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.