Là-bas / Over There (2006/Chantal Akerman/Belgium/France) ***
The film starts and ends inside someone's empty living room, respecting the rules of dramatic unity (one space, one time, one action). A precautionary look at what's happening outside. The shots are always static and patiently pursued in long takes. If the framing is artisticaly composed, it lets however the audience's gaze wander around and select our own acumen. Little action animates this quiet scrutiny of the neighborhood, from various angles, through the straw-screens. A textured curtain of proximity and disconnection. Lacking any hint of a narrative subject, these silent images denounce the passivity and voyeurism of a cinema viewer, which strangely echos the filmmaker's own state of mind in Israel.
After a while, mundane noises announce a presence we'll never see. As we imagine her making coffee in the kitchen, eating fruits, walking around, typing on her laptop, Akerman invites us to share a slice of her dailylife and witness her self-imposed seclusion. Thus the camera isn't Akerman's own eye, but a supervisor planted next to her. It rolls, nonchalant, as she stays off-screen doing other things.
Her voiceover commentary will come later to incorporate her developping ideas. She talks about triviality (food, traveling, mood, work, family memories) in a diary fashion. It could be an essay film in-progress, observing itself being made. From the notes, to denial, to idle shooting, to making of, to meta-documentary, to film. All in one.
A phonecall in French, with her mother or a friend, explicits her situation : she's fine, a little tired, her stomach was sick, she has work to do. Another phonecall in Hebrew and English, with a local friend, says she'd rather stay home. Three interlaced idioms remind us the communication barrier in a foreign land. From this remote sanctuary, the phone links to the world, literaly, all the way to Belgium, and right outside in the city. It's her only human contact. Our only context to the film. And an opportunity for a diegetic monolog.
Shortage of food imposes a leap to the shops. Not the israeli salads! they made her sick... This upset stomach could be a psychosomatic symptom due to her resistance to go out, or a subconscious incompatibility. Everything seems to approve her self-imprisonment. Her vocal introspection shares with us the irony of these coincidences.
All the while the digital camera peeks views of the buildings across the narrow street of her only landscape, over-framed by the curtains. Her neighbors become the involuntary protagonists. Through recurring shots of extensive length, we get to familiarize with some of them appearing now and then at the windows. There is an old retired couple up there, watering the plants every day. Noises of cars driving in and out. An old lady smoking on a tiny balcony. Children shouting nearby. A group of people in the street.
We can only imagine the words of their conversation. We listen what we can't see off-screen, we see what we can't hear. Our senses are dissociated. The mind will reconstitute the puzzle of a larger reality. Our voyeurism projects a judgement on them as we profile their supposed personality. These shots unroll silently, patiently, waiting for something to show up, or not.
And the montage cuts from this window to that balcony, like if skipping channel on a TV. They are like small silent films, from a surveillance camera. The almost-real-time contemplation translates the apprehension of dailylife rhythm in this quarter. We are there. We live there.
The sun drags the shadows across the facade, from underexposed to overexposed. The intensity of daylight evolves and creates a new environment, more or less oppressive. Texture, color, depth constantly vary.
The images fabricate a de-facto narration, in the absence of a stated plot, because they contain their own fragmented stories, those of real-life people, an intimate microcosm. The scarcity of sightings makes the observation riveting and the wait rewarding. At the antipode of Rear Window, Akerman recreates a dramatic tension out of nothing (what's already there) with her frame.
Them on one side, and her on the other end, and us. The narrow field of the tele-lens, the minimalism of details, transcend the archetypal features of a neighborhood, so we can relate to this confrontation to the "Other" painted in universal tableaux.
On her exceptional visit to the beach, we can at last breath the open air. Same contemplative static shots observing from the distance the stroll in the sand of an orthodox family and tourists alike. Both the people and the filmmaker face the horizon. Over there. One always dreams of a hopeful elsewhere. The titular "Over There" that meant Israel from a european perspective, here, in turn, names the world beyond the sea : Europe, home, USA.
Just when she returns from the shop, she learns about a bomb attack on the beach, around the corner. Akerman is under shock in her appartment, and doesn't stigmatize the incident in spectacular pictures like the Israeli news. This bomb hides in words to us.
The phone rings again and she lies about her fear to appease her friends. The shot angles are the same routine but the atmosphere is more severe and the tone more serious. She notes her aunt Ruth in Bruxelles and her friend's mother in Tel Aviv both commited suicide around the same time. Why suicide in Israel just like everywhere else? Isn't it the promised Land?
The film is making itself in the camera magazine, overcoming her initial reticence. The intuition of the filmmaker succeeds where her intellect backpedalled.
Berlin Festival 2006 - Forum
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