A Couch in New York

(Un divan à New York, Chantal Akerman, France/Germany/Belgium, 1996)


At first glance, and particularly to anyone who is unfamiliar with Akerman’s previous films, A Couch in New York may seem like a strangely pale, even clunky version of a typical American romantic comedy from the mid 1990s. It takes to an extreme the principle of a film such as Sleepless in Seattle  (Nora Ephron, 1993), where lovers who are destined to be together spend most of the movie apart – or, even when they are together, they somehow miss each other, or don’t really relate to each other openly, honestly, directly.


A Couch in New York also uses another staple device of romantic comedy: the comparison and the clash of different cultures and their manners, like Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss  (1995 – the two films share a delightful scat song, Paolo Conte’s “Via con me”). The narrative set-up of Akerman’s film is simple and intriguing: a Parisian dancer, Béatrice (Juliette Binoche), and a New York psychoanalyst, Henry (William Hurt) exchange apartments. She lives in the bustling, noisy, colourful, run-down, very multicultural district of Belleville (where Akerman herself dwelt for decades); he lives in a vast, sterile, hi-tech New York apartment. She has a veritable army of lovers after her; he leads a sheltered, loveless, even solipsistic existence.


For a long time, the film just switches these characters, and watches them exploring their new environments. But then the plot lurches forward and keeps zigzagging in sometimes surreal and airy ways. First, Béatrice starts treating, as an analyst, Henry’s extremely neurotic patients. Then Henry himself lands back home, and eventually lands on his own analyst’s couch, where he instantly adopts a fake identity as he converses with Béatrice.


Akerman has travelled the path from primitive beginnings to high sophistication in her filmmaking style over and over again, from film to film, and sometimes within a single film. Watching many of her movies is like experiencing the birth of cinema: we really see and feel what it is to use a sound effect, go for a reverse shot, or splash a colour on a wall. In her films, every stylistic element, as well as every performance element, is isolated, noted; then it is carefully combined in some fugue-like pattern with other elements. Her style is typically called minimalist, but that description is a little dry, because it can miss the special, minute kinds of narrative and pictorial tension in her images; and, above all, the crisp, tangy, priceless sensuality of her style. Bodily sensations, the rhythms and expansions and contractions of time, energies of all sorts, human or non-human – these are all so palpable in her cinema.


A Couch in New York is a weird sort of love story, a love story filtered through Jacques Lacan’s principles of modern psychoanalysis (although Akerman herself was no fan of official, clinical methods of psychoanalysis). It is basically a very alienated story, full of emotional traps and abysses, awkward silences and tearing miscommunications. It’s a genuine comedy of mistaken identity, misrecognition, absences, gaps and non-reciprocal exchanges between people – particularly between men and women. One of the characters throws in that bit of pop wisdom, that love is “giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it” – a classic Lacanian formulation. Whether Akerman is filming the gestures and perceptions of her characters in a strange city or whether she is tracing the movements of that strange dance called falling in love, she is alive to something that is alien and disconcerting: the sensations that take people out of themselves, shake them up, disturb or even annul them.


The relationships that happen between Akerman’s favoured, unformed individuals are strange, floating inscrutable events – inscrutable even to those who are inside those relationships. Love, in an Akerman film, is always, almost literally, a falling-in-love, a sudden trip or descent or collision, where the spark of desire, of erotic or romantic connection, is absurdly immediate. Toute une nuit (1982), one of Akerman’s most soulful and haunting films, shows a series of experiences and encounters that occur to a wide range of people between nightfall and daybreak in Brussels. In one unforgettable vignette, two people in a bar happen to get up from their respective tables at the same moment. As their paths cross, these two strangers suddenly fall into each other’s arms in a wild embrace; and they dance to the sad tune that’s playing on the jukebox like they’ve been wrapped up in each other forever.


It is little wonder that Akerman made, shortly after, a film that recorded various dances by Pina Bausch’s troupe (Un jour, Pina m’a demandé, 1984) – documenting hair-raising tableaux of attraction and repulsion that have a similar elemental, fiery, irrational emotional logic. A Couch in New York, too, is about a love that has virtually no reason to it, that scarcely needs any pretext to be born – that might just as well, if conditions were different, never have been born.


