If you study movies and you’ve ever heard the name Chantal Akerman, your mind might immediately jump to the notoriously 3+ hour, real-time movie following a housewife, Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Brussels. Or, maybe if you dug a little deeper, you might come across her depressive, contemplative work about a traveling filmmaker in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna. Or, perhaps, you’re a women, gender and sexuality student, and you were assigned to explore the depiction of lesbian love in Je, Tu, Il, Elle. Chances are, however, that you have not watched her 1986 movie musical, Golden Eighties, and if you did, you would probably assume she was the last person to ever have her hands on it.
Akerman was a social recluse. Many of her films depict lonely women in the search for something meaningful, to little or no avail. As such, they are often interpreted as self-insert films, made all the clearer by her dreary 1977 New York-set documentary, News from Home, in which she juxtaposes rainy days in the Big Apple with disheartening letters her mother sent from their hometown in Belgium.
Golden Eighties, in contrast, is a tongue-in-cheek romantic film set to original music with lyrics co-written by Akerman. Its single-location, Demy-esque intertwinement of old lovers and new sparks is comparably lighter than many of her other movies and boasts a much less complex view on the progression of life (although certifiably French-Belgian in amour canon). In it, a department store and hair salon, located just across from each other, witness lovers' quarrels and the disappointing effects of an economy phasing out their respective businesses.
Parts of Akerman’s isolated persona peak through here and there; her most probable self-insert would be the character of Sylvie, a bartender who whiles away the days waiting for the return of her lover who has gone to Canada for work. In one of the opening songs, she reads one of his letters and muses on how, even though people come and go from her counter, she stays in the same place. Yet, even so, Sylvie is a romantic, and will talk about her affection to anyone who inquires. When an American man visits the mall and inquires about her partner, she sighs wistfully while recounting her story, and likewise during his story when she echoes his question.
It is in the jocose energy of the chorus that the movie finds its true essence. Three goofy-hairdoed men frequently accompany the movie’s heartthrob, the young-faced and petulant Robert, singing little riffs and snapping without sound or apparent rhythm. Robert, the son of the department store owners, is a spoiled boy-man who almost exclusively sings about having sex with the mall flirt, Lili. Just across the mall works the hairdresser chorus, a crew of garrulous women with funky cuts and matching outfits, who primarily prop up the good-natured and modest Mado. Mado is, by all means, quite in love with Robert, despite lacking much reason beyond the physical. He pays little attention to her, and it’s not obvious how she would compel him even if he did.
Although the walls of the hair salon are tinted by a dreamy sky blue, the across-the-street happenings are more familiarly brown and of-the-times. Robert’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz, play their own role in the story as the wise and practical foils to his self-absorbed nonsense. That is, of course, challenged when the visiting American man turns out to be Mrs. Schwartz’s soldier love interest from back during the war. It all makes for a classic set-up of tradition vs. modernity, settling vs. ambition, and, of course, differing interpretations of the definition of loyalty.
However, the film’s final consensus rings a bit more realistic than any of the bubbly romanticism telegraphed throughout the rest of the film would suggest. The film’s own budget limitations are reflected, sensibly, within the mall’s concern about the decline of customers’ purchasing decadence. Characters have little economic incentive to stick around beyond the friendship of the others. From an ethical standpoint, without spoiling, it would be fair to say that it’s not the perfectly comported who are rewarded. And, in spite of it all, Akerman finds sweetness in the characters’ flaws without forcing them to change or apologize for them.
Because of that human element, the film finds a unique stride that sets it apart from other movie musicals. The choreography is extremely awkward – budget constraints played a part in that, but ultimately it makes it all the more endearing – and the songs, although catchy, are not sung by world-class singers. There are some peculiar pauses and dialogues that sag, but such moments are later resuscitated by vibrant moments of harmonized truth. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, especially through Akerman’s lens, that a man could easily acquire a fiancé without a single date between them in advance, but for all the feminist progress Akerman made in her other films, I presume that the naivety of the hairdressers in the film is either temporally self-aware or at least partially satirical.
Golden Eighties is an odd, bright-eyed bird in an otherwise gloomy filmography. I have to wonder, if the film had received a greater following at the time of its release, would Akerman have imitated its charms in succeeding movies? Though I am a fan of her life-sucking work, I must admit that her life-infusing capabilities are significant. I hope that her lone musical outing will be rediscovered by the right audience who can appreciate the depth of feeling that Akerman put into all of her work, whether doleful or sanguine.
Golden Eighties is streaming on The Criterion Channel.