Contact Me

Use the form on the right to get in touch with Chris.

 


Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Canada

blog

Best Films of 2015

Chris Campbell

Early in the year I was able to get to see Inherent Vice after seeing it appear on some "best of" lists for 2014. It's a strange thing sometimes making up a list of the best films since some films appear at festivals and then get released the next year. So how do you set a cutoff point for what is a film from the year and what is not. I prefer to be more literal and only include films that I saw in the calendar year. Ideally that will include most of the films that are showing up on other lists, but with many films it's a challenge to see them, especially when they don't get wide release.

The other challenge is remembering what you've seen during the year and what stood out as you see more and more. So right after I saw Inherent Vice I started my Best of 2015 list on Letterboxd and added the films that I thought were the best. The list grew with films added throughout the year and I narrowed that down to 25 films since it's better to highlight more films to see.

Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston in Queen of Earth

Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston in Queen of Earth

It was a year of nostalgia with the year ending with J.J. Abrams' sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy mirroring and reworking the style of the originals. At the beginning of the year Paul Thomas Anderson had his grainy and fun counterculture Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice with a late early 70s vibe. George Miller gave a burst of energy and creativity to action films with Mad Max: Fury Road drawing on silent films and his previous three Mad Max films to create one of the most exciting films of the year. David Robert Mitchell brought an 80s sensibility to the arty horror film It Follows with Kubrick-inspired visuals and a synth-heavy score. The ghost of Kubrick also haunted the anti-comedy Entertainment in the visuals and tone of Rick Alverson's dark road movie. Roman Polanski's psychological horror films of the 60s inspired the odd tone of Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth. J.C. Chandor crafted a tense crime drama modelled on classic 70s films with A Most Violent Year. The highlight at the end of the year was Todd Haynes' gorgeous and lovingly-constructed Carol which looked and felt like a film from the 50s.

Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge in Breathe

Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge in Breathe

Carol and Inherent Vice were two of the great adaptations of novels that made it to the screen in the past year. Phoenix was a masterful slow-burn of a film from Christian Petzold based on a novel about a woman who survives the Holocaust to return to those who betrayed her. Thomas Vinterberg brought a modern sensibility to his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd with a strong central heroine played by Carey Mulligan. Lenny Abrahamson took the challenging source material of the novel Room and played with time and space to give one of the more memorable and moving experiences of the year with remarkable performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Mélanie Laurent adapted Breathe into a claustrophobic coming of age story about two young women in her impressive debut directing a feature film.

Along with Laurent's Breathe, there were other great feature directed debuts with Alex Garland's clever science fiction thriller Ex Machina and John Maclean's lyrical and darkly beautiful revisionist Slow West. But there were also some interesting films where more established directors explored themes in innovative ways. Sean Baker shot Tangerine with an iPhone in his highly energetic collaboration with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor and the streets of Los Angeles. Céline Sciamma's Girlhood was lyrically shot with an impressive ensemble cast following the coming of age of a young woman in the outskirts of Paris. Sebastian Schipper's technically impressive and surprisingly thrilling Victoria shot entirely in one unbroken take, moving through pre-dawn streets of Berlin into the morning. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen gave Pixar's Inside Out a depth and complexity in brilliantly conveying feelings and memories in an animated film that deeply resonated with many people. Don Hertzfeld created one of the most memorable and visually exciting films in World of Tomorrow by adding new digital techniques to his minimalist animation style.

It was a great year for auteurs to tell their stories as well with Jacques Audiard having another film about outsiders adapting to life in France with his moving and complicated Dheepan. Radu Muntean brought to life another powerful Romanian New Wave film with One Floor Below concerning itself with the themes of responsibility and morality as a man deals with the consequences of not speaking up. Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to his familiar themes of ghosts and history with the beautiful and meditative Cemetery of Splendour. The ZellnerBrothers cleverly combined urban legends and the Coen Brothers' Fargo into the haunting character study Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter. Jeremy Saulnier's tense Green Room had memorable characters in a horrific confrontation with rural skinheads as a punk band witnesses a murder and get trapped backstage. Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement made the brilliant vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows with a gentle core surrounding the humour and horror. With The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos brings his idiosyncratic style and themes to his first English language films with his pitch-black humour and intensity along with Hollywood stars for one of the most disturbing satires of relationships that you'll ever see.

