31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

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Three excuses for the inexcusable delay:
1) It’s easier to be doing this when unemployed than when employed.
2) The Philadelphia Film Festival.
3) These films are blowing my mind. I am prepared to say that women on average make more consistently good and more provocative films than men. There’s so much I want to put down in these reviews, I can’t do it so quickly. So I will be extending this project into November. Also, while I promise you will hear my thoughts on all 31 films, the order I will publish them in will correspond not with my film schedule but rather with my whims and preferences.

Fame did not change Chantal Akerman. She got the attention of cinephiles everywhere with her radical experiment Jeanne Dielman (1975). She could have stepped up her game, scored a higher budget, made something even more ambitious—a dream project, perhaps. Nope. Her following work of fiction, Les Rendezvous d’Anna (’78), is simpler, not as challenging as, yet somehow more austere than Dielman—notwithstanding the name continental cast, and the themes of what it means to achieve fame as an artist, and what comes after. Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) is a filmmaker touring her latest film across Western Europe. She stays in well-off hotels, gives press interviews, has little trouble bringing men to her bed, and has friends, family and colleagues rather eager to have her as company. There is little doubt she is a thinly veiled Akerman promoting Dielman.

But there is no glitz to Anna’s fame. At 28, Akerman had already developed her signature motifs: immense long takes, voids of silence and of monologue, as few characters as possible, a Spartan narrative thread consumed by quotidian tasks and prolix travelling, a deep and genuine concern with base physical needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and an effectively stealthy feminism. We have a few scenes with a few actors to establish the exposition that Anna is an auteur of some esteem. That’s it. There is no ostentation to Anna’s/Akerman’s place in the world of cinema. There are merely tedious sojourns in the posh hotels and restaurants of urban Germany, Belgium and France, punctuated by tedious train and car rides, which it is not uncommon for Anna to spend sitting or lying around, eating, passively listening to whatever the hell the person she’s with is saying, sleeping, staving off sleep, waiting for something—anything—to happen. This is a filmmaker committed to her artistic vision, giving minimal thought to the demands that fame may place on it.

I know of no other filmmaker who depicts waiting—as a process, as a discipline, as an existential state—as well as Akerman. It’s been said and written that she impels her audience to feel time. I half-agree. Dielman clocks in at 3 1/3 hours, yet I can’t say I feel that much time go by as I watch that film (one of my all-time favorites), as time is folded in and made watchable by the domestic chores that set Dielman’s routine, and anyone who’s been through childhood can relate to some degree of necessary domestic duty. In her forty-five-year career, Akerman never made another film even close to that running time. Anna is a standard two hours, yet it is much more languid because of the energy that Anna expends on waiting—waiting to arrive at her destination, waiting for the next errand in her itinerary, waiting for whoever she’s with to shut the fuck up already. As the scope of her filmic projects contracts back to normal, Akerman demands reciprocity and asks her viewers to increase their patience. The shorter the film, the less that happens, of course. Granted, the soliloquies of the peripheral figures that Anna encounters on her travels are not as memorable nor as provocative as those few present in Dielman and in this auteur’s other early masterpiece Je Tu Il Elle. So Anna is a notch down from those efforts—and it is not surprising that critics expecting a match of or an improvement on Dielman’s galvanism (unlikely) were disappointed. The film’s thematic core nonetheless remains valid and poignant. The cult success of one project and the good graces of critics do not, nor should they, assuage Anna/Akerman of the burden of creating more and at-least-as-good art, of staying truthful to one’s aesthetic instincts, and of taking inspiration from real life—even when that may entail listening to someone in your proximity spin a near-insufferable yarn on family troubles and toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I ought to write that I know of no filmmaker who handles time and temporality—and, by extension, space and environment—as well as Akerman, not least for her acute understanding of making and viewing cinema as a time-consuming process, a perpetual self-enhancing feedback loop. That is a more confident statement. Watching her films on Hulu, lights off, snuggled up in my easy chair with laptop and headphones, I find it effortless to plunge into her intimate universe of narrow train corridors squeezed between windows and berths, of familiar hotel rooms and flats providing serene urban views and almost all needed amenities, of train stations and cars cutting modern forms and sharp neon æthers through dusky autobahns of steel and tarmac. (Jean Penzer is the cameraman responsible for this.) The ubiquity of windows and the areas observed beyond them steers us towards a meta-filmic commentary. Anna/Akerman here is the filmmaker as audience, seeing and hearing for ideas and signs of a new story to transmit through her calculated vessel-like self to the cineaste public.

