Female Filmmaker Project: Hotel Monterey (Chantal Akerman, 1972)

In Chantal Akerman’s previous short film La Chambre she experimented with big ideas on the nature of cinema and what constitutes as narrative in spaces. She takes that idea to its logical endpoint in Hotel Monterey. Monterey is a film made up mostly of static observational shots on the people who reside in a run down hotel in New York City. Hotel Monterey is rigorous to say the least, but there are these pockets of narrative surrounding the residents and the all encompassing oppressive look of the hotel is very deliberate in creating a specific feeling of dread. In my previous review for Hotel Monterey I likened the film to a thesis on the idea of a home, and how hotels are inherently these soulless institutions, because they are rarely the home of anyone. They exist only to be a substitute of the warmth that comes from having a home so Akerman’s filmmaking feels ghostly and cold. I still think that’s very present in Hotel Monterey as my ideas on what hotels represent hasn’t changed in the last year, but what has changed is my understanding of why exactly this film connects with me so deeply.

On a more basic level Hotel Monterey is simply about documentation, but the word simple never really conveys the maximal qualities of Chantal Akerman. This hotel is seemingly falling apart, the hallways look like they’ve been beaten down, white paint has turned yellow over the years, and rooms have garish furniture, but Akerman uses these tools to create a portrait. Her documentaries in this mode (Monterey, D’est, South) are in some way or another about the people who wander into her lens, but they are just as much about the rooms they occupy, and the images they end up creating in those rooms. One such image is that of a woman sitting in solitude with her back to the camera. It could be an image from any one of her movies, but this is the first time Chantal Akerman has used that picture. She is interested in how women, especially, occupy space over time. She brought this idea to perfection in Jeanne Dielman, but the women of Chantal Akerman’s films could star in any of her movies with little changes in substitution. Chantal Akerman makes Chantal Akerman movies and her movies feel like something primal in my very soul.

There is one image (it is the first screencap in this post) that I had forgotten about, but upon seeing it again brought out an internal pang of loneliness inside of my body. The pregnant woman in clear view who shines in perfection through the grime of the hallway walls. The door and the angular framing position her as a focal point and bring an image of deep blues and whites to contrast with her humanity. She seems so very far away though, there is no close-up, Akerman would hardly ever move the camera in this film so this is the only image we get. The only glimpse of her narrative and her life is this hallway, and her body piercing the frame and so clearly it ruptured the entire film for me on an emotional level. This image came along on the recent news that scientists believe trans women may be able to get pregnant within the next five years. I latch onto that glimmer of hope, and see this idea of who I want to be, and what I want my future to look like and Akerman’s cinema gives me an image of a pregnant woman within reach. Akerman’s cinema has always felt as if it has evolved around my mental state whenever I decide to watch one of her films, and that one example has left me in a state of bittersweet devastation upon coming into contact.

However, there is a deep irony in that image of the pregnant woman as it contrasts so severely with the rest of the picture. While the pregnant woman represents a semblance of life or a future the majority of the images in Hotel Monterey show a barren existence. Akerman spends the majority of time on the emptiness. There’s no sound, no life, just a bit of reflected light bouncing off the walls and showing these blank dead doors and the lack of a subject within. Even when people are front and centre to the camera, like in the elevator sequence at the beginning of the picture, they’ll often move out of the way of the frame as to not get in the way of whatever it is Akerman was shooting. This assumption that whatever it is Akerman was filming was more interesting than that person is unsettling, because even when Akerman was pointing the camera into dead space the people of Hotel Monterey would resist the camera and the idea of becoming the subject of her movie. In that way the humans of this hotel more closely resemble ghosts slipping in and out of frame and hardly effecting it in one way or another. The only people in the film who remain corporeal are the pregnant woman, the woman in the chair and the singular man, who we know almost nothing about. His face is eerie, and in some ways he could also be a ghost.

When Akerman finally does move the camera it is after nearly forty minutes of immobility, but it’s so slow and unsure of movement that it more closely resembles being sucked into the hotel itself at first. It is another simple camera movement, like the reverse of direction in La Chambre, that emphasizes her great attention to detail over time. When she shifted her mode of storytelling she began to more visibly move upward through the hotel rather than linger on the walls. It is in these final moments when she reaches the rooftops that she finally reaches New York City, the skyline is pearl, the city is just waking up, and the traffic is already building, it seems peaceful. It seems like at once an afterlife and a home. A new dawn brings light through the dreary hotel and maybe it’s residents will call this city their home. For Chantal Akerman she found a hotel, her first of many.

Female Filmmaker Project: La Chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972)

A ragged apartment is explored by a cinematic eye as a camera turns 360 degrees to explore every corner of a living space. None of the objects move, and the question of subject is deliberated by audience and instinctual camera movement. The only thing that changes in the chamber is a woman, presumably the owner of the house, who sits on a bed, stares at the camera and eats an apple. The woman is Chantal Akerman, and she is wrangling with the very ideas of how cinema functions in this avant-garde short. 

