In a way it makes sense that Chantal Akerman's 1982 masterpiece is (for the moment) available on YouTube, because it resembles a fan video compilation of dramatic scenes from the movies, stitched together in one ecstatic montage. Instead of ripping them from her DVD collection, she's reshot them in her own beloved Brussels. By my count we're looking at 55 dramatic encounters, embraces and separations involving 75 nameless characters, usually in couples, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, arranged in loose chronology from anticipatory dusk to weary dawn. It's a puzzle-form film that practically begs to be re-watched and broken down by geeks to find patterns and beguiling inconsistencies - like when a woman checks into a hotel in one scene only to be seen running into the same hotel a few scenes later. Many characters resemble each other in appearance and dress (women in blue dresses, men in white shirts) such that they all bleed into each other - only upon close observation does one realize that only a few characters reappear, and mostly near the end.
This convergence of the universal and the specific is but one of the film's several paradoxes. With it's actors' balletic movements, rushing up and down streets and stairwells, pushing and pulling their partners in bars and bedrooms, it's a musical, except without music (save the recurring clacking of heels, as irresistible as fate). It depicts a city teeming with human life, energy, lustful passions, yet nearly every figure seems touched with lonely desperation even in their moments of consummation. Or the way the characters move and speak like automatons following pre-programmed behaviors to express their most selfish desires. Love and lust, so exciting in an isolated moment, so banal in the context of human history, a script that essentially has never changed.
For me, this dialogue between love in the movies and in real life is the film's most beguiling paradox. These fleeting scenes of romantic union and dissolution somehow embody both the larger-than-life drama of movie climaxes (and cliches) and the quotidian pleasure of everyday people-watching. Because these sublime encounters are devoid of the larger narrative granted to movie characters, they become as anonymous as people embracing on the street. The thrill of the movies aren't just on screen, they're everywhere around us, if we have the eyes to see them. This movie grants us that gift.
PART ONE OF TEN:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Toute Une Nuit among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:
Berenice Reynaud, Sight & Sound (1992) Helmut W. Banz, Steadycam (2007) Peter Korte, Steadycam (2007) Jim Jarmusch, Premiere: The 1980's Best (1989)
PART TWO OF TEN:
Chantal Akerman said good-bye to minimalism with this 1982 feature, which finds its model less in Michael Snow than MGM musicals. A hot summer night in Brussels is covered in brief narrative fragments centered on couples coming together or breaking up; as the film continues, it acquires an almost choreographic sense of rhythm and space. A real pleasure to watch, though Akerman doesn't skirt the darker implications of this dance of desire.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
PART THREE OF TEN:
Chantal Akerman presents a structurally challenging, yet emotionally honest, understatedly humorous, and visually compelling choreography of motion, rhythm, and passion in Toute une nuit. Using short takes, minimal dialogue, and fragmented narrative, Akerman distills the visual narrative into the brief, yet essential moments that define the spectrum of human interaction: separation, attraction, reconciliation, reunion, intimacy, absence, rejection. Filmed as a narcoleptic journey through a sultry and languorous evening in summertime Brussels, Toute une nuit becomes a subtle and relevant validation on the singularity of human existence - a chronicle of the irrepressible passion and vitality that lay beneath the surface of an alienating urban landscape.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
PART FOUR OF TEN:
Akerman, the mistress of minimalism, has made her own midsummer night's sex comedy, with a superabundance of stories and a cast of (almost) thousands. The film shows an endless series of brief encounters that take place in Brussels in the course of one delirious, torrid June night, with the twist that each relationship is condensed into a single moment of high melodrama - the coup de foudre, the climax of passion, the end of an affair - with the spectator left to fill in the fictional spaces between scenes. Each couple compulsively plays through the same gestures, each mating rite is a variation on the same theme: repetitions which Akerman uses both as a rich source of comedy and as a device to show erotic desire as a pattern of codes and conventions. Marrying the pleasure of narrative to the purism of the avant-garde, this is her most accessible film to date.
