Suffragettes and Memories: Thinking about Chantal Akerman at the London Film Festival

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Suffragette (2015). United Kingdom, 106 minutes. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Helena Bonham Carter.

This year the arrival of my press pass to the London Film Festival coincided with the death of Chantal Akerman. Akerman was my filmic mentor, I encountered her work in the early 1980s and I’ve followed it since. She always pushed my practice towards more integrity. She was a great, like Jean-Luc Godard.  So I went to the festival with a heavy heart. I chose a few films to watch out of the hundreds on offer; the ones which were talking about women, the ones I had curiosity for, or an interest in the filmmaker.  As I experienced this rather patchy selection of festival films, I inevitably reflected on Akerman, whose death shocked me. Numbed me.

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette.

Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette.

The first film I saw was Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. I was a little stunned by the soundtrack, like a drone over the top of it all; great clunking sounds of violence. There was a lot of violence, from confrontations with the police to force-feeding in prison to dire working conditions to domestic abuse. The whole story of women’s oppression is compressed in Suffragette, but I was craving more subtlety in the storytelling. It’s a sort of feminist blockbuster that uses a strong cast; Helena Bonham-Carter, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Cary Mulligan, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, and Ben Whishaw—they pulled out all the stops in the casting department.

But how strange to watch this on the morning after Akerman died, when the world seemed to be in shock. Suffragette is a political action movie about women in history. It’s a narrative that belts out the fight for the vote with great, crashing, dramatic punctuation. My friend thought this over-emphasized drama was likely a result of the plethora of funders, “Imagine the meetings!” Of course, a woman has to direct this sort of subject, and Sarah Gavron, who directed the popular adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, has the right credentials and audience appeal.

Meanwhile all the talk about sexism in Hollywood (as if it was something new!) has its perfect commercial answer, and a zillion media companies want their say on what the film will be like. Suffragette smacks of the massive co-production model, the flawed compromises glossed over with CGI and “authentic” turn of the century sets. These sets beautify the conditions in the laundry, where the main characters toil under dire conditions, yes, as my friend remarked, “It’s Downton with Suffragettes.”

Sophie Mayer in the F-Word notes that Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud, is involved with feminism passively, “By contrivance, coincidence, and coercion. As an innocent co-opted, she never uses nor hears words such as ‘socialism’ or ‘anarchism,’ never attends a worker’s education seminar, never connects with non-white communities of women who were organizing in Bethnal Green where she lives: a considerable dumbing down and narrowing of the movement.”

I left the cinema thinking about Akerman, her intelligence, her way of evoking thought with her gaze rather than compromising her intention for some narrative that fulfills a commercial need. Her cutting has endless patience, as she said—the rhythm followed her breathing; her films breathe.

Her soundtracks are symphonic in their attention to detail — the shoes in Jeanne Dielman tap on the floors of her small apartment, the switching on and off of lights, the sound of a match being struck, a saucepan laid on a burner, crisp and real. I thought of her relentless gaze; visually she invites the audience into her frame, gently but with intent. Integrity, there are no extra frills, no overwhelming emphasis. That Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1975) at the age of 24 is extraordinary, because the film is so mature, so purposeful, and present in its gaze.

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelle

Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelle

So now, back to Suffragette. The Guardian’s critics Nigel Smith and Catherine Shoard reviewed it intelligently at the Telluride Film Festival. Suffragette merely spells things out for debate, technically competent at best, they say. But this film, style and markets aside, has relevance today, tracing the roots of misogyny and women’s oppression to patriarchy and its institutions. It reckons with men and law so clearly and simply. The demonstrations outside the London Film Festival screening, discussed in interviews with the cast on the red carpet, raised huge questions of how far we have or haven’t come since women got the right to vote.

It raises questions about the meaning of democracy, of inequalities between women, and inequality in the institutions of cinema, of the workplace, and the domestic setting. Many of the protesters were speaking of domestic violence and cuts to services that support women. Some protesters online have noted the absence of women of color in the film, and the notable absence of leading suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh—daughter of the deposed Punjabi monarch, Duleep Singh.

The Pankhurst slogan ‘A Rebel not a Slave’ on T-shirts advertising the film makes the fact of the African slave trade almost invisible. Protesters also commented on the racism of the conceit. Others ask where the Jewish women of the east end of London, many of whom were suffragettes working in the garment industry, come into the story. These women had a mention, if subtly, in the BBC drama series Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), which dealt with the same subject. Gavron’s film sketches out a broad generic London that reminded me of British historical TV dramas at best, and Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins at worst.

