Tag Archives: chantal akerman

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.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

Here’s what I missed most from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt while watching this adaptation: (1) the lengthy opening portion of the novel detailing Therese’s drudgery at Frankenberg’s before she runs into her dream woman and (2) the hotel-hopping game of cat and mouse the couple later play against the private detective employed by Carol’s vindictive husband. Compressed versions of both remain in the film, but only as narrative ligaments, helping push the story into its next act. Much as I adored these bits on the page, though, I still appreciate the necessity of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s cuts, not only for the sake of time but also because they sharpen the film’s focus. For Carol really isn’t about working retail while pursuing your vocation in your off hours, nor is it even slightly a paranoid thriller. From stem to stern, on every level of craft, it’s an evocation of the soul-deep yearning these two women have for one another.

What is it like to be one whole cleft by circumstance into two aching halves? As it turns out, it’s like gazing out of windows at the snow globe of wintry Manhattan or receiving a call you have to drop while anxiously clenching a cigarette. It’s trying to carve out a sliver of space for you and your beloved within doorways and hallways and hotel restaurants; it’s encoding your love into a glance or gesture only she will be able to decipher. As with Haynes’ other period melodramas, the costuming and set design in Carol act not as value-neutral recreations of ’50s style, but as essential aesthetic components of Carol and Therese’s relationship. Every item in Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe—gloves, earrings, nail polish, fur coat—has been selected and shot with the knowledge that a woman’s self-presentation can function both as a tool and as a trap.

(In this respect, and in the consistently off-center framing, Carol reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills series. It’s an impression bolstered by Therese’s passion for photography; by Haynes’ actual collaboration with Sherman on her feature Office Killer; and by the haze of self-conscious old movie glamour that hangs over this movie.)

A Bronx Morning (1931), directed by Jay Leyda

“The city” is an overwhelming subject, especially for a ten-minute silent short. Leyda wastes no time. His dizzying montage zips from mass transit to shop windows to kids playing in the street. Across this whirlwind tour of the borough, the filmmaker slyly draws visual patterns out of public phenomena. The weaving diagonals of fire escapes and elevated train tracks; the aerial trajectories of pigeons and stray newspapers—they make the Bronx morning seem like a series of abstract compositions just waiting to be caught on camera.

How Men Propose (1913), directed by Lois Weber

A single joke that’s all build-up, build-up, build-up, then wham! Absurd proto-feminist punchline! Running half a reel, this splits its time between three gullible suitors and the female trickster who promises each one in turn her hand in marriage. As she hurries to hide the rings she’s been given and prepare for the next beau in line, the story plays like a preemptive spoof of the still-nascent romcom. The men’s pantomimed proposals are just as broad as the looks of shock they plaster on their faces when their phony fiancée reveals her charade. The woman breaks the fourth wall in every other shot with a cocky grin. She’s sharing a conspiratorial laugh with us, her audience, at matrimony’s expense.

News from Home (1977), directed by Chantal Akerman

Lucky coincidence that I should watch this so soon after both Carol and A Bronx Morning. Together, the three films measure out myriad angles of approach toward a pair of shared subjects: Love and The City. News from Home is roughly as far from the former film’s classical melodrama as it is from the latter’s montage. Akerman’s tack is minimalism, as she juxtaposes voiceover readings of her mother’s letters from Belgium with footage of New York streets and subways. So simple, conceptually. Yet every word she speaks in her mother’s voice and every avenue her camera traverses deepens the trans-Atlantic story she’s telling. She’s never explicit about anything, never tells the viewer how to feel, but even so News from Home broke my heart; is still breaking it a couple days later. I think it’s because of Akerman’s conspicuous absence—because I can glean the outline of the artist as the “you” in her mother’s letters, as the eye taking up space in the middle of these subway cars, the camera-eye with which bold commuters will sometimes exchange a glance. Between the audio and the images of News from Home lies this woman who’s invisible, dislocated, lonely; who’s a daughter, a foreigner, and a human being.

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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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