Autobiography in Chantal Akerman’s ‘Portrait of a Young Girl in the Late ’60s, in Brussels’

After a decade of economic difficulties and escalating production costs due to the newfound prevalence of television. French cinema was experiencing a period of stagnation during the early 1990s, lacking new voices and neglecting the perennial canon, in favour of films that share similar aesthetic qualities during the ‘Cinema du Look’ movement of the 1980s. In a radical pursuit to return French cinema to its origins, newly launched Franco-German channel ‘Arte’ commissioned an anthology series ‘All the boys and girls of their age [Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge]’.  The objective of the series was to propel a new generation of actors and directors into the public consciousness[Grégoire Colin, Olivier Assayas] while simultaneously modernising the careers of bygone directors [Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis]. The connective motifs between each individual episode of the series was a focus on adolescent characters living during the 1960s-1990s who ruminate about living altered lives from the ones they know.

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Chantal Akerman’s inclusion to the anthology series ‘Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brusseles [Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles] is generally examined as a minor work in her extensive oeuvre due to the elusive status of the film only being available through a substandard analogue television recording accessible on the internet. Despite its notoriety, Portrait of a Young Girl… remains an intimate opus of an artist ruminating upon their past existence.  In an interview with A.V. Club, Akerman fondly reminiscences skipping school and devoting her days to walking the streets of Brussel’s, agonizing over existential philosophy in cafés and picking up her girlfriend for dates at the cinématheque.  She recalls the revelation of watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou when she was 15 years’ old and considering cinema for the first time as a poetic rhapsody defining love and liberty. These transformative experiences are typified through Michelle [Circé Lethem] skipping school and spending her days wandering the avenues, debating philosophical doctrine with Paul [Julien Rassam] seeking to liberate herself through words.

Akerman’s identity as a queer woman has been at the forefront of her work since her first narrative feature film ‘Je, Tu, Il, Elle [I, You, He, She]’ which is acclaimed for its hyper-realistic lesbian sex scene, detached from the male gaze which dominates queer films in the 2010s. Due to Portrait of a Young Girl… debuting on television amid the 1990’s when homosexuality was still considered a taboo subject for mainstream audiences, allusions to Michele’s bisexuality are implicit. In the pivotal scene when Paul caresses Michele in an affectionate embrace during their slow dance to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’.The song refers to the discovery of beauty within the self, forming an affecting antithesis to the encounter shown and implied onscreen, signifying Michele’s first sexual encounter and the subconscious presence of Michelle’s best friend Mirelle. During the climatic party scene, Akerman relives the rapture and confusions of youth, the isolation of being alone in a crowded room when Michelle confronts her unrequited emotions towards Mirelle.  She attempts to leave the group dance which embodies the unification of friendship to dance alone with her, only to have the pair separated by Mirelle’s boyfriend. The diegetic soundtrack of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s World’ accompanied by static close-ups of Michelle longingly gazing at Mirelle as she leaves, suggests that a woman’s place in 1960’s society is to be beside her man.

The time period influences character in Portrait of a Young Girl…, references to Jean-Paul Sarte and forthcoming revolution through dialogue along with the haircut and clothing the character’s wear, convey to the audience the film is set in pre-May 1968 Europe. While Akerman’s film is not an overtly political film, there are passing references to demonstrations such as Michele chanting ‘Ho Chi Min’ at an anti-Vietnam War protest. These images feel evocative of the French New Wave specifically the sequence Agnes Varda’s ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ when pop star Cléo takes a mosey stroll with an officer on leave from the Algerian war. Akerman also allows for a vision of the evolution of French society over thirty years, while the film takes place in 1968, the characters evolve in 1990s Brussels. Akerman uses anachronisms such as substituting LP records for compact discs and Cutlass automobiles for Peugeot 205s. She does not try to hide these chronological errors, rather employing them to create a link between the memories of different eras, merging past and present. This culminates at the contention that despite their generation and their surroundings, adolescences face the same dilemma’s such as alienation and existential anxiety.

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