The top ten:

Inherent Vice

A shaggy dog of a story with a grainy look, oversized performances, and a fantastic soundtrack, Inherent Vice was the first film added to my list and a film that I enjoyed more each time I watched it. The quirkiness of Paul Thomas Anderson is a perfect match for Thomas Pynchon's novel and it's another outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the stoner detective at the centre of the film.

Victoria

Even if it wasn't one of the most technically impressive films of the past few decades in happening in one unbroken take, Victoria would be a great film. But it is a masterful film as well as being a monumental achievement for the actors and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. With a story that becomes clear as the film progresses, the one-take approach gives a real and kinetic energy to what we see as we follow a woman through a night where her life changes dramatically after she gets caught up in a bank heist.

Entertainment

An anti-comedy shot with dedication and craft with carefully composed frames, unsettling subject matter, and a strong central performance from Gregg Turkington as a bad stand-up comedian on a tour that doesn't seem to be going well at all. It's a film filled with existential dread and understated humour that makes it more of a reflection on the human condition.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

A Japanese woman unhappy with her life finds hope in searching for the buried money from the film Fargo and tries to figure out where it is. Blending an urban legend, a classic film, and a cross-cultural clash results in a powerful film about determination, loneliness, and the search for meaning in the world. The soundtrack is dark and ominous as we see the landscapes of her surroundings in Japan and in America as she goes on her quest and meets a series of odd people. As the central character Kumiko, Rinko Kikuchi brings a remarkable depth and warmth to her portrayal of a woman lost in the world.

It Follows

A deliberate and artistic horror film with innovative shots and a synth-heavy score, I loved the retro feel of the story of a young woman followed by creatures who seek to kill her. An understated metaphor about sexually transmitted infection that embraces and extends the themes of many 80s horror films, it's cool, calculated, and brilliant in the control and the telling of the story in a timeless way that never clearly establishes the time period where it is happening.

Ex Machina

exmachina.jpg

A science fiction film that explores the idea of artificial intelligence in a clever way that plays on expectations built from other films in the genre while subtly subverting them. More psychological thriller than science fiction, it's a fascinating film in that the whole thing plays out differently the second time you watch it. The story and situations are carefully constructed and with great performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and the always reliable Oscar Isaac, it's a thoughtful film that makes you think.

What We Do in the Shadows

A mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand that uses the premise to tell a story that is also surprisingly sweet. Lovingly directed by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement (who also star in the film), it bases the story in reality within the fantastic premise along with a seamless blending of effects to build a dynamic world of interesting characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Visually compelling with a breathtaking pace, the best action film of the year is an almost wordless chase through a desert wasteland. The universe of the film feels worn and logical and the carefully crafted and practical stunts and effects add a level of excitement to a non-stop journey that plays with colour, sound, and expectations to show that it's still possible to create a great film that is both popular and has a bit of thought behind it too.

The Lobster

One of the oddest premises of the year and one of the most brilliant and dark combination of an auteur sensibility with more mainstream stars, The Lobster is a satire about relationships with a relentless commitment to the ideas of the film that is deeply disturbing. Integrating many of his regular contributors with bigger stars in an elaborate world filled with arbitrary rules and a dream logic brings a strange coherence to everything that we see as the ideas go to their extreme and inevitable conclusion.

Carol

Lush and beautiful with a story from the 50s that feels present in the look, wardrobe, and even dialogue and performances, the style is an integral part of the effect of the entire film. With Carter Burwell's best score since Fargo and some stunning cinematography from Ed Lachman, it's a film that feels like a great Hollywood classic even upon the first viewing.

Here are the rest of my top 25 films of 2015 with links to my Letterboxd diary entries for each of them: - Cemetery of Splendour - Inside Out - Slow West - Room - One Floor Below - Tangerine - Dheepan - Girlhood - Phoenix - Breathe - Green Room - Far From the Madding Crowd - World of Tomorrow - A Most Violent Year - Queen of Earth

What are some of your favourites from the previous year?

iPhone 6S

Chris Campbell

It feels smooth and solid in my hand and while it's a bit bigger than my second iPhone, a 5S, I have to say that I'm adjusting nicely to my new iPhone 6S. I was relatively late to the iPhone bandwagon in getting an iPhone 4 in 2010 and heartily embraced it and with the camera and connectivity, it dramatically changed how I did a lot of things. While the intention wasn't to get a new phone right away as my 5S is still working great with no problems, an offer from Eastlink with a discount on my home internet and cable bundle made me switch as getting a new phone and saving money was an offer I couldn't refuse.