Further, Anna’s/Akerman’s passive, quasi-gendered, ironic silence—comparable to Liv Ullmann’s selectively mute actress in Persona—points to the artist’s struggle to speak through film, or better yet to speak beyond and outside of film. If film is Anna’s/Akerman’s main means of subsistence and communication (which it is), then what does it say about ourselves and our increasingly tech-obsessed and tech-dependent society if we can only live and talk through technological media and membranes? To what extent are they a protective raincoat shielding us from our insecurities? Fame and privilege, travel and sightseeing have not alleviated Anna of her steely interiority—which the film adroitly reflects—and Clément’s enigmatic submission to the top-down wheel-spinning she is subjected to, by people and place alike, is a fitting complement for Akerman, a vulnerable and fearless artist who appears nude and has sex with man and woman in Je Tu Il Elle. The great final scene shows Anna at home, in bed, trying and failing to relax, listening to an answering machine full of friends and colleagues demanding further travel plans. Forever she will face down an audience full of wannabe storytellers who want her to tell the stories they want to be told—perhaps their stories—as opposed to her stories. For her and Akerman, there is no escape from the house of cinema. Ultimately, though, it is Akerman who has decided what stories to tell, and how she will tell them.

(I almost take it as a sign of approval from God—for this 31 Days of Female Cinema project, that is—that without realizing it, I slated myself to watch this—and watched it—on October 5, the first anniversary of Akerman’s death by suicide. She was a great auteur, one of The Greats, and I am only more eager to explore her back catalogue. That said, my advice for Akerman virgins is to start with Dielman, and don’t be intimidated by the running time.)

Grade: B+

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

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My thoughts on Monsoon Wedding are imminent. I’d like to tell you about this film first.

For most LGBTQ persons today and before, the processes of coming of age and coming out are one and the same. Our current educational paradigm gives disproportionate representation to heterosexuals and straight romances (among other dominating demographics) insofar as to make the very concept of homosexuality an unknown-unknown for most children—so that if a same-sex attraction arises in puberty and post-, it comes as a shock, and seems like a total anomaly. “I thought I was the only one,” is a common refrain in the community. I connect with this because my Asperger’s made me gullible to teachers who associated teenage sex with STDs, pregnancies and general pauperism. I kid you not: I thought I was the only one who masturbated. Literally. The only one. So while most of my peers were either calling bullshit on the system and going their own way (more mature) or rebelling against authority out of spite (less mature), I was only starting to get in touch with myself as a sexual being, just as most homosexuals have to go through an M.O. to get in touch with themselves as homosexual beings. This is why I think I feel particularly strongly about justice and equality for LGBTQ persons. (When I first learned about what homosexuality was, I took for granted that gay men and lesbians could get married anyplace just like straight folks. I did not grasp the revolutionary quality of same-sex marriage until years later.) Yet, it is not enough for us to merely coagulate fictional stories with gay, bi and trans characters. We must give them agency and make them as enigmatic and morally complicated as the best-drawn straight characters—because, of course, they don’t have to be nice for straight audiences—without falling for the stereotypes with which we’ve been conditioned. We must normalize homosexuality so it does not have to be foregrounded, so that it could in some cases be for granted.

Because its two principal characters are lesbian lovers, The Summer of Sangailé has been billed as a primarily lesbian film, and as a weaker Baltic variation on Blue is the Warmest Color. Both labels are unfair. For one, the comparison to Blue is off. Sangailé is half the running time, and where Blue’s camera was handheld and roving, Sangailé is told in the longish, demure, delicately constructed static shots that have become standard in European cinema in the age of Haneke. Sangailé is also the more elliptical film—and, in that way, maybe even the more ambitious and experimental—to the extent that I am not ready to declare that the title character is learning about her lesbianism for the first time during this story. I think the odds are greater that she is settled on being Sapphic, and is merely encountering her first serious adult romance—with a girl selling raffle tickets at an air show. Early on, we see a POV shot of Sangailé (Julija Steponaityte) checking out a girl’s derriere as she strips to swimwear. She later spots said girl humping a guy in the grass, and from her poker face, we get an aura of…well, it’s so nuanced, it’s anyone’s guess. Disappointment at getting interested in yet another girl who turned out straight? Desire for the type of genital pleasure that straight people seem to obtain so much more easily? I’d bet on both. She does have sex with a guy, in the back of a car—but there, a POV shot implies that she derives more rapturous pleasure from the electricity flooding her from the nearby transmission tower than from the penis. (Also, memo to my fellow straights: sexuality is much more protean than you know. I’ve known lesbians who’ve had sex with men, and who are adamantly not bisexual. Because really, what is a penis to a woman but a dildo with a pulse?) The scene of her breakup from him is a smash cut to the same electricity station. She says, “No hard feelings.” He says, “See you,” gets in his car, and drives off bitter, leaving her with her bicycle. It’s so quick, you know it before you register it.

