DVD Review: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies -- Criterion Collection

For most film audiences, the name Chantal Akerman is synonymous with that of Jeanne Dielman, the protagonist of the Belgian filmmaker's seminal 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. A three-hour avante-garde meditation on female domesticity, repetition, and order that culminates in a shocking act of violence, the film remains Akerman's best-known and most-dissected work to date, even as she's continued to make documentary films, features, and shorts well into her 50s. (Akerman turns 60 this year.)

It should be with great interest, then, that five of Akerman's early works, made immediately before and after Jeanne Dielman, are released in a Criterion Eclipse set this week. The collection of films represents what was arguably the most formative decade of experimenting and filmmaking of Akerman's career: the seventies.

The set begins, in chronological order, with Akerman's "New York Films," made after the filmmaker made her first short film, Saute ma ville, and lived briefly in New York.

In the experimental 1972 short La chambre (presented silently, and also known as La chambre 1), Akerman poses herself in a single-occupancy apartment unit cluttered with everyday objects. As her camera slowly pans in a 360 degree arc around the room, operated by longtime collaborator Babette Mangolte, the viewer is forced to examine the same mundane objects in repetition: a kitchen table, a chair, the shadow of a broom handle leaning against the wall. The only changing element is Akerman the subject, who subtly changes her behavior with every revolution of the camera whilst quietly tossing in bed, an apple in her hand.

Akerman's behavior is perplexing, but where La chambre gets interesting is in the camera's fourth go around the room, when, suddenly and quite alarmingly, the camera movement switches direction. Disorientation ensues, even though the room hasn't changed; it's the feeling that the order of the universe has been, ever so quietly, fundamentally violated. And then, the camera switches direction again. And again. In the background, Akerman begins furiously eating her apple until the tension abates, and the camera resumes its rightful course, in sync once again with the universe.

A similar experiment with visual storytelling occurs in Hotel Monterey, another short film Akerman made in 1972 New York. Over the course of 65 minutes, Akerman and cinematographer Mangolte observe a run-down Manhattan hotel from the ground up, staging a series of long static shots throughout the building that capture its empty spaces: hallways, lobbies, rooms, elevators. That the hotel's human occupants occasionally wander through the frame, sometimes curious and at other times oblivious of the camera, is of little importance; Akerman's subject is the space itself and how it relates to the absence of people more so than their presence. By the time she emerges from night to day on the roof of the Hotel Monterey, you're grateful for the vigor of sunlight and the early-morning signs of life below, and yet appreciate all the more the details that can be found within a single frame.

Rounding out the "New York Films" is Akerman's 1976 feature-length film News from Home, an experimental French-language documentary that wanders the city streets in search of connection while, in voice-over, Akerman recites letters her own mother sent her when she first moved to New York in 1971 at 20 years of age. News from Home begins with long static takes on the deserted city streets, and we learn through her mother's anxious letters that Akerman has just moved to New York City on her own with little means to support herself. As Akerman's camera becomes better acquainted with the city and slowly leaves its isolated perches to join the world of the living, she writes to her mother less and less. By the time the film ends with a parting shot of Manhattan, drifting away as Akerman leaves on a boat, her mother has seemingly come to terms with Akerman's resolute independence. As such, News from Home is at once an impressionistic time capsule of 1970s NYC, a personal memoir, and a cinematic bridge that displays Akerman's developing visual language, in which you can notice Akerman building on the experimental forms she's played with in her previous short films.

None of which is to say that these early Akerman experiments are easy for the casual viewer; Hotel Monterey in particular is an often-punishing endurance test to sit through. But all three "New York Films" are of interest to watch in conjunction with Akerman's narrative features, starting with the 1975 film Je tu il elle.

While Akerman would film her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, the following year, the black-and-white film Je tu il elle was her first feature and, like much of her oeuvre, explored the terrain of isolation, desire, and anomie. Akerman plays Julie, a young woman, who we watch at length writing letters to an unknown recipient while living like a hermit in a sparsely decorated apartment for weeks on end. She rearranges her furniture and pins her letters to the floor, searching for some sort of order and peace while manically binge-eating spoonfuls of sugar. One day, she ventures out into the world and hitches a ride with a dissatisfied trucker who's disappointed with the way his domestic destiny has shaken out, an isolated individual whose only companions are the hectic voices on the radio. Though they talk sparsely, they connect sexually with a hand job before Julie arrives at the home of an ex-girlfriend. Julie then becomes the aggressor, falling into bed with her ex in an extended erotic sequence that is simultaneously voyeuristic and alienating.

Rounding out the Criterion Eclipse set is Akerman's 1978 film Les rendez-vous d'Anna, a decidedly more accessible narrative feature that nevertheless revisits many of the thematic hallmarks and cinematic stylings of her more experimental works. Aurore Clément stars as Anna Silver, a Belgian filmmaker thought to be modeled on Akerman herself. Anna is detached from the people in her life, an emotional tic made all the worse by the fact that she's currently touring Europe to promote her latest film and spends her days in the cold comfort of hotel rooms. As Anna travels nomadically across Europe, she searches for something in a series of brief encounters with others -- a one-night stand, a stranger on a train, her mother, an old lover -- but never quite finds what she's looking for, ending up alone in her spartan apartment. Akerman's coldly symmetrical compositions are gorgeous, and often linger on inhuman, empty spaces as in her earlier Hotel Monterey, but have a newfound sophistication of their own. (Cesar-winning cinematographer Jean Penzer shot the film.)

In the years since Jeanne Dielman, Je tu il elle, and Les rendez-vous d'Anna, few female directors have emerged with such a clearly defined body of work as Chantal Akerman, and certainly few have focused so acutely on the subject of female alienation in the modern world. While the Criterion Eclipse set includes no additional special features (News from Home offers an alternate English language soundtrack), the point of the Eclipse series is to present affordable versions of lost or under-appreciated works, and that's the true value of this particular set. Because even her most famous work, Jeanne Dielman, can be dissected in terms of the techniques developed in the "New York Films," and Jeanne Dielman the character seen as both successor to and predecessor of the female heroines in Je tu il elle and Les rendez-vous d'Anna, any student of Akerman's films should give these early works a viewing if only to further understand the singular visual and thematic language developed by the avant-garde auteur.