Friday, January 18, 2019
Chantal Ackerman | Les Rendez-vous d’Anna
a way out
by Douglas Messerli
Chantal Ackerman Les Rendez-vous d’Anna / 1978
I might now finally, after all of these years, confess that every time I see a new movie, play, or performance, I become somewhat nervous: I long for each writer, actor, and filmmaker to be just perfect, that I might find in the art a sort of personal transformation and, at the very least, allow me a life-long admiration of the work. I am nervous, not for my own possible disdain and even disliking of the work, but in the way if I might myself be the actor, the writer, the filmmaker. Will the audience
see what I am trying to do, or what the movie or the play is attempting to express. I guess you might describe me as an over-empathetic viewer, which may be why I often find meaning where others simply point to the flaws.
There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, in film Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Yasujirō—although I have written a few negative reviews of each of these masters—and now Chantal Akerman, all of whom make me immediately feel comfortable in their art, so much so that I can simply sit back and enjoy without any of my self-created discomfort.
Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Akerman’s 1978 film, despites its somewhat dour themes, accordingly, was a film which immediately engaged me and allowed me just to sit back in my office-desk chair and enjoy its pleasures.
That seems like a strange thing to say about a somewhat autobiographical film which, in parts, explain the Belgian director’s own suicide in 2015. The central character, traveling throughout Europe in this work, Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) meets en route from Essen to Brussels, is like Ackerman a film director, a beautiful woman in great demand. Yet she chooses inexpensive hotels, trains filled with German immigrants, and far-too-brief encounters with people she had relationships with along the way, including the mother of a man she has turned down for marriage twice (Ackerman, herself, was lesbian), and her own mother—brilliantly performed by Lea Massari, the gone-missing young woman of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura—the perfect choice, perhaps, since Anna is herself a missing woman, clearly unable to interact with any of the figures with whom she has her “rendez-vous.”
As J. Hoberman notes: “Anna is a portrait of a woman, actually a self-portrait…a 28-year-old filmmaker who is the Belgian-born child of Holocaust survivors, [who] is a stand-in for Akerman, traveling from one European city to another to introduce screenings of her movie.”
Perhaps no other director has been so willing to cinematically proclaim her own failures, recreating slightly autobiographical portraits in I you she he and the wonderful News from Home, in which her mother’s impassioned correspondence plays a major role.
If Anna seems cold and dispassionate, we can well relate to her disorientation in the post-World War II Germany and Belgium. No one she meets seems to any longer be at home or even comprehend what “home” might mean. They all speak an amalgam of languages, having learned their new tongues just skillfully enough to be complimented on their fluidity. German, French, Turkish, and numerous other tongues (we should recall that Ackerman’s own country is a bilingual world of French and Dutch). There is no possibility, one might argue, of being perfectly at home with ones own native tongue.
The Germany this film portrays, from Essen through Cologne and elsewhere, is presented as an urban nightmare of signs and passages, sending its citizens in the directions of their presumed destinations. Anna’s arrival in Essen seemed, even to me who has never been there, so familiar of the German landscape that I once might have visited the city. The giant cathedral of Cologne is glimpsed only in the far distance. This world might almost be the same (although obviously different) from a US journey up the east coast on Amtrak.
The past and present in this film is glimpsed only in quick images, a tie some male guest has left in the room where Anna has ensconced herself; in a train full of “outsiders,” which might almost resemble one of Donald Trump’s racist nightmares; a German who complains that his wife has “run off” with a man from Turkey, as if the director were signaling Fassbinder’s film of 4 years earlier, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
This is, after all, a world of fear, a woman whose family died in the Holocaust, freely traveling through the very territory which sent them to their deaths, not only Germany, but Belgium itself. Anna’s world is not only one of repressed memories, but of missed telephone calls, where the only possible communication is through missed messages on answering machines—a world in which even the most beloved figures are always out to lunch. It is a bleak world not for the tourists, a post-war landscape where only those who have been born into it cannot ever quite reconfirm their existences. And, despite her beauty and talent, Anna cannot quite find her place in it.
As I mentioned above, it helps to explain why this so very gifted director, whose films seem so natural that I never fear upon entering them, finally sought a way out.
Los Angeles, January 18, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).