D’Est, 1993

The opening image of D’Est is of an unhurried, stationary shot of a green hazed, obscured highway at twilight, as the intermittent hum and audibly shifting Doppler frequency of a distant, revving engine from an occasional traversing vehicle – some errantly never materializing on screen – provide the sole, false anticipation of a visual break from the seeming interminable view of the desolate, anonymous urban landscape. A subsequent montage of quotidian shots establish the season as summer in Eastern Europe: a daylight interior shot of an open window overlooking a lush meadow, a Cyrillic café sign swaying in the wind, a man wearing a sleeveless undershirt leisurely sitting on a public bench while smoking a cigarette (with a beer bottle politely set to the side of the frame at the foot of the bench for the duration of the shot), an elderly couple playing a board game by an open window, a group of revelers spending a lazy day on the beach, a crowd gathering at an amphitheater for an outdoor concert. Three instances of relative motion in the early sequences of the film reinforce the underlying dichotomy of these introductory images: an extended dolly shot of an elderly woman slowly (and laboredly) walking uphill as a sprightly child on a bicycle momentarily whisks past her; a car longitudinally speeds past a lone tree on a rural dirt road before a plodding, horse-drawn cart eventually reaches the same intersection and transects the vertical axis of symmetry demarcated by the tree on the horizon; a motorcycle crosses a rural intersection at full throttle as another horse-drawn cart lumbers through town and turns to travel in the opposite direction. In each episode, the apparent relativism of the subjects’ coincidental juxtaposition serves as a visual metaphor for the transitory juncture (and intersection) between past and present (or more appropriately, future), traditional and modern ways in the rapidly transforming socioeconomic landscape of the region in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is this cultural climate of uncertainty, directionlessness, and supplanted expectation that is inferentially punctuated in Chantal Akerman’s ingeniously metaphoric transitional shot of a billboard outpost sign in the unusual shape of an upended cross that serves, not only to indicate the bellweather changing of the natural seasons (and political climate), but also the film’s thematic progression from a sense of stasis to physical transience and migration as a group of people are shown walking through dirt roads and empty streets carrying suitcases, visual imprint that are thematically presaged (and figuratively set into motion) in a preceding, double entendred, culminating shot of peasant women cadently harvesting potatoes (a root vegetable) into galvanized steel pails in an open field at the end of the farming season.

The film’s intrinsic diurnal rhythms of isolated, interior spaces (people sitting at their dinner tables, applying cosmetics, watching television, or eating alone) and crowded, anonymous exterior spaces (most notably in the ghostly, nocturnal silhouette of people passing through the streets amidst the sound of a rock and roll tune from an overdriven radio that eventually dissipates – and is visually reduced – to the entrancing syncopation of alternately blinking, red traffic lights) similarly carries through to the blue-hued, winter images of perpetual displacement and migration as sinuous, hyperextended tracking shots of foot traffic and endlessly winding queues begin to dominate the latter half of the film. As in the earlier sequences, coincidence and synchronicity play an integral role in the resolution of the images as bystanders alternately engage, challenge, appear bemused by, or confront the camera, while others appear (perhaps deliberately) oblivious of its presence (in an understatedly insightful episode, an attractive, handsomely dressed woman feigns indifference at the approaching camera, but inevitably finds the temptation to look too irresistible and is captured betraying a momentary gaze directly into the eye of the apparatus). (Also note that the initial, transitional, nighttime image of a public queue as people stare out into an undefined space is similarly incorporated by Philippe Grandrieux in the post-apocalyptic prelude of La Vie nouvelle, a film that similarly hints of the collapse of a political bloc, in this case, the break up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Balkan Wars.) A delirious, sweeping panning shot through the atrium of a grand, central train station reinforces its figurative representation as an existential weigh station for lost souls as interminably waiting travelers come in from the cold and encounter even more queues within for the use of telephone booths, ticketing, train boarding, and departure. Concluding with a truncated traveling shot of yet another, seemingly ubiquitous public queue, the film reveals an intriguingly transitory and unresolved intrinsic reality: a haunted and indelible reflection of spiritual rootlessness and inertia in the wake of a crumbled ideology, human abandonment, and directionless revolution.

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