Unlike her first film, Saute Ma Ville, there isn’t a narrative in La Chambre, and Akerman has begun to twist away from conventional cinematic goals into something both entirely her own, and daringly experimental. In La Chambre, Akerman asks many questions and none of them have explicit answers, but the function of the movie is to get the viewer to think of how they view cinema as a narrative art-form and how we latch onto any tidbits of information that may move a story forward. Akerman has consistently been concerned with stillness in her movies, and how that plays into realism (look at the opening third of Je, Tu, Ill, Elle for example), and La Chambre‘s only progression is how this singular woman moves, otherwise objects are at rest. But Akerman is just as interested in those resting objects, and her camera makes a point to frame household items such as chairs, an oven, and a dishwasher with the same priority she frames herself. The framing is meticulous, but never boring, and the images never dull due to the function of the camera’s constant movement. By placing the camera in a 360 degree pan she’s asking audience members to observe how the objects change, even if they don’t. The only changes to the objects are in the lighting, and it’s only slight, but this is something we must view, because the camera demands their importance with the same centered framing as the subject (the woman). Something interesting happens after the first couple courses around the room though- the camera reverses course as if on audience instinct to move towards the woman. The curious thing about this is why that was needed and what Akerman is saying about narrative subjects. She’s just as calm as the chair we’ve already seen twice. Her movement isn’t any more fascinating than how the light reflects off of a wall, but the camera is pulled to her, because she moves. Each repetitive movement of the camera becomes tighter and tighter until the camera keeps the woman in frame for the better part of a minute, but she remains listless as she devours an apple. When the camera finally realizes there is nothing to see here the lens pulls away from her again and the movie ends. What was the subject? Is a subject even needed to produce cinema? These questions aren’t definitely answered, but explored and beg to be analyzed by viewers.

La Chambre is just the beginning of Chantal Akerman questioning how cinema functions, and offers a glimpse into more of her instinctive techniques as a filmmaker. While, Saute Ma Ville, may have been an introduction to her feminist themes La Chambre offers more in the way of what we’ve come to know as Chantal Akerman’s form. The attention to space and how movement effects image and narrative were brought to full light in Hotel Monterey, and in that way La Chambre sometimes feels like a test run for a fuller picture, but the attention to objects, rooms and the people within them would be of fascination to Chantal Akerman throughout her career all the way up through Almayer’s Folly, where she finally sought freedom from interior spaces. The interior lives of women can be seen in her first two films as well, even if La Chambre rejects any traditional narrative filmmaking technique, and positions Akerman as a subject in her films. Akerman’s resolute attention to portraying women came first through portraying herself. By questioning cinema and distancing her filmmaking from a popular narrative mode she gained a reputation as a difficult filmmaker, but she’s inviting you into her worlds and into herself, even if whatever she’s doing is simple, such is the case in La Chambre.

you can watch La Chambre on youtube here
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AGakyb3eBU

Female Filmmaker Project: Saute Ma Ville (Chantal Akerman, 1968)

“Saute Ma Ville is the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman”
Chantal Akerman

In Jeanne Dielman there is a woman who lives her life through rituals. She cooks and cleans every single day. It’s mechanical, perfectly shaped and fills her life with purpose. When there are slight breaks in those tasks the woman of that film begins to fracture. Jeanne Dielman shows a structure to live in. Saute Ma Ville seeks to destroy those structures.

Saute Ma Ville is a phoenix film. It is destroying the old guard to bring life to a new generation. In this case it is the women of the 1960s not wishing to live the types of lives their mothers, aunts and grandmothers were forced to endure. While Jeanne Dielman is a more radical statement by tapping into the mental state of women and delivering a portrait of time and procedure Saute Ma Ville is more like a blunt instrument. The title even infers a simple act of destruction: “Blow Up My Town”. In that respect Chantal Akerman’s first film feels similar to the energy and exuberance of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, but Akerman’s technique is different and entirely her own, even if Daisies and Saute Ma Ville are sisters in arms.

Chantal Akerman was only 18 when she made this film, but her filmmaking is already developed. Her insistence on framing around tight spaces and entering into the mindset of specific characters is present, and she is adept at capturing poignant moments of singularity- a recurring theme throughout her entire career. The parallelism of her camera to her characters is one of her trademarks and in Saute Ma Ville it strengthens Akerman’s chaotic turn as an implosion. Her camera is energetic which contrasts heavily with the work she would do in New York a few years later (the work her reputation as a difficult filmmaker is built upon), but the excess of movement calls for what she wants to convey. Her character is a blitzkrieg and can never stay still for more than a couple of seconds so the camera follows her. Her voice echoes over the images in a lilting, angelic humming that clashes with the violent nature of the acts she is committing to totems of femininity of the past. The brooms are broken, the lotion is everywhere and the soap is on the floor. Everything is out of place, because it must be to start anew, and Akerman’s zipping camera work personifies her character with resolute confidence.