With my phone backed up to iCloud it's fast and easy to switch phones with just needing to log in to iCloud to have everything come back. Even things like volume level, wallpaper, and other settings all come back which keeps your new phone set up like your old phone. Since Apple Music and is now part of my online life it means that I don't keep music on my phone, but I've got access to everything that is there, so it frees up a lot of space on the phone (which is 64 GB --- twice the size of my old iPhone).

The screen is bright and the glass is smooth and feels softer (which is kind of weird but it's probably from only needing to press lightly on the screen). It's not as natural-feeling in my hand as the 4 and 5S were, but the bigger screen is much easier to read. Again, as with the other phones it's much faster and smoother. Things just seem to appear. The Touch ID button is significantly faster at recognizing a fingerprint so the screen unlocks instantly. So fast that I'm having to change my behaviour with the menu button as if I want to view the lock screen I need to touch the power button instead as the lock screen is usually skipped with my thumb on the menu button.

iOS 9 is lovely and the new system font works well for me. Siri is faster and a lot more accurate and with "Hey Siri" I find that I'm recording reminders and responding to messages through dictation. It's faster to launch apps by just asking for them too. One of the useful embedded features of iOS 9 is the way contexts can be saved when you are looking at something by asking Siri to remind you about it. If you are on a web page reading something you say, "Remind me about this" and a reminder that includes the bookmark of the page gets created. It's even cooler in my podcast listening app Overcast as I can be listening to something while driving and ask Siri to remind me about it and then in the reminder it will open the podcast and jump within the episode to where I added the reminder. In Instapaper I can be part way through reading something and add a reminder and then pop back into where I left off. That's useful when you are researching something and don't want to go to stray too far in looking things up. It's a great way to jump back to something later if you have to switch to doing something else unexpectedly.

The new and different feature with the 6S is 3D Touch which is challenging to describe and takes a bit of getting used to. It's a fascinating combination of hardware and software that creates the feeling that the surface of the iPhone is a button. So if you press a bit harder on the glass it feels like it clicks and something happens. The most useful aspect of this is to get a quick preview of a link in Safari or a conversation in Messages. If you want to go to the page or conversation you just press a bit harder and it pops open. Or if you want to do something quickly you can just swipe up and then save or, in Messages, quickly send a reply like "on my way" or something like that. The prebuilt responses grow out of your conversations, so if you text back "cool" to people a lot, that will come up, or if "okey dokey" is more your style, that will appear.

It's interesting to see how developers are using 3D Touch and my favourite and long-time Twitter client Twitterrific intuitively uses the feature. I can press on a link and get a preview of the web page, look at a user profile, a hashtag, a discussion, or a quoted tweet without having to open it up. It's fast and intuitive and as other developers add these features it makes everything just a little bit easier and faster.

The set of apps that I'm using a lot has remained the same for a while with Messages, Twitterrific, 1Password, and OmniFocus in the home row as I use each of them all every day. Other frequently used apps are Reporter (for collecting quantified self data), Lifesum (for tracking food and calories), Next (for tracking spending), Drafts (for drafts of notes or tweets), 1Writer (for notes), Spark (for email), Weather Line (for weather), and Fantastical (for my calendar). All the apps seem a lot faster on the new phone and most of them have added 3D Touch integration is useful ways too.

At this point in the development of phones and computer technology there is little more needed, so now we're in the phase where things are faster and easier. That's how it is with the camera which has a higher resolution and better performance in low light. For video you can shoot better slow motion and shoot video in 4K which is pretty sharp. The other photo feature is Live Photos which captures some motion around the moment that you press the shutter. It's neat but not that useful, but it's a little flourish that is cute.

The battery life is great and with the new "Low Power Mode" it makes it even easier to squeeze more battery life out of the phone by easily reducing the amount of background activity and notifications. It does seem to charge a lot faster than my 5S which is nice. Just a few minutes connected to a battery or the wall charger gives a 20% boost in power, so it doesn't feel as scary when the battery level is getting a bit low.

I've surrounded my phone with the minimalist Peel case which is relatively cheap and solid. I didn't get a case at all for my 5S and didn't have a problem, so I probably don't need one, but it's nice to have a bit of extra security and the case makes the phone a bit easier to hold without adding much size at all. The phone feels solid and it's still feels a bit big and awkward at times, but I'm getting used to it. The bigger screen is nice which makes things easier to see and read.

