Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important and interesting female director of her era. The range of her work is astounding, from largely experimental 'difficult' works represented by the three shorter films on in this set ('Hotel Monterey', 'News From Home' and 'La Chambre' ), to frothy musical-comedy, to introspective dramas represented here by the great 'Jeanne Dielman', 'Je Tu Il Elle' and 'Les Rendz-vous D'Anna'. Even if you don't respond to these films, you may well like other things she has done. She seems to exist in a constant state of self-reinvention as an artist. I highly recommend the set for anyone interested in her work, or women film-makers, or film-makers with unique, challenging and individual voices.
As for these six early films of hers, my personal thoughts, in chronological order;
Hotel Monterey: (1972) My rating ****1/2. Experimental silent 60 minute 'documentary' set in a cheap NY hotel. No story, just images that cross the sadness of Edward Hopper's paintings with the weirdness of David Lynch (who seems to have been influenced by this). It's like a great photo book come to life. It has a fascinating look (very grainy 16mm, with super rich colors). No question that by nature this feels dull in spots and some images are less powerful or repetitive, but its full of wonderful, disquieting moments, and it has a fascinating, hypnotic almost imperceptible build to a `climax'. If nothing else, the film is worth it for the simple power of the moment when the camera starts to move after 30 minutes of still images.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974 ) ****1/4 Often sad, and sometimes absurdly funny. A three part film with little obvious plot, its a delicate character study of a young, neurotic woman. Part one shows her stuck alone in her room over a period of days, trying to write a letter to a lover, eating sugar, walking around naked - emotionally as well as physically. Part 2 is her journey with a truck driver who picks her up hitchhiking on her way to meet her female lover, and the relationship that develops between them, and part 3 is her arriving at her lover's apartment, spending the night making love with that woman, and finally resolving their relationship. The images, though often striking, don't have quite the power of her very best work, and while some moments have a real charge-- sexual or emotional -- others feel awkward. An intelligent and complex film, ultimately wistfully touching, but missing that last step to greatness. The first third is very strong, the second almost as good, but the last 'act' feels less complete, and the 15 minute love making scene is sort of awkward in that it's very explicit, but never seems quite real. None-the-less, an impressive first narrative film, that sets the ground for her great dramas to follow.
Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975) ****3/4 Fascinating, powerful, hyper-controlled study of woman slowly coming unglued. Uses its 3 hour+ running time to put you inside the stultifying boredom and ennui of her life, and lets you see the tiny changes in her repetitive days that are powerful and meaningful barometers of the titanic emotions going on behind her blank masque. Not easy or `fun' to watch. By definition (and intention?) it gets slow to the point of boredom at times. (Indeed NY Times critic Vincent Canby, who loved the film, jokingly warned that watching it 'could be fatal' if one was in the wrong mood.) But everything interconnects in an amazingly thought-out way. Every bit of dialogue (of which there's almost none) leaves a clue, or at least a trace. Fascinating camerawork; almost always static images. with every cut at 90 degree angles. And again, when that rule is broken there are specific thematic and storytelling reasons. A challenging, 'difficult' film, but one not to be missed.
News From Home (1977) ***1/2 An interesting experiment; Various images of New York City, mostly still at first, with ever more movement as the film goes along, accompanied by the sound of Akerman reading aloud letters from her mother in France. Stays pretty interesting, though never really gets emotionally involving. Once again, Akerman's city images are great, evoking Hopper. But the images and overall impact seem less to me than the somewhat similar 'Hotel Monterey'.
Les Rendez-Vous D'Anna (1978) **** Amazingly shot, with the film always demonstrating a tremendous, disciplined use of image to convey mood and story. The film is full of long takes using striking symmetry, the camera always finding frames within frames. For me, the story itself is interesting intellectually, but lacks emotional power; traveling to a film festival, a young femme filmmaker has a series of sadly empty encounters with people, leading to long, well-written monologues by the various lost souls. Sometimes too on the nose and speechy with its ideas, but always intelligent, physically beautiful film-making.
La Chamber (1972) **1/2 11 minute experimental short, where the camera slowly turns in circles revealing a room, first one way, than the other, occasionally passing Akerman in bed, staring, sleeping, perhaps masturbating, but treating her as just another object in the room. Interesting as an `idea', but -- for me -- slightly boring to watch.
The set also contains interviews conducted by Akerman with key co-workers, her mother, as well as a segment of a self portrait she did for French television. These interviews aren't as strong as the films, but there are often fascinating nuggets about her working process and (in the case of her mother) her influences. The interviews are a bit odd, as it feels like Akerman is 'leading the witness' a great deal, trying to get specific answers she wants. On the other hand, the self-portrait piece is terrific and made me try to track down the complete French show with English subtitles, to no avail. It's all Akerman simply reading thoughts she has written on herself, her work and her past, but it's funny, self-depricating, honest and rueful.
If you have a region free or region one player, it should be noted you can get almost the same material for less money by buying the Criterion Collection 'Chantal Akerman in the Seventies' set, along with 'Jeanne Dielmann' seperately. To my eyes the transfers look just about identical, so I'm sure the same sources were used.