The initial screening of A Nos Amours’ Chantal Akerman retrospective marked my first venture into the prolific Belgian film director’s work. Having only seen La Chambre (1972) and caught glimpses of the venerated 1975 feature Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles I have remained a novice with only vague ideas of her aesthetic and thematic concerns. My preconceptions were affirmed by the freewheeling shorts on the female psyche, Saute Ma Ville (1968) and - the less compelling - L’enfant aimé ou je joue á être une femme mariée (1971). The third was the austere Hotel Monterey (1972).
Whilst digesting each film the standout piece was Hotel Monterey. Influenced by prominent avant-garde filmmakers of the period: from Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol to structuralist Michael Snow, Akerman’s audacious debut feature is an undermined addition to experimental cinema. Like La Chambre, Hotel Monterey is a silent mantra of extended takes that plays on spectatorial expectations, allowing us to imprint our own meaning onto the film. By rhythmically cutting from the ghoulish dwellings of the stiffly seated elderly man and pregnant woman, to unpopulated corridors, the film eschews conventional narrative. Instead, this beguiling documentary explores architectural space and film form.
The emphasis on space displays Akerman’s ability to transform reality. The opening shot of a mirror reflecting numerous occupants, hooked to a sparse wall, denotes her intentions to reconfigure the mundane setting. As if it were an unformed lump of clay, the hotel’s drab interior gradually becomes a rigorously composed sculpture (shot by Babette Mangolte) of doorframes, decaying walls and dimly lit hallways, radiating an unexpected beauty. Even the apparent simplicity of an empty bedroom, with its lurid colour scheme of red spreadsheets and sickly orange-green flower-patterned curtains, emits a surreal glow. In this case, nuance is essential in sparking an emotional flare.
The firm utilisation of long takes becomes a strategic component in coercing one to acknowledge this sentiment. These static shots cause a suspension in time in which the spectator is forced to absorb the space, soaking up each miniscule detail. In doing so, an unnerving sense of anticipation surfaces. Shifting from ruminative shots expressing the mere emptiness and spatial precision to the spectral charm of a moving door, tension lurks within the prosaic. Besides injecting life into the inanimate, these protracted scenes also contain a self-reflexive touch.
Judging from L’enfant aimé Akerman was already dabbling with self-reflexive techniques. The director herself is a silent character that listens to the lonely protagonist as she divulges her past experiences in love. Often, the camera remains static with the occasional zoom used to close in on the subject. This detachment and intimacy of the camera relates to Akerman’s on-screen presence, encouraging the audience to engage and become tacit observers.
In Hotel Monterey the presence of the camera itself holds a dual-purpose, characterising the filmmaker and spectator. At an early stage in the film the mounted camera travels inside the elevator, coming across various occupants. Men and women fill the frame, with many disregarding the company of the camera. After a small number of cuts the elevator accelerates downward. Reminiscent of a scene from Kafka’s nightmarish tales, the elevator doors open, revealing numerous residents in the lobby, staring unflinchingly into the lens. A mutual acknowledgement is forged between Akerman and her subjects, inviting the audience a long for a journey through the eerie establishment.
Notwithstanding our implication, Akerman playfully manipulates our position. Down a long corridor, in four consecutive takes, the camera gently dollies forward towards an open window. Fully aware of our need to escape this claustrophobic labyrinth of muted tableaux, Akerman impedes this desire, moving back down the tight passage. By gruellingly tracking back and forth, we are reminded of the control she holds over the audience and her own position. Moreover, through the formal rigour of stasis, movement and decisive cuts, the director establishes herself as a faceless character, probing the geometric intricacies of architectural space.
Having only seen Hotel Monterey once I’m sure it is rewarding with multiple viewings. Nonetheless, the film remains a visually stimulating storage of rigid shapes and textures with a vast collection of latent subplots to whet our thoughts. Attempting to pinpoint it’s meaning would be a misunderstanding. Exhibiting the exactitude and diligence of a pre-Raphaelite painting, Chantal Akerman produces an unclassifiable feature where documentary and fiction blur. With a positive first impression, the retrospective looks set to be a rare chance to see the thematic progression and formal refinement of the filmmaker’s underexposed output.