The elisions and caesurae that muddy Sangailé’s sexuality refocus the film on what turns out as its central story. Sangailé has an inclination to become a stunt pilot, but she has two things impeding that: vertigo, and a faint suicidal tendency—she’s self-alienated, estranged from her parents in their own home, and she has a habit of cutting her arms. What makes this film arresting is how those two conflicts play off each other as opposed to how they obstruct her career aspirations. Does she merely want to overcome vertigo so that she can die the epic plane crash death? Can she trust herself to go up into the air without wanting to crash? Is the vertigo a survival instinct that she depends on to live—a contrast to her cutting that brings the life force out from the death force cocoon? Alanté Kavaïte’s direction, Dominique Colin’s camera work, and Joëlle Hache’s editing blend with nary a seam to create startling motifs and counterpoints that reflect Sangailé’s turbulent inner world. Pensive crane shots looking down on urban landscapes from the airplane’s vantage point mirror awestruck angles on high houses, buildings and trees. The former tends towards dizziness, the latter towards stability; Sangailé’s ideal life in the skies remains infected by gnawing acrophobia as the earth remains secure. She must work her way up. Her bedroom is the top loft of her house, her bed perched against the railing over the stairs in an act of Mithridatic defiance. The flat of her art photographer girlfriend Austé (Aisté Dirziüté) is on the top story of her complex. These narrative choices are deliberate; the film’s sense of environment is acute and precise. Where Sangailé is not yet ready to board the plane, cranes and bridges and towers of zigzagging steel beams give her opportunity to practice, while swirls of flower buds and cupcake icing and tulle skirts keep her reminded of the smoke plumes emitted in a barrel roll.

This is an auspicious debut for Kavaité and for all involved, and a criminally underrated one. The critics’ maligning of it as mediocre in the face of the Blue behemoth is mistaken, and I suspect it comes from the notion that if the story were a straight and sterile romance, it wouldn’t receive half the film festival attention it did. (The most grabbing aspect of the film, to me, is that it’s Lithuanian. What do you know about Lithuanian cinema?) A straight story would be a different story. Sangailé and Austé’s romance is organic and invigorating; the sex they have is plausible and filmed purely to convey the rare peace Sangailé gains through it; and where a lesser filmmaker would have tritely paralleled Sangailé’s sexual awakening with her overcoming her vertigo, Kavaité perceives the two as separate if linked. One develops faster than the other. Her falling in love is a stepping stone, if anything, to her being able to fly a plane. This makes for a character with more dimensions. To her, Austé is served as a fascinating foil: a teen-at-heart steeped in fastidious chic, her apartment decked with fabrics, fur, miniatures, mirrors, fashions that she has Sangailé model, and a turntable that acts as a pivot for one of the film’s most evocative shots—where Sangailé’s living space and personality are austere, bare-boned, dry, yet refined and pragmatic. Does Austé help Sangailé realize her potential as a stunt pilot, as the love interest is wont to do in films such as these? Yes, you can count on that—not in the clichéd ways you’d expect to the genre, but rather in unique and uncanny ways that fit Austé’s character, and that don’t always succeed. (Watch her smart, unsentimental reaction to Sangailé’s cutting habit.) This is not a mill-product Sapphic paperback; this is a keen film rich with detail, subtlety and texture. Its best shot—a cloudy sky, which is actually its reflection in a pond—is its most quintessential. Watch this film with care.

