Bernard Zelechow: "The Formalist Film-Maker with a Subtext"


The film's setting is a marble-clad shopping mall complete with a cinema, clothing stores, hair styling emporium and coffee bar below the Champs Elysées. Infatuation denoted as love appears as yet another consumer product. One shops for romantic satisfaction as for a new dress or suit. The film pits grandiose infinite insatiable desire and gratification against sobriety, mutuality and the bourgeois satisfaction with life as the realization of the possible. The work celebrates the small victories possible in a world full of suffering compared with the demand for instant and ephemeral gratification. Akerman explores competing conceptions of happiness and contentment with a light touch despite the painful subtext of the film. Notwithstanding the comic touch Akerman does not demean the reality of desire. Nor does she turn the contentment of bourgeois marriage into a maudlin sermon.

Akerman sets the tone with an apparent paean to North American existence. Sylvie the coffee-bar attendant reads from a letter from her boyfriend extolling the limitless possibilities in the pursuit of happiness on that continent. This position is countered by Jeanne to the effect that love (life) is the same the world over. Anna's mother is the prototype of Jeanne Schwartz, polish-born wife of a clothing shop owner, a survivor of the concentration camps, and mother of the emotionally adolescent Robert, the son in training for a life as a shopkeeper. Schwartz, like all the fathers in Akerman's films lacks a given name. He is hard working with an imagination limited apparently to the platitudinous possibilities of commercial enterprise. He loves his wife and despairs at his son's lack of sobriety. He presents his son with all of the bourgeois advice warnings against the fickleness of the passions. While he tells his son that he too was once young we do not really believe him. That will be different when Jeanne reveals her story. At the beginning of the film Monsieur Schwartz is a figure of fun whose dignity is ultimately quietly acknowledged. Madame Schwartz repeats her husband's view of existence giving it a deftness, poignancy and elegiac dignity.

Akerman makes use mostly of a conventional plot. Girls Mado and Pascale want the unapproachable boy, Robert Schwartz. Robert yearns for unattainable blond Lilli. Lilli, the cynical mistress of Monsieur Jean does not know what she wants. Monsieur Schwartz covets Lilli's shop that Monsieur Jean underwrites. Enter Eli Jackson into these comic triangles. For more than thirty years he has pined for the Polish Jewish refugee he met in Paris at the war's end. Eli finds her. It is Jeanne and he tries to sweep her off her feet. She finds his attentions exciting but she refuses. He professes that his chaste love for her has been the sole love of his life. Poignantly, but without self pity she explains her rejection of his offer. First she says that after the camps her heart is dead. Love can never be for her. And desire is the prerogative of the young and she insists that she is old. She was born old. However, her acts undercut her words. And she articulates a different explanation for her refusal to abandon her husband and son. With the possibility of fulfilling an old desire she realizes that she has a good life. She loves her husband and son. She is pleased to serve customers in the shop and wants nothing more. The time has passed for romantic love if that time ever was. Akerman underlines her critique of romantic love in a world that has known the holocaust. Even yearning romantic love cannot transcend the linguistic homelessness of war-torn world. Neither Eli nor Jeanne had the words to express the feelings they held for each other when they first met in the early days after the liberation of Paris.

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 4 : Page 5 / 8

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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