Chantal Akerman: Film-Making as Composing

11/11/2014 15:46 GMT | Updated 07/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Looking forward to a screening of three rarely seen films by Chantal Akerman.

What can a film-maker learn from music?

Music is a source of primal pleasures, pleasures such as rhythm (things happening regularly), counter-point (things happening simultaneously), tune and melody. Music cuts across all cultures, nationalities, it cancels gender and so wonderfully infects every living human soul.

Film has its own unique properties but looking at three superb shorter films by Chantal Akerman, side-by-side (as by chance they will be in our on-going, chronological retrospective in London) makes very clear that for Akerman - perhaps more than for any other film-maker - film-making is an act of composition. I would argue that this is the key to understanding Akerman's remarkable and completely commanding style.

Film, to generalise, chases the story, chases the white rabbit of action. To frame is to frame an action; to cut is to to pursue a change; to move from wide shot to close up is to close in on what is of interest. Akerman is not like that. Akerman, to make use of Tarkovsky's useful notion, sculpts time. She works with rhythm, pulse and counterpoint. She choreographs bodily movement as if working with dancers, creating patterns that have more to do with timing than narrative. I would like to say she composes, makes tunes and lays them out in time. I imagine a musical score capture the essence of her films than would a dialogue transcript.

Akerman has a keen ear for music, and music figures directly in many of her films. In Les années 80 she entered the frame to conduct her singer. She even sings a song herself. It was clear, from her earliest work, that Akerman is acutely aware of the value of sound. The percussive footsteps of Jeanne Dielman do not fade from memory long after viewing. Indeed in many ways sound defines that film. Silence as a value is something that her musically inflected sensibility well understands. If Akerman decides to play a film or passage mute, it is for a good reason.

Sonia Wieder-Atherton is a cellist of the top rank, and since the early 80s, a key collaborator. First seen in an enigmatic short entitled Rue Mallet-Stevens, Wieder-Atherton is both protagonist and performer. In the first of the three short films in the programme, a film called Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, Wieder-Atherton enters, cello in hand, and sits to perform the music by Henri Dutilleux. These are the three strophes (sometimes called stanzas) that give the film its name. The music was written originally for Msitslav Rostropovitch, who had asked a number of composers to offer something to celebrate the birthday of Paul Sacher, a much loved Swiss conductor. This is extraordinary music: a sonatina of beguiling, sinuous and utterly disarming simplicity. Wieder-Atheron, naturally, performs this with complete focus and poise, her cello tuned to other worldly scales.

But Akerman is a film-maker, and not a mere documentary, though superficially it may seem so. Akerman places Wieder-Atherton in a room, with drapes, evoking a proscenium arch. In the background are windows, looking across to the wall and windows of another building. The windows reveal other rooms, interiors, with inhabitants. These characters appear and disappear, coming and going. They interact, in plays of minimalist gestures, meticulous choreographies. The music, the performance, the actions are a carefully organised counterpoint (counterpoint, by the way, is usually defined as the relationship between parts or voices that are interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm and contour). And that is exactly what Akerman works with. There is no narrative intent, though narrative may be guessed at: no chasing of actions and incident, no hierarchy of interest. It is a film built around a structure, a very musical structure.

The second film (Les trois dernières sonates de Franz Schubert, 1989) of the three is essentially performance/lecture - a master-class by one of the greatest pianists of any age, Alfred Brendel. Brendel talks us through the harmonic world of the there least piano sonatas by Schubert. He talks of the music's melodic charms and relationship with the work of other masters. He touches on the fact these are Schubert's three last works for piano, but points out that Schubert could not have known when he wrote them that they would be last works. He also relates how these works were not performed in Schubert's day, how they were then lost, only later to be recovered, and, in modern times, their nature and importance as compositions grasped and now are taken for granted.

Brendel's manner throughout is calm, as he talks with a lofty authority that permits him a striking simplicity and directness. Akerman's film-making is in the same vein - simple, direct, nuanced, rhythmical without excessive force or emphasis. Every edit is perfectly judged, the ebb and flow of attention perfectly supportive. This is a film in tune. It is a musically felicitous construction - that allows the insights of Brendel's talk shine through. Akerman's restraint is that of an accompanist who knows she must support the soloist, and yet success always depends on balance.

Incidentally, Brendel talks about Schubert making his music in relative obscurity, depending on knowledgeable salon audiences for commissions and appreciation. Schubert lived and worked in the shadow of the hugely successful Ludwig van Beethoven. Schubert famously called for a Beethoven string quartet to be performed at his bed side as he lay dying. Is this for Akerman analogous to how she might regard Jean-Luc Godard, whom she references constantly and in whose shadow all film-makers must exist?

The third film in this set of films is Le déménagement, shot for Arte, the French TV station, one of a series of monologues from various film-makers. Akerman wrote the script for this film herself. She makes use of a restrained number of angles of a man in his new home, but who has yet to unpack because he is afflicted by uncertainty and doubt.

"I should never, never have moved. What got into me? I was happy before. Well, almost. No, mostly I was not. Not good at all. I had to move".

This is a densely woven soliloquy of indecision, of regret, of a sense of predicament that is inescapable. Through this protagonist, Akerman reflects on the impossibility of making decisions, of the forlorn hope of certainty. It is a project that seems to owe much to Samuel Beckett, that great dramatist of endless indecision.

But what strikes the viewer is the patterning of the shots, the frequent cuts to black, of the rhythm and pacing of the text. Sami Frey's performance of this man imprisoned by existential despair is remarkable, a bravura performance, depending on subtle control of voice and timbre. His control is absolute as he works within Akerman's structure. He provides the audible pulse, while Akerman works with image and timing. The past is a prison that must be remembered and raked over forever, for there is nothing else.

This is to say that the music Akerman conjures up is an inescapable melody, composed with such precision, that to start is to be held (surely?) in its grip until the close.

In the Schubert film Brendel says that he finds in the sonatas by Schubert, "a combination of the formal and psychological as there should be in all great music". That is exactly what I would say is to be found in all of Akerman's work: a happy combination of the formal and psychological.

These three accidentally juxtaposed films, of varying unconventional durations, prove to be a perfect, illuminating demonstration of Akerman's art.

They play at London's ICA as part of the A Nos Amours complete retrospective, on Thursday 13th November 2014.

Adam Roberts