Any consideration of Chantal Akerman's work in the 1970s—or, really, Chantal Akerman's work period—inevitably revolves around her towering 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In that film, Akerman traces, through a series of frontal, shallow-space camera setups that pin down her eponymous heroine in her drab domestic setting, the minutiae of the daily life of a working-class single parent, which actress Delphine Seyrig performs in real time. The film follows Jeanne's quotidian activities (cooking, cleaning, having sex for pay with a single client each day) over two 24-hour periods. The first time through establishes the routine, the second suggests small cracks in the well-worn edifice (as well as the heroine's sanity) until, in the film's final moments, things break down entirely. One of the most rigorously structured works ever committed to celluloid, Akerman's 200-minute game-changer strikes a perfect balance between formalist temps mort immersion and intricately detailed narrative progression which suggests both feminist critique and an exhilarating, if psychologically opaque, study of impending madness.
For years, and notwithstanding Jeanne Dielman's reputation among the hardcore cinephile set, problems of accessibility have kept Akerman's work from achieving the pantheon status accorded to her natural peers. But following last year's DVD release of her 1975 classic, Criterion has filled out the picture of her early work by issuing, through their Eclipse imprint, a three-disc set containing five of her '70s efforts. If, as Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson suggest in their classic Film Comment essay on Jeanne Dielman, among the film's principal achievements is to suggest “a workable parlance between the structural and commercial film,” then one of the pleasures of the Eclipse set is to trace the development of this balance, from Akerman's early efforts at strict formal experimentation, through her first stabs at narrative, to the more expansive approach of her post-1975 offerings.
The earliest films included on the Eclipse set, 1972's La Chambre and Hotel Monterey (which, along with the aesthetically similar 1976 piece News from Home, are grouped together on the first disc as the “New York Films”), represent Akerman's clearest attempts to emulate the structuralist films that dominated Manhattan's experimental cinemas of the time. La Chambre in particular betrays a clear Michael Snow influence, but it's perhaps most interesting when viewed as a structural forerunner of Jeanne Dielman. In this 11-minute film, Akerman's camera executes a series of circular pans around the perimeter of an apartment room, taking in the expected accoutrements of daily living (a sink, a refrigerator, a fruit-covered table) as well as Akerman herself lying in bed. Like Jeanne Dielman, the structure of La Chambre involves setting up a pattern, repeating that pattern with subtle repetitions—here involving a change in Akerman's on-camera activity—and then ripping it apart entirely. As the camera gets half way around its third revolution, it suddenly reverses direction, moving back past Akerman, who is now caressing an apple, then continues to alter its course, traversing in both directions the space delimited by a desk and a dresser—and making specific reference to Snow's Back and Forth.
Akerman's real breakthrough occurred in her other silent, 16mm offering from 1972, the eerie, vaguely sinister Hotel Monterey. As Michael Koresky points out in his liner notes, this was the director's first experiment with duration, the lengthy, mostly eventless takes which would come to define her aesthetic approach for the rest of her career and which make up the formal backbone of Jeanne Dielman. Taking as her subject the eponymous fleabag crash pad located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Akerman's camera effects a rigorous investigation of the hotel's rooms and corridors for 62 leisurely minutes. Starting with the lobby, Akerman works her way up the building's floors, moving from the heavy traffic of the entranceway and elevators to the grimy, depopulated hallways, while fixing the architecture in static takes that she holds for durations moving upward from a half minute.
With their constricting walls and sickly lighting, the corridors that come to represent the film's chief area of inquiry look like a particularly apt horror film setting, particularly when the camera catches glimpses of people lurking at the margins. In one sublimely spooky sequence, Akerman takes in an impossibly narrow hallway, only to find a door at the end inch open and a face peek out ever so slightly, before the door slams shut for good. In the last 20 minutes, Akerman unshackles her camera, executing slow tracking shots down various hallways leading up to the fixed point of a window (shades of Snow's Wavelength) before tracking back in reverse. Finally, as night turns to day, the film moves up to the hotel balcony, relieving the dense claustrophobia as it takes in time-capsule views of upper Broadway and the banks of the Hudson.
In 1976, several years after Akerman had left New York to resume residence in her native Belgium, she returned briefly to the city to shoot News from Home, a post-Jeanne Dielman revisiting of the non-narrative structuralism of Monterey. Focusing on Manhattan's public spaces, News reflects back on the director's brief American sojourn, juxtaposing readings of the letters her anxious mother sent her during her stay with fixed shots of the city's street corners, hidden spaces, and subway stations and cars. Akerman is especially attracted to the city's queasy bowels and, while she doesn't insist on the then-struggling metropolis's dreariness, what emerges is a portrait of a decidedly unglamorous and vaguely desperate pre-gentrification New York. The reading of her mother's letters—which bring updates from Belgium, while constantly bemoaning her daughter's infrequent responses and speaking hopefully of her return—rarely corresponds directly to the image, but the juxtaposition of the reminders of home with the alienating city evokes an unsettling sense of displacement. Recalling Monterey and anticipating her great 1993 consideration of exile as a permanent state, From the East, Akerman eventually introduces an element of motion, ending with a series of vehicle-mounted tracking shots which take in a car ride past the auto shops and wholesalers of 10th Avenue, a peek out the window of an outer borough elevated subway and, finally, a boat ride in the harbor, lingering on a misty view of lower Manhattan as the fog envelops the city's skyscrapers.
