who will never truly understand the Nazis Final Solution, but lug its solidly traumatic load.
An obvious comparison to Dis-moi is Claude Lanzmann’s towering 1985 investigative piece, Shoah. Brimming with the faces and voices of witnesses, survivors and perpetrators, archival footage is discarded, rendered an inadequate form of expression. Akerman’s obscure study is a concise precedent of this apparently singular approach, relying on us to imagine the unimaginable. Curiously, though mass trauma looms over the film’s entirety, it’s a thinly strung topic of discussion. The hospitable interviewees offer cake, tea, and vodka and speak of a period before genocide. Two accounts are brief, ending with “I have nothing else to say” With slim knowledge of their misfortune, it’s an odd (yet understandable) ending to their verbal memoirs, leaving us no less informed than before. Effusing a radiant humility, Chantal listens without forcibly raking in historical details of morbid intrigue.
Unlike this terse pair, the third and final elderly lady asserts to having 10 days worth of material. I wouldn’t doubt her one bit. One tale of young love, set in the early 1900s, involves an infatuated man proposing to her grandmother, only to be rejected. A true romantic, he exclaims, (though I can’t remember word-for-word) “if I can’t be with you I will die tomorrow” The very next day, he is killed. From here, fate becomes a cruel force, whose heft is increased when the woman recalls her grandmother claiming the Jewish people must suffer.
All of this irremovable dread never tramples over the hearty humour. Entranced by these experiences, food is not a priority for the filmmaker. It clearly bugs this particular woman, pushing her timid guest to eat at every pause. Hilariously, she even threatens to discontinue speaking. In a final shot of this rather merry survivor’s coarsely wrinkled face, nothing is said. She just stares into an off screen space. Almost still, like a rough-hewn sculpture of a foggy era, her later years into the 1940s are left to ponder.
Chantal Akerman evolves with each screening. Here, domestic oppression is put aside, expanding on her research into migration and displacement. If anything operates as a source of oppression, it would be the past bleeding into present consciousness. Its visual absence asks, what else can be said or shown of our ancestors’ horrid times? What took place needs no elaborate divulgence. Just be aware of its unfading stain.
Jeanne Dielman: A Soundtrack of the Everyday
When referring to her 1993 film From The East in a lengthy interview for The A.V. Club, Chantal Akerman notes, “you feel as a viewer, when you face the film and experience the film, you feel an implosion” Reaching beyond this particular film, the quotation befits the filmmaker’s recently screened work. In all of its unyielding simplicity, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is no exception. With each assured cut, Akerman’s second feature length narrative becomes a precarious game of jenga, casually building pressure until its eventual collapse. The result is a quietly painful, tense and nauseating ordeal that doesn’t seep out of the mind for days after the viewing.
Produced in 1975, Jeanne Dielman emerged during a period when a growing concern for spectatorship was developing amongst filmmakers and theorists. In practical circles, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s indignant farewell to cinema, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom denounced the – as he put it – “commodification of the human body,” and revealed the ethical implications of our nonchalant engagement with images of sex and violence. Theoretically, luminaries, such as Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen examined the tacit positioning of the spectator via the cinematic apparatus, integrating the psychoanalytic ideas of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. In doing so, the notions of pleasure and identification became the main threads of their argument.
By stripping down the filmic mechanics to its bare essentials, Akerman eradicates these two common joys of cinematic interaction. A typically emotional proximity is consistently evaded, favouring far removed, stylised tableaux over close-ups. Displeasure aside, the superficially aloof director clearly wishes for us to experience every millisecond of the titular character’s everyday activities. Dielman (played by Delphine Seyrig with an impervious elegance) cleans, babysits, and prepares evening meals for her pubescent son, moonlighting as a prostitute prior to his return. We spend three days merely looking at this regimented lifestyle. By the second, order is fractured, revealing the brittle pieces behind the icy demeanour. A key factor in soaking up these miniscule moments is the firmly grounded and exact compositions, extensively utilised across the film’s 201 minutes. Eventually, depending on individual patience, one adapts to the steadfast rigour, becoming loosely involved in the calculated widower’s ritualistic manoeuvres.
Another major contributor towards this sense of inclusion is the often-undervalued acoustic properties. The subtly crafted sound design is tantamount to Jeanne Dielman’s strict visual layout. The constant distance sustained by the symmetrical framing is counterbalanced by close attention to the manipulation of specific audio elements. Even a couple days after the screening I was locked inside Akerman’s echo chamber with an acute sensitivity to otherwise minor sounds. From flaming gas hobs to the jabbing clack of heels, our ears become attuned to this heightened soundscape of the mundane. Seemingly effortless in its employment, these auditory qualities operate as an immersive tool.
In order to raise tension and create proximity between character and spectator, the sharp amplification of Dielman’s audible surroundings remains an indispensable aspect. In its entirety, this well-calibrated medley of household items and rhythmic gestures jar the audience through their tonal shift. Moreover, it is here where Akerman’s intention of generating an implosive experience are realised. From the outset, as hissing gas rises during the opening credits, an ominous atmosphere is established before we enter this solitary existence of concealed passions.
Once inside, we must look and listen to the soft (but prevailing) scrubbing of Dielman’s body whilst in the bath and the clanging of cutlery against dinner plates. On the second day, after an evening with a regular customer, the sounds become coarse assailants, rattling our senses. For example, in a taut series of shots, the curtains (which were previously less piercing) screeching along the pole, and the harsh cry of rusty hinges and closing doors underscore an anxiety bubbling beneath the fallacious apathy. Even the occasional grunting buzz of the intercom evokes a growing uneasiness.
By day three, the presence of silence and the distant outside streets envelop us within the gradual deterioration. In a possible attempt to snip these deep-rooted feelings, the housemaid lounges in the living room, gripped to her chair with a monastic stillness. Unseen vehicles breeze by, containing the same looming menace. Moments later, Dielman’s ephemeral state of calm is rived by her usual babysitting job. The baby’s infernal cry only swells the composed sitter’s nerves while the noise lacerates our eardrums.
The remaining portion of the narrative continues its descent into Dielman’s imbalance until she can no longer maintain control. At this stage, the film’s pronounced application of sounds is a reminder of the impending outburst. Unlike Chantal Akerman’s preceding films (excluding Hotel Monterey and La Chambre), which reveal an early attention to the power of sound design, Jeanne Dielman seems, so far, her most potently enthralling. At age 25, the precocious director and her sound department’s skilful construction of differing tones certify the pivotal role it plays in gauging a character’s undisclosed vulnerabilities.
Displaying the burning conviction of a fiery young filmmaker in her prime, the film is a challenge for the most hardened cinephile yet captivating in its technical and performative expertise. To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, “Each sequence demands a reaction”