The film has a polish that contradicts the conditions it portrays. But it is powerful and its slick production values and easy-to-follow narrative will appeal to a broad public. Watching the film now, any viewer is forced to reflect on the present and on power. To ask what’s really changed. There is a particular cinematic intelligence that allows things to speak for themselves, which is common in French cinema. Akerman has been supported by French television companies that actively encourage auteurial ventures, while in the U.K. producers get lots of money from everywhere to ensure a guaranteed audience and the auteurial is backgrounded.

As a filmmaker, I am partisan; I want women’s films to look less commercial like Akerman’s. I want audiences to be persuaded that more difficult films can be rewarding. That narrative can be nuanced. I want film itself to challenge the patriarchal institution of cinema and Akerman does this with every breath in her work. Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have produced what the U.K. televisual marketers want, a big spectacle that tells a story graphically.

Perhaps all historical dramatizations have to do this, but as Nigel Smith and Catherine Shoard noted, Ava Du Vernay’s Selma (2014) “had guts and energy, while Suffragette bows to the conventions of a marketable product, what it says has been said already, but its release in 2015 reminds us of ongoing oppression that suffrage and democracy haven’t resolved.”

Cinema and feminism have been recurring issues in the media this year. Patricia Arquette, Emma Thompson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Meryl Streep, Geena Davis, and many others have noted that the ramifications of gender imbalance are embedded in the film industry and the world at large in numerous ways. In a keynote speech at this years LFF, Geena Davis said, “We are unwittingly training generation after generation to see men and women as unequal…Surely in the 21st century we should be showing kids that boys and girls should be sharing the sandbox equally?” Davis was talking about the lack of roles for women in film, and of women directors in Hollywood. Suffragette raises the question of whether enfranchisement can make things better if film studios, governments, and banks still follow patriarchal thinking.

What kind of roles exist for older women on screen? Tilda Swinton is a great performer, in Luca Guadagnini’s latest film A Bigger Splash—(a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider)—Swinton plays a rock star recovering from a throat operation on the island of Pantelleria. She’s more or less mute; beautiful, tanned, and designer-dressed. Unwilling to take on another speaking role, Swinton asked that her role be silent and she made good use of her silence to develop the gesture and gaze of a character on a summer holiday and in love with laid-back filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts).

According to Felicity Chaplin of Monash University, Swinton’s clothes echo Deray’s film, where, “The predominance of a neutral colour palette in Marianne’s daytime wardrobe suggests an elegant ease and an understated chic. Through her costuming Marianne is coded as sophisticated, well-groomed, stylish, and seductive.” Guadagnino’s films celebrate Swinton’s beauty. This is his second film with Swinton and his first, I am Love (2012), also casts her as a beautiful recipient of masculine ardor. But A Bigger Splash doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because Swinton as Marianne is merely the object of male desire.

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash

In stark contrast, Paul Weitz’s Grandma opens with a quote from the New York poet Eileen Myles, “Time passes. That’s for sure.” Lily Tomlin plays lesbian poet, Elle Reid (loosely modeled on Myles), who goes on a road trip with her granddaughter to get an abortion. The film kills two birds with one stone, lesbianism and abortion, and presents an intergenerational conversation. Tomlin, rarely cast in a lead role, gets a chance to really go with the script. Her one-liners and savage critique are refreshing. It’s a perfect indie comedy. Helen Eisenbach in the Huffington Post remarks that ‘Weitz can be counted on to marry classic screwball intelligence with an enlightened contemporary sensibility.’ And she’s right, Grandma might herald a His Girl Friday (1940) for the 21st century, the fast-talking quips work in Tomlin’s favor, a lesbian Rosalind Russell!

Weitz tells Eisenbach; “I didn’t have any sisters, and so by the time I graduated high school, mostly through my own lack of intellectual curiosity, I would pretty much say that I was a misogynist. I don’t mean actively denigrating women, but by the nature of having grown up only among boys, I didn’t have any sort of feminist sensibility.” Weitz is fascinated by Tomlin, wants to work with her. Even more generously Weitz says, “I’d just spent time with Lily Tomlin on the set of Admission, and she really got under my skin. I felt like she had so much to say, and there was unfinished business, in my mind—that this 70-something-year-old woman who’d lived through all this women’s history, who is so forceful and so youthful and so transgressive in her thinking, that she ought to have a film in which to hit every note that I was perceiving in her.

