The Eighties, 1983

The decontextualized sound of a feminine voice repeatedly delivers the ambiguous, singular declaration, “At your age, grief soon wears off” against the dissociative sight of an extended duration black screen, as the unseen actress subtly modulates her articulated tone from somber resignation to pragmatic trivialization, to optimistic encouragement, and finally, to compassionate reassurance at the guiding instruction of an off-screen director (Chantal Akerman). The opening sequence provides an insightful glimpse, not only into Akerman’s deliberative and exacting methodology, but more broadly, into the filmmaker’s familiar expositions on such amorphous themes as identity, repetitive ritual, and identification of the speaker. Segueing into another seemingly illogical – and equally contextually indeterminate – isolated shot of women’s legs promenading, dancing, scurrying, and even occasionally strutting on a cobblestone road (in a fractured, musical interlude that playfully recalls the introductory sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), the film’s fragmented structure soon begins to reveal an intrinsic logic to its seemingly disconnected assembly of episodes as a disembodied pair of feet slips out of a pair of practical black boots and into a more visually striking pair of red medium-heeled shoes before walking out of frame. The wardrobe-changing sequence is then followed by the screen test of a young actress who, having received a set of stage directions given by the filmmaker, delivers an impassioned (and perhaps over-emotive) performance of selected excerpts from the script, depicting the heroine, Mado’s crushing revelation of her unreciprocated love for her employer’s son, Robert. However, a subsequent actress (Lio) provides a more distilled and enigmatic interpretation to a similar set of directions – an emotional opacity that is highlighted by a freeze frame close-up from her screen test – as Akerman provides constructive criticism on her captivating, but intentionally muted performance. Like the aesthetic change in footwear in the earlier sequence, the filmmaker has replaced actresses for the role of Mado, a decision that is seemingly (and idiosyncratically) punctuated by the sight of the actress’ awkward, improvisational dance to the tune of an ensemble musical sequence from the film project.

Composed of interrelated vignettes of script reading, casting, dress rehearsal, and vocal recording, and culminating in completed excerpts from the film’s completed musical sequences, The Eighties captures the rigor, discipline, and meticulous attention to detail inherent in the creative process. Using repeated, identical directions to assorted actors and actresses and presented as culled, day-in-the-life vignettes from the rehearsal process, Akerman revisits the distilled fragmentation and intrinsic choreography of Toute une nuit in order to create an intriguing narrative puzzle that, in the absence of knowing the unfilmed musical’s underlying plot, nevertheless conveys its emotional essence. Moreover, the extracted, dialogue-less acting exercise provides, not only an insightful examination into the interchangeability of role and identity in human relationships, but also as illustration of emotional (or more broadly, spiritual) transience and dislocation – the absence of the “true” speaker – a pervasive theme in Akerman’s oeuvre that is often visually manifested in her non-fiction films through extended takes of desolate environments and featureless landscapes (News from Home, Hotel Monterey, D’Est, and From the Other Side), and in her feature films through disembodied framing (most notably in the static, decapitated shots of the heroine in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles). It is this amalgam of repetition, fragmentation, and displacement that inevitably defines the film’s idiosyncratically curious, yet infectious, alchemy: a choreography borne of role-playing, existential ambiguity, and quotidian ritual.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.