Arts & Events

Chantal Akerman in the Seventies

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 05:09:00 PM
Director Chantal Akerman in <i>Le Chambre.</i>
Director Chantal Akerman in Le Chambre.

There's nothing like silence to focus the eye. In her low-fi experimental films of the 1970s, Chantal Akerman trained her camera on everyday life and allowed for no distractions. Without sound, without action — indeed, with little motion — she opened her lens to the commonplace, to the mundane, and taught her audience to look that much deeper at what lay before them.  

"Chantal Akerman in the Seventies," recently released on DVD by Criterion as part of its Eclipse line of overlooked films, contains several of the Belgian director's early-'70s New York films, as well as two films from later in the decade, after she had returned to her native country. 

In Le Chambre, the camera makes a gentle 360-degree turn around the a one-bedroom apartment, showing us first a kitchen with table and utensils and stove, then a coat and a door and bureau. It is almost a shock to turn 'round this seemingly empty room and suddenly come across a woman lying on the bed — the director herself — before continuing the circuit, past a writing desk and chair and finally back to the kitchen again. You might expect the film to end there, or, having completed the circuit, to cut to another scene. But once is not enough in Akerman's view, and the circuit begins again, circling around the room several more times, the only change being the woman's position and demeanor as she lay upon the bed. Akerman then shocks us with what under the circumstances seems a jarring shift: the camera stops and begins to circle in the reverse direction, and eventually takes up a sort of slow swinging motion, passing from the writing desk across the bed to the bureau, and then back again. It's a tidy little film depicting an untidy world, in which the objects of a woman's life and her presence amid those objects suggests a seemingly boundless stock of subtexts while never making any one of them explicit.  

Akerman takes this approach to a new level in Hotel Monterey, an hour-long journey through a low-rent tenement hotel. Beginning in the lobby, Akerman's camera makes its way up through the floors of the hotel, each floor seemingly more sparsely populated than the last. The bustle of the lobby and elevator gives way to beautifully composed still-life portraits of rooms and hallways and doors. Those prone to nostalgia may recognize the impulse; Hotel Monterey provides precisely the sort of portrait I wish I had thought to create of innumerable places in my past — not posed photographs and frozen-in-time snapshots, but living, breathing record of the everyday comings and goings of relatives and loved ones, friends, co-workers and classmates, through homes and yards and streets and buildings that once meant so much to me but have since disappeared, or changed, or become inaccessible, in spirit if nothing else.  

The camera's journey through the hotel begins and night and eventually makes its way to the roof as a new day dawns and casts its gaze on the streets below and the New York skyline beyond.  

The set also contains News From Home, Je Tu Il Elle and Les Rendez-vous D'anna. 


Chantal Akerman in the Seventies