So I sat down to write—and the grandma, it was Lily’s voice, and it just kept on going from there.” Weitz has done a lot of work on himself, asked by Eisenbach how he turned from misogynist to feminist, he says,

“I went to Wesleyan, which had a fairly outspoken feminist student body—I was taken aback by it at the time, frankly. Also, having a female mentor in this woman Jeanine Basinger. Actually, I was thinking about it the other day: I think the Anita Hill hearings snapped something in me, just watching this woman who was clearly so smart and had no reason to be lying, being grilled by these largely male senators. It felt like watching a tragedy. And then she wasn’t listened to. It was like watching something out of the Bible, honestly. That was just like, Wow, not only does chauvinism exist, but it’s still functioning on the highest level.”

To see Tomlin in the lead role is to see a U.S. indie film that addresses me and my friends, and everyone we know.

Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell in The Lobster

Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell in The Lobster

Greek director Yiorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film The Lobster is a dysfunctional ‘sci-fi’ where coupledom is imposed and failure to couple is punished. Loners hide in the woods and have an equally brutal rule of law; lips slashed with razors for kissing, for instance. While Colin Farrell’s central character David is asked whether he’s hetero or homo in the opening scenes, there are no gay couples in the couplings.

The film concerns itself with dysfunctional straight society in a film that seems an allegory of capitalism versus Stalinism, or perhaps of ennui in an overwhelmed 21st century consumer society? The problem with satire is that it doesn’t touch the heart. The wry grins the film provokes are about irony rather than humor.

But Lanthimos’ vision of a world stuck in the limbo of two choices—in the case of this film; bland coupledom, or endangered solitude—reminds me of Truffaut’s Farhrenheit 451 (1965) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1966). Imagine a world entirely controlled by conformist, anti-intellectual forces. Lanthimos’ Greek-language films Dogtooth and Alps critiqued the perversity of the patriarchal order. Lanthimos works well in Greek, and this British-ish global production felt theatrical, neither European nor American, perhaps globalism is inevitably bland.

Director Todd Haynes’ Carol translates Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt. A sumptuous production starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, who meet over the counter of a department store in 1950s New York. Their eyes tell the story. What stands out is the gaze. Nagy’s adaptation makes Therese a photographer, instead of the aspiring set designer of the novel. The change emphasizes the role of looking. Their falling in love intensifies during a trip that takes the characters out of the city to the freedom of the open road.

Tim Robey in The Telegraph writes, “It’s an exquisite work of American art, rippling with a very specific mid-century melancholy, understanding love as the riskiest but most necessary gamble.” The risks and inevitability of love are sketched out through the ethics of the 1950s, where a mother might have to choose between her daughter and her lover, to live with public condemnation.

These women simply fall profoundly and unexpectedly in love, “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space” Carol says to Therese. Haynes’ film is perhaps too beautiful. Can and should a gay man direct a lesbian film? Did the producers feel that Nagy (who directed the excellent Mrs. Harris) was too unknown for such a box-office risk? Its gloss somehow contradicted the simplicity of Therese’s black and white photographs, which are reminiscent of Lisette Model, Helen Leavitt, Ruth Orkin (who Haynes cites as an influence) or even Nan Goldin. Did the score have to overwhelm, did the mise-en-scène have to be so glossy?  Because again, I had the sense I was watching a gorgeous product, which slightly detracts from the nuanced, suspenseful portrayal of love the film narrates.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

I went to this year’s London Film Festival hoping to trace changes in where women stand now, and hoping for films by women that would be as innovative and profound as Chantal Akerman’s oeuvre, (which has been screening in its entirety in London as part of À Nos Amours, curated by Adam Roberts and Joanna Hogg).

The London Film Festival is a market for the industry  and with every year the production company credits for interesting films get bigger, which means the truly independent film is in danger, compromised by projected sales. Akerman worked hard to get her films made, and French television is famously good at funding ‘niche’ or intellectual projects. The films I watched in this year’s festival were compromised by an imaginary popular appeal, which means that Suffragette needed an all-star cast, sumptuous costumes, and uncomplicated direction to get made.

