Les Rendez-vous d'Anna
Director: Chantal Akerman. Cast: Aurore Clément, Helmut Griem, Magali Noël, Hanns Zischler, Lea Massari, Jean-Pierre Cassel. Screenplay: Chantal Akerman.

The cold, obdurate symmetry of Chantal Akerman's shots in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, less protracted but just as deliberate as those of her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman..., made an indelible impression on me from literally the first frame. In this prologue, which soon reveals itself as pure in medias res, the titular Anna Silver debarks from a train but lingers on the platform, even as the rest of the passengers clamber down the stairs. As Anna pauses on the quay, she is both overwhelmed and made more interesting by its bland but looming structures: the overhang, the pillars, the signs. Just as much as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Haynes' Safe, Akerman's Rendez-vous spins an involving and specific story out of seemingly arid spaces, photographed in precise, frequently mirrored compositions that somehow make the world seem airless, anonymous: in this case, an endless series of boxes, concourses, and doorways to nowhere. Uniting all of these nonplaces is a sprawling grid of railway lines, conveying featureless passenger-cars full of nearly featureless passengers to veritable approximations of wherever they've just been. Cologne, in this film, looks remarkably like Brussels, like Paris. Relationships between people are as vague as those between places, and even the human body, often enough revealed in states of non-erotic undress, looks worrisomely like a portable property, a valise for cloudy agendas and memories that are rarely evoked or acted upon in any appreciable way. But the bodies aren't cold, exactly. Real people live there, though it's a mystery how this taciturn film is drawing them out, continually stoking our faith in something warm still underlying it all.

What comes through is a vision of Europe that feels remarkably prescient for a film from the late 1970s, a stretching plane of points and horizons from which nationalities, languages, and other cornerstones of unique culture have eroded, or else merged with those of their neighbors. Anna, ostensibly promoting a film she has just directed, peddles her art in a world that not only seems to lack any artistic manifestations (we see not one frame of Anna's movie, nor do we even come close), but from which the very artistic impulse has been superseded by economy, impersonality, and basic accommodation. Not for nothing is Anna's tour wending its way toward Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich; neutrality all but defines her character, as well as all the milieux among which she travels. That neutrality can feel so infertile is one of the layers that make Les Rendez-vous d'Anna interesting from a political standpoint, though the film works harder to prompt contemplation from the vantages of desire, human relationships, and contemporary hiccups in old, generational models of how the present becomes the future. Anna is dogged from pitstop to pitstop by phone messages from her mother, handed to her by an array of indistinguishable concierges, and when she finally does catch up with Mom, she climbs naked into her bed and tells her, in the film's foggy-intimate fashion, about a woman she once slept with on a press tour. Other lovers are implied, but children are not—and not only because Anna is so defined by her career. "Defined" may not be a word that Anna remotely invites, so wispy and reserved is she, but her various dates, temporary lovers, old friends, and conversation partners are hardly more vivacious or transparent than she.

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, for all its formalist and intellectual engagements, is also weirdly moving, either despite or because of the purposefully stolid photography, the general forsaking of music in favor of droning ambience, the peripheral characters who remain utterly peripheral, even as they trade their detailed monologues with Anna that do not quite amount to conversation. What it means to reveal oneself in words or to confide in another are active questions posed by the film, but it's reassuring that Akerman has opted not for a bilious tract about modern isolation but for a low, slow symphony of encounters that never extinguish the humane potential or the search for connection that imbue almost all of them. The film also has a healthy sense of humor that eases as well as complicates the tone whenever it pokes through. In a similar vein, Anna's remoteness from her paramours, even as they loll or murmur or evade or press into each other in bed, does not deprive the film of a wise, believably adult sexuality. The modern age is not the death of sex or friendship, and perhaps art and love will also survive, but they need to be recognized in new ways, hustled up from often unpromising elements. Also, the more one sees of the world, touring in the most anodyne and unintensive ways, the less one seems inclined or even able to absorb much of it. But watching Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, guided and anchored by the smartly restrained performance of Aurore Clément (Paris, Texas; Apocalypse Now Redux), you do feel like you've been somewhere, as though you've seen something worth considering, worth deconstructing, worth telling someone about. Grade: A–

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