While my 5S was working great and my initial plan was to keep it for another year, I'm happy to have upgraded early to the 6S. It's fast and powerful and has seamlessly become part of all the stuff I do quickly. The best technology disappears and reduces the friction in what you are doing and that's exactly what my phone does as I connect with people, share things, and find things with it. What did I do before I had this magical little computer with me all the time?

Remembering the Silver Wave Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Being on the organizational committee for the Silver Wave Film Festival was a great experience. It gave me the chance to go back to the New Brunswick Filmmakers Co-operative to work for a few weeks and to spend a lot of time with some great friends. Tony and Cathie are some of my favourite people and to work with them over a few weeks was a joy. After 15 years the film festival is a compact, friendly, and smoothly running machine. It's not the biggest film festival, but they've simplified and worked things out to give everyone a warm and supportive experience. The strange thing about a festival is that the programming decisions happen months earlier, so for those behind the scenes we've seen the films and are anticipating how the audiences will enjoy them. Getting as many filmmakers as possible in is the secondary goal as it's important to have the creators there with the audience.

It was fun to be part of the mundane details of the festival such as helping to make up the passes or fold the programs for the Industry Series or help in reworking the sponsor reel that plays before the films. I'd introduced some of the programs in past festivals and did that again, but had a lot more insight into what was happening behind the scenes this time. The reaction to the films was positive and the whole atmosphere around the festival is one of happiness. The community around the NB Filmmakers Co-operative has long been positive and supportive and it's why I became involved with filmmaking and teaching. So in many ways you can trace my whole professional career back to the film coop in the early 1980s.

I was closely involved with the Canadian and International Shorts programs which had films from across Canada and around the world, but a lot of the films were from Nova Scotia and I knew many of the filmmakers. It's a privilege to showcase the work of people you admire and share it with an enthusiastic crowd. Going to a festival away from home is also a good way to see how people who don't know you will react to what you've made as well. Attendance was up at the screenings and for many us who live in Nova Scotia, the positive spirit and celebration of our work was a nice boost after a challenging year.

Seeing the screenings of the low-budget features Owl River Runners and Noon Gun for the first time at Silver Wave was a lot of fun too. I missed them when they played at the Atlantic Film Festival and was eager to see them on a big screen with an audience in Fredericton. When you know the people who make a film there is always a bit of nervousness when you see something as you hope that it turned out ok after hearing about it while it was in production. It's even better when you see the films and you enjoy them along with an audience. Owl River Runners is funny and local, telling a story about rural New Brunswick that feels recognizable. Noon Gun looks at a challenging issue with racism and history and community in North End Halifax and makes a powerful and moving statement.

Structurally the Silver Wave Film Festival happens mainly over a weekend with an opening film Thursday night, an Industry Series of panel discussions on Friday during the day with the rest of the weekend full of film screenings. Most of the panels have filmmakers who have films in the festival, so the participants get a good overview of the challenges that they've faced in making their films. The biggest day is Saturday with time in the morning to allow for a trip to the farmers market before the films begin. In the evening the main events are the New Brunswick Shorts Gala films followed by the Silver Wave Awards. Sunday is a lighter day with screenings starting in the afternoon and going into the evening.

The films are great to see with an audience and there is a lot of fun to be had after the films are over in the James Joyce Pub (with a wonderful range of New Brunswick and other craft beer and cider on tap) and in the Hospitality Suite after the bar closes. Thanks to the small size of the festival it's possible to meet just about everyone who is there and to talk about the films they've seen too. The most social day and night is Saturday with the party getting started later after the awards and photos of the winners. The bar and Hospitality Suite were packed into the wee hours filled with excited conversations about films and celebration by the winners of the awards. Sunday is more casual with the most people sitting down to talk more quietly in the bar as they reflect on the films and make plans for the future.

The key to a film festival is figuring out what you want it to be about and then balancing the films with the audience, the filmmakers, and the space between all those things to allow for interaction. I'm happy with how it went this year at Silver Wave and look forward to helping with it more and being on the lookout for other films and filmmakers to follow over the coming year. The films themselves are the smallest and shortest part of the entire process and the true joy is having the opportunity to connect with people who love creating and sharing stories.

What makes a film festival special for you and what do you love about a festival?

