Tag Archives: chantal akerman

2016: Proximity and Distance

The Edge of Seventeen, Chevalier, Fort Buchanan, The Fits

I like neat bookshelves. I like it when photos are labeled with the date they were taken. And I like to make lists of movies. A year or a decade from now, I won’t remember my favorite films from this year off the top of my head, but I’ll still have this list, illustrated if not annotated. I can skim it, maybe thinking, “That’s right: my girlfriend and I saw #1 and #5 as a double feature. We had a spare half-hour in between so we went out for burgers.” My future self can use this list to hold onto all the joys and bullshit and movies she experienced back in 2016.

Before I really get going, here are 15 other movies I liked, ordered alphabetically: The BFG, Cameraperson, Chevalier, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Fits, Fort Buchanan, The Lobster, Love & Friendship, Manchester by the Sea, Midnight Special, The Shallows, The Thoughts That Once We Had, and The Treasure. Here as well are a trio of special cases that technically aren’t 2016 theatrical releases: Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six, which apparently screened at MoMA in late 2015; Lemonade by Beyoncé et al, which debuted on HBO this past April; and Looking: The Movie, directed by Andrew Haigh, which HBO aired in July. An animated anthology, a visual album, a TV show’s series finale—and some of the finest new filmmaking I saw this year.

Ten performances that each merit an honorable mention: Krisha Fairchild as the gray-maned namesake of the indie drama Krisha; John Goodman as the post-apocalyptic patriarch in 10 Cloverfield Lane; The Fits’ pint-sized dynamo Royalty Hightower; Stephen Lang as Don’t Breathe’s croaking, undershirt-clad phantom; Jena Malone, who enlivens The Neon Demon by playing her every look and line for maximum innuendo; Trevante Rhodes, whose sidelong glances in the final stretch of Moonlight are suffused with longing; Johnny Simmons, trembling beneath the burden of fame in The Phenom; Little Sister’s bashful Addison Timlin, her heart full of love for both Christ and GWAR; Hailee Steinfeld as an imploding ball of adolescent angst in The Edge of Seventeen; and finally, the late Anton Yelchin, for his work in Star Trek Beyond’s ensemble and as a terrified punk rocker in Green Room. In the parlance of the MTV Movie Awards, he gave this year’s “Best Scared-As-Shit Performance.”

Now here’s my list:

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Viewing Diary 2016 #1

Gone to Earth (1950), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the hands of most artists, this would play as stale melodrama. Its romantic triangle would succumb to moral binaries. But P&P were not most artists, and in their long joint career, they rarely left a binary intact. Nature vs. civilization, paganism vs. Christian orthodoxy, woman vs. man: the rapturous visual storytelling in Gone to Earth complicates every single one of these seeming dichotomies. The developments in Hazel’s magical life are not weighted strictly toward “good” or “bad.” Instead, they’re built up out of hills, trees, tightening two shots, passion-twisted faces, and a palette of Technicolor excess.

In this film’s cosmology, heaven and hell are not abstract destinations but immediately within reach, and Jennifer Jones plays Hazel as a girl-turned-woman who’s too aware of their proximity for her own good. The knowledge is in her voice, iffy accent or no. It’s in the squiggly cursive handwriting on the farewell note she leaves her husband: “I am a bad girl.” And it’s in the shot that gazes up at her in her yellow dress from deep within the Chekhov’s abyss before rotating to watch a stick plummet deeper still into the darkness. Powell and Pressburger knead a wealth of unspoken implications into an image of a simple Shropshire well.

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Double Dose of Delphine Seyrig

On the left, we have the seductive, ageless Countess Elizabeth Báthory. On the right is Belgian housewife Jeanne Dielman, who’s somewhat less glamorous than the Countess as she peels potato after potato after potato. What do these women have in common, you may ask? Well, my friend, they’re both played by the great Delphine Seyrig, a Lebanon-born French actress who starred in countless art films throughout 1960s and ’70s. She worked repeatedly with Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel; she was in William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) wearing a poofy red wig and Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970) as Catherine Deneuve’s fairy godmother; she also directed a few movies of her own.

In short, she was a multitalented woman (and proud feminist) who worked almost nonstop for three decades before her death in 1990. You don’t hear Seyrig’s name bandied about much by cinephiles these days, which is a shame. Therefore, I’ve decided to bandy it about myself! Seyrig and her quiet mystique are at the center of the two very different films pictured above: Harry Kümel’s arty, nudity-filled vampire movie Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Chantal Akerman’s 3 1/2 hour experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In both films, she plays laconic, enigmatic women, but still, you could hardly find more different roles than a bloodsucking aristocrat and a weary, working-class single mother.

Daughters of Darkness is almost all surface, with virtually no substance; thankfully, much of that surface is provided by the glittering, impeccably coiffed Seyrig, whose lipstick matches the blood that flows throughout the film. It reminds me of the work of Roger Vadim (who also made a lesbian vampire movie, Blood and Roses [1960]): pretty, sexy, a little weird, but totally empty-headed. The Countess Báthory follows the usual model of the beautiful, predatory lesbian vampire, as she gradually takes a newlywed couple under her wing and leads the wife in sucking the husband’s blood. And, as usual, she ends up as a burning corpse impaled on a tree branch. Such are the wages of fear.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Dielman is a patient, painstakingly shot document of three days in its title character’s life. Seyrig’s expression varies between a half-frown and a half-smile as she goes about her daily chores – brushing her hair, writing a letter, sending her adult son Sylvain off to school – but her emotions never quite breach the surface, and always remain tantalizingly ambiguous. Is she happy keeping her home clean? Does she hate the drudgery of her day-to-day existence? Despite its repetitive structure, it’s a masterfully dense film that requires far more discussion than I can give it here and now; incidentally, Jeanne also moonlights as a prostitute when her son’s not around, granting the film several additional layers of feminist subtext.

The substance of Jeanne Dielman is just the mundane, never-ending processes and rhythms of normal life, filmed in wearying detail. But through one geometrically composed long shot after another (several set-ups are repeated time and time again; the film doesn’t have so much as a single close-up), you achieve a greater awareness of the processes, the sheer time that they consume, and their emotional toll on Jeanne. (Even if Seyrig’s performance is minimalist practically to the point of being an automaton.) In Jeanne Dielman, the daily lives of women (and their cinematic representations) are joined to the techniques of avant-garde filmmaking, with bountiful if hard to watch results.

At the heart of all that, of course, is Delphine Seyrig. Her face and gestures reciprocate the camera’s patience; she goes about her day methodically, without a shred of movie star ego or exaggeration. In Daughters of Darkness, on the other hand, she brings in just the right level of exaggeration, playing the Countess as a decadent, glamorous, and graceful mass murderer. Yet she does it with surprising understatement – a giggle here, a kiss there. I’ll conclude with a single, beautiful image from the end of Jeanne Dielman, from just after Jeanne’s shocking final act. What is she thinking? What are her plans? All we know is what we see on Seyrig’s face.

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