Columns | Film Art | Orphans and Maniacs: Chantal Akerman’s Maniac Summer

By Andréa Picard

Whether ironic, playful or slightly self-deprecating, the title of Chantal Akerman’s Maniac Summer, recently exhibited at the Marion Goodman gallery in Paris is apt, bemusing, and applicable to many of her other works—at least the maniac part. Pathology is Akerman’s specialty, as she consistently delves into a cinema of solipsism, not unlike the hermetic bubble (or “room with a view”) of underappreciated French filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau, Like Rousseau, her fictions play out like her reality, masking little, even when they withhold so much. Both her documentaries and her fictions demonstrate the hallmarks of a first-person cinema, and that subjectivity is often painful—sometimes for us, but mostly for her and her protagonists. If one compares her stark, audacious (or should that read bodacious?), grey-scaled, near-wordless Je, tu, il, elle (1975) with her cloistered, claustrophobic Tel Aviv apartment film Là-bas (2006), one sees a through line of loneliness, listlessness, and fear vis-à-vis the world outside. The former commences in a room where the “je,” played by a barely adult Akerman, mopes about in a timeless haze, eating raw granulated sugar from a dime-store paper bag. She lolls around naked, writing love letters that eventually fan out around her, epistolary missives whose contents are never revealed.

Eventually she musters the courage to hit the road (or simply tires of being with her manic self), but the Akerman of 30 years later can no longer bring herself to leave her apartment. Cooped up and spying on the neighbours across the way, the world outside unfolds like a film, seen through her video viewfinder and the gauzy material that filters the daylight. The blinds from the window add an additional frame to the composition, emphasizing the voyeuristic opacity of the situation, the one-sidedness and frailty of the tale. (Another experimental kammerspiel comes to mind: Jim Jennings’ chiaroscuro Close Quarters, which uses vertical blinds to sublime and sexy effect; a romantic sort of cabin fever, less cagey, more bedroom tussle.) Fighting an all-consuming depression and the repression of her past, attempting to confront the spectres inherited from a family who endured tragedy because of their Jewishness, for Akerman Israel became a sort of adversary, and in Là-bas there it stands, just beyond the threshold of her rented abode. Akerman’s acute agoraphobia leads her to invent a drama, seemingly unfolding within reach, both in her head and across the way. As she imagines her neighbours’ lives, she temporarily escapes her own monotony and mania (including the emptying of the fridge)—traces of which have translated into brilliance in films like the uber-precise, metronomic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and the more peripatetic Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).

Ever focused on the trauma and nostalgia of the past, it came as no surprise that Akerman would attempt a (very successful) Proust adaption—even less unexpected was the book she chose, La Prisonnière, which she transformed into her twilight-tinged La Captive (2000). British artist Rosalind Nashishibi recently remade the opening pursuit sequence from La Captive, turning it back into The Prisoner (2008), a looped two x 16mm installation using the backside of glamour-puss photographer Anna Gaskell as a substitute for the waifish Sylvie Testud, and shot amid the brutalist architecture of Southbank rather than the glorious Renaissance Place Vendôme. The crisp click-clack of high heels and the swelling foreboding of Rachmaninoff’s “The Isle of the Dead” are excerpted with a slickness and tension that befit the gallery space. At five minutes long, the film is looped through both projectors so that the timing successively becomes off-kilter and the double image chases itself with the constant whirring of the machines. An erotic, sinister hunt through solid blocks of grey, the images are minimalist and seductive—quite the opposite effect of Akerman’s own installations at Marion Goodman, which were composed of swimmy video, muffled sound, amorphous images, and an uncertain, tentative trajectory: no-gloss, lo-fi production values and an oblique excoriation of the self.