Silver Wave Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Silver Wave 2015 Launch

Silver Wave 2015 Launch

For me filmmaking is inextricably linked with the New Brunswick Filmmakers' Co-operative. It's where I first found out how to make a film and saw and handled celluloid. The Film Co-op began in 1979 and I first walked in when my friend Kevin Holden told me I should stop in. It was neat to see the tools of filmmaking there –-- the flatbed Steenbeck film editor and the rolls of film on it. The Eclair NPR camera and lenses and lights and the Nagra tape recorder seemed like exotic and special tools that I would grow to love. I remember the first big screening we organized where we showed all the films made by the coop and the whole program was just over a half hour.

It was slower making films then as we only shot on film which went to the NFB lab in Montreal to be developed and printed. Then the sound and picture were synchronized and the mag stock and work print were sent off to have rubber numbers printed on it before editing could begin. The whole process was much more elaborate and involved and all through the process you would handle the film as it took shape. Then the sound mix and colour timing would need to happen in another city which involved travel and money. Now the whole process for postproduction can happen all within a laptop or even a phone, so it's faster to make films.

There were years where there was only one film finished at the coop, but now there are films at various stages of production with work happening every week. So while we had to wait a few years to get enough films together for a screening, now every year for the past 15 years, the Silver Wave Film Festival has been able to highlight the best of the films from New Brunswick in November. I've been to Silver Wave almost every year and seeing the development of new talent from the little film coop where I first started making film always is an inspiration.

For me (and many others) Tony Merzetti and Cathie Leblanc are the key organizers at the heart of the coop. Tony and I got involved at the coop around the same time and it's wonderful that he's still there. As Tony and Cat will point out, the coop is powered by many volunteers and one of the most encouraging things is to see how many new people get involved every year. The exciting thing this year is that I've been able to help with the festival in becoming part of the team to help with programming. There are a lot of other people involved and spending time at the coop this year gave me a deeper glimpse into the festival that has evolved over the past 15 years.

While there are over 100 films in the program this year, the whole festival is condensed into four days, so it's a concentrated dose of films and filmmakers. With a few features and a lot of shorts, there are films for every interest and age from drama to documentary. Things get started on Thursday, November 5 with the New Brunswick comedy Owl River Runners playing at Tilley Hall at UNB at 7pm with the opening party following at the James Joyce Pub at 10pm. It's the first of three Atlantic micro-budget features playing with the Nova Scotia feature Noon Gun screening Sunday, November 8 at 2pm at Tilley Hall and the closing feature from Prince Edward Island, Kooperman, Sunday at 7pm.

Friday is a packed day with the Industry Series at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre which is free (but you need to sign up). There are five panels with a range of filmmakers talking about their films, the industry, and themselves. It's a chance to meet people, find out more about the films, and the state of the industry in the region. The Industry Series wraps up with a reception before the films start showing in the evening throughout the city.

The documentary Guilda: elle est bien dans ma peau plays at 7pm at Conserver House as part of the Cinema Politica Showcase. At 8pm at Wilser's Room in the Capital Complex you can see a diverse range of music videos in the East Coast Music Video Showcase. The CLiFF (Canadian Labour International Film Festival) feature film is the animated documentary Little Girl with Iron Fist with a reception beginning at 8:30 at the Kinsella Auditorium at St. Thomas University and the film beginning at 9:30. The Coast to Coast Shorts show starts in Tilley Hall at 9:30 pm with films from across Canada (with heavy New Brunswick representation). The final event for Friday is the much-anticipated and chaotic Midnight Madness with a theme of "Murder, Ghosts & Time Travel" at Tilley Hall beginning at Midnight.

Saturday begins at noon with the Canadian & International Shorts I with some of the best short films (drama, comedy, and experimental) from Canada and the world showing at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. The popular Youth Shorts are showing at noon at the Centre Communautaire Sainte-Anne as well with the next generation of filmmakers well-represented by the short films on display. At 2pm the more dramatic Canadian & International Shorts II program screens at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. The CLiFF Shorts play at 2pm at Chickadee Hall in the Fredericton Public Library with a mix of documentary and dramatic shorts built around workers and the Labour movement. The short documentary showcase Short Docs I (People and Places) screens at 4pm at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre with Canadian documentaries with a range of approaches to their subject matter (and featuring the great animated musical documentary The Singing Lumberjack about Charlie Chamberlain).

