Last week London-based screening collective A Nos Amours began their ambitious plan to screen the complete Chantal Akerman in the capital over the course of the next 18 months. In an attempt to capture the spirit of the season we will be producing a piece to tie-in with each of the individual events, and charting each of the films covered in each specific screening.
Saute ma ville – In which/Akerman, appearing in the films central acting performance apes the expected female culture. Screened in 35mm.
It was a fateful screening of Pierrot Le Fou that set a young Chantal Akerman on her way. Impressed with the Godard film (in her own words she “decided to make movies” the evening that she saw it) the 19 year-old Chantal Akerman set about a path of self-discovery that would eventually lead to the creation of a very unique body of work.
Running themes throughout each of Akerman’s early works feed in to the filmmakers eventual masterwork, 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The roots if that film are present and correct in Saute ma ville : the satirical denouncement of “women’s tasks”? Check. The placing of a progressive figure trapped by conventtion and social expectation against the backdrop of a modernist palette? Check. The playful tone of Saute ma ville is something that would be withdrawn to an extent as the director developed style, but one can hardly be dismissive of such a tendency in a work that is deliberately evocative of a film like Pierrot Le Fou, with Akerman similarly placing the concept of the Godardian Karina girl next to the tropes that a form-driven society would deem apt for a woman. She ridicules the stereotypical relationship between women and cleaning and cooking, with it no more clearly brought to the fore in the film’s closing moments, as our hero’s fate is sealed by a gas oven.
The film’s score is just as idiosyncratic. Akerman hums the films core theme herself, intersplicing these melodic undertones with occasional bursts of aural chaos. Post-synchonisation is really key to the films stylistic code, with the anarchic tone set by the aesthetic and confirmed by the completed work. Foley work is “handmade”, with the mouth providing the sounds of all manner of household chores.
L’enfant aimé ou Je joue à être une femme mariée – In which/ Akerman discusses the meaning of life and love with a pal, blurring the boundaries between performance and documentary irrovcably In the process. Screened in 16mm, with live subtitling.
Akerman’s second film builds upon the ideas and concepts expressed and explored in Saute ma ville and merges them further thanks to the incorporation of more fantastical leaning elements. Dusting the everyday with imagery that partially (well, initially) recalls Alice through the looking glass, Akerman again questions the place of the contemporaneously modern women alongside expectations, even going so far as to include a thesis on womanly obligations (child bearing and raising, being a wife). Again recalling the work of Jean-Luc Godard, albeit this time that filmmaker’s Une Femme Mariée, albeit one not torn from the pages of the lifestyle magazines that Godard looked to when crafting his vision so much as it is an underside of gender cinema rarely seen.
This fantastical tone is driven by Akerman’s own presence in the film. It feels as tho the director has dropped in to the frame, and started questioning her subjects, who themselves play like a performer/document hybrid. Said debate with characters takes the form of a series of bold long takes. Rather than floundering in its own excessiveness tho, the long shots are rendered captivating through technique.
For her third film (and first feature) Akerman turns to New York, and the city’s famous Monterey Hotel, for a film that raises a number of provocative and challenging questions.
The first such question is that of what Hotel Monterey actually is: is it a documentary, a fully constructed work of fiction or some kind of art installation? Well, it’s ultimately all three. While Akerman is essentially shooting a work of documentary, her presentation and reconstruction of reality shifts it firmly towards the land of the narrative feature. Presented without sound or any obvious sense of narrative direction, the audience observes the scenario laid out by Akerman in a manner befitting as gauche a term as “a fly on the wall”. Akerman’s lens gets in to every nook and cranny of the old hotel, which itself feels like a site (and a sight) out of time. The building is full of character, and is a consuming presence. At one point it even feels as though Akerman gets lost in the place, as we venture through each corridor and bounce around the many levels in one of the building’s elevators. We go for great periods without seeing a soul, with the space taking on an eerie feel that cannot help but evoke that most familiar of hotel cinema tropes: the horror movie. As Akerman’s camera repeatedly tracks up and down the corridors of the hotel Monterey one might be forgiven for expecting a surprise around each corner to come. In rinsing and repeating this particular action Akerman actually demythologises what those actions mean to the viewer. It normalises and strips the sequences of any cinematic gloss.
Building on the established stylistic sensibilities of the films that preceded it, there’s an overwhelming sense of a grander vision being built towards throughout these early movies. As with any artist finding her voice, the influence of popular figures within the arts is clear, with Andy Warhol the often cited one when it comes to this particular picture. As an examination of the New York skyline one might certainly see Hotel Monterey as a kindred spirit of Warhol’s Empire.
It’s timeless in another sense too. The use of repetition coupled with the very particular aesthetic pattern results in a hypnotic rhythmatic experience, and a film that seems to operate in and on its own timescale.