Chantal Akerman films Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Posted on May 6, 2012

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Chantal Akerman filme Sonia Wieder-Atherton (box set: two DVDs and one CD) Naïve, 2011.

This is what getting a love letter from Chantal Akerman must be like.

There are four films here that Akerman made about the cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, and all largely consist of the footage of Wieder-Atherton playing, either alone or with other musicians. This didn’t sound particularly exciting to me, but then I had never seen SWA play before. It’s an eventful occasion. The camera captures every moment in the SWA interaction with the instrument and every instance of pleasure and melancholy she gets from the music. Akerman’s cinematography also affirms (but does not belabour on) the essentially sexual nature of the playing of an instrument, especially the instrument which involves musician’s entire body, as the cello does.

The first film on Disc One is Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, which opens with SWA talking about herself and her musical path. She chose the cello because of the legato, and the possibility of a legato that could last forever; she found home when she started working with the Russian cellist Natalia Shakhovskaia. Her explanation on why she doesn’t divide the repertoire that touches her into historical periods is especially appealing. She is a fascinating artist to listen to talk, but after that initial interview she remains silent and the film is about framing the act of her playing into a cinematic or painting-like frame.

In Avec, Akerman films her, and later her guest musicians, through the doors and partitions of an apartment-like space, in dimmed lights or shade. In the second film, Trois strophes sure le nom de Sacher par Henri Dutilleux, the set up is more filmic. Colours are much livelier although far from naturalistic, and through the window by which SWA plays Dutilleux we see the couple that lives in the building across going about their chores, occasionally pausing at the window to listen.

Disc Two consists of the two-part À l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, filmed inWarsaw with the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra and assorted musicians. The idea for the film came from SWA herself, who wanted to pay homage to the beloved Slavic repertoire. Some of the works had to be transcribed for the cello and the chamber orchestra, and others rearranged, all of which she did with Franck Krawczyk. She is again wearing the white silky blouse (Akerman’s idea from the film one) which delineates and kind of ghosts her movement while bowing. The surrounds and the other musicians are all dark-grey, and again we have a painting-like chiaroscuro (“reminiscent of Flemish painting” is how SWA describes it). All the excitement comes from music – Rachmaninov, Kodaly, Donányi, Prokofiev, Martinů, Tcherepnin and Slavic folk sounding very unfamiliar.

The one CD in the box