Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) was born in Brussels to Holocaust survivors. At age 18, she entered the Belgian national film school but dropped out during her first term and embarked on making a short film Saute ma ville; she funded the film’s costs by trading diamond shares.
During her career she made forty-two films of varying lengths. Her most notable film is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
In Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors series, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster summed up an insightful essay with this paragraph “Akerman worked on the borders of cinema and video, often in an unsettling manner, occasionally turning to conventional narratives in the hope of funding other projects with a substantial commercial success, but always returning to studies of isolation, alienation, and loss, her true terrain as an artist. Her work is about the burdens of humanity, of liminal existence, and the exilic ‘outsiderness’ of much of the world’s population, existing in a permanent state of exile from their homelands, which they can never truly leave in their heart and imagination.
In Golden Eighties (1986), Chantal Akerman draws her viewer into the immaculate, fluorescently lit, meticulously constructed and glimmering world of a Parisian shopping mall. Carefully assembled window displays, neon salon signs, artificial plants and elegantly posed mannequins become the backdrop against which the film’s brightly clothed cast gossip, flirt, laugh, cry, sing and dance. Akerman constructs a wryly funny, vividly colourful musical-microcosm; one that succeeds in being effervescent and wildly entertaining at the same time as sharply critical in its depiction of love and desire in an era of unbridled consumerism.
Golden Eighties has often been likened to the vibrant romantic musicals of Jacques Demy. Akerman’s musical shares the joyously vivid colour palette that is so characteristic of Demy’s musical productions; her characters move and dance through the shopping mall with a carefully choreographed precision reminiscent of Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967); Akerman’s attention to multiple, intertwined narrative threads that unfold in an everyday setting echoes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). However, in the adroitly delivered irony and cliché that colour the characters’ gestures, actions and dialogue as they navigate love and desire in a time and place where all things (including human emotion) are commodified, the film finds an incisive and contextually specific critical edge.
In the overlapping love stories that form the film’s multiple narrative threads, Akerman consistently refers to and toys with clichéd representations of emotion. The stereotypical, commercialised love story is parodied, the tendency to engage formulaic and unambiguous representations of human emotion continually referenced and subverted. Happiness, regret, sadness, yearning, desire: the shifting emotional states that the film’s characters move through appear in their most codified, instantly recognisable form in Golden Eighties. As Steven Shaviro has noted, feelings related to love are enacted in the film as though framed by quotation marks. Happiness becomes “happiness,” not a sincere or naturalistic representation but a carefully articulated performance of the facial expressions, phrases and gestures we have come to identify as stereotypical of this emotional state.
For example, Jeanne’s hyperbolically mournful facial expression as she watches Eli walk away and Eli’s dramatically outstretched arms as he reaches for Jeanne across a sea of frantic shoppers emerge as clichéd poses in imitation of what we have come to expect “yearning” to look like. In the final scene, dressed in a claustrophobically frilly wedding dress, Mado’s downturned mouth, her running mascara and her slumped shoulders similarly evoke an imitation of “sadness” and “rejection” as they might appear in their most stereotypical evocation. Immediately recognisable, these codified representations of emotion are brought under scrutiny. While we may recognise a set of gestures or string of phrases as indicative of a certain emotional state, Akerman reminds us that these formulaic representations shed little light on the idiosyncrasies and nuances of emotional experience.
While Golden Eighties’theatricality and its ebullient song and dance set a vastly different tone to Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), or Je, tu, il, elle (1974), Golden Eighties shares with these earlier films a precise and patient concern for the habitual actions and gestures that take place in the everyday.In Akerman’s decision to set the entire film (until the very final few minutes) in the enclosed space of the shopping mall, where the backdrops of the store, coffee shop and salon take on an almost homely familiarity as they appear and reappear through the scenes, there are echoes of the extensive focus on interior, domestic space in many of Akerman’s other films. In this close, interior space, the details that are amassed by Akerman form an image of daily life that is not a wholly critical one.
While the gestures, phrases and actions that frame the characters’ experiences with love often appear as imitations of stereotypes and clichés, Akerman’s attention to detail also brings to light a subtle, underlying narrative of community and genuine closeness. This narrative is gestured to as early as the opening credits, where a shot of the tiled floor captures women’s feet criss-crossing over its surface, each walk, skip or run leaving its own rhythmic trace. The clicking of heels grows in frequency, eventually three or four sets of feet passing through the frame at a time. A rhythmic layering occurs as the sound of one woman’s feet is joined by another, then another. There is a kind of subtle, sonic expression here of the sense of interconnectedness and communality with which the employees of the mall relate to one another in Golden Eighties. This sense of connectedness emerges in the comforting bustle of the coffee shop where employees from across the mall meet to chat, share grievances and gossip. It is evident in the familiarity and warmth with which two friends from the beauty salon greet one another before work. It is echoed in the whisperings, giggles and gasps that occur between friends. In these accumulated details, Akerman builds a kind of visual and sonic celebration of everyday human connectedness and community.
2k restoration by La Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique/Het Koninklijk Belgisch Filmarchief, Brussels
Dir: Chantel AKERMAN | France, Belgium, Switzerland | 1986 | 96 mins | Colour | Sound | 2kDCP (originally 35mm) | French with Eng. Subtitles | PG.
Prod Co: La Cecilia, Paradise Films, Limbo Film AG | Prod: Martine MARGNAC | Scr: Pascal BONITZER , Henry BEAN , Jean GRUAULT, Leora BARISH, Chantel AKERMAN | Photo: Gilberto AZEVEDO | Edit: Francine SANDBERG | Des/Art: Serge MARZOLFF | Sound: Henri MORELLE, Miguel REJAS | Music: Marc HÉROUET | Costumes: Pierre ALBERT.
Cast: Delphine SEYRIG (Jeanne Schwartz), Myriam BOYER (Sylvie), Fanny COTTENÇON (Lili), Pascale SALKIN (Pascale), LILO (Mado), Charles DENNER (M. Schwartz).
Source: Cinematek, Brussels.
 Steven Shaviro (2007) Clichés of Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Musicals, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24:1, 11-17
Notes by Angelica Waite