Video Essay. Almost Singing, Almost Dancing: Chantal Akerman's "Tomorrow We Move"

Akerman's most underrated film is full of comedy, sensuality, hard work, mess, cooking, chaos, and the constant presence of music.
Adrian Martin, Cristina Álvarez López

The twenty-first entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Chantal Akerman's Tomorrow We Move (2004) from March 8 - April 7, 2017 in most countries around the world.

Tomorrow We Move (2004) is Chantal Akerman’s most underrated film. A recent, ambiguous “tribute” to the director in Cineaste magazine dismissed most of her work in fiction filmmaking beyond the 1970s, and was especially down on those fictions involving music, comedy, love, passion, and obsession. So, into the bin go Night and Day (unmentioned in the article), Golden Eighties (“dated and silly”), La Captive (“elephantine, imitative, and strangely fake”), and Almayer’s Folly (sunk by that “terrible French actor Stanislas Merhar”). And Tomorrow we Move? It and A Couch in New York (1996) are merely “exercises that Akerman had to get out of her system.”

There is frequently an element of self-portraiture in Akerman’s work, but probably never so frankly as in Tomorrow We Move. Sylvie Testud plays Charlotte, a writer finding it difficult to crank out her commissioned, erotic prose. Chain-smoking, clumsy, eternally scatty and distracted, Charlotte is a human sponge: whatever she sees and (especially) hears goes straight into whatever she’s typing. Those around her burst into laughter at one glimpse of her “comic” attempts at describing sex. “Comic?”, she keeps asking herself at unexpected intervals. Comedy, sensuality, hard work, mess, cooking, chaos, and above all the constant presence of music: everything flows, buzzes, and intersects in this portrait of everyday life.

It’s a film that the philosopher Spinoza could have dreamed up, because everything here is a matter of swiftly fluctuating moods, sensations, inputs that instantly alter people and the way they see and experience their surroundings. Akerman—much to the chagrin of her co-writer, Eric de Kuyper—insisted on incorporating even those familial memories of the Holocaust that haunt much of her œuvre, deepening the prevailing “lightness” and airiness of the piece. Akerman had, indeed, a lot to “get out of her system.”

The English title gives the film a pun it lacks in the original French, but fully deserves. “We move”: the reference is to moving house, relocating oneself; Akerman had already used it once before in the 40 minute monologue-piece, Le déménagement (Moving In, 1992), which (recalling Michael Snow’s Wavelength) slowly creeps into an extreme close-up of Sami Frey amidst the unpacked boxes of his life. But there is another type of movement that is incessant here: the physical movement of walking, rushing, gesturing, dancing. Like in a musical, everyone is inevitably “enchanted” (even when they wish not to be), everybody sways to the rhythm—but the relations between music, dance, and action remain loose, mutually autonomous.  

In our audiovisual essay Almost Singing, Almost Dancing, we concentrate on this almost-musical aspect of the film: not the seamless fusion of song and movement aspired to in a film like La La Land, but a tapestry of mobile levels and elements, more in the vein of Jacques Rivette’s great Up Down Fragile (1995).

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