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Now on DVD: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies

While Chantal Akerman's early works—Le chambre, Hotel Monterey, News from Home, Je tu il elle, and Les rendez-vous d'Anna—have been chronologically grouped based on her sojourn in New York City during the 1970s and, consequently, her exposure to the structuralist aesthetic of artists like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton (and the local experimental film community that revolved around Jonas Mekas's filmmakers cooperative), her adoption of the fixed camera in these films, nevertheless, suggests an approach that intuitively runs counter to the idea of a static shot, paradoxically conveying a sense of impermanence, restlessness, and mutability within the stasis.

 

In Le chambre (1972), Akerman subverts the inherent limitations posed by a stationary camera position by rotating the camera 360-degrees within the fixed axis of the tripod to create an unbroken panoramic shot of her studio apartment, before reversing direction and alternately sweeping an arc formed by the vertex of the camera and assorted objects in the room. By varying the initially predictable rotation of a seemingly "fixed gaze," Akerman introduces a dichotomy in the dual image of restriction and movement. Similarly, Akerman's placement of a stationary camera within dynamic spaces in Hotel Monterey (1972) (whether reflected in the physical displacement of the elevator, or the activity of the hallways and main lobby) reinforces the underlying relativism that governs conventional Newtonian physics of rest and motion. Suggesting both a concreteness and transience of space that, in turn, reflects on the status of the predominantly elderly residents and their liminal existence at a rundown, low rent hotel, this idea of ever-shifting, transitional spaces would prove to be a recurring motif throughout Akerman's body of work, reflected in the physically shared spaces of fiction films such as Night and Day, A Couch in New York, and Tomorrow We Move, and also as an underlying symptom of cultural and socioeconomic flux in documentaries such as From the Other Side, South, and D'Est.

 

This state of constant flux also shapes the trajectory of Je tu il elle (1976), where the seeming whimsy of changing room color (a redecoration that is transparent to the viewer given the use of black and white film) and furniture arrangement foreshadows a broader sentiment of mutability and resistance to be defined by prescribed roles and fixed conditions. This sense of rootlessness as resistance is further explored within overarching questions of postwar identity, displacement, and trauma in the poignant and deeply personal essay film, News from Home (1977). Juxtaposing quotidian images of a grimy, circa mid 1970s New York City against the off-screen reading of letters (presumably) from Akerman's mother, the film is as equally haunted by the geographic separation between mother and child as it is by a silence of history that estranges them (a theme that resurfaces in Tomorrow We Move in Catherine's reading of her mother's diaries)—a fragmented, mediated dialogue that is acutely implied by Akerman speaking for her absent mother, filling the void of her silence.

 

Akerman further explores the themes of identity, history, and rootlessness that weave through News from Home in the fiction film, Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978), returning to the autofictional road movie paradigm of Je tu il elle to capture an artist's station as outsider and exile. As in Je tu il elle, Anna's (Aurore Clément) alienated encounters—in trains, stations, hotel rooms, and lobbies—are also defined by transience, mutability, and passage. Set against the urban landscape of a borderless, but still divided Cold War-era Europe, Akerman captures a postwar generation that is disconnected from its history, living under the false construction of recovery and progress, relegating its collective traumas to rote memories in the absence of cultural community and identification.

Acquarello, I’m fairly close to pulling the trigger on these DVDs (or, in the least, renting them via Netflix whenever they make them available), and I’d say that this write-up only makes me closer to that decision. Like many, I first encountered Akerman with “Jeanne Dielman” (and, in my case, only last year) — and that single film alone gave me the impression that she’s a master at the use of space, as you note here. I also found a similar struggle between stasis and change — that stasis masks (perhaps unsuccessfully in the long run) a very complex movement of sorts. Purely on a conceptual level, these 70s films appear to be brimming with ideas and potential, and I’m eager to see them. — Michael S.
Hated Jeanne Dielman, but ordered this anyway.

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