The warm heart of the festival is the NB Shorts Gala beginning at the Centre Communautaire Sainte-Anne at 7pm with the best local shorts from the past year. The 18 shorts preceded the Silver Wave Awards at 10pm and the Gala Party at the James Joyce Pub at 11:30pm with things continuing in the Hospitality Suite early into the next morning as filmmakers and fans talk about what they've seen, what they've made, and what they're going to make over the next year.

Sunday is the final day of Silver Wave and Short Docs II start the day off at 2pm with diverse documentaries from the Atlantic and Quebec at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre. The Nova Scotia feature drama Noon Gun is playing at 2pm in Tilley Hall with filmmaker Caley MacLennan present for the film and a Q&A afterwards. At 4pm the New Brunswick Documentary The Utrecht Seals (featuring Algonquin Métis rapper Samian) shows at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre for a different perspective on history and the Utrecht Treaty. The final film of the festival is the bromance Kooperman which plays at 7pm at Tilley Hall on the UNB Campus before the closing party at the James Joyce Pub at 10pm.

I'm excited to dive back in to Silver Wave this year to see films, share stories, and spend time with friends as we celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of inspirational filmmakers again.

The Time and Space of Chantal Akerman

Chris Campbell

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle

For me cinema is time and space. – Chantal Akerman

A filmmaker who put herself deeply into her films and changed what was possible cinematically, Chantal Akerman redefined how time and space are depicted on screen. The distance and formality of her approach to her films resonated with me as I explored her work over the years. Always uncompromising and bold and feminist, she followed her own path and cinematic interests. Her influence on other filmmakers is profound with elements showing up in the work of filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Sophia Coppola, Bèla Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

I had an intuition that if I was going to only write, I will stay in one room all the time and never go out. I felt that if I was going to make movies, I would have to communicate with people and it would be good for me. – Chantal Akerman

Captive

Captive

The first film by Chantal Akerman I watched was Captive (2000)which I remember as being strange and unnerving. But with Akerman the central film and will always be Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). She was 25 when she made the film with a largely female crew. Bold and remarkable in approach and style, it's an influential film and singular achievement. The ambiguity of parts of the film keep it interesting to me after multiple viewings and I keep noticing new things every time I watch it. It's an experience that carefully establishes routines as it deliberately progresses with small glimpses into the emotional life or Jeanne delivered obliquely. Building a world through small, ordinary details.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

I remember saying to myself, how can I make a better film? But it was also exactly the film I had to make then. It says something about a woman, about a way of living a life, about life after the war. It was the first thing I had to pour out of myself. – Chantal Akerman

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

While Jeanne Dielman is her crowning achievement, there are many other fascinating and innovative films that Akerman made in both fictional and non-fictional forms. It's a challenge to find some of them with the complexities of film distribution, but luckily there are the Criterion releases of Jeanne Dielman and the box set of Chantal Akerman in the 70s which gives an important glimpse into her development as a filmmaker. Combining an intellectual approach with strong, stylized approaches, she explores ideas with a passion and dedication that is rare and resulted in some film that worked incredibly well and others that don't work as well, but commit to the ideas that inform them.

We were just going to the movies to kiss and eat ice cream and eventually look at the movie. But I didn’t care. I was much more interested in literature; I wanted to be a writer. Then I saw Godard’s film, Pierrot Le Fou, and I had the feeling it was art, and that you could express yourself. – > Chantal Akerman

La Chambre

La Chambre

With La Chambre (1972), an early experimental short, the camera slowly pans around an apartment, revealing Akerman in bed, looking at the camera. The pattern is established and it continues to rotate around as she does various things as the camera comes back to her and then reverses direction. It's strange and unnerving.

There always seems to be a tension in the films of Chantal Akerman between confined spaces and the outside world. More than any other filmmaker for me, she explores spaces with a startling intensity and confidence so the most ordinary objects take on greater significance. While a filmmaker like Wes Anderson has elaborately art-directed rooms, Akerman fills her rooms with ordinary, everyday objects. With a focus on the interstitial spaces between where dramas traditionally focus, she shows us hidden worlds and strips out melodrama leaving the reality of our own lives staring back at us.

Hotel Monterey

Hotel Monterey

She takes a similar static approach with her silent film Hotel Monterey (1972) with a largely static camera in various positions around a cheap hotel in New York City. The spaces are fascinating as we watch them and see people move through them not knowing who they are or what they are doing. Some of the scenes feel strange and later David Lynch would have shots in many of his films that echo the sense of unease that a lamp in a room can evoke.

