|Director Chantal Akerman on the set|
LES RENDEZVOUS D’ANNA (THE MEETINGS OF ANNA) A- France Belgium Germany (120 mi) 1978 d: Chantal Akerman
If I have a reputation of being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general, people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday. —Chantal Akerman, 1982, Chantal Akerman: The Integrity of Exile and the Everyday - LOLA
A rigidly formalized, semi-autobiographical film about transience and dislocation, compartmentalized into tightly controlled, geometric spaces, showing the depersonalization of work and relationships in the sprawling postwar European landscape, with long monologues that feel oppressive and endlessly downbeat. Coming after NEWS FROM HOME (1977), an early experimental documentary that juxtaposes images of New York City with the texts of letters written to Akerman by her mother in Belgium and read aloud offscreen by Akerman, her follow-up to Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1976), the film that would forever link Akerman to feminism and women’s cinema, where this film as well serves as an homage to her mother, arguably the most significant figure in both her personal and professional life, figuring prominently in films made throughout her career. In something of a character study, French actress Aurore Clément plays Anna, the central protagonist and filmmaker’s alter-ego, an accomplished filmmaker who travels from Germany to Paris via Brussels, living in hotels while attending screenings of her films (which are never shown). Along the way she has a brief but intense relationship with a German man Heinrich (Helmut Griem), the shared lover of both Liza Minnelli and Michael York in Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972), while also meeting Ida, her fiancé’s mother (Magali Noël), the sensual beauty in Fellini’s AMARCORD (1973), her own mother (Lea Massari), the vanishing woman from Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960) and the overly affectionate mother in Louis Malle’s MURMUR OF THE HEART (1971), and her longtime lover Daniel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the star of Jean Renoir’s THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL (1962), yet the journey is defined by frustrated attempts to contact an Italian woman (never seen) with whom she had an affair. Continually disconnected from the present, her life is a fragmented landscape of enclosed spaces from hotel rooms, telephone booths, bars and restaurants, train compartments, car rides, and railway platforms, offering glimpses of unfamiliar streets in unfamiliar locations, moving through a series of brief personal encounters that yield little satisfaction, where the film accentuates the emotional gulf that separates people, reflecting the massive transformations that have defined European life in the last half-century. Akerman stands at the forefront of redefining film from a woman’s perspective, in stark contrast to the patriarchal cinema that has come before, reflected by the devastation of war and the displacement of Jews and other Europeans, followed by ailing prescriptive financial plans and economic restructuring that have left national identities in tatters. Seemingly filling that void, Akerman has formulated a cinema language that is uniquely her own, minimalist, overly detached yet utterly existential to the core, while capturing a female-centric point of view, opening doors, creating new understandings, privileging audiences to an entirely new way of seeing things cinematically. Much of this film parallels Monica Vitti’s psychological descent in Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), where the modern industrial landscape has created internalized emotional fissures, becoming a subjective study of environmental female alienation, yet Akerman’s overly detached film aesthetic couldn’t be more radically different. Anna’s female character always appears to be trapped in a box, where she’s fighting for a way out, but finds herself in the same enclosed spaces for the duration of the film, where there is no escape, no exit, no release from the oppressive environment that leaves her feeling suffocated. Unlike Hollywood idealizations, marriage is not the answer here, and is instead avoided at every stage, as that’s part of the patriarchal trap that leaves women serving out lives of domestic servitude. Understanding Anna’s aversion to marriage helps one understand the predicament she finds herself in, as she seeks a different alternative, yet remains unaware of a solution, leaving her life in a state of flux.
