When young Belgian director Chantal Akerman arrived in New York in the early ’70s, the city’s experimental scene was alive with an influx of structural films from giants like Michael Snow, whose 1967 classic Wavelength set the standard for rigorous, long-take, intensely alienating explorations of physical space. Over the course of the decade, Akerman did the seemingly impossible: She reconciled the extreme minimalism and formal discipline of structural filmmaking with semi-conventional narrative storytelling. These two worlds wouldn’t seem to coalesce easily, but Akerman, drawing on her own feelings of stranger-in-a-strange-land disconnect, used the confinements of space and dull routine to evoke her characters’ lives. Her pinnacle achievement, 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, was the perfect synthesis of opposing traditions, and it redefined realism in the process.
Criterion released Jeanne Dielman late last year, and now its sister label Eclipse, with the three-disc set Chantal Akerman In The Seventies, shows how Akerman’s style developed in the time leading up to Jeanne Dielman, and where she went from there. The first disc collects her three New York films, unified by their thoughtfully worked-out experimental bent and her simultaneous feelings of inspiration and estrangement from her new home. The silent, 11-minute “La Chambre” finds Akerman just getting her bearings; the short is basically a still life, save for a camera that scans around a room three times before shifting back and forth like a pendulum, as Akerman herself shifts positions in a bed. The hourlong “Hotel Monterey,” made the same year (1972), is also silent, but considerably more expressive, exploring the lonely catacombs of a run-down Manhattan hotel and lonely people who inhabit it. Better still is the documentary-like News From Home, which juxtaposes exteriors of the New York streets with narrated letters from Akerman’s mother, whose words are often very frank in their concern over Akerman’s well-being and happiness, and scolding about the infrequency of her correspondence. The film makes plain the distance Akerman feels from her home and family, while also supplying evocative images of the city that could be like second-unit footage from Taxi Driver.
The two features in the set, 1975’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle and 1978’s Les Rendez-vous D’Anna, found Akerman back in Europe. They serve as compelling bookends to Jeanne Dielman. No doubt Jim Jarmusch was taking notes during the first third of the ingenious Je, Tu, Il, Elle, which presages Stranger Than Paradise’s black-and-white, single-room minimalism before expanding into a road movie that’s equally claustrophobic. Divided into three distinct acts, the film stars Akerman as a restless young woman who wants to break out into the larger world, but only meets more forms of isolation. After being caged up in her apartment, nursing a feedbag of sugar, Akerman hitches a ride with a truck driver and later hooks up with an ex-girlfriend, encounters that both lead to sexual interludes (an offscreen handjob, an audaciously explicit 10-minute coupling) with question marks.
The impression of Akerman as a perpetual wanderer is confirmed by the autobiographical Les Rendez-vous D’Anna, which follows a filmmaker (Aurore Clément) from one European city to the next on a tour in support of her latest effort. It’s like the anti-8 1/2: Rather than the vibrant, chaotic “carnival of life” that besets Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s film, Akerman’s director drifts through a succession of hotel rooms and train depots in a state of total detachment. As Michael Koresky writes in the liner notes, Rendez-vous speaks to her experience as “director as nomad”; that personal touch is what elevates these films to something greater than chilly aesthetic exercises.
Key features: As usual, these modestly priced Eclipse discs are feature-free, but Koresky’s excellent liner notes provide context and insight into Akerman’s difficult vision.
Grades: “La Chambre”/“Hotel Monterey”/News From Home: B+; Je, Tu, Il, Elle: A-; Les Rendezvous D’Anna: B