But that’s not saying that they weren’t compelling or effective. In fact, their lack of monumentality filled the cavernous spaces with a troubling sense of disintegration that has become one her trademark leitmotifs. In the rez-de-chaussée, a large, high-ceilinged rectangular space, Akerman presented what she deemed an “orphan film” projected large upon one wall, before which were placed two fake aquarium night-lights, one at each corner, shimmering on the concrete floor like zoetropes. As goofy-looking faux fish swam by on a continuous loop amid the iridescent aquamarine blue of the kitschy receptacles, a schmaltzy but wry interplay occurred between the projection and the aquariums: Chinatown kitsch and plastic cuteness, mass proliferation of pixilated images, the sonic landscapes and glow of consumerism gone wild.

The film, Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai, was her contribution to the omnibus flop State of the World (2007) commissioned by the Portuguese Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Could this be an instance where a work of cinema functions better within the economy of the gallery, in a completely different context, not in relation to works by other filmmakers (Pedro Costa, Wang Bing, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul)? Projected at the end of a sizeable, empty room, and anchored by two glow lights, Tombée took on a wistful air, no small part induced by its ephemeral images and diegetic Muzak soundtrack. The short is an extended view of the Shanghai harbour taken with a static camera at dusk, while water shimmers and two towering skyscrapers with huge LED signs embedded into their façades seem to float like videos within the video. Movement is constant as the advertising changes, including pixilated versions of Old Masters’ paintings (the Mona Lisa looks particularly comfortable casting a bemused look upon the skyline), some Manet and Van Gogh, the flowers and wildlife reminiscent of screen-savers and cellphone wall settings.

As the video continuously loops, it’s not instantly discernable what is the beginning, middle, or end (though the title gives a good indication). Regardless, the best passage depicts a ferry crossing the harbour, also plastered with an LED screen, so completely blown out that it emblazons the composition with a weird, ghostly white glow, an otherworldly trespasser in the port. At last, after several ships glide through the static frame, Akerman cuts to observational scenes in a brightly lit restaurant confirming the source of the cheesy pop music mixed with the musique concrète clatter of the dishes and trays reminiscent of Jeanne Dielman’s rather rough handling of her daily chores. Like the artificiality of the cheap aquariums that flank the screen, this hot light that travels across the frame becomes a symbol of self-immolation, of end-of-decade burn-out: one of the boats has a big “2010” displayed across it. Not unlike Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies (2008), his multiple sunset portrait of the Brooklyn Harbour, it’s the sound that conspires in the melding of the banal and the chilling, turning a scene of contemplation into something more complex, unpredictable, and potentially problematic. Back to the skyscrapers, images of parrots, and fireworks that gussy up the cityscape, a Baudrillardian spectacle in which Akerman is clearly mesmerized. As night falls, the two pillars look like twin soaring Nokia phones and it becomes clear that darkness will never befall night again: a prelude for an expression of perpetual, sooty nightfall perhaps?

Downstairs in the basement gallery, Maniac Summer was displayed on three walls, a triptych composed of seven large-scale images traveling across the room clockwise, consistently replacing each other with moments previously lived, observed and filmed, all during the summer of 2009 in Paris—some of the images (both black-and-white and colour) still bear their time codes. Some are silent, while at least one includes a voice we recognize so well, Akerman’s, bitching on the phone, while a radio broadcast plays in the background (interestingly, a program exploring Christianity and eroticism; given the artist, a coincidence would be quite something). Though her conversation is not all completely decipherable—other sounds include heavy, belaboured breathing, again Akerman—some key sentences can be understood, especially as they get repeated as the images make their way around the room, such as her insistence that a film (hers probably) be screened in 35mm if they (a festival, a cinematheque, a gallery?) have the means to do so. (“Je préfère que ça soit projecté en 35 s’ils peuvent.”) She mutters the sentence as if annoyed. A constant disjunction between sound and image accrues as the internal logic of the piece remains elusive for some time; grappling with all three walls’ worth of images is overwhelming until one commits the time to observe its melting and its mania.

