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Les Rendez-vous d’Anna

(The Meetings of Anna, Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium/West Germany, 1978)


 


I begin in the abstract, with two sensations – sensations that link, for me, something brutely physical with something intangibly emotional.

 

One. Whenever I arrive in a city that’s new to me – or even, in fact, when I take a look at my usual city after having been through some life-altering crisis or shake-up – I experience an odd, rather delicious sensation. I feel like I am no one, a zero, completely anonymous – just some wisp on the wind, rather than a solid body with an identity and a history. And, in that moment, I feel suddenly connected, in an ephemeral and euphoric way, continunous with everything that is concrete and non-human in the material world all around me: the shifting leaves in the trees, the skyscrapers with their few, scattered rooms alight in the dark, the pavement under my feet, the faint whistle of a wind.

 

Two. This sensation is one I picked up from a movie: an avant-garde fiction called What Maisie Knew (1975), featuring the American choreographer-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer and a number of her associates from the dance world. What we see in this movie (directed and photographed by Babette Mangolte) is a rather nutty performance routine where Rainer and the others enter the frame and, as they enter, at diverse speeds and angles, they go suddenly limp and crash to the floor, spread-eagled. After a minute or so of this screwball fun, a droll voice-from-nowhere enquires on the soundtrack: “Falling in love?”

 

Both of these sensations are intimately linked, by association, to my experience of the cinema of Chantal Akerman [1950-2015].

 

Why does Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, which has so often been described as cold, uninviting, austere, distanced, bleak – a film in which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum commented, “every shot has the visual weight of a battleship and nearly every facial expression has enough glumness to sink one” (1) – why does it move me so, why does it fill me with an odd, almost comic euphoria and lightness? I count Akerman among the greatest directors in world cinema – and also among the most intractable and eccentric.

 

But I have always been struck by the marked discrepancy, the lack of real fit, between the models dictating how Akerman’s work is written about, and the actual affect that her film-forms (sometimes exquisite and crystalline, sometimes clumsy and halting) unfailingly have on me. 

 

In the 20 years since Les Rendez-vous d’Anna was made, these models of understanding have themselves been variously junked, re-written or displaced – and still the film strolls out somewhere just beyond all the available paradigms. In the late ‘70s, in the pages of journals including as Screen, Feminist Review and Camera Obscura, Rendez-vous was wrestled to the ground as a radical, oppositional, anti-narrative film, posed against the implacable machine of the male gaze and its suspect pleasure of spectacle. Better that (he sighs now) than what the film eventually became within the flip annals of supposedly sophisticated, consumer-guide criticism: apparently, an art film.

 

Sometime in the 1980s, the words art film (and especially “European art film”) became, in some quarters, an automatic term of abuse – where, at an earlier moment, they were an automatic term of praise. There are many reasons for this switch: most generally, an aggressive (and often exclusive) turn on the part of some cinephiles toward extolling the popular and the illegitimate over the canonical works of official culture.

 

Within such a climate, another key event was the publication of Narration in the Fiction Film by David Bordwell in 1985 – whose description of the typical art film some mistook to be a droll piece of comedy, an inventory of a genre replete with its sedimented clichés and formulae. Yet it now seems to me wrong (speaking as one who was caught up, once upon a time, in this anti-art-film fever) to wield Bordwell’s important insight – that the art film is a loose tradition with its own conventions and protocols – as a death-blow against so much that is important in world cinema. Bordwell certainly never intended it that way.

 

By the end of the 1980s, just about any movie that exhibited the slightest arty trait – such as a film-within-a-film, a journey without a clear destination, a drama of alienated non-communication, reflexive references to the director’s previous films, or a desire to bear witness to the “soul of Europe” (sick or otherwise) – was sure to be derided across the board. And, although I think she is a strange candidate for it, Akerman suffered the slings and arrows of the anti-art-film push – even at the hands of those who champion particular works of hers. “I haven’t much liked any of Akerman’s films since News From Home [1976]”, comments Judith Williamson in her otherwise splendid collection Deadline at Dawn. “More recent works have seemed indulgently self-referential, like Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, about a woman film director”. (2) Snap!