Chantal Akerman stars in this picture, and in her own words she’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of character whenever she is in her own movies, this one included. Akerman is jovial, singing, a smile forever attached to her face as she moves around the kitchen knocking anything in her path to the floor. This is a death dance, but instead of being somber it is celebratory, because the end of this prison is liberating for Chantal and speaks to a larger theme on the kitchen as a woman’s place. In 1968 Saute Ma Ville could also easily be seen as an oncoming storm, a film that literally represents the dawning of second wave feminism. When Chantal writes in lotion on a mirror with her hands “IT’S ALL OVER” she doesn’t mean her life, she means the past. When she finally kills herself on top of an oven in the final frames of the short she’s destroying the idea that a kitchen is a woman’s place while also damning the kitchen as a place of life lost for those women who toiled away in that confined space. The women Chantal watched growing up, and the women she’d make movies about for the rest of her career.

As a first statement Chantal Akerman came out of the gates swinging with a rough snapshot of feminist thought. She’d never accept those queer or feminist labels that are key to her work, but I believe she was absolutely aware of the type of cinema she was making. She wouldn’t return to this type of work again until 1974 with Je, Tu, Il, Elle and her filmmaking acumen would evolve as she was introduced to experimental cinema, but as it stands Saute Ma Ville is an interesting first chapter for one of the great filmmakers and an introduction to everything Akerman would give the world.

Chantal Akerman

As a 16 year old not-out-yet trans girl I had little reason to leave the confines of my bedroom. I wrote in journals about the pain I was experiencing in day to day life just by existing as a false version of myself, the gender dysphoria that seemed the permanently stagnate my every move, and the frustration of knowing that I had no real home to relax in either by body or through family. This intensely introspective period of my life saw my writing flourish at the expense of my mental health, but I figured out the type of person that I was supposed to be, and how I could go about accomplishing these goals of womanhood. I also saw my growth as a cinephile become a fixture of my everyday life. I wasn’t going to school, but every day I found something new in cinema to give me reason to wake up in the morning. During all of that time though I could never find something that so resolutely affected me in the way that Chantal Akerman’s movies did. The first movie of hers that I ever saw was Je, Tu, Il, Elle and I was struck by the first section where Chantal moves about her apartment writing about herself, and her ideas. This felt like what I was going through at the time. The interior space, the singular experience, the personal writing, the repetition. Chantal Akerman was filming something that felt like my life. I remember jotting down “I wish I could make movies like this” in my diary afterward. This experience kickstarted a love affair I had with her work that I’ve never had with any other filmmaker.

In the late 2000s there really wasn’t filmmaking or television about transgender characters beyond ridiculing those people or having them play corpses. Finding relatable cinema has always been a game of looking for subtext or tonality that replicates personal feelings. My queerness is insular and deeply ingrained in my body. I like to shed my skin when I engage with art and feel reborn into someone that feels prouder of who I am. The lyrics of Donna Dresch and Kathleen Hanna were scribbled all over my walls in places my parents dare not look. My little secret of who I really was, and books by Alison Bechdel brought to me tears, because she was wrangling with anxiety over herself that was a constant feeling for me as well. Chantal Akerman did the same things for me, but in cinema. Her interior worlds felt like they lacked freedom. They were jails. Being closeted was nothing short of demoralizing so to see something so deeply personal reflected in her hallways, small rooms and spaces inhabited by women not made for this world felt like my space. Akerman’s cinema was more of a home for me than anything I ever lived through up until last year, and her characters were versions of myself I could see existing.

It has always been baffling to me that Akerman’s cinema has been described as detached, because I have the opposite experience with her work. I think back to that quote in Jeanne Dielman about her son not understanding, because he wasn’t a woman, and I think this experience could hold true for why her cinema has never been accepted into a generalized canon as much as it should, because film criticism is a field inhabited mostly by men. Akerman has always laid herself out there for the world to see. She is a deeply personal filmmaker whose cinema has always represented her life in some way. The holocaust is a running theme in her work, as much as her relationship with her mother, queerness, art, and movement. She could never be pinned down to one specific type of movie so she’s often worked in both narrative and documentary, experimental cinema, musicals, romance- and so much of it vital to her experiences.

Even recently I have found my relationship with Akerman’s work expanding into new areas. I haven’t seen my mother in 18 months, and our relationship is fractured to say the least, but she sends me letters. She talks about the experience of losing me, and wanting to see me again. She is sad that she hasn’t seen me in as long as she has, but she knows I’m working towards living my life in a way that is representative of who I am. She always ends each letter hoping to hear back from me as soon as possible. She worries. I put on News From Home the other day in preparation for a piece on her now final film No Home Movie, and I was moved by the similarities between the way my mother and Chantal’s mother reacted to each of us moving away. They’re so very similar and it became apparent to me for the first time that maybe this is what a mother/daughter relationship feels like. It’s complicated and messy, but there’s a lot of love to be shared between us. I cried at that revelation. Akerman’s movies have always felt symbiotic- like they come out of some place within her that I feel personally connected to even though I never had the chance of meeting her. The type of effect she had on my life is nothing short of profound, and it has to ring true for other women.

I woke up this morning to the news that she had passed, and from reports it was a suicide. I sobbed into the shoulder of the man who gave me a physical home over the woman whose cinema sheltered me in a cinematic one. I am gutted. I feel like part of my soul was removed when I heard this news. She felt like family. I miss her so much. 

Dis Moi (Chantal Akerman, 1980)

Female Filmmaker Project

I’ve watched films without subtitles before and I went into this not knowing what it was about and I assumed Akerman’s form would make sense for not exactly understanding what the characters were saying. It does but, this is a film largely about conversations between Akerman and Holocaust survivors. Akerman herself has family ties to the Holocaust. Her grandparents died in Auschwitz and most of her mother’s family perished as well. This is a heavy subject for her to confront. I wish that I could know what these women were saying. I’m sure it was heartbreaking, human, and powerful. I hope one day there are subs available somewhere so I can give this a proper viewing. Although I assume learning french might be an easier route.

Aside from the fact that I didn’t know what the characters were saying I still enjoyed watching this for the way Akerman constructs images. There is a connection between this and Jeanne Dielman, News From Home and Meetings of Anna in form. The long static takes built around a person and what they’re doing in a room are here, as well as the lingering takes on people in a city setting. She also finds ways to frame these women in new ways from interview to interview. In one take she shoots an interview with the glare from a spotless dining room table visible, and the light from a window is shining on her subject. Moments later she uses mirrors to specifically show a reflection of another woman in a dining room symmetrically framed by two plants on either side of Akerman and her subject. There is even an extended section of one of the women cooking which calls up the rigorous camera work in Jeanne Dielman. Akerman’s work has always felt like an extension of documentarianism (News From Home and Hotel Monterey) and I found her eye for creating images to be just as strong when she uses the talking head format that most documentaries use. My favourite moment of the film was when Chantal and one of her interviewees sits down for dinner together and Akerman nods off. The other woman wakes her up and they both give each other a little smile. I may have not known what anyone was saying throughout the entirety of this, but that warm moment of recognition between the two transcends language.

Hotel Monterey

 Female Filmmaker Project
A home feels eternal. It’s that one place you run to for safety, warmth and solace in the wake of everything else that is wrong with the world. You can always count on a home to be there for you. It exists in a place separate and unique and it is yours. They are also fragile and with time can evolve into hotels. When your home becomes a temporary residence it feels like you’ve lost a loved one. That safety and place just for you is gone and it isn’t easy to find a new one. Losing your home is a kind of death, and hotels have always felt like graveyards. The residents shuffle about only temporarily like wayward ghosts and then they’re gone. The rooms are all made up for residents who will never truly love them and these beds are never more than places of temporary comfort. Time passes in Hotels like still slowly beating clocks until you can leave this place and return to what you would call home, but what are you supposed to do when everything is a hotel?

Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey is a dissection of an empty palace. The rooms are perfectly kept together waiting for someone to welcome, but no one comes. The camera sits in long static shots of the architecture that was built to house people on their way as a temporary home, but the walls echo sadness. The point of view of the camera is seemingly trapped in this world staring at these walls. These beautiful, decaying walls built as a substitute to a real home. Elevators move up and down and people enter their rooms and occasionally peer out at this lost soul but never say anything. They are only here for a short time of course. We move up through this labyrinth of partial respite and peer out the windows looking for escape, and maybe that true home lurks out there somewhere. When the darkness of the night finally lifts and we stand on the roof peering out over the city an additional sadness pours over our viewpoint. The same houses and windows we’ve been longing for are reflected once we got out. The windows are boarded up, cracked and broken and the buildings look filthy. This isn’t the warmth of what a home should look like. We peer 180 degrees looking for something but only find more hotels and nothing resembling a home.

Chantal Akerman’s film is brilliant at capturing that loneliness of having nowhere to head for comfort, and not having that can feel like the end of the world. It’s a depressive state as bleak as those murky walls that cover the hotel, and it can feel never ending. I’m still reaching for a home that I will find some day and being in that in-between state is a trapped feeling. A feeling that is evoked perfectly in the halls of Hotel Monterey

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