- Time Out
In Toute une nuit Akerman displays her precision and control as she stages the separate, audience-involving adventures of a huge cast of all ages that wanders out into Brussels byways on a hot, stormy night. In this film, reminiscent of Wim Wenders and his wanderers and Marguerite Duras's inventive sound tracks, choreography, and sense of place, Akerman continues to explore her medium using no conventional plot, few spoken words, many sounds, people who leave the frame to a lingering camera, and appealing images. A little girl asks a man to dance with her, and he does. The filmmaker's feeling for the child and the child's independence can't be mistaken.
- Lilian Schiff, Film Reference.com
PART FIVE OF TEN:
Toute une nuit continues the theme of solitude, as it follows the monotonous sexual encounters of one particular night, as sugested in the film's title. Couples do not get together in All Night Long. Marsha Kinder describes the challenges posed by this film:
"By denying us a single unifying story, by frequently pitting word against image and non-verbal sound, by discouraging us from identifying with any of the anonymous characters, by denying us a single unified subject position... Toute une nuit makes us change the way we read a film."
- Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Identity and memory: the films of Chantal Akerman. SIU Press, 2003. Page 3.
Chantal Akerman's work has a dry, cumulative intensity. Extended takes, fixed frames, and a resolutely frontal camera position efface the conventions of analytic editing; precise and repeated framings are coupled with a consistent focus on single characters and an insistence on time. In the 1970s films, single protagonists propel the narrative through visible displacements (Je tu il elle, 1974, Meetings with Anna, 1978) or increasingly charged stillness (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975). This premise is reversed in the '80s work - in Toute une nuit (All night long, 1982), for example, whre Akerman's narrative, though still predicated on accumulation, is spread over multiple episodic threads, as characters couple and decouple according to a logic of the romantic - through longing, sexual desire, boredom...
In Toute une nuit, Akerman passes from the minimalist narratives of her earlier films to her later, idiosyncratic use of the movie-musical form - a natural outgrowth of her attention to the rhythms of gesture and dialogue, and to her transformations of them into an antinaturalistic choreography of concreteness. "No links except a musical one, with recurrences and ruptures," says Akerman of Toute une nuit's fragmentary structure...
Ivone Margulies. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday. Duke University Press, 1996. Pages 171-172
PART SIX OF TEN:
Toute Une Nuit exemplifies her fairy tale wish granting on a grand scale. As in the other films, extremes of hunger and appetite, need and excess, too-much and not-enough retrain our senses. Avant-garde filmmaker Anne Severson once made a film of animals running, culled from archive footage, to satisfy her own childhood hunger to see more jungle every time the Hollywood camera returned to Ava Gardner, or some such colonial-abroad star, wiping sweat from her brow. I can imagine Akerman indulging the same hunger for the archetypical movie embrace, that mad dash into (or out of) each other's arms in the cathartic moment of numberless Hollywood or French movies of the thirties. Enter the fairy tale. Akerman stacks her film with these embraces - and virtually nothing else- so that they are totally stripped of psychological definition and narrative meaning. The embraces become, like many of the actions in her films, very nearly existential. They have no meaning beyond their visual literalization. And yet, having given up the expectation of emotional drama, the viewer is rewarded with a semblance of a post-modernist musical in which the tableaux, rhythm of shots, exchanges of looks, even falling of glasses, become a choreographed and scored performance played to the hilt. The film turns itself inside out, embodying a critique of romance and the musical genre all at once.
Akerman adds an extra layer to her metacinema by seeding her films with jokes and references to earlier work. In Toute Une Nuit, Akerman's own mother smokes a cigarette as her daughter cries "Mama on the soundtrack, in a simultaneous invocation of News from Home and Rendez-vous d'Anna's pillow-talk sequence.
- B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Duke University Press, 1998. Page 172.
