Saturday, September 26, 2020

Toute une nuit

Toute une nuit – Chantal Akerman 

“A whole night,” in Brussels, Chantal Akerman weaves a film web. Fast love, germs of a story, emotion of the beginnings. She films at dusk, in great form. 

Chantal Akerman wrote to us regularly. She put her address on the back of the envelope (Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles - 1975), she signed (Je, tu, il, elle - 1974), she gave news in English (News from Home - 1976), she even made appointments (Les Rendez-vous d'Anna - 1978). Letters arrived, thrown in the waste basket by some, read with passion by others. I was more a part of the “others”. But, since 1978, no mail. Projects, but no films. This “lost” time must have nourished Toute une nuit, a film that is very free, low budget and quite funny. One of her best. 

What is it about? Akerman imagines that one night, in Brussels (identifiable from the first shot with the St Gudula Cathedral), it is very warm. Worse: it’s muggy. One of those summer nights with 16mm grain and direct sound indiscretions. Instead of going to bed, a large number of Belgian men and women behave strangely, in a way normally associated with characters of a Sci Fi film, before special effects kick in. They will struggle to sleep, even more to sleep alone. The city becomes a commotion of hypertrophied sounds, cafés refuse to close, an Italian hit song (L’amore, sai) pierces through. 

Another sound comes on top of these “natural” sounds. The sound of bodies which, exhausted by this nervous desire, fall heavily into each other’s arms, throwing and embracing each other. Once, twice, ten times, like variations on a unique theme. That night, when the curtain rises, we only see crushes in the dark, secretive impulses, half-missed rendezvous, baroque ideas, the sound of doors opening for the expected one, of heels on the pavement, of sleepwalkers’ talks. For a whole night everyone seems to be a winner at the lottery of the desire. 

It’s the funny part of the film, which confirms that Akerman is rather talented when it comes to madcap comedy, half-way between Tati and cartoons. She knows the clumsiness and the heaviness of these Belgian bodies, their fatigue and their moods, their awkward impetus. A gallery of “characters” is captured at the moment where it’s too early (or too late) to ask them “what they do for a living”. They are in the hour between wolf and dog, scattered in a warm night, very excited. 

Love, though, happens off camera. We see a lot of sweat, plenty of sensuality, but no sex. Akerman films the before and the after. Except that the after carries the traces of the before. Toute une nuit imperceptibly becomes a documentary on ways to sleep, on rituals, on bed sheets. A moustachioed man in a white singlet struggles to sleep on his couch (he is a writer but we will only learn this in the morning). An aged woman suddenly leaves her husband who slept in blue pyjamas; she goes to a hotel before changing her mind and going back to the blue pyjamas, thirty seconds before the alarm clock rings. A young man wakes up his partner, a soldier who sneaked out of the barracks and slips out of mauve bed sheets. The night is longer than the desire; the camera is more patient that the night; the city is waking up: Brussels is going to become Brussels again. 

We were waiting for daybreak, here it is. It’s the most beautiful part of the film. Twice obscure heroes, the “characters” are entering the light of day. Half-seen and half-known. We know just little enough about them to still see them for who they are, with traces of dreams on their faces, wrong reflexes boiling the morning coffee, memory lapses. Then, a soundtrack is unleashed and encircles them, like an island of possible fictions in a small (Belgian) world without fiction, a motionless racket. The real fiction, that goes from A to Z, from “once upon a time” to “the end”, is not for this film. With Toute une nuit, Chantal Akerman only films from A to B. Like thousand hopes of small fictions, but never a great story. If a circle is ideally made of infinite straight lines, here are a few lines. If a line is but a suite of dots, here are some dots. If a dot is, at its limit, an immaterial concept, then here is some immateriality. Knowing Akerman’s admiration for Ozu, this doesn’t come as a surprise. 

One objection can be made. And here it is. Ozu was telling a story. At the moment of the climax, unlike western filmmakers, he inserted these famous “empty” shots – a slipper or a factory chimney – to allow the audience to breathe in all directions and not just in the direction of the forced march of the story toward its denouement (it was the ma!). But it was a time when telling a story came naturally and washing dirty linen (in public) was simpler. Akerman shows the linen (she has a – Jewish – family and a mother, who plays in the film), shows the washing (her talent as a filmmaker) but it is the eye of the spectator that she wants to clean. It’s the audience that she wants to stop from sleeping, by suggesting that “a whole night” is long enough for a body to go through all its states, including the impossible states of desire and the least probable states of the love posture. The audience’s state included.

 First published in Libération on 29 October 1984. Reproduced in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinema, Paris, 1986.

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