Grade: A

31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

31 Days of Cinema 2.0: Women Filmmakers

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At some point, every living film buff needs to sit down and ask him or herself a question: How many women filmmakers can I name off the top of my head, right now? How many films by those women filmmakers have I seen? Of the films I’ve seen, how many pass the Bechdel test, or the Mako Mori test? Enough films? Replace “women” with some other demographic—people of color, LGBTQIA, neuro-atypical—and the questions become even harder, if still possible, to answer. If you click the white-on-steel-blue “W” below the banner that spells out this blog’s name, you’ll be linked to my bio page. (If someone could get in touch and tell me how to turn that “W” into “About [Me]”, which I know is doable, that’d be great. Bio pages shouldn’t have to be goddamn Easter eggs.) I’ve included on that page, for your interest, my current twenty all-time favorite films. A whopping two of them are directed by women. Two. I need to do something about that. So I’m going to.

Last year July, my 31 Days of Cinema challenge got this blog its highest readership yet. This January, I did the same thing with 31 other films in private, without publicizing it online, to see if lightning could strike twice. It did, and I discovered another slew of masterpieces. This October, I’m doing it again, but this time with a theme. Whereas in the previous challenges I made sure I watched one female auteur a week, this month, all of the films will be female-directed. (I’m permitting two co-directed by men.) It’s a curious time to be embarking on something like this. Chances are, this month will build up to America electing its first female president—either that, or we’re giving the nuclear codes to one of the most craven misogynistic bastards in all of American politics. (And a likely amphetamine abuser.) The feminism in the air is propulsive. I polled my Facebook friends to see which project they’d be more interested in: 31 Days of Female-Directed Cinema, or 31 Days of Horror, of course leading up to Halloween. I guessed the wantonness of watching thirty-one horror films consecutively would gain much morbid curiosity. I was wrong: Women received twice as many votes. Democracy in action. So be it.

I compiled my list with rules similar to my prior 31 Days effort: all major continental regions of the world must be represented; all decades since the ’60s must be represented; no country gets more than one film, exceptions allowed for international co-productions; and I must be on my first full viewing of every film. The difficulty I encountered in curating these films was massive, not least because it was twofold. First, I had to do an inordinate amount of research to learn about enough female filmmakers to give me the breadth and diversity that I wanted; and second, I had to narrow down the wealth of discoveries I’d made to a digestible collection of two and a half dozen plus one. And I had to double-check that they were all handily available—read: online. Even now when I’m committing to this, I’m doing so with some trepidation, as any day now, all films being streamed online by the Criterion Collection (without whom such a project would be incomprehensible) will be leaving Hulu and heading to their own domain, a site called Filmstruck that remains shrouded in secrecy. So sometime during what is sure to be a curious and volatile month in more ways than one, this frugal film critic might have to get a new premium subscription. Okay, time to shut up. On with the films:

Oct. 1: Monsoon Wedding (2001, dir. Mira Nair, India)
In with a bang!

Oct. 2: Summer of Sangailé (2015, dir. Alanté Kavaïté, Lithuania)
The Lithuanian Blue is the Warmest Color, or so I’ve read. The critical consensus is that it’s weaker, but right now, I’m very much impelled to curve the critics’ ratings, given the implicit bias against women. Also, this is the first film I’ve heard of to come out of freaking Lithuania!

Oct. 3: An Angel at My Table (1990, dir. Jane Campion, New Zealand)
Campion, best known for The Piano, is probably the most famous filmmaker to emerge from the first nation to give women the right to vote. (There’s also Niki Caro.) This is an epic biopic of Kiwi literary titan Janet Frame, and boasts a pre-Shallow Grave Kerry Fox.

Oct. 4: The Night of Truth (2004, dir. Fanta Régina Nacro, Burkina Faso)
I wrote last year that African cinema is underdeveloped. I was gravely mistaken: turns out, Nigeria’s Lollywood produces enough artistic output to rival the two major film industries that rhyme with it; and Egypt, Senegal and South Africa possess some of the world’s most vibrant filmic voices. The channels by which African cinema may reach the West—surely, those are underdeveloped. And African women’s cinema? Grossly underdeveloped. You can imagine my joy when I found this film online—not to mention, when I found a second African women’s film just as readily watchable.

Oct. 5: Les Rendezvous d’Anna (1978, dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
No way in hell this list is complete without an Akerman. No way.

Oct. 6: The Lesson (2014, dir. Kristina Grozeva [with Petar Valcharov], Bulgaria)
Freaking BULGARIA!

Oct. 7: Ascent (1977, dir. Larisa Shepitko, Russia)
Classic. Shepitko was the wife of Elem Klimov, whose Come and See I currently rank as the greatest war film. If women make better filmmakers, will this outstrip even that? (Maybe you can tell by now I’m trying to get all the Hulu/Criterion picks out of the way early.)

