Screenings: Chantal Akerman retrospective

Producing her first short film in 1968 at the age of eighteen, director Chantal Akerman has made a copious contribution to the history of cinema. Her most well-known work is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which had the (disputable) honour of being included recently as one of only two movies directed by a female person in Sight & Sound’s top hundred “Greatest Films of All Time.”

In Jeanne Dielman, a mother, kitchen-slave, and part-time prostitute gradually loses her sanity in a three hour long studied descend. Akerman pushes cinematic form in new directions in order to explore characters who are trapped by their existence. Actor Delphine Seyrig is shot square-on for long takes in which she prepares her son’s meals and serves them to his ingratitude. Never-ending routine sees the camera move systematically around their claustrophobic flat and rarely take in the outside world.

Meetings with Anna (1978) uses the same style to track its filmmaker protagonist whilst she journeys around anonymous hotels promoting her latest work. Anna invites several male lovers to her room but fails to have sex with them. She has a girlfriend, whom we only experience as an answer phone message towards the end of the film. Again, a theatrical, circular composition is used to express alienation. We feel the monotony as endless hotel receptions are repeatedly screened. So compelling in Akerman’s films, though, is an empathy which is always distinguishable despite the unhappiness being depicted. Anna surreally spends a night in a hotel with her mother, barely explained as their family home is in the same city. As redress to the Hollywood convention of keeping female characters apart or making their only contact consist of arguing over a male (see the infamous ‘Bechdel Test’), a scene shows the two snuggling in bed together with an unspoken affection passing between them.

The Captive (2000) features a woman trapped in a relationship with a rich male, who is jealous of her romantic attachment to another female; American Stories (1989) is a series of direct to camera addresses by mid-twentieth century Jewish immigrants to the US, including females who arrived alone and were sexually harassed as a result. Her Golden Eighties (1986) is a musical comedy, whose participants are once more physical and metaphorical prisoners, this time of the shopping mall where they work. Two employees of a beauty salon compete over the son of clothing store owners, whilst a chorus of down-and-outs who have nothing better to do translate their every move into song. The action never leaves the mall, except for brief excursions round its back, where a cinema is evidently located, displaying giant posters of American movies. Here is a literal visualisation of Akerman’s repeated obsession with using films to explore the sticky accord between fantasy and reality. Her message is very much that cinema provides a theoretical escape from the latter but is always subservient to the bitter-sweetness of life.

Akerman’s 1991 film Night and Day is screening at Filmhouse in Edinburgh on Thursday 29th November at 18:15. A Couch in New York (1996) is on Saturday 1st December at 15:40 and her Tomorrow We Move is on Sunday 2nd December at 13:20. Check them out!