This is a blog written last year (for Women’s Film and Television History Network), on the first screening of Akerman’s last film and its accompanying exhibition. Although the exhibition has finished, I hope this captures an idea of these intense films as the moving and powerful No Home Movie is released in the U.K.
The two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, curated by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts under the title A Nos Amours, had its last screening on Friday 30th October (2015) at the Regent Street Cinema, with her latest film No Home Movie (2015). Following Akerman’s recent tragic death, there was still a palpable sense of shock, and an appropriately emotional and dignified introduction was given by Akerman’s long-term collaborator and editor, Claire Atherton. She has been in London for the last fortnight helping to curate the NOW exhibition, the first complete showing of some of Akerman’s installation works, which is at Ambika P3, a gallery space at the University of Westminster (exhibited until 6th December 2015). Both the film and Akerman’s installation work are simultaneously revelatory and quintessentially Akerman and demand to be seen. Below, are some brief, first impressions.
The large, light space has been converted into something very subterranean and dark to suit the films’ projection and their emotion. In a mixture of single films, often with an audio commentary, and multi-screen installations, there is no single dimension, and the choices made in this report are idiosyncratic ones. In a piece entitled Maniac Summer (2009), a large-screen projects images including Akerman working in her flat, families playing outside in a park and a street scene. Along a perpendicular wall, the images appear to dissolve and deteriorate, turn to black and white, and, on the facing wall, coalesce into abstraction. Staying within that room over an extended period brings a shift in perception of time and space and a move beyond observing simple juxtapositions, and, in a very Akerman-like manner, the sheer intensity (if given time) breaks through to something much more experiential. The accompanying notes suggest this work fits with her commitment to exploring the legacy of the Holocaust: “looking for, and finding, traces, shadows, remnants” since, given the continent’s recent history: “what else should a European be sensible of?”. Her mother grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and in the work D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), a room is filled with rows of televisions, divided into groups of three, showing footage from Akerman’s journey across Eastern Europe. The filmmaker voices a poetic monologue in an accompanying video, about a journey through a history that no longer has a capital H.
The daughter’s relationship with the mother is everywhere in this exhibition as it is in No Home Movie (2015). During Maniac Shadows (2013), their outlines move across the beach – together and apart. Elsewhere, Akerman on screen, with the merest backlight highlighting her figure, reads from a memoir about her mother’s failing health. Her trademark warm, throaty, strongly-accented voice (pervading the whole exhibition) contributes to this piece’s emotion. And, as Akerman’s work has been concerned with many forms of grief, so this exhibition itself has become a site of loss, vividly representing her simultaneous presence and her absence.
Akerman’s mother passed away last year, and she is the central figure of No Home Movie, which also includes Akerman’s sister, Sylviane (who attended both the screening and the exhibition). Scenes capture aspects of family life with their ailing mother in her Belgian flat very realistically, with flashes of extremely relatable family tension between them. Abstract sequences from Akerman’s filmmaking travels punctuate the motionless camera witnessing daily rhythms inside the flat. Maman moves in and out of shot as does Akerman and also the home helpers; we watch the domestic routine – of course, this reminds us of Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there are also echoes, here, of the relationship of News from Home (1976-7). We hear her mother’s rhythmic throat noise, an effect of old age but musical, comforting and quickly familiar. Akerman commands a multiplicity of tones: abstract, intimate, contemplative and dryly humorous. As J Hoberman says in a quote at Ambika P3, “Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation”. I would like to finish with another stolen phrase from a young woman who sat next to me and cried many times during the film. She said it had shown her the dignity of being human. If only Akerman had been there, as planned, to hear the comments and sustained applause that greeted the final credits.
Ich seh, Ich seh finally arrives in the UK as Goodnight Mommy after opening at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and getting a release in several major territories in 2015. It hasn’t got much of a UK release (25 screens) with little promotion that I’ve seen from Vertigo. Yet, here is a beautifully-crafted film which surely has the potential to be a cult success. Its problem, perhaps, is a visual aesthetic that suggests art cinema and a number of narrative devices and generic tropes that suggest horror or psychological thriller. Inevitably, because it is Austrian, critics have made references to Michael Haneke and to potential metaphors about a Nazi past – possibly because the opening includes a colour film extract from what might be footage of the Von Trapp family singers. More importantly though, the film is produced by the other Austrian auteur, Ulrich Seidl and the co-directors and co-writers are Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz – Seidl’s nephew and partner. Franz has worked on Seidl’s films such as Import/Export (Austria 2007) and the Paradise trilogy (Austria 2012-13). Already it is clear that some horror fans are delighted with the film and others dismiss it – and at the same time, some audiences have problems with the clinical presentation. John Patterson in the Guardian uses The Babadook (Australia 2014) as a reference point – I’m not sure the tone of the two films is similar, but certainly there are some elements that are shared.