PART SEVEN OF TEN:
PART EIGHT OF TEN:
Another beautiful insomniac's journey from Chantal Akerman. Narrative is La Ronde fractured, spun out of dozens of fragments of personal dramas not quite intertwining over a humid, languorous night in oppressively impersonal Brussels. A woman meets her lover in a bar while another couple looks on from a nearby table, separated until a tentative embrace breaks through the symmetry of the frame; a trio splitting leads to another couple dancing around a jukebox in a deserted restaurant; another middle-aged couple decides to go out while a woman packs up her things and takes off while her husband sleeps, and so on into dawn. Huddling actors and non-professionals (the only recognizable one is Aurore Clément, Anna in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna), Akerman grids out a panorama of aching city dwellers stepping into and out of apartments, hooking up or barely missing each other, a rendezvous kept and then broken, each and every affair marinated in its own flavor of heartbreak. Her Brussels is a democratically alienated center, with young and aged, straight and queer, local and immigrant soaking in the heat and suffering through the mysteries of human interaction with delicate variations of an ongoing plaintive murmur ("Come with me. No? ... I don't think we still love each other ... Keep me from drinking. I am scared.") Akerman's framing and panning are as severe as in her previous films, yet the duration of her shots is lighter, more elastic, reflecting the ephemeral feel of the passing fancies she captures -- a notion expressed in the closing passage with sublime consequences for Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis, Clément dreamily swaying with her lover through a reverse tracking-shot down a corridor while in the soundtrack their romantic Italian chanson battles it out with the disembodied honking of cars implacably ushering in the early morning, and reality.
- Fernando Croce, CinePassion
Although Toute Une Nuit is not as personal as Akerman’s most powerful films, her methodic filmmaking, sly humor, and obsession with relationships is firmly on display in her pseduo-conceptual work.Toute Une Nuit, like most Akerman films, contains minimal dialogue, and slowly tracks over two dozen characters as they move around urban Brussels passionately connecting with one another, if only for brief moments. It is hard to imagine Richard Linklater’s great film Slacker working, or even existing, without Chantal Akerman. While Toute Une Nuit is still only available on VHS, it is worth seeking out (and can be found on Amazon for under $5!) It is a good introduction to Akerman’s work (although I think News From Home (1977) would be the best introduction) and has quietly thrilling aspects that have become part of Akerman’s signature voice.
- James Hansen, Out 1
PART NINE OF TEN:
Instead of a safely potted narrative plant, Äkerman gives us a plethora of seemingly random narrative shoots. These bits of life reflect how we experience our own lives. Characters are let go of for a while and picked up again. While her husband soundly sleeps, a woman noisily packs her bag right on the bed and leaves him, goes to a hotel, but returns home at dawn defeated, gets back into bed just in time for the ringing alarm clock to presumably awaken her, as well as him. For years I took exception to this artificial aspect, this miniature story, but now I find that it underscores by contrast the different method of the rest of Äkerman’s formally rigorous yet open-ended film.
The odd adventure in filmmaking is worth savoring because of its uniqueness, its lingering hypnotic effect, the artistic way all the brief encounters reach a melodramatic moment and in the delicate manner Miss Akerman tells her amorous narrative in an experimental film style. Miss Akerman plays with the same theme for each couple, as the repetition offers both a mix of sad and happy moments. It's surprisingly an accessible film (at least for her), and combines a sense of absurd humor with the erotic. Not a great film, but one that catches your attention.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews
PART TEN OF TEN:
The yearning for romance and for the romance of the ordinary is a central ingredient of her work, but the most remarkable moments in her films are those in which her other, demonic impulses rebel against this fantasy. Emblematic in this respect is the ending of Toute une nuit, an insomniac's movie about insomniacs, in which a couple's lovemaking is gradually smothered, and all but obliterated from our attention, by the hectoring sounds of early-morning traffic outside. The tortured aggressiveness of such a moment is finally what her filmmaking is all about--her cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions and brutal sounds being hammered into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that makes Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood all seem like pussycats.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990
ABOUT CHANTAL AKERMAN
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Profile Page for Chantal Akerman:
