Viennale 2011. Choreography

More rewards at Vienna's essential Akerman retrospective: a "pitch" for a musical, a late Demy, and a surprising recent drama.
Daniel Kasman

A report from a three film day at the Film Museum, where it seems I'll be spending much if not most of my time at Vienna.  Wonderfully programmed, the progression went: Akerman's Les années 80  [The Eighties], followed by a film in the director's carte blanche section, Jacques Demy's final all-sung musical, Une chambre en ville [A Room in Town] (both 1983), and surprisingly concluded with Akerman's last fictional feature before this year's Almayer's Folly, 2004's  Demaine on déménage (Tomorrow We Move).

I was unexpectedly lucky to see this program rather than one several weeks earlier, which paired The Eighties with its true successor, the stifling but brilliant musical Golden Eighties (1986).  The former is made in that most unique of genres: the film produced to pitch a film. Godard was doing something similar at nearly the same time (for Passion, I believe?), transforming a lack of funds into both a new work and the potential for another new work.  It's therefore a generative work of generosity: a feature length gesture towards Akerman's actors and collaborators who desire to work on a potentially unfinished project, a film of honor showing what Akerman loves in their work. What comes across overwhelmingly isn't the "sense" or "idea" of this, at the time, unproduced other feature that would become Golden Eighties, but rather the profound desire to make something expressive and heartfelt out of nothing but fragments of a screenplay told in auditions, tests, and the lone two musical numbers that were within Akerman's budget to fully pre-imagine—a crazy idea itself—to "pitch" the final film.

Earlier in the day I was in the Leopold Museum looking at Egon Schiele sketches, and later at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at studies by Rubens, and got to thinking if such things as film sketches and studies exist in such a way, cinematic creations that could be regarded more than just as the first iffy steps to later perfectly grasped execution and ideas.  I found it later that afternoon with this Akerman, a film which creates an entire other film outside itself suggested by the traces of character, story, emotion and even spatial ideas ricocheting around the collage of audition videos and songs. Yet The Eighties isn't just the phantom film conjured—not Golden Eighties but something else more oblique—it is, at the same time, whole unto itself, creating its own interior world of starts and stops, snatches and minute completeness, happinesses and sadnesses sometimes within one drama (the script) and sometimes within another (the direction of the auditions).  By the time we see a vocalist in the studio recording a test track to a song (all songs were written by Akerman), and the wildly gesticulating conductor in the studio, in her joy at the performance, turns and reveals herself to be the director, it is clear that this film is a whole living wonderful thing that needs no "completed" film.

A Room in Town

But as I said earlier, this program was surprising and not just on a film by film basis—rather, it was the movement from film to film.  To follow The Eighties not with its sequel/full version created three years later but with a contemporaneous musical by Jacques Demy led me not to follow one-to-one thoughts of sketch to completion within Akerman's filmmaking but rather diverted my thoughts to the makeup behind the scenes of such a seamlessly produced and contained film as A Room in Town.  In fact, due to a mistakenly too cursory reading of the retrospective schedule, the film I saw was on a beautiful print...with German subtitles.  So I had well and good time to spend with the filmmaking, which I found without understanding the language generally uninteresting and the music mostly banal—yet every sound and gesture, in Demy's supreme control of his mise-en-scène and his containment of this unusual mash of politics on the streets and bourgeois lovers' melodrama in densely decorated interiors, held behind it the memories of Akerman's mysterious videos of high heels clacking in a half-lit sound stage, actors directed to follow off-screen movement that doesn't exist, the re-mixing of sound so that audition audio from one sequence is played over, and re-contexualizes, the footage of another. All was funneled into Demy's film, layering planes of rehearsal, digression, and visions tested and re-configured, behind the spotless continuity of his all-singing tragedy. The haunting of The Eighties continued, but not in suggesting a phantom film but rather a phantom process, the joyful toil of searching for creation before the real cameras start rolling.

Tomorrow We Move

The evening was concluded by moving away from song and towards movement—the brilliant, falsely stagebound Tomorrow We Move.  Reminescent of the spry, unreal and lovingly actorly—not to mention certifiably insane and melancholy—late stage adaptations of Alain Resnais, Akerman's original film is a sly and impossibly cinematic re-invention of theatrical conventions, set in place, as with Resnais, only so as to tear them down. Close in spirit to the director's 1984 piece of apartment paranoia-comedy, The Man with the Suitcase, the 2004 film channels the neurosis of interior living into more manic and comedic territory, letting sadness settle only between tumbling entrances and exits (often via an opening in the floor) and then pluckily picking up again, most mysteriously by the discreet, controlled neuroticism and naive aristry of Sylvie Testud's lead heroine. How many films have taken apartment clutter, redecoration and real estate as their foundational narrative and mise-en-scène springboards? (Resnais comes to mind again.)

Always in motion, if just in jotting, jumping thoughts, Testud moves to a huge yet too cramped two-floor flat with her widowed mother and the duo take to settling in like it's a new adventure—one immediately resulting in offhand disatisfaction, sleeplessness, and the desire for a new place.  The film carries more than a little of Leo McCarey in its irrational prolongation of a consteration that seems arbitrary if existant at all, and, like McCarey, fills in the void left by the extension of dramatic time by the most replete attetion to detail—floridly bad jokes that are repeated until they are funny, side characters who hang around until you like them, odd bonds of friendship and sexuality and sadness  forming between people and just hanging there, unpursued, unfinished but sustained in the flat's false-labyrithine spaciousness/clutter.  So all becomes movement and navigation through and between Akerman's frontally presented frames, how to move, move around, get in out and around, feel free or cramped.  A dance, if you will—a dance preceeded by a musical, preceeded by a beautiful plea to make a musical.  Talk about a lovely movement.


ViennaleViennale 2011Chantal AkermanJacques DemyFestival Coverage
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