When Akerman’s marvellous triangular romance Nuit et jour (1991) was shown at the Venice Film Festival, a prominent juror complained publicly that her way of telling a love story seemed to deliberately leave out exactly the scenes you would normally expect in such a story: the turning points, the moments of decision, recognition, revelation. And even some of Akerman’s fans sometimes think she is better as a static portraitist (fit for the ‘new media’ art gallery) rather than someone who can relay a developing story of evolving characters and emotions across time. Personally, I think that criticism is nonsense.


Akerman has her own, special, individual way with plots and characters; it moves and feels different to the norm. Dominique Paini (in a stirring defence of A Couch in New York in Trafic, no. 19, Summer 1996) speaks of the “perfect union” in Akerman’s art between, on the one hand, “a voyage or story” and, on the other hand, a “highly plastic, architectural conception of mise en scène”. Put another way, there are characters sketched in Akerman’s films; and then there are spaces, lived spaces, rendered or described (and not just visually: they are richly sonic spaces, too). The special rhythm, the sometimes halting, hulking weight of her films, comes from this insistence on both aspects, and on their constant superimposition: characters, plus the spaces they live in – and sometimes these spaces are more real, more alive, more like characters than the characters themselves.


It can seem that Akerman’s physical, material universe comes in only two forms: closed spaces that lock characters in; and open spaces that allow them to move, traverse or fly. This is, in bald terms, the difference between oppressive domestic spaces, like the apartment that imprisons the main character of her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman (1975); and free spaces such as the street. But the difference between open and closed doesn’t always correspond simply to interior spaces versus exterior ones; sometimes, it is the vast public spaces (like a railway station) that weigh down and oppress; and sometimes, private, domestic spaces are like infinitely expansive wonderlands to the women played by Akerman herself who burrow indoors and do the most amazing things with their room furnishings (Je tu il elle [1974] & Man with a Suitcase [1983]). In any case, these two forms of closed and open space come complete with a matching camera strategy appropriate to their allotted sensation.


She uses tense static frames for closed spaces, which she composes like a true painter. And she uses her signature shot, the lateral track, to follow a character singing, dancing or, usually, just walking through open spaces. (Akerman is the cinema’s greatest poet of the stroll, the amble – with all the wonder and menace that a stroller can encounter.) As usual, A Couch in New York works these diverse kinds of spaces and spatial sensations, and shows the give-and-take circuit of echoes, correspondences and changes that pass between them.


A Couch in New York is lighter and more comic than previous Akerman films – although a type of avant-garde ‘slapstick of another kind’ has been present from the very first, teenage short, Saute ma ville in 1968. Couch evokes memories of Jacques Tati and, especially, Ernst Lubitsch. He, too, made films (like The Shop Around the Corner, 1940) in which everything is based on minute comparisons and echoes: we are constantly led to observe the hilarious, starkly different ways that his characters walk, talk, dress and sing. And here is another fine Lubitsch principle which Akerman has today made her own: if any character can be transformed into their complete opposite number with the help of a makeover and a few gags, then everyone is, in a sense, free, blessed, always able to start over as someone new.


The big difference between the great Lubitsch movies and this brave comedy by Akerman is that A Couch in New York, finally, is rather charmless, even a bit forced. Binoche is very fresh and appealing in her role, but Hurt is a sunken, dark-eyed, morbid Nosferatu – and, one must admit, there is absolutely no chemistry between them. (Akerman had a hard time, in different ways, directing both of them.) But that is Akerman’s gamble here, on many levels: to make a breezy, bright, liberating romantic comedy without the usual charm, without the typical chemistry; without those conventional crutches, or easy ways of securing audience empathy.


The experiment does not entirely work, but the results are always fascinating.

MORE Akerman: The Captive, Golden Eighties, Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Tomorrow We Move

© Adrian Martin December 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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