 

I guess that, objectively, it is, indeed, something of an art film. A film of restless travels and fugitive, interpersonal relationships; a film of historical fragments, traces of migration and multi-culturalism, rising to the surface of everyday life and memory. It is partly, and with some intimacy, an autobiographical film – although a life in filmmaking is signified here, as it is in Philippe Garrel’s Les Baisers de secours (1989), by the single image of a facade of a movie theatre. Above all, in more material terms, it is a film of droning monologues and halting, truncated attempts at dialogue. Aurore Clément, a fixture of Akerman’s cinema, brilliantly conveys Anna’s calm, serendipitous, whimsical way of slowly tuning away from other people or just as suddenly drawing closer to them. In an indispensable piece, Meg Morley writes that, in all its scenes of verbal exchange, “the speaking is unilateral, does not circulate, but falls, terminated once uttered”. (3)

 

It would be too easy to read in these strangled conversations the sign of some old-fashioned existential angst, an abyss of malaise and alienation. In fact, in the progressive European cinema and criticism scene of the late ‘70s, such non-communication was hailed as a strategy, even a bracing tonic: better these unreconciled crumbs of painfully lived experience than the illusions of emotional transparency and communion that filled a bad, bloated, humanist cinema.

 

As with the gestures of speech, so too the gestures of sex and erotic contact. Les Rendez-vous d’Anna strikes me as one of the great films about casual sex encounters. Sexual “communion” is in fact never reached; in the typical manner of early Akerman (1968-1982), Anna mechanically jerks off her boyfriend while he’s driving; lays naked atop the same guy as he sweats clothed and feverish (an exceptionally haunting image); and snuggles, naked again, up to her somewhat shell-shocked mother in a hotel room bed. She describes her pattern of casual, bisexual trysts in that scene, without sentimental illusion, as always sad and often ridiculous; yet, being a little kooky and unpredictable, she also kicks the schoolteacher out bed with a surprising envoi: “We don't love each other”.

 

This shotgun combination of modern cool with nostalgic, romantic longing is a crucial feature of Akerman’s artistic sensibility. She internalises and projects in her art, as if it were her destiny, a vision of the 20th century world citizen: displaced, nomadic, rootless, “people as blurred (indéfinis) as myself”, as she said when recalling to Louis Marcorelles at Le Monde her experience as a runaway young Belgian landing in the Soho of the ‘70s. (4) Time and again Akerman’s art returns to this primal, core moment of personal indefinition: at the start of Histories d’Amérique (American Stories, 1988) she narrates the parable of successive generations who progressively forget the location of a specific tree in a particular forest where they must go to to say the words of a long lost prayer …

 

Akerman does not entirely reject traditional paths of characterisation and character development in her films, just as she does not entirely reject traditional narrative (Histories d'Amérique, for instance, is purely a work of oral storytelling). What Akerman likes to show us are characters who are in the process of becoming themselves, not quite all there yet, somewhat unformed. Her most directly autobiographical film, Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the 60s (1994), captures very beautifully such a quality of being unformed and potential when one is young. But perhaps Akerman's characters will stay unformed for the whole of their lives.

 

This sensibility relates to Akerman’s deep attachment to her Jewishness and its diasporic legacy (which is the principal subject of Histories d’Amérique). And by D’Est (From the East, 1993), it has also linked up to a sense of the ubiquitous upheavals of peoples and cultures taking place across the shattered national borders and landscapes of the New World Order. Yet there is also a personal dimension to this longing and loss, as indicated by the closing words of the parable of the tree and the prayer: “My own story is full of missing links, full of blanks. And I do not even have a child”. Anna, too, speaks of the the children she could have had, and the marriages that were possible but didn’t happen.

 

Constantly circling underneath Les Rendez-vous d’Anna – functioning here and in much of Akerman’s work as a secret worry that can barely be spoken aloud – is a question of sexual identity. The various narratives of lesbianism or female bisexuality that thread through Akerman’s films sometimes bear a melancholic weight. Not because of any moral qualm (she is far too modern for that), but because of a primal severing with the possibility of biological motherhood and all it entails (the mother is always an intense figures of emotional and spiritual identification-investment in her films). And one does have to go right back to art cinema proper – specifically the films of Ingmar Bergman – for any exploration of this theme that is anywhere near as open and wise as Akerman’s.

