Those looking for post-Valentine’s Day comfort should not go to Cinema at the Whitney Friday night. Smack in the middle of The Awful Month, the Whitney’s programmers give us “Toute une nuit,” a 1982 film about romance that is frigid, mechanical and about as romantic as prison. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, “Toute une nuit” presents the collisions and splits of various couples during one night in Brussels. Akerman is a highly regarded auteur, and this film is certainly a highlight in a long career of successes. It is not, however, a beacon of cinematic escapism. Akerman’s couples do not embrace; they seize each other. They do not kiss; they push their faces together. This is “Love, Actually” devoid of love, shot through security cameras by paranoid, isolated people.
“Toute une nuit” marks the middle of Akerman’s career. Born in 1950, she decided to make movies when she saw Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” in 1965 — cold inspires more cold. Three years later she made her first short film, “Saute ma ville,” around the time she dropped out of film school. In a 1976 interview, Akerman summarized her 11-minute debut as follows: “You see an adolescent girl, 18 years old, go into a kitchen, do ordinary things but in a way that is off-kilter, and finally commit suicide.” This description captures the minimalism of Akerman’s early works, but leaves out their subtexts — sober meditations on female representation in cinema. When Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” came out in 1975, one critic proclaimed it to be “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema.” The film features lengthy shots of its whore-matron heroine peeling potatoes. No music. No special effects. Just potatoes and feminism. Here was Akerman’s minimalism pushed to maturity: disciplined, political, severe.
“Toute une nuit” takes that minimalism, softens it, and uses it to pursue a whole new beast: isolation. But not the cute, warm isolation of indie crap like “Garden State” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Akerman pursues her theme with the rigor and sophistication of her French New Wave predecessors. An early shot provides a template for how one might view the film: A woman paces around a poorly-lit room. The camera stays still as she moves in and out of the frame. This stillness makes the viewer self-aware. It makes the viewer feel like he or she is watching this woman through a spy camera. Now the woman is made distant. Her normal actions (pacing, picking up a phone) suddenly seem strange, because the viewer has been forced to question his or her relation to this woman. By the time she finally dials a number, by the time she finally hears a man’s voice on the other end and then hangs up the phone only to exclaim “I love him” in perfect Hollywood style, she might as well be an alien. The audience literally has no way of relating to her, as the film has dashed the assumptions they normally bring to a movie. This woman is not a character in a film. She is the Other.
So then, for the next eighty-seven minutes, the audience watches Others interact. It’s not that there’s no romance in their relationships. Maybe it’s there. Who knows? The point is that the movie doesn’t allow its audience to share in romance, whether it’s there or not. There are no close-ups. There is no conventional soundtrack, only traffic and jukebox emissions. Most of the couples are indistinguishable, and it’s impossible to form any kind of attachment to them. Removed from the context of Hollywood romance, their cliché words and actions become bizarre, sometimes horrifying. A couple dashes into a phone booth and you’re not even aroused. A man grabs a phone and in broken English says, “Yes. Yes. Yes. I love you. I will call every day until. I will be in New York in 23 days. Goodbye.” In another film, the audience might interpret this as the hasty conversation of two estranged lovers. Watching Akerman’s film, you don’t know what to make of it. The man is like a robot. From his mouth, these words are cold and impersonal.
And so the audience watches the illusion of romance disappear in the one place it’s still allowed to exist. What remains is the zeitgeist of the eighties: estrangement and paranoia. It’s a great film. Its themes still resonate, its influence can still be felt. Just know that if you go, the film will eventually end, and you’ll have to walk out of WHC into a February night, the desolation of Whitney Avenue behind you, the specter of isolation accompanying your return home.
And maybe that’s not how you want to spend your Friday night.