Outline (No spoilers)
The film relies on audience interpretations, playing with ‘reveals’ of narrative information – so many of the reviews risk spoiling the narrative. I’ll simply describe some of the things we see. Two boys of around 10 years old are playing in the countryside. Lukas and Elias are near identical twins, although one appears slightly smaller/skinnier than the other. They eventually return to a modern and stylish house on the edge of the forest. Their mother has her face heavily bandaged as if she has had cosmetic surgery or has been in an accident. She seems to treat the boys quite coldly with firm discipline. The boys react with disobedience and they begin to suspect that this woman is not their mother or that she has changed. A narrative of conflict develops. The film has only a few other marginal characters who visit the house and the boys take a trip into the nearest town, otherwise the action is confined to the house, the forest and the surrounding countryside. There is a resolution to the conflict and, in narrative terms, the film is a generic horror film/psychological thriller with possible narrative twists.
For me, the film draws on several classical tales and some well-known horror films. The scenario is in some ways reminiscent of The Others (Spain/US 2001)/The Innocents with a mother figure and children. The physical resemblance between the boys did confuse me and the fact that they are blond, ‘pretty’, intelligent and athletic/strong made me think of the Village of the Damned (UK 1961). When they wore home-made masks I thought about the out of control boys in Lord of the Flies. None of these film references imply anything beyond the fact that the visual style creates an atmosphere, a tone that is unsettling and that the presence of children in a scenario like this can easily shift from the domestic to the disturbing. I’m not sure about the suggested metaphors about Austria’s past, but certain images – of the forest, hide and seek in a field of maze, burning stubble after harvesting wheat (is burning stubble allowed in Austria?), a deserted town street, a dark lake etc. – do have a sense of foreboding or at least a hint of something that could go wrong. It is the expert handling of these images and the creation of ‘disturbance’ that works so well in the film. Later the conflict between the mother and the boys intensifies and becomes violent. I watched one sequence through my fingers because I’m squeamish, but I didn’t find the violence to be gratuitous.
I admired the film for both its craftsmanship and its creativity but I’m still not sure about its narrative. I was still puzzling over what might have happened hours later. There is already a complex internet discourse about what actually happens in the narrative and what is implied as having happened earlier. I would recommend the film and I wish it was getting more exposure.
In the UK we’ve got used to 12 new film releases each week (600-700 per year) and to have cinema screens easily accessible in most cities and large towns. It’s quite a shock to be in Croatia and to discover that only the largest centres have cinemas and that these rarely open during the day.
Croatia has a population of 4.3 million and in 2014 the country’s 59 cinemas (153 screens in 2013) had less than 4 million admissions. The number of cinema visits per head is thus usually less than one per year. The comparable figure in the European countries with the highest admissions rates, in France, UK, Ireland and Iceland, is 2 to 3 per year or more.
In Split, Croatia’s second city with a population of over 220,000, there are two modern multiplexes in shopping malls and one older cinema in the tourist area. Split is lucky to also have two art cinemas but one seems to be ‘part time’ and the other has a single screen – the Kinoteka (see above) is an important part of the city’s cultural offer. But both the art cinemas and the multiplexes need more promotion to create a higher profile. It took a long time to find the two cinemas nearest to the tourist centre in the old town and when we did find them there was very little ‘point of sale’ information. If you didn’t know the cinemas were there you wouldn’t stumble across them. On the other hand, the newspaper on sale in Dalmatia – coastal Croatia – does list the main cinemas, something many UK papers have stopped doing. These cinemas also seem to only programme evening screenings. The earliest shows I could find were some ‘family shows’ at 15.00 but most were only at 17.00 or 19.00 and then later.
Most of the commercial offerings are Hollywood films subtitled, I presume, for local audiences but there are also some examples of local films and this is the norm for the country according to the Film New Europe website profile. In 2014 there were 169 films released in Croatia including seven local productions. The Film New Europe profile alongside those from Cineuropa and aspects of European AudioVisual Observatory reports suggest that the Croation government have supported the industry in various ways helping with installation of digital projection and offering support to productions, cinemas and festivals. There are twelve Croatian cinemas listed in the Europa Cinemas Network. These are all cinemas with some kind of commitment to ‘cultural cinema’ and will be expected to show European films as part of their programming. The Kinoteka in Split is one of these. My research suggests that there are several municipally-owned cinemas in the country and the film festivals in Split do, I think, receive public support. (With my usual bad luck I missed the latest festival in Split by a few days.)