"At the age of fifteen Chantal Akerman saw Godard's Pierrot le fou and realized that filmmaking could be experimental and personal. She dropped in and out of film school and has since created short and feature films for viewers who appreciate the opportunity her works provide to think about sounds and images. Her films are often shot in real time, and in space that is part of the characters' identity." - Lillian Schiff (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"Belgian-born director who makes long, often tedious, but sometimes hypnotically watchable arthouse films in which the camera's concentration on scenes for a long period of time can turn the viewer's pleasure into discomfort, interest into boredom or disinterest into perception. A unique film-maker, she continues to alternately baffle and fascinate her audiences." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"Independent filmmaker noted for her minimalist narratives and static visual style...Her films, often dramatically vague and nearly plotless, typically seek to explore human emotion and character through unorthodox cinematic means. Although she is admired by serious critics, her films are barely accessible to general audiences.." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
On one hand, the films of the 39-year-old Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman are about as varied as anyone could wish. Some are in 16-millimeter and some are in 35; some are narrative and some are nonnarrative; the running times range from 11 minutes to 205. The genres range from autobiography to personal psychodrama to domestic drama to comedy to musical to documentary to feature-in-progress--a span that still fails to include a silent, not-exactly-documentary study of a run-down New York hotel (Hotel Monterey), a vast collection of miniplots covering a single night in a city (Toute une nuit), and a feature-length string of Jewish jokes recited by immigrants in Brooklyn exteriors (Food, Family and Philosophy), among other oddities.
On the other hand, paradoxically, there are few important contemporary filmmakers whose range is as ruthlessly narrow as Akerman's, formally and emotionally. Virtually all of her films, regardless of genre, come across as melancholy, narcissistic meditations charged with feelings of loneliness and anxiety; and nearly all of them have the same hard-edged painterly presence and monumentality, the same precise sense of framing, locations, and empty space. Most of them are fundamentally concerned with the discomfort of bodies in rooms. (Akerman is basically geared toward interiors, which may be one reason her latest feature, Food, Family and Philosophy, set mostly in exteriors, is not one of her strongest. The fact that virtually all of Window Shopping, her musical, is set inside a shopping mall sets up an interesting ambiguity about whether one is inside or out--until the shock of the ending, when the film finally moves out into the open air.)
If I have a reputation for being difficult, it's because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.
A yearning for the ordinary as well as the everyday runs through Akerman's work like a recurring, plaintive refrain. It is a longing that takes many forms: part of it is simply her ambition to make a commercially successful movie; another part is the desire of a self-destructive, somewhat regressive neurotic--Akerman herself in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, and The Man With a Suitcase; Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman; Aurore Clement in Les rendezvous d'Anna--to go legit and be like "normal" people. Je tu il elle and Les rendezvous d'Anna both feature a bisexual heroine who wants to either resolve an unhappy relationship with another woman or to go straight; in Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, Jeanne Dielman, and The Man With a Suitcase, the desire to be "normal" is largely reflected in the efforts of the heroine simply to inhabit a domestic space.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, January 26, 1990
Akerman's defiance of cinematic conventions - not just the faster takes but the intrusive soundtracks, the constant visual fidgeting, the tendentious editing - has something liberating about it. Her approach, characterized by extreme restraint, makes you aware of just how manipulative, even bullying these conventions can be, though we rarely give them a second thought.
Her own slow style discourages the suspension of disbelief, allowing the mind time and space to roam, to contemplate, to question. Of course, her style can also frustrate. Akerman toys deliberately with our desire to know more, to see more, to glean a plot or grasp what is going on. Her strategy can make you resentful, but it also creates tension.
- Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe, June 8 2008
What has made Chantal Akerman such an important part of world cinema has been her ability to raise, across a wide variety of forms, common questions that touch the core of both cinematic aesthetics and feminist political practice. The flexibility she has exhibited over the years should confirm her status not as a progressively more compromised filmmaker, but as an artist committed enough to ask questions in different idioms, instead of piously relying on one (supposedly) politically or aesthetically purified form, as so many members of both the political and romantic avant-gardes have.
- Jerry White, "Chantal Akerman's Revisionist Aesthetic." From Women and Experimental Filmmaking, edited by Jean Petrolle, Virginia Wright Wexman. University of Illinois Press, 2005. Page 47.