Blow Up My Town

Blow Up My Town

In her first film Blow Up My Town (1968) she's confined to one room. It's Akerman in a kitchen and she's trapped in the room and wants to escape her life and eventually blows herself up. Experimental and terrifying, this early film by her starts the pattern and tension between spaces and people and their lives. The long takes increase the tension as we watch, unable to help, or change or influence what we see. We are voyeurs witnessing something horrible, powerless to do anything other than witness.

Je Tu Il Elle

Je Tu Il Elle

The filmmaker is present again in Je Tu Il Elle (1976) as we're again inside with Akerman in a room. It's painfully voyeuristic at times as we watch her in her apartment after a breakup, rearranging furniture, painting the room, and eating sugar. Her voiceover giving a glimpse inside what she is thinking and feeling. She can't seem to leave the room, but when she runs out of sugar she leaves to visit her ex-lover by getting a drive with a truck driver who asks for sex and tells her about his family and his sex life. The camera is handheld and jittery contrasting with the fixed framing inside the apartment. She eventually gets to her ex-lover and she's hungry and eats and spends the night and has sex with her explicitly on screen. Startling to watch, but shot with a distance that shows an emotional disconnection that is within Akerman's films.

News From Home

News From Home

While most of her films have rooms and small spaces, there are also stunning long takes outside exploring the larger world. In News from Home (1977) Akerman reads letters from her mother as we glimpses of New York in the 1970s. Shots from outside of vehicle windows as they drive through streets moving and moving, showing us incredible detail of the city as personal details emerge from the letters. It's a blending of her earlier films with the silence of Hotel Monterey along with the personal aspects of Je Tu Il Elle. An inner emotional space blended with the city of New York. The long tracking shots of the city stick with me and echo in later films. I think of Steve McQueen's Shame with the long scene of Michael Fassbender running through the darkened streets as a quintessential example.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

In Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978) the personal aspect is lightly disguised, but it's about a filmmaker who is on a tour of Europe to promote her latest film. The placement of the camera is always key to the work of Akerman and the filmmaker played by Aurore Clement looks at the camera at times while strangely separated from everything surrounding her. While Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles confines the protagonist to a rigidly defined space and routines in her apartment and a few locations outside, Les rendez-vous d'Anna has the same carefully composed frames, but Anna is always going from one location to another. We're in the interstitial spaces in her life with the major events cut out. We see her before and after what you'd traditionally make a journal entry about, or a scene in a film. Seeing the times we don't usually see are the elements that make the film so compelling.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Her interactions with people in Les rendez-vous d'Anna are odd with a stylized dialogue and flat delivery that reflect her emotional disconnection. The frames are deliberately composed at right angles and centered with jump cuts within a scene changing the angle by 90 degrees. A slightly more emotional interaction occurs with a man she almost sleeps with, but then talks with before deciding to attend his daughter's birthday party. We see her arrive at the house where the party is happening, but we only see Anna and him outside talking (where he has a long monologue about how his wife left him, how he is unhappy, and a short summary of 50 years of German history) and then he says, "Let's go inside, they're waiting for us." We never see the party and we cut to them outside later as she leaves where they talk about what happened inside.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

The tracking of characters and the omission of traditionally dramatic scenes is something explored up by other filmmakers and cinematic movements later. Fellow Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne use similar strategies with their films as we follow their characters. The emotional distance and careful framing in the films of Sophia Coppola draw upon Akerman as well. We see characters unguarded in intimate takes that run longer than traditional filmmaking rules would suggest. Routines and patterns emerge and when small things change it takes on greater power. It pushes cinema into new directions, away from melodrama and into new emotional spaces.

The voiceover of Je Tu Il Elle is absent in both Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Les rendez-vous d'Anna, leaving the audience to construct the inner emotional world of the central character. We need watch their movements and their faces for clues to how they are feeling and what they are thinking. The smallest details take on greater significance. We see Jeanne forget to button a button it creates a sense of unease. We see Anna smile when she sees her mother and don't hear their initial exchange as they embrace. The emotional details are provided by us and paradoxically these omissions create a rare intimacy as we fill the gaps in from our own experiences and expectations.

In her later films Akerman tried many different things, switching genres and shooting styles always with a thoughtful approach and a fierce dedication to combining the personal with the cinematic. She was always present in her films either on screen or in the ways she explored the space and time of the people and places she looked at. We have lost a thoughtful, generous, and innovative filmmaker who left a rich body of work that will continue to inspire filmmakers and viewers for generations.