My comments above are not intended as negative criticism of the cinemas or Croatian film policy. I’m interested in different approaches to film across Europe. My impression (as a tourist) is that Croatia still maintains an interest in European art cinema like other parts of the former Yugoslavia but that popular cinema doesn’t have the same appeal as in some other European countries. I was interested to see that the newspaper listings of films on TV gave the director’s name – something that again UK newspapers tend not to do routinely. The difference between the UK and Croatia is also noticeable in terms of ‘holiday viewing’. In North America the summer is the longest major season of blockbuster cinema and audiences flock to see the big films in air-conditioned cinemas open from mid morning. In the UK we’ve been more or less forced to follow suit but ironically when the sun comes out we tend to want to stay outside. In Southern Europe and especially in Italy, the summer was the worst season for big films until the new multiplexes with air-conditioning appeared as an alternative to outdoor evening screenings. In the UK, seaside holiday resorts have always tried to exploit the seasonal ‘captive audience’ and because of the unpredictable British weather cinemas have prospered with matinees on wet days. This is where I most felt the lack in Croatia – a wet day with little to do and no cinema within 20 kms – and then with no matinee showings.
It would be good to hear from readers about their holiday destinations and their impressions of local film culture. I really liked everything about Croatia – except the lack of opportunity to see films! The Number 1 film in Croatia last week was Labirint: Kroz spaljenu zemlju – Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. In Split I could have chosen between Catherine Deneuve in the Demy and Emily Blunt in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which doesn’t open in the UK until October 8th.
As Rona said after the screening: “This will divide audiences”. I agree but it’s interesting to conjecture why. On the one hand, the film’s references are very obscure if you are a) under 45, b) not interested in European exploitation films c) unaware of what happens in D/S relationships. On the other hand, most intelligent audiences will recognise that this film is a) beautifully made and b) a humanist love story. My hat is off to all concerned from writer/director Peter Strickland to the ‘human toilet consultant’ listed in the credits and everyone else in between.
It helps if you have seen Strickland’s two previous remarkable films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio. The former was made in Hungary – and so is this new film. The latter was an attempt to explore the giallo, the Italian exploitation genre best-known in the UK via the 1970s works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The Duke of Burgundy riffs instead on the 1970s sexploitation films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. If you don’t know these filmmakers I recommend Kim Newman’s Sight and Sound review.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a (rare, English) butterfly and the study of insects is the only public activity in the strange community invented by Strickland – a community existing in a 1970s ‘mittel-Europe’ and made up solely of adult women. In this sense the relationships are not ‘lesbian’ as defined in majority heterosexual communities since all relationships are between women. The relationship at the centre of the narrative is between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Fifty Shades of Grey has recently attracted huge audiences. I haven’t seen it, but from what I read in reviews, it doesn’t understand domination/submission in sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy gets it right. Evelyn the submissive is the real controller in this loving relationship and Cynthia tries to do what she asks until the ‘human condition’ becomes apparent and Cynthia develops a bad back. La bella Sidse proves to be a real trouper as Cynthia, wearing fetish gear that seems ugly to me but which supposedly does something for Evelyn. She has to appear as both the authority figure ‘dominant’ and the frump in comfy pyjamas and she does it movingly. Unfortunately, her English, though beautifully enunciated, occasionally has the wrong pitch or intonation. Where that worked for the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, speaking English as part of international diplomacy, here only the slightest nuance is noticeable in the delicate soundscape. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m being hyper-critical?
In the UK the film has been given an 18 certificate and the BBFC ‘advice’ shown before the screening explains that this because of its ‘sexual fetish theme’. I can only assume that there is some kind of ‘health and safety’ warning implied here, perhaps concerning bondage. There is no explicit sexual activity on screen and ‘no nudity’. Despite what some reviewers imply, this is not an S&M relationship and the sexual ‘play’ is mostly off-screen. Does this mean the film isn’t erotic? Not really, much of the pleasure/arousal associated with D/S comes from the dialogue between the partners and the acting out of the assigned roles. I certainly found some scenes erotic. But the film is also very funny at times and raucous laughter emanated from the back of the cinema when some members of the audience clearly recognised the scenarios. It’s the humour that makes the film for me – or rather the delicate balance that Strickland and his collaborators achieve between eroticism, moments of humour, social observation and the emotional intensity of a genuine loving relationship.
It’s important to recognise the collaborators. Nic Knowland the cinematographer has vast experience, much of it in television and since he was working in the 1970s he certainly knows how to recreate the look. Several of the creative team have worked with Strickland before on Berberian Sound Studio and on international film and TV productions using Hungarian facilities. The music by Cat’s Eyes is excellent and evokes atmosphere well. Listen to extracts here. Overall, the look and ‘feel’ of the film reminded me of Nic Roeg’s work with a film like Don’t Look Now from 1973.
Peter Strickland’s films aren’t for everyone, but he is a unique talent to be nurtured and appreciated. Here’s a clip from The Duke of Burgundy: