Half way through a retrospective of Chantal Akerman's films. Surely surprise and innovation are exhausted. Seeing Les anneés 80 proves otherwise. This film is rare: it is not available on DVD, and the only print with English subtitles is on its last legs.
It begins with voices heard over black - the voice of an actor and a director, trying to find the right intonation for a short enigmatic phrase: "A ton âge, un chagrin, c'est vite passé" - meaning, "At your age sorrows soon pass", or maybe, "At your age misery doesn't last". The inflection required, perhaps because meaning must be found, proves elusive. Later in the film, when we hear the phrase used, it sneaks up on us, deep in context. But here, listening to voices, disembodied, as if heard in a Beckett radio play, we get into the to and fro between the women, the work being done, the sense of a search, of a collaboration. Women are speaking, but we don't see them. The things that happen when we see women on screen - fall into the charged world of the image - can't happen. Instead we listen.
The first thing we do see are woman's ankles, in a range of footwear, walking, flitting past, parading, striding, prancing. The rhythms are choreographed and edited beautifully. We are looking at women, having already been set up to know that this is a film about how women can relate, work together, and do so within the confines of particular and specific forms of cultural expression. The women we see are finding performances. They are looking for a self that fits. The director, by the same token, is also finding her role.
These feet and their movement is the start of a careful assembly of video footage, labelled as "auditions". Dialogue is trialled, songs recorded, guide tracks laid down, costumes tested, and movement invented. The voice of the director is often present. The director is sometimes in frame, conducting, urging, encouraging, questioning.
There is some structuring of this material into broad categories, this is no mere exercise in taxonomy (no mere shuffling of material into kinds), it is a delightful play, a sublimely edited and judged checkerboard of durations, weights and proportions. This "auditions" section reveals the act of making, of spinning (to use the terms as conceived by Mary Daly), of women (in the main) working together to inhabit the dialogue that teeters on the brink of kitsch, working with the elements of melodrama, of situations that could become clichéd, but which never become so because of the rapport that we witness - rapport between those who know they are there to be looked at, and must inhabit he roles expected of them, become the objects of our visual desire. We must want to look, and they must want us to look.
To round things off, we are treated to a sequence shot on 35mm film, now sharp and better lit. This is a set of try-out song and dance numbers. A melodramatic narrative, something about one woman's love of a man but who loves another, threads things together, and lends the expected musical dramatic sense to the numbers.
The performers are not always the ones we expected - the auditions have not prepared us for the final casting, even if there is such a thing. The concept that the actor and the role are one is never allowed to take root. That is one avant-garde strategy that undercuts genre convention. Though these film sequences looks dressed and staged, they nevertheless have feel of screen tests, something not finished, depending on jump cuts to put things together, disrupting classical cinema norms. But the sheer visual pleasure of better lit film after an hour of video is something to relish.
The close of the film offers a break from the confines of rehearsal room and the locations of the 35mm song and dance sequences: the camera is now on a roof high above Brussels at dusk. It pans all the way round several times, while Akerman's voice recites the list of those she wants to thank, and promises, "Next year in Jerusalem" - the close of the Jewish Seder, conveying a sense of closure, but also of of yearning and of impossible dreaming. We return to darkness for a music play out - the orchestrated tune we are by now very familiar with, a jaunty tune that feels just right for the eighties: brash, bright, superficial. It is the kind of tune that sticks, and which will annoy some.
There is a very prosaic reason for the making of this film - Les anneés 80. Akerman wanted to raise money for a film musical, which was slated to be titled Toison d'or (the name of at the vast shopping mall where she intended to shoot - meaning the Golden Fleece) and needed to raise a significant budget. Her previous work, being essentially experimental, albeit supported by celebrity actors (Delphine Seyrig had championed and helped secure finance the Jeanne Dielman project) was presumably a poor calling card. To shoot a full blown musical with a large cast on location would be something else. Les anneés 80 did the trick. Two years later Golden Eighties, with Delphine Seyrig, Fanny Cottençon, Aurore Clement and others was shot.
But this is a film to look at on its own terms. To return to spinning. Spinning is about the drawing out and twisting together of threads to make a yarn. The threads twisting against each other produces the thread that does not unravel, and has strength far greater than the threads themselves. Spinning is women's work - and as Mary Daly suggested, spinning is what radical feminists can do to produce meanings and identities beyond those allowed by patriarchy: women are instructed to jettison old forms, to resist the demand for closure, make new forms, and cut through "the mazes of man-made mystification, breaking the mindbindings of master-minded double think" (such is the delightful phrasing of Daly's Gyn/Ecology!)
And, so it seems to me, this is just what Les anneés 80 is all about: occupy the bastion of melodramatic expression and emotionalism, reveal and revel in it's synthetic and artificial nature, highlight the silly ease of looking at screened women playing roles, and then play and make merry in a newly revealed universe. And what a surprising, challenging and yet refreshing pleasure it is to look and share in such richness.
Adam Roberts, www.anosamours.co.uk April 2014