In this country, at least among cinephiles, Chantal Akerman is mainly known for her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which was released on DVD by Criterion last year. She herself admitted in one of the extras on that disc that Dielman, which was really her start, might also be her best work, but it’s been difficult to know that for sure since her other films are so hard to see. After watching Jeanne Dielman again, I combed through Akerman’s IMDb page and was intrigued by how much of her filmography consists of shorts and documentaries, fragments and self-portraits; even just looking at this list, it was clear that Akerman has not been interested in pursuing a tidy career, or work devoted to any kind of commercial narrative. In this valuable new Criterion Eclipse set, which brings together work she made before and after Dielman, it’s possible to put together a sharper picture of who she is as an artist, even if it left me, at least, with more questions than answers.
The first disc is devoted to Akerman’s so-called “New York Films” and starts with La Chambre (1972), a short that surveys a room, the camera making a circular motion that changes direction right when we’ve gotten used to its repetitive movement. Using simple means, Akerman allows you to see the space she has chosen with fresh eyes and builds a great deal of suspense. For Hotel Monterey (1972), Akerman spent fifteen hours in a seedy Upper West Side rooming house, taking us through the lobby, up in the elevator, then through nighttime corridors. Occupants sometimes peep at her camera, then scurry away like rats, and the camera starts to glide up and down the hallways until we finally reach the roof and stare out at the morning light rising over the buildings. Again, Akerman sets herself a technical goal and fulfills it admirably; her eye for framing is unerringly precise, but the graininess of the film stock sometimes obscures what she’s trying to convey. News from Home (1976) observes lonely New York City street scenes set against the recited letters Akerman receives from her sweet, slightly guilt-trippy mother, who often speaks of her own boredom. “It’s the same for everyone…we’re all just waiting,” she writes, as Akerman takes in the graffiti-ed subway, the men with their big trendy mustaches, the isolated workers. Hair-raisingly, Akerman ends News From Home with a lengthy shot of the World Trade Center buildings, her camera steadily watching them through mist. This visual choice had quite a different meaning in 1976, of course, but in 2010, it’s a heartbreaker; inevitably, a film like this is always going to wind up being an elegy for a lost location.
In many ways, the most successful film in the set is Je Tu Il Elle (1975), a feature in three parts that raises many issues about Akerman and what she’s after as a filmmaker. The first section views Akerman herself in a room, writing obsessively and describing what she’s doing on the soundtrack; her actions don’t always match up with her voice-over, and this creates a sense of alienation, even as the images themselves are sometimes downright cozy, in their agoraphobic way. She keeps eating spoonfuls of sugar straight from a paper bag, and this starts to be a kind of running gag; at the least, it reveals an unexpected kind of comic timing, especially when she spills all of the sugar on the floor and then scoops it back into the bag, spoonful by spoonful. Akerman is a very striking camera subject, both drawing us in and pushing us away; she takes all her clothes off and walks around, and the effect is both erotic and disturbing, as if she’s showing off yet determined to remain hidden. In the second section, she goes outside and hitches a ride with a truck-driver; they eat in a restaurant and watch what sounds like an American cop show on TV. Back in his truck, she gives him a hand-job off-screen, while he languidly talks her through it, and then he does a long, candid monologue about his life and his all-over-the-place sexual desires while Akerman patiently smiles at him, in a friendly but removed way.
For the third section of Je Tu Il Elle, Akerman barges in on an ex-girlfriend, demanding to be fed. The last scene coolly observes Akerman and the girl thrashing around naked in bed; there’s a clinical, detached quality to the cinematography so that there’s nothing pornographic about the encounter, even when the girl is going down on her. Akerman must have had enormous confidence in herself to be so bold both aesthetically and sexually so early in her career, and surely anyone who wants to treat sex on film would benefit from seeing the formal way she handles this ambiguous encounter. Sadly, the third disc in the set, Les Rendez-Vous D’Anna (1978), treads the same ground in a much less radical fashion, playing out like a not particularly believable, conventional narrative about a film director (Aurore Clément) who feels alienated (surprise!) and listens to a lot of disparate people talk, talk, talk. In the final sequence, set beside a painfully symbolic white television set, Jean-Pierre Cassel feels Clément’s behind through her clothes for quite a long time; more surprisingly, he himself takes his clothes off, gets on his stomach and lets her massage him, until she dares to stick a finger or two up his ass. This is somewhat shocking, mainly because Cassel is such a well-known actor and it doesn’t look like Clément is faking anything, but it doesn’t have the force of the girl-girl love bout that ends Je Tu Il Elle. Taken in total, these Akerman films have only whetted my appetite for more from her scattered, mysterious career; they seem to represent a filmmaker who dared to explore sex on film without shame or limits.