Akerman has always been more than kooky; as her short Saute ma ville (1968) illustrated early on, she can be downright explosive. That uncontainable maniac energy has no doubt fuelled her art, made it as great and singular as it is. She’s steadfast, stubborn, and sometimes scarily stuck, her manic-depressive aches and pains fodder for films, and never far from the public eye. We’ve seen it, heard it, and watched it, even when we felt we had no right to do so. Her exhibitionist-voyeuristic-narcissism comes as a unique emballage and its unwrapping gives her works their unique cadence and their inevitable tendency toward extinction. Even during her lows, her curiosity prevails enabling creation to succeed the self and transcend that heavy, earth-bound inertia. Her gaze upon the world is a serious one, and that’s worth remembering when confronted with something seemingly slight like Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai. If one waits long enough, the world reveals itself in ways that are familiar but also uncanny; especially if the view purports to have no author (its orphan status), the vulnerability of the maker is never entirely concealed. Akerman’s politique d’auteur is a politics of the self, which confronts history at every turn. She’s said it on many occasions: she’s always in exile. A daughter from a mother orphaned by the Holocaust, we can assume that “orphan” is not a word Akerman uses lightly but it’s a word she’s chosen for the images in Maniac Summer.
A recent viewing of a gorgeous 16mm print of D’Est (1993) not only convinced me that it’s her greatest film, but that her love of the world and her ability to be moved (by faces, landscapes, movement, music, etc…) is itself heartrending, like a reflection of meaning that inheres in, but also gives generously to the viewer. When asked about the aesthetic, philosophical and logical choices he made during the shooting of In Vanda’s Room, Pedro Costa replied: “the cinema is not about the artist; it’s about being in the world, our world.” D’Est wonderfully encapsulates this sentiment, as Akerman (in her days of venturing forth from home, and in a sort of exhilarated riposte to News from Home (1976), one of the most beautiful and rigorous NYC films ever made) shares her journey from Eastern Germany, through Poland to Moscow. Told through a montage of static images without voiceover or interviews, and through a series of stunning mostly medium tracking shots which take great pleasure in watching people line-up and wait for the bus, the film could be read as a treatise on Babushkas and their glamorous fur hats, or on the infinity of Eastern dusk, agricultural populations, migration, transportation, post-Communist political and economic change, the longueurs of winter, aging, daily routines (and routine pleasures), the colour blue, and so on. The film is so rich, so formally daring and precise that it seems miraculous considering Akerman’s latest, shut-in works. (The daring includes not only looking, but looking back and holding an uncomfortable gaze.) D’Est bursts forth with humanity, inquisitiveness, humour, and love, but also with foreboding, mystery, unease, torpor, and, especially, rootlessness. A cello performance acts as an interlude, binding all of the images together, escaping its own realism. (A different incarnation of D’Est was initiated for an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, and later remounted at the Beaubourg, with many monitors arranged out of sequence providing both a temporal and spatial editing different from that of the film. But the film is a masterpiece; as perfect a work of art as Akerman has ever created.)

Though Maniac Summer is closest to Là-bas in tone, style, and subject, its gallery setting allows for a spatial expansion of Akerman’s many preoccupations, including what is transpiring outside her apartment (whether it be the children playing on a grassy knoll or the bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour); the messy rooms of her apartment, the orderly ones and spaces of work; and the paradoxes that are summed up by the image of her smoking while simultaneously shoveling spoonfuls of yogurt into her mouth from a glass jar. “You think about money too much” a male voice chastises from the other end of the phone line. A news item on the radio declares “the extremists are afraid”; Akerman asks a friend to send her a book she needs as she’s soon going to India, then the radio program returns to its exploration of “Christianity and the erotic absence of the other.” The images shuffle forward, one drops closer to the floor, with the images on the verge of their own destruction: increasingly burnished, solarized, abstract. The signs of danger are all present, lurking amid beauty, amid ruins and ashes—which Akerman’s images may already be. In the press release for the show, Akerman referenced Hiroshima and the “traces that are left but are still appearing. A film, which explodes and slips before dying.” There’s no doubt about it: a time bomb is definitely ticking.