Oct. 8: Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989, dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany/France)
Ottinger’s dialogue-less Ticket of No Return (’79) comes championed by none other than Richard Linklater, and would have made this list were it not for another German film I’m dying to see. This film, an epic feminist-fantasy-comedy-history mishmash, looks intriguingly batshit. Notably, this was Delphine Seyrig’s final film.

Oct. 9: Boys Don’t Cry (1999, dir. Kimberly Peirce, U.S.)
Hilary Swank. ‘Nuff said.

Oct. 10: Sepet (2004, dir. Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia)
MALAYSIA!

Oct. 11: Vagabond (1984, dir. Agnès Varda, France)
I consider Varda as mandatory for this list as Akerman. How fortunate that as I write this, Reverse Shot—one of my go-to film websites—is doing a retrospective on her work.

Oct. 12: Zero Motivation (2014, dir. Talya Lavie, Israel)
By most accounts, the Israeli woman’s answer to Zero for Conduct. Huge box office success in its homeland. Seriously looking forward to this one.

Oct. 13: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975, Margarethe von Trotta [with Volker Schlöndorff], Germany)
Based on, and filmed in tandem with the writing of, the novel by Heinrich Böll, one of the few novels that I’ve read in one day, and one of the few novels to have become even timelier in the Internet age.

Oct. 14: In Darkness (2011, dir. Agnieszka Holland, Poland)
Holland is another mandatory one. This is a true Holocaust-set story about a band of Polish Jews whose plan to survive involves hiding in the sewer.

Oct. 15: After the Wedding (2006, dir. Susanne Bier, Denmark)
Confession: I have a weakness for weddings. Bier, also known for Brothers and In a Better World (an Oscar-winner, albeit a weak one, from what I’ve heard), is Denmark’s most famous female auteur, her biggest competition being Dogme 95 icon Lone Scherfig.

Oct. 16: The Silences of the Palace (1994, dir. Moufida Tlatli, Tunisia)
The Middle East’s first major female cinematic voice.

Oct. 17: Sugar Cane Alley (1983, dir. Euzhan Palcy, Martinique)
MARTINIQUE!!! Fun fact: Palcy made a killing in Hollywood with her adaptation of Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season, which makes her the only woman to have ever directed Marlon Brando.

Oct. 18: Loving Couples (1964, dir. Mai Zetterling, Sweden)
The earliest film I could find before collapsing down the rabbit hole of Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, and a certain Nazi asshat named Leni Riefenstahl.

Oct. 19: Innocence (2004, dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France/Belgium)
She’s married to Gaspar Noé. So of course, the title is bullshit. Bonus: pre-fame Marion Cotillard.

Oct. 20: XXY (2007, dir. Lucía Puenzo, Argentina)
Puenzo is the leading Argentine woman filmmaker after Lucrecia Martel—whose La Ciénaga was the worst film I watched in last year’s challenge, so there’s no way I’m going back to her just yet. This is the only major film I know of about hermaphroditism. (It must be said that Netflix’s current thumbnail image for this film is triggering, and—as a promotional choice—utterly witless.)

Oct. 21: Faithless (2000, dir. Liv Ullmann, Norway/Sweden)
Liv Ullmann adapting an epic Ingmar Bergman script based on their stormy relationship? Yes, please.

Oct. 22: Adoption (1975, dir. Márta Mészáros, Hungary)
Golden Bear winner of yore.

I am going into this next handful of films just about blind, and have no particularly spiffy commentary to offer on them:

Oct. 23: Ratcatcher (1999, dir. Lynne Ramsay, U.K.)
Oct. 24: Treeless Mountain (2009, dir. So Yong Kim, South Korea)
Oct. 25: Take My Eyes (2003, dir. Icíar Bollaín, Spain)
Oct. 26: Blackboards (2000, dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran)
Oct. 27: Attenberg (2010, dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
Oct. 28: Dukhtar (2014, dir. Afia Nathaniel, Pakistan)
Oct. 29: Danzón (1991, dir. Maria Novaro, Mexico)
Oct. 30: My Brilliant Career (1979, dir. Gillian Armstrong, Australia)

Oct. 31: Away From Her (2006, dir. Sarah Polley, Canada)
Hard to think of a better way to close the month than with an Alice Munro adaptation.

See you soon with my thoughts on Monsoon Wedding.

31 Days of Cinema 2.0: Women Filmmakers