Chantal Akerman Masterpieces, 1968–1978

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

See more details, packaging, or compare

Synopsis

In the revolutionary first decade of her filmmaking career, Chantal Akerman devoted herself to nothing less than the total resculpting of cinematic time and space. Journeying between Europe and New York City, Akerman forged a highly personal style that fuses avant-garde influences with deeply human expressions of alienation, desire, and displacement—themes that she would explore in a series of increasingly ambitious shorts, documentaries, and features, including the towering Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. With immersive rhythms that render the most minute details momentous, these landmarks of twentieth-century art continue to reveal new ways of experiencing cinema and framing reality.

Picture 7/10

The Criterion Collection presents nine short and feature films from Chantal Akerman, gathering them together on three dual-layer Blu-ray discs in the set Chantal Akerman Masterpieces, 1968-1978. The first disc presents Saute ma ville, L’enfant aime ou je joue a etre une femme mariee, Le chambre, Le 15/8, and Je tu il elle; the second Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; and disc three with News from Home and Les rendez-vous d’Anna. Les rendez-vous d’Anna is sourced from a 4K restoration, while the remaining films are sourced from 2K restorations (though Jeanne Dielman was scanned in 4K from the negative). All are presented with 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes.

Though some of the presentations look better than previous ones (specifically the films Criterion previously released in their Akerman Eclipse set), the set is incredibly inconsistent, and it probably comes down to how much material Criterion is compressing over the three discs.

The first disc is especially frustrating, with the films totaling over 4 hours and all fighting for space alongside the included features. Generally speaking, the presentations on this disc are okay but leave much to be desired, particularly how grain is rendered. It can look blocky and buzzy to varying degrees, with it not looking so bad in La chambre but particularly brutal in 15/8. I’m pretty sure much of that comes down to compression. At the very least, most of the films on the first disc still feature a film-like texture with decent detail despite the compression issues, though not without some different artifacts popping up. For example, somewhat inexplicably, Hotel Monterey features sequences that appear to have had some excessive noise reduction applied to them. There are a handful of interior shots where the grain has been scrubbed down quite a bit, leaving a flat and waxy look with some notable macroblocking. This leads to sequences featuring the expected heavy grain from the 16mm film elements suddenly cutting to flatter, more digital-looking shots lacking grain and finer textures or utterly devoid of both. It is by far the worst looking presentation in the set.

This is a shame because the film restoration work looks pretty good, as it does for all of the films in the set. La chambre can look a little washed and rough around the edges, as can femme mariee, but this looks to be an issue with the materials, and the encodes are at least okay for those two titles.  Le 15/8 may be the most frustrating because the underlying image looks like it has been thoroughly cleaned up, and there is a sharp image there, but the incredibly noisy encode takes away from that. And then Hotel Monterey has clearly had a lot of work done, but it has so many issues with noise and other digital artifacts they pretty much nullify it.

Wisely, Criterion places Jeanne Dielman as the only film on the second disc, though it still forces the 201-minute film to sit alongside several features. It was also a bad idea to pack the movie and all its supplements onto one disc in 2017 when Criterion initially released the film on Blu-ray. Though the presentation was pleasing (and far better looking than the DVD), it featured some compression issues that were more obvious in some spots than others. At the very least, the film now shares the disc with fewer features (a couple have been spread to the other two discs), so I initially expected the film to look the same (since they use the same restoration) if not better. Yet, somehow, it manages to look notably worse here. Compression is more of an issue this time, and the image appears noisier than the previous one, with macroblocking more evident in places. It is ultimately subtle, but where I thought the original Blu-ray only looked iffy here and there, the buzzy texture is present throughout the whole film now. I’m not sure what happened, and I’m unsure why they didn’t simply reuse the old file but they redid it and only made it worse. They also didn't bother to fix the framing, with a boom mic still visible on the right edge of one sequence.

Interestingly, I thought the two films on the third disc, News from Home and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, provided the "better-looking" presentations in the set. They can still be problematic (and the screen captures will show this), but both generally look cleaner. Despite the less-than-ideal shooting conditions, even the far grainier News from Home had fewer evident noise and macroblocking issues during playback than some of the other films. Anna, the sole 4K restoration in the set, has a finer grain structure, and despite portions looking a little noisy with some macroblocking evident, I found it still had the most film-like presentation of all the films, and the issues weren't distracting. Faint praise, I know, but that's where we're at. On the other hand, colors look good, as do black levels, and I thought the gradations in the shadows were clean.

It’s a haphazard collection of presentations, from pretty bad (Hotel Monterey) to pretty good (Les rendez-vous d’Anna)—unfortunately, the rest fall within various ranges of mediocre.

Saute ma ville (1968): 7/10 L'enfant aimé, ou Je joue à être une femme mariée (1971): 6/10 La chambre (1972): 7/10 Hotel Monterey (1972): 5/10 Le 15/8 (1973): 6/10 Je tu il elle (1975): 7/10 Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975): 7/10 News from Home (1976): 7/10 Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978): 7/10

Audio 6/10

Outside of Hotel Monterey and La chambre (which are silent), all films come with lossless PCM 1.0 French monaural soundtracks. News from Home also includes an English soundtrack presented in lossless PCM 1.0.

The earlier films, like Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, Le 15/8, and L’enfant aime ou je joue a etre une femme mariee, probably sound the roughest around the edges, with voices maybe sounding a bit harsher compared to other films. Still, they’re ultimately fine, with no heavy distortion or damage. Anna and Jeanne Dielman are mannered in their sound designs, but the sound effects sound sharp and clear and feature a good range level. Dialogue (when it appears) also sounds sharp and clear.

Both soundtracks for News from Home sound good. Street noises (apparently added during post) show decent range and fidelity, and the voice-over narration is usually easy to hear. There are sequences where the street sounds will drown the voice out, but it sounds like this is all intentional, at least according to comments made in the special features.

All in, they sound about as good as expected.

Extras 10/10

Criterion does pack in a good number of supplements across the three discs, and though they’re primarily comprised of the features from their previous release for Jeanne Dielman, they should provide a solid introduction to newcomers to the filmmaker’s work.

Saute ma ville—included as a supplement on that disc and one of the films found on the first disc of this release—comes with the same 1-minute introduction by Akerman, where the director explains how his first short mirrors Jeanne Dielman. The second disc (which includes Jeanne Dielman) contains most of the ported features, starting with the 69-minute documentary Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” made during filming. It’s composed entirely of raw footage that primarily features Akerman and Seyrig (and various crew members at times) discussing scenes and performing walkthroughs. Seyrig pushes on Akerman, then 25, trying to understand why the director wants her to do things in a particular fashion, a discussion on how Jeanne should brush her hair early on being a great example. Seyrig wants a direct answer about hair brushing. However, Akerman doesn’t have an answer, and in an interview found elsewhere, she mentions that she didn’t know how to answer some of Seyrig’s questions because it just seemed obvious to her why it should be the way she wanted. Seyrig also briefly talks about feminism and the point of view a woman filmmaker can offer. It's a solid making-of due to how it concentrates on the relationship between the director and her lead in a focused manner.

Chantal Akerman: On Jeanne Dielman is a 20-minute interview with the director done exclusively for Criterion back in 2009. She begins by explaining how she developed an interest in filmmaking after she saw Pierrot le fou at 15 and realized that films could also be art. She talks about moving to New York, her work with cinematographer Babette Mangolte, and her interest in experimental filmmaking. She then talks about how Jeanne Dielman came to be, about running into Delphine Seyrig at a festival and making an unusual deal to get her to star in the film. She spends half of the interview talking about the film and mentions her influences on the subject matter and the rituals in the film (her aunts were a primary influence.) Amazingly, despite a premiere where various audience members kept leaving, the film was picked up for multiple festivals, and she was then given the label of being a "great filmmaker." It was an excellent interview, and I enjoyed listening to her talk about the film.

Also present from the Blu-ray is the same 7-minute conversation between Akerman and actor Delphine Seyrig filmed for television in 1976. Akerman gets time to talk about her film and what she intended with it. Still, the interviewer (one Michael Drucker) is more concerned about interviewing Seyrig than concentrating on this newcomer director. Seyrig talks about taking on this unglamorous role and her reasons for doing it, plus she adds in little tidbits like how this was her first time making coffee. I was a little amused when Drucker tried to suggest a possible message to the film, only to have Akerman and Seyrig ring in, saying that this is not a film with a message.

The second disc then closes with the same 23-minute interview Criterion recorded with cinematographer Babette Mangolte in 2009. She talks about first meeting the young filmmaker at the age of 21 and the interest they shared in experimental cinema, thanks in part to some of the works of Michael Snow. She talks about a couple of their early films, La chambre and Hotel Monterey, before getting into more detail about shooting Jeanne Dielman, which proved to be complicated since they were shooting in an actual apartment that didn’t have a lot of room. It’s still an excellent companion to Akerman’s interview, offering more technical details.

The third disc then includes the last feature from the previous Jeanne Dielman release, a 29-minute interview with Akerman’s mother, Natalia Akerman, conducted by her daughter in 2007. The notes mention that the original intention was to edit out Chantal, but she has been left in since the conversation proved so rewarding. It’s probably still my favorite feature from that release (and here as well), with her mother reflecting on her daughter’s work, starting with her first short film Saute ma ville, then Jeanne Dielman, and finally News From Home. She’s incredibly proud of her daughter and loves her movies, and as one would expect from a parent, her biggest fear about her daughter’s films was that no one would like them. It's a fantastic little segment.