We’re back in the era of the studio film, all gloss and frills to cover up serious themes. Grandma and Carol had solid, proven male directors, who while sympathetic, wouldn’t compromise the investors at the box-office. The performances carried all the films I watched, and even Swinton, while muted in A Bigger Splash, carried the film, and gave it an authorial mark. Swinton collaborates with directors.

A real golden age is full of risk-taking, and this year’s festival showed that safe bets don’t really cut cinematic mustard. It seems there’s a long way to go, despite the many celebrated women speaking out about the various aspects of gender inequality. Akerman was an auteur, and her integrity was total, and in her films women were indeed the bearers and the makers of meaning. Feminist film can be more than merely political; feminists in films and women who direct them can and do convey a sense of deep philosophy and art in their work, as Akerman did. Globalized productions are polishing the edges too hard. An edge gives a film a feeling that makes it more than a product. All the films I saw in this year’s festival were glossy, but I missed the minor chords, and the textures of films that explore interiority and thus make the message and the art inseparable.

Post Script: No Home Movie Chantal Akerman, 2015

The festival over, what turns out to be Akerman’s last film No Home Movie has a one-night screening at London’s Regents Street Cinema, a show that was to have followed a one-day event with Akerman present. It was instead, a memorial, introduced by Akerman’s editor, Claire Atherton.

Chantal Akerman and Natalia Akerman in No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman and Natalia Akerman in No Home Movie

The opening shot, a harsh, wind battering a tree against a bleak landscape – it could be northern Israel in winter, the audience is given the space to make assumptions or to just feel the wind and the desolation. Akerman’s films let us wonder and feel. Then a cut to a quiet Brussels apartment, and Nelly/Natalia, Akerman’s mother, then Chantal, and her often comic intervention, her vocal, physical presence are in the frame. They eat, they talk, and they inhabit the “home” that the title evokes but fails to find. This is no home movie after all. We are in Nelly’s apartment, where Chantal visits and lives, where she films; her camera set up on a tripod or in her hand while she films herself, in mirrors, reflected in glass, through doorways. In the kitchen, a conversation between Chantal and a carer who looks Latin American (but everything in Akerman’s films must be guessed) in which the origins of Akerman’s parents are discussed; “Polish.” “Ah Polish.” “They fled to Belgium.” “Ah bueno.” “They were taken back to Poland.” “Ah” then a smile. Akerman mentions the SS and it clicks, “Ah, Jews.”

In the kitchen there’s a verandah with hanging laundry. I’m reminded of Jeanne Dielman‘s kitchen. It is a home movie about home or Akerman’s search for one, and cut with violently bleak landscape shots, which seem to prefigure the violence of death. Love is stronger than death, says the Torah. There is love and there is a death encroaching. Her mother is articulate and spry in the first hour. Suddenly she deteriorates and Chantal and her sister, Sylviane, attend to her, trying to make her eat, breathe, drink, tell stories.

Natalia Akerman in No Home Movie

Natalia Akerman in No Home Movie

It’s such a generous and tender film, real and true, sad and funny. In Nelly’s kitchen, we see Akerman’s back as she eats with her mother at the table, her mother eats cornflakes (something Akerman remarks upon in her memoir Ma Mère Rit). I was wondering what Akerman was eating, as she went to the fridge to find mustard that wasn’t there, then settled for pickles and returned to the table, eating from two bowls, one perhaps a steak, the other maybe spinach. There are so many details, the décor—sofas and tables and curtains, framed photographs on shelves, paintings and vases, Chinese rugs. But there are occlusions throughout: doorways, half-glimpsed crossings of rooms, a domestic realism that evokes the most banal of home videos, but these interactions, these interiors are mesmerizing. The (also Belgian) Dardennes brothers employ this kind of realism, yet Akerman’s final work—part video essay, part reflection—rings with a profound intentionality through jumpy, often aesthetically difficult footage that maintains its vision from start to finish. A portrait, of her mother, of herself, of life itself. Her mother and her—these intimate and texturally anomalous images—tell a story of death, of life,of the quotidian in our mortal journeys. The desert, the wind, her mother, Skype calls and messy rooms, desktops, a magnificent film that is Akerman’s farewell. She leaves a body of work that stands among the greatest in European cinema, and a final film which cuts, suddenly, to black.

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