Anna is introduced in a fixed tableau shot of a crowded railway platform in Germany, yet everyone else quickly disappears while she makes a call in an enclosed telephone booth, and is then seen carrying her everpresent bag that she lugs around everywhere. As she registers at the hotel, she is informed by the desk clerk that her mother has left a message, leaving her perplexed how she figured out where she would be. Making a call to Italy, she is informed there will be a two-hour wait, leaving her plenty of time to open the wall of windows only to reveal the everpresent sound of screeching trains nearby. Escorted to a nearby theater for a screening, both the entrance and exit from the theater have dramatically pronounced doorways, leaving with someone she apparently just met, retreating to a nearby bar before they walk back to her hotel where sex is quickly initiated, but she then calls it off, nakedly instructing the gentleman to “get dressed,” literally dousing his expectations, clearly showing signs of being hurt. Wearing no underwear, brassiere or panties, she proudly displays her nakedness, yet there isn’t an ounce of sensuality on display. Nonetheless he invites her to his daughter’s fifth birthday party at his home on the outskirts of town the next afternoon, a German school teacher spending nearly the entire time talking endlessly about the instability of his own life in a long monologue revealing thoughts that may reflect the defeated aftermath of war, where home and motherhood are viewed as catastrophic events, as his wife left him, while he thought they were happy, never realizing there was anything wrong, followed by the loss of a best friend who moved away, now living a life of acute loneliness (perhaps explaining why he connects with her films), yet they are surrounded by a spacious green yard with flowers and a garden, where despite the crisp beauty of the wintry landscape, there is a chill in the air, revealing a devastating portrait of German alienation and discontent which she politely yet passively listens to, fading into the landscape as she departs. She unexpectedly meets Ida at the train station in Cologne, a close friend of her mothers, both living in Brussels, but now Ida has returned home to Germany with her family, yet berates Anna for breaking off her engagement with her son not once, but twice, claiming that sort of thing just isn’t done. Mirroring that sequence, she meets her own mother at a railway station in Brussels, choosing to spend the night in a nearby hotel, sleeping side by side in the same bed, with Anna completely naked, revealing the story of her first sexual encounter with an Italian girl at a hotel, which evoked memories of her mother, where the intimate familiarity between them is positively stunning, ending with a warning to be sure not to mention this to her father, Chantal Akerman Les rendez vous d'Anna 1978 YouTube (6:09). It’s no accident that a shared lesbian affair mirrors a mother and daughter sharing the same bed, becoming a pivotal scene in revealing the structural emphasis of the film. By the time she returns to Paris, she is met in a car by Daniel, driving in circles until they find a hotel, where she strips naked, but he chats endlessly about his own personal troubles, despite a very successful business career, where he seems married to the job and not to her, leaving him depleted and utterly exhausted, another long monologue of personal discontent, where she sings an Edith Piaf song to try to cheer him up, Les Amants d’un Jour (Lovers for a Day), a charming little song about a couple that commits suicide, where the subject matter, tenderly sung, couldn’t be more bleak and dispiriting, Les rendez-vous d'Anna - Singing Scene (eng sub) YouTube (4:27), standing next to a turned on television with no picture, adding an element of gloom into the picture. By the time she gets home, however, lying in bed listening to her phone messages, including a voice of continual frustration and despair from her Italian lover who hasn’t been able to reach her for days, she remains in a state of emotional paralysis and couldn’t be more disconnected with the world around her.
Putting things in perspective, other films released the same year would include Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Hal Ashby’s COMING HOME, Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER, Ermanno Olmi’s THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS, Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman’s collaboration in Bergman, Two from the 70's: Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten), John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, Robert Altman’s A Wedding, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden), where women figure prominently in every single one, yet none radically redefine a woman’s role in cinema to the extent of this film, which has no commercial aspirations, conveying the same personal detachment of a documentary film, ultimately becoming a cinematic essay on the changing role of women. While Akerman is a master of the tracking shot, where her film D'Est (1993) may be the greatest use of the aesthetic, yet it’s also evident here as the camera peers out the windows of moving trains or cars, revealing an industrial wasteland that is a German eyesore, but also a long montage of Parisian store windows at night, shifting from interior to exterior views, Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978) YouTube (3:13), creating an observational perspective for viewers, who adapt to the challenge by pensively investigating more closely, yet the distinguishing feature here is the tableau shot, a fixed camera vantage point, where one marvels at all the different ways Clément is framed in symmetrical compositions that resemble architectural lines, a technique also shared by Antonioni, Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978) YouTube (51 seconds). In this way, viewers identify the subject through the spaces she passes through, doors, windows, hotel lobbies, telephone booths, or non-descript hotel rooms, where the meticulous precision with the way the film is shot offers a window into her interior world, particularly when those shots are extended, revealing plenty of empty space that the characters never fill, always feeling engulfed by the largesse of the surrounding landscape. Akerman defies the voyeuristic tendency of cinema to beautify the imagery (breaking from Antonioni), even at the expense of alienating viewers, and instead uses a psychological device to best express her views on how women are trapped by a patriarchal society that sets the rules. Each and every act that we see from Anna breaks from the familiar pattern of what’s expected in cinema, which requires a different means of evaluating her art, which certainly wasn’t done at the time this film was made, where it was viewed as a critical failure, even labeled self-indulgent, never rising to the stature achieved by JEANNE DIELMAN, always living in the shadow of that film. But this film may actually go further, having already established feminist grounds, now challenging the idea of what constitutes a successful woman. If not marriage, and if not a successful career, then just what is considered grounds for a women’s personal happiness and success? That is the subject of this film, female empowerment and the changing female identity, a theme dominating her works for decades, where her films represent an uncompromising and exhaustive search for answers. Unfortunately, she died from an apparent suicide, suggesting she may never have found peace, yet this film is a powerful example of just how skewed the landscape is against any radical restructuring of a woman’s role in society, while confronting her own lesbian sexuality from a distance, bathed in extraordinary solitude and loneliness whether alone or in the presence of others. Women may educate themselves and change their outlook, solidifying how they view themselves, placing themselves in positions of independence and empowerment, yet the entrenched patriarchal customs and habits around the world remain stubbornly unchanged, unwilling to share power or even recognize women as anything close to equal value.