The third disc also features an appearance by Akerman on a 1997 episode of Cinéma de notre temps, which was also found on the previous releases. This ends up only being an excerpt from the 17-minute episode, where Akerman was asked to make an episode around another filmmaker. The filmmakers she wanted to cover had already been done, so she joked she would do one about herself only for the producers to agree. It turns a bit meta, I guess, as the episode ends up being about her making the episode, though this leads her to reveal more about herself, even getting into the influences behind her work. I was initially irritated by this when I first watched it on the 2009 DVD, though I found myself enjoying it more when I watched it in 2017. I still find it a rather good inclusion, if only for how it manages to dig a bit more into the filmmaker’s process.

The set then features some new material alongside other archival features. On the first disc, under the menu for Je tu il elle, Criterion includes a 20-minute appreciation for the film featuring Ira Sachs, who first talks about his initial reaction to the film (not great) and how it has grown on him since, even influencing his work like Keep the Lights On.

That feature isn’t new since it was recorded for Criterion’s streaming service in 2019, but they do include one new feature, also found on the first disc: an interview with film critic B. Ruby Rich. Her 20-minute offering ends up being a bit of a primer on Akerman’s work, Rich going over her body of work, examining the commonalities between them (like how her characters or subjects inhabit contained spaces) and how she grew as a filmmaker. She also talks about Akerman’s personal feelings about her work. This academic outsider’s perspective was one of the main things missing from the previous Jeanne Dielman releases, and this appreciation does a fine job finally filling it.

Samples of some of Akerman’s other work can also be found on the first disc, including 27 minutes worth of footage from her abandoned documentary, Hanging Out Yonkers, a documentary about a youth center in Yonkers that the director ended up abandoning when the sound rushes were lost. What’s here is considered the most complete version and features silent footage of children hanging around in this center. Criterion also includes four film school tests Akerman did before dropping out, all running about 3 minutes, which include the opening notes about each film (the actual films are only a minute or so each). The material features footage from a carnival in Brussels and the streets of Knokke, with friends even appearing.

On the third disc, Criterion includes a 2007 interview conducted by Akerman with Aurore Clément, the star of Les rendez-vous d’Anna, running 18 minutes. She can’t recall all the details about her casting (Akerman fills in more about that), but she clearly recalls the filmmaker’s attention to detail, right down to the shoes her character would wear. She also clearly remembers the film's premiere, which didn’t go well; Akerman didn’t want her to go for that reason. Interestingly, Akerman also didn’t wish Clément to see Je tu il elle, though she ultimately did, and she talks about how that film impacted her.

Criterion also assembles a new 23-minute video essay entitled In Her Own Words, constructed from interviews with Akerman between 1975 and 1977 that are played over photos and film clips. I liked how it has been assembled, starting with Akerman explaining how she was drawn to filmmaking and her experience in New York before stepping through each film in the set and allowing the director to talk about them through these past interviews. Her comments range from why she appears in some of them to why she made them (she made Le chambre because she “liked the room”). It’s a solid new inclusion, too.

To accompany this (more-or-less), Criterion’s 44-page booklet features notes on each film written by Beatrice Loayza, who also provides a lengthy essay about the filmmaker.

Despite most of the material being older or archival, Criterion has assembled a fairly comprehensive edition around the director and this early period of her career.

Closing

With all of the films cramped across three discs, most of the presentations prove underwhelming. Still, thanks primarily to the excellent introductory supplements, it’s a nicely assembled set that should help ease newcomers into Akerman’s work.

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

 
 
Year: 1968-1978
Time: 660 total min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1203
Licensor: Cinematheque royale de Belgique
Release Date: January 23 2024
MSRP: $99.95
 
Blu-ray
3 Discs | BD-50
1.33:1 ratio
1.37:1 ratio
1.66:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
French 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Hanging Out Yonkers, an unfinished film from 1973 by Chantal Akerman   Film-school tests   New program on Akerman featuring critic B. Ruby Rich   New visual essay on Akerman featuring archival interviews with the director   Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” a documentary made during the filming of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, shot by actor Sami Frey and edited by Agnès Ravez and Akerman   Interviews with Chantal Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mongolte   Interview with Akerman’s mother, Natalia Akerman   Interview with actor Aurore Clément   Appreciation by filmmaker Ira Sachs   An essay and notes on the films by critic Beatrice Loayza   Archival television interview excerpt featuring Chantal Akerman and star Delphine Seyrig