The singular Chantal Akerman has died. The Belgian feminist-auteur designed films that were artistically daring and sophisticated, even for France where she worked for 45 years. And yet, they were spare, minimal. She made minutiae painterly and utterly fascinating.
Akerman began making shorts in 1968 and had one amazing short feature,"Hôtel Monterey," before she broke through in 1975 with the ambitiously modest (or modestly ambitious) “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” With these two films, she secured a rarified niche for herself in filmmaking, a place where she was the only denizen.
"Hôtel Monterey" is a 65-minute portrait of the New York residential hotel, in which her camera eyes every nook and cranny, almost compulsively so.
With “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” starring the hugely affecting Delphine Seyrig in a one-woman, three-hour-and-21-minute exercise, expands the previous film's vision and extends it to a human. Both films are constrained by time - with the Hôtel Monterey profiled during one long night and Jeanne Dielman during a single day. And both are haunted by loneliness and a sense of emptiness.
Human interaction is an infrequent, alien notion in these films, daringly so. One can hardly imagine an American studio supporting such eclectic, challenging work from any filmmaker, least of all a female director.
Akerman, who was 65 when she died on October 5th, made 47 features and shorts, too many of them unseen in this country or by me. Included were the 1986 musical, "Golden Eighties" (aka, "Window Shopping") and the 1983 document about its painstaking preparation, "Les années 80."
Then, there was the atypical movie in which Akerman seemed to be invading Nora Ephron/Nancy Meyer territory - 1996's "A Couch in New York"/"Un divan à New York." Much like Meyer's "The Holiday," this is the one about two people who switch residences - in the case of the Akerman film, Juliette Binoche, a Parisian woman feeling pressured by all the men in her life, and William Hurt, a New York psychotherapist tired of his patients and their problems. (BTW, "A Couch in New York" predates "The Holiday" by ten years.)
So, the two swap places - and, by extension, lives. Yes, both also become involved in the other person's life, with Binoche actually counseling Hurt's patients and Hurt being pursued by one of Binoche's jealous boyfriends. When he finally gets fed up, Hurt moves back to New York, meets up with Binoche and, to paraphrase the old song, something gives.
What sounds like a generic, formulaic sitcom turns into something quite magical in Akerman's hands. She deftly targets the hapless transfer of people to different places as something not just playful but potentially unstable and dangerous. Relationships usually take one into uncharted territory and that's what Akerman toys with so cynically here.
What makes her two difficult people seem so wrong for each other is exactly what makes them so exactly perfect for one another.
Not surprisingly, "A Couch in New York" has the kind of foreign fizz that's an acquired taste, especially for American audiences who are too easily put off by anything even remotely, well, foreign.
The film may be Akerman's most accessible and commerical, but its distinctive technique is pure Chantal, resplendent with tiny bits of business and, again, hugely observant. A prime Cinema Obscura.