This is a depleted, feminist critique, an outsider's view, of society from a lesbian director. It is, in its way, a modern, update of Madame Bovary. The director, Chantal Akerman, was a lesbian who married another lesbian, long before identity politics legitimized homosexual marriage. Conventional social relations, esp. heterosexual relations, are poisoned and diseased. People are disconnected.
The movie consists of a series of encounters, of conversations. In the first, Anna, the protagonist (Aurore Clement), kicks a blonde, square-jawed German man, out of her bed because she says, she doesn't love him. He lives in a dreary grey house in a dreary industrial neighborhood with his mother and 5 year-old daughter. His wife, a fellow German, ran away with her passionate lover, a non-Aryan Turk, and never even visits her daughter, thus rejecting marriage, motherhood and German nationality.
A stranger on a train and Anna have a endless, listless conversation, which is decidedly moribund and only vaguely, weakly flirtatious. He is aimlessly wandering the earth, on his way to Paris, like Anna. A dreary landscape rolls on and on outside the train window beside them.
Anna travels extensively, showing her films, and takes men into her bed from sheer loneliness. The only satisfying sex and relief from loneliness she has had, however, was with another woman (a lesbianism recalling the director's) - is this the person in Italy she tries to, but can't reach, by phone throughout the film, as in the first shot? In another conversation, she is uninterested in marrying a man when pressured to do so by his mother, who complains that her own marriage has failed, even as she and her husband have realized their ambitions and become wealthy. This woman has also lost one of her sons, who moved far away to America to become a successful academic. Again, family & marriage don't work in modern society. (The exposition of this film is less than optimal in that it isn't clear who this woman is and what is her exact relationship to Anna.)
Anna travels constantly, pursuing her career (possibly an autobiographical detail from Akerman's own life). A boyfriend left her because she was always gone and he was always waiting for her. She is thus an independent woman who can't be tied down or domesticated, but is isolated by her career and success.
In an unusual but offhand gesture, Anna slips naked into bed with her own mother, who is clothed. This is asexual and purely affectionate. Her nakedness is thus stripped of sexuality, made, instead, into the intimacy of a daughter with her mother, the only human warmth in the movie.
Her present boyfriend (her last encounter) avows he loves her, but, too, suffers her absences. Anna brings him off by hand while he's driving: mechanical, impersonal sex. In a modern hotel room, with a blank TV screen blinking in the corner, we learn that he's world-weary and asthenic, and that he wishes he were a woman, so he could retire to the countryside to give birth to and raise a child. He is an ill, tired man, sick of his life and career, of his social role as a successful, working male.
The movie ends with Anna in the dark, alone in bed, alone in her apartment, repeatedly pressing the buttons of her answering machine, listening to the detached voices of callers. Her social contacts are distant and reduced to the mechanical, like everything else.
Anna is without makeup or adornment (recalling that Clement, as a model, wore no makeup). She eschews feminine wiles. Her face is almost always devoid of expression. She smiles only once in the movie.
At one point Anna stares miserably into the camera, with tears in her eyes. This is the burden a modern woman must bear. This movie is her manifesto.
Colors are all grey and flat earth tones. The movie takes place in winter. Objects of interest are put dead center in the frame, a static, leaden aesthetic. Shots are held for a long time, further deadening the movie. It, too, is moribund, a moribund view of a moribund world.
PS. This movie has left an aftermath. I think of it, feel it inside, days after. It has definitely left a grey mist, a cloud. It's outside, frank vision of sexuality and unhappiness has somehow excused the same in my "soul," relieving me of the tension and anxiety of suppressing it. The movie is a "bring down," yes, a dreary, sad view of life, a bitter pill to swallow, but it is truth and freeing, as art is.
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Anna, a detached and diffident director, arrives in Germany to show her latest film; she checks into a hotel, invites a stranger to her bed, and abruptly tells him to leave. He asks her to a birthday lunch with his mother and daughter; she goes. Afterward, in Cologne, she meets an old friend, a Polish Jew and war refugee. In Brussels, she spends the night at a hotel with her mother, whom she rarely sees. On the train, a stranger tells his story. Last, it's home to Paris, where her lover Daniel picks her up and they go to a hotel. Throughout, people make personal revelations to her, and Anna listens with little affect. Although it was 30 years ago, the war seems ever present.
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