While Letters from Home represents one approach to introducing text to non-corresponding visuals, a more complex counterpoint between images and words can be found in Akerman's feature-length debut Je, Tu, Il, Elle, made the same year as, though just prior to, Jeanne Dielman. Sharing with its more famous successor a concern with uncovering the potential for madness in a woman's repetitive home life, Akerman's first attempt to weld the structural film to a fictional storyline centers around a young woman named Julie (played by Akerman herself) who confines herself to a single room apartment. As she passes endless weeks in the same setting, she occupies herself by rearranging furniture, eating sugar from a paper bag and compulsively rewriting a letter that takes up an increasing number of pages. As she performs these tasks with a manic restlessness, captured by Akerman's silently observing camera in marathon takes, her accompanying voice on the soundtrack narrates the events. But rather than directly matching the image, the spoken text always either lags slightly behind or anticipates the action on screen, so that the words being spoken sometimes contradict what we're seeing. In one scene, Julie describes how she had long ago eaten all the sugar in her possession while the image, not having caught up with her words, shows her devouring the still present crystals. In the gap between her character's behaviors as spoken and as performed, the director locates an incipient madness, a fracturing of identity that mirrors the dissociations of the film's title.
As the movie progresses, Julie's behavior becomes increasingly sexual: She begins to strip naked and crawl around the apartment floor. Then, surprised by a man watching her through the window, she presses herself up against the glass, hoping to be spied on again. Eventually, this desire for erotic fulfillment leads her out of her apartment and into the front seat of a truck when she allows herself to be picked up by a long-distance driver. But after she tells us in voiceover that she wants to kiss the man, her narration suddenly stops and, as she continues to ride with the trucker, accompanying him through a number of silent dinners between rides, she never speaks a word. When things finally do turn sexual, as he instructs her to give him a handjob, the camera remains on the man's face throughout, the woman's personality having shrunk to momentary irrelevance. Later, the trucker delivers a lengthy monologue, discoursing on his family, his declining marital sex life and his highway pickups, while Akerman's camera continues to turn its fixed gaze on the man, although Julie remains visible at the edge of the screen, smiling her approval of his story. Her interaction with the trucker may necessitate the silencing of her voice, but in her madness she seems more than happy to accept it.
Only in the film's final section does that voice return as Akerman locates a corrective to the unequal male-female relationship through the erotic union of two women. Visiting an initially reluctant ex-girlfriend, Julie takes verbal charge of the situation, demanding food and drink from the woman. But after Julie succeeds in getting her into to bed, the director stages a lengthy sex scene in which power relations temporarily dissipate in the face of an impassioned and equal embrace. Whereas Akerman keeps Julie's sexual relationship with the trucker off screen, here she gives us the lesbian union in all its graphic tangling, as the two women tumble around on the bed, taking turns on top, and providing an antidote to the identity-effacing displacements of heterosexual interaction, however fleeting it may finally prove to be.
Same-sex coupling figures again in Les Rendez-Vous d'Anna as the peripatetic heroine describes to her mother a surprising lesbian encounter that occurred amid her customary on-the-road male pickups. But mostly the sexual encounters in Akerman's 1978 feature remain frustratingly unfulfilled. Rich with images and symbols of displacement, Rendez-Vous moves beyond the locked-down claustrophobia of Jeanne Dielman to evoke the languors and frustrations of an opposite but equally deadening mode of existence. As Akerman follows the eponymous woman (and directorial stand-in: Like Akerman, Anna is a Belgian filmmaker, played by fellow director Aurore Clément) on her travels through Cologne, Brussels, and Paris, she lingers on a repeated series of images and events—the halogen glow of platforms glimpsed from train windows, the uniform rows of hotel corridors, Anna's perpetually unsuccessful attempts to call a friend (lover?) in Italy—to evoke the banality of a perpetual rootlessness which Akerman posits as something like an existential state.
As she stops off at stations along the way and meets up with old friends and family members, this sense of displacement comes to take on a tinge of world-historical heft. Although Anna remains largely impassive (her face barely registering a flicker, her conversation kept to a minimum), as she listens to a German lover discourse on his country's devastating recent history or a Polish friend describe her own experience of exile, we come to understand rootlessness as the natural condition of 20th-century Europe. Even if Anna seems relatively unaffected by the century's upheavals, she has nonetheless absorbed enough to accept dislocation as her own normal state of being. So that when she returns to her adopted home of Paris, she encounters the city (via Akerman's camera) as a blur of abstract lights seen through a car dashboard or an ultra-mod hotel room in which she watches the town through a window while an on-the-fritz television sprays fuzz at the corner of the screen. Returning at last to her apartment, she lies impassive on her bed while her answering machine spews out the disembodied voices of friends, lovers, and finally, her agent announcing her latest itinerary and signaling her impending return to the road. In Akerman's films, such a feeling of exile—whether presented literally as in Anna's case or expressed through an alienation from a domestic environment, as in Je, Tu, Il, Elle and Jeanne Dielman—becomes endemic, internalized as a perpetual state of mind.
The New York films were shot on not-particularly well-preserved 16mm and they look it, but the rough nature of the image suits the experimental nature of the projects. Je, Tu, Il, Elle and especially Les Rendez-Vous d'Anna are far crisper. Sound (on the three films that have sound) is sufficiently clean, even if Letters from Home betrays a fair amount of hiss.
As usual with Eclipse sets, the only extras are liner notes, in this case, an insightful set of observations from critic Michael Koresky.
There's more to Akerman's work in the '70s than Jeanne Dielman, even if that film continues to loom large over the period.