 

Akerman’s cinematic style is often compared – not very carefully, in my view – to Michelangelo Antonioni. Yes, there are the architectural vistas, the sites that linger for the camera before and after the intrusion of human beings (as in the opening train station shot), the geometric arrangements of point and line, the painterly fields of colour (the light browns and blues of Anna’s hotel room bisected by her red jacket). But there is not the same labyrinthine, baroque penetration of a cinematic, scenographic space as in Antonioni. Akerman’s aesthetic began as, and remains, a hard-edge construction. From an amalgam of Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Jean-Luc Godard, the painter Edward Hopper and many other influences, she developed a style based on “the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film, time and energy”. (5)

 

In Akerman, a tenacious sense of duration, of time taking place, is married to a penchant (rigorously adhered to during her entire career) for pictorial frontality – not only in static frames but in her famous signature move of lateral tracking shots (usually accompanying walking figures). The over-the-shoulder, shot/reverse shot system is alien to her work; mise en scène is created by the movement of a character out of an initial two-shot, into a completely new and unseen portion of space (interior or exterior). The pictorial disruption to eyeline matches that results (in 70’s film theory-speak, the definitive refusal to suture) reinforces the prevailing sense of (as Morley puts it) a “circulation … cut short”, an “impossibility of dialogue, both between the characters on screen, and between the spectators and the film”. (6)

 

But then, there is that emotion to account for. ”The concentration is on the gesture/action”, writes Laleen Jayamanne in a seminal essay on Akerman. “Any emotions take care of themselves”. (7) But where precisely does the emotion reside? In the fine, precise, interwoven tension of all the formal elements of the work – not just the colour, framing, timing and so forth, but also the gestural work of the actors (Jayamanne called upon Robert Bresson, Roland Barthes on “The Dolls of Bunraku”, and Michael Kirby’s modern theatrical theory to get the measure of this peculiarly stylised, artificial, decentred acting style).

 

Akerman’s aim is not to distance emotion but to re-channel it: to have it come through not the usual, weeping face of an actor (as Raúl Ruiz once put it), but through the exact shade of a colour on a wall, the precise timbre of an atmospheric soundscape, the concrete line and position of a table or chair. In Rendez-vous d’Anna, there are many remarkable moments, scenes and passages of this sort that conduct such tender and intense feeling: the views from a train, the empty hotel atmospheres, the wonderful shot where Anna walks far away from the schoolteacher into the distance, where yet another train is seen and heard passing.

 

Postscript. Ten years after Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Akerman’s production company Paradise Films collaborated on the production of a film which is its virtual complement on so many levels, the masterly Landscape in the Mist (1988) by Theo Angelopoulos. Here, too, is a broken journey across a New Europe by train and by foot; here, too, are references and recreations of the filmmaker’s past work; here, too, is pain and disconnection on a scale simultaneously personal and global.

 

And, again, a “delicate and precise sequence of emotions” (the phrase is Brian Henderson’s) (8) is communicated in every perfectly placed, patient, hard gaze at a landscape or streetscape, and every ostenatious movement backwards, forwards or sideways by the camera in its implacable, superbly choreographed long takes.

 

The films and their makers are complementary in another, harsher way too: for Angelopoulos is someone who has also had to bear, even more heavily than Akerman, the ignominy of the art-film tag.

 

MORE Akerman: The Captive, Golden Eighties, Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, A Couch in New York

 

 

NOTES

1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line (Arden Press, 1983), p. 33. back

2. Judith Williamson, Deadline at Dawn: Film Criticism 1980-1990 (London: Marion Boyars, 1993), pp. 149-150. back

3. Meg Morley, “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna”, Camera Obscura, no. 3/4 (1979), p. 214. back

4. Quoted in Christina Creveling, “Women Working: Chantal Akerman”, Camera Obscura, no. 2 (1977), p. 137. back

5. This quotation is from Kathy Halbreich & Bruce Jenkins (eds), Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), p. 68. back

6. Morley, “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna”, p. 214. back

7. Laleen Jayamanne, “Modes of performance in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 8 (1980), p. 106; reprinted in her collection Toward Cinema and Its Double: Cross-cultural Mimesis (Indiana University Press, 2001). back

8. Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980), p. 61. back

© Adrian Martin June/December 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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