Some publicity for Chantal Akerman's Golden Eighties does it a disservice by calling it a glossy production and implying that, stylistically, it approximates a real musical in the Hollywood tradition – updated, of course, with a contemporary setting (a shopping mall), some raunchy lyrics, and an insistently materialist view of things (romantic yearnings counterpointed by the demands of work, money, making a living).
Perhaps I have too determining a memory of The Eighties (1983) – the fabulously heterogeneous audition/rehearsal film which served as an elaborate trailer for the big feature – but Golden Eighties' stab at being a real musical still seems to me to bear all the poignancy and thrills of an experiment that never quite makes it – this depositing, amidst the occasional moments of radiance, grace and transcendence, a hundred endearingly crazy details of clunkiness, oddness and uncertainty. This, too, is part and parcel of Akerman's materialism, the extraordinary materiality of her films.
Golden Eighties was Chantal Akerman's most cherished project of the decade it addresses. Several of the works leading up to it (including The Eighties and the short Family Business ) make reference both to its script and the arduous process of raising finance for it. In many respects, it is the musical Akerman makes when it is no longer possible to make a real, old fashioned musical. The money will never be there to do it; not even a full Broadway orchestra can be present (its stand-in, here, is a homey montage of rock combo, solo piano and string quartet). No full-blooded dancing is possible either – only walking, swaying, a mock two-step quickly cut short.
With its eye for the decidedly un-transcendent everyday, Golden Eighties relates to decidedly melancholic, European post-musicals – or mutant musicals – like Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Godard's Une Femme est une femme (1961), though it is sharper edged, more seriously dialectical, more melodramatically logical in its moves and twists than either of those films. It is doubtless this dramatic clarity that Akerman extracted from her amazing team of script collaborators – Jean Gruault (Jules and Jim, 1962), Pascal Bonitzer (Les Innocents, 1987), Leora Barish (Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985) and Henry Bean (1988: The Remake, 1977) – this ruthlessly logical, ironically brittle tale of love, desire and loss set within the inescapably public space of a shopping mall.
In the sphere of the experimental fiction feature, Golden Eighties evokes a tradition I can only call the laboratory film (or video) – which involves the rigorous saturation of a single, enclosed space (e.g., a studio set) with all the imaginable fictional gestures and permutations, all the formal possibilities, it can generate and contain. This tradition includes all Rivette's films, Godard's video Grandeur and Decadence (1986), and not least Akerman's comic masterpiece Man with a Suitcase (1983). The opening shot of feet crossing the mall floor, the prodigious surprises with space and framing in every scene, the sudden changes in mood, the musical teasers on the soundtrack which go nowhere – all this fits Golden Eighties easily within the profile of the laboratory film.
But, changing the high Euro-modernist tone of these comparisons better to grasp what makes Golden Eighties such a distinctive and engaging mix, one might well suspect that Akerman is equally fond and mindful of the inventiveness – no less playful, no less formally interesting – in a certain contemporary popular tradition: stereotypes and acting styles spinning around one room in The Breakfast Club (1985); multiple story threads colliding within the mall of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982); heightened stylistic effects in Three O'Clock High (1987); dotty experimentation with musical form in School Daze (1988). The connection of modernist and teen culture is not at all forced and perverse, considering that Barish's script for Desperately Seeking Susan was explicitly intended as a pop transposition of Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).
Golden Eighties may not seem much like a teen movie to some, but it is from this contemporary genre, more than from old musicals, that Akerman here draws her bemused tone, and her cultural purview. Her film encircles a post-feminist (and post-political) space of endless consumption, glitzy all-pervasive commodification of emotion, showbiz femininity, regressive longings for the perfect romance, a certain delicate kind of camp sensibility. And who can say to what extent this is Akerman's own space, her own sensibility? Is there really a critical, ironic sting to this tale (above all else), or rather an affectionate accommodation to a restricted notion of everydayness in the eighties – hardly golden, yet not, it seems, so harsh, either? For at least, in this world, love is everywhere (a Demy theme, announced from the second shot of a woman kissing two men), a passionate force circulating almost independently of the people it moves and tangles.
As a minute experiment with musical image-and-sound form, Golden Eighties deserves a long and close commentary. Let me merely suggest, for those with good ears, some great things to listen for – things which are not gags or even jokes but (as in Jacques Tati's intricately post-dubbed cinematic universes) maddeningly infectious touches: the constant clackety-clack footsteps; the signifying of boutique muzak by a drum machine loop that gets busier each time it reappears; the deft conversion of an air-conditioner's "whoosh" or a pesky dress zipper's noise into synthesized, rhythmic elements of the music; and the ever changing acoustics of voice and speech – spoken, sung, whispered, solo, en masse, with and without echo. One has the sense of hearing a sound "mix", complete with stops, starts, modulations, tryouts ... laboratory experiments of all kinds.
At a time, reaching the end of the golden eighties when, in the newspapers of Melbourne's public sphere our senior male film reviewers reached new heights of brutally normative judgment – decreeing virtually every interesting film in town to be either implausible, too long ("like most films these days": Neil Jillet) or "unsure of what it wants to be" – it was good to see a film which flaunts its strangeness, its unreality, its eccentricity, its undecidability. Somewhere between camp and straight, satire and romance, teen movie and avant-garde masterpiece, Golden Eighties is the time and place to be in.
© Adrian Martin July 1989/June 1998