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

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.