A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
If the likes of Kubrick or Bergman have more or less been deified, surely she belongs in this secular pantheon.”
If, like me, The Criterion Collection and Eclipse Series – through their pristine releases of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News from Home (1976), and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), among others – have largely defined your knowledge of Chantal Akerman, then filmmaker Joanna Hogg and journalist Adam Roberts’ encyclopedic Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook will contain revelations. Though I knew the revered writer-director (not to mention actor, editor, camera operator, and songwriter) made films until her 2015 death, my understanding was mostly limited to her paradigm-shifting, ever-influential ‘70s work. I never would have guessed that the artist behind the radical, minutely-epic Jeanne Dielman also made a Technicolor, Demy-esque musical (1986’s Golden Eighties), a breezy, Paris-set romantic comedy (1996’s Un Divan à New York), an ambitious Proust adaptation (2000’s La Captive), or a number of television shorts. One of the authors’ purposes, “to draw attention to lesser-known works in Akerman’s oeuvre that deserve attention” (17), indeed feels justified.
The book compiles material (billings, blog entries, handouts, interviews, review excerpts, script translations) created and distributed throughout a two-year “slow retrospective” of Akerman’s filmmography in London. This undertaking, courtesy of the A Nos Amours collective, posed a number of obstacles: print shortages, exorbitant license and theatre costs, and a number of films which had yet to be translated into English (which illustrates just how underrepresented much of her work remains). Hogg and Roberts’ solution to the latter problem – the “live cueing of [new] subtitles” (23), which were projected on the screen in sync with the films – is a testament to the collective’s commitment to, and passion for, this singular artist. And it was certainly a group effort, as the introduction makes clear. In addition to a large team of volunteers (which included, amazingly, a New York rabbi who translated an obscure Yiddish song featured in the 1980 documentary, Dis-moi), Akerman’s friends, family, and colleagues also contributed. The director herself gave a helping hand, as she introduced some of the screenings in person and participated in a mid-retrospective symposium.
The project was not aimed solely to academics or diehard cinephiles. Hogg and Roberts encouraged first time, even casual, viewers through their clear, concise background information on Akerman’s style and recurring themes; their very first billing, for the short Saute ma Ville (1968), outlines her burgeoning “obsession with borders, with the tension between documentary and fiction, between her mother and herself, between chaos and control, cinema and history” (38). The miscellanies accompanying these handouts provide deeper insights and illustrate Akerman’s industriousness in a (still) male-dominated field. For example, in order to inspire funding for Golden Eighties, she shot the low-budget Les Années 80 (1983), “a making-of documentary made before the film it’s about is made” (86). This experiment worked not only as a marketing tool (she completed the ambitious musical, a years-long passion project, in 1986), but also resulted in a stimulating avant-garde piece in and of itself, one which many now consider superior to the feature for which it was produced.
Being something of a paean to Akerman, the book veers, perhaps inevitably, into the hyperbolic. It’s hard, for example, to swallow Roberts’ sweeping generalization that the documentary, D’Est (1993), announced “a new kind of cinema – one in which camera movement is central” (210). I think we all can agree that camera movement has been central to cinema (including that of Akerman herself) before the early ‘90s. In a New Yorker article featured earlier in the text, Richard Brody criticizes “the altar of the cult of art-veneration that substitutes, in secular modernity, for religious submission” (qtd. in 90). Though he’s contrasting Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) with Akerman’s less showy, more naturalistic Un Jour Pina a demandé (1983), his warning could just as easily apply to the authors’ near-religious devotion to their subject. In their eyes, everything she made was brilliant (or at least indicative of imminent brilliance), including, it seems, L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971), which the filmmaker herself didn’t even like (173). It’s difficult to overpraise such an important artist, but Hogg and Roberts occasionally do just that. On the other hand, their superlative reverence is undeniably genuine and – considering this director’s continuing marginalization in discussions of world cinema – arguably overdue. After all, if the likes of Kubrick or Bergman have more or less been deified, surely she belongs in this secular pantheon (Jeanne Dielman deserves a high-ranking spotin the “how the hell did someone in their 20s make this?” canon of great films).
Roberts’ blog entries, which he wrote throughout the retrospective, are also compiled here. Erudite but accessible (sometimes even lyrical), these reflections will engage general readers. Watching Jeanne Dielman in theaters, uninterrupted, must feel daunting, so he offers some useful tips for active viewing (and listening), urging both first-time and repeat attendees to develop an “awareness of furniture, objects, the pattern of the chores that varies microscopically, revealingly” (182). Translated dialogue and technical data – including detailed notes on film prints, duration, and original vs. projection measurements – will hopefully inspire other curators to get their own screenings off the ground. It would be a shame if the retrospective lovingly detailed here is both the first and last of its kind.
The project ended on a tragic note when, shortly before the 2015 screening of her Joseph Conrad adaptation, La Folie Almayer (2011), Akerman took her life. Hogg and Roberts lament that what began as a celebration of a still-working artist (her last film, 2015’s No Home Movie, opened to wide praise and received a Golden Leopard nomination) ended as a memorial. Their book is a testament to the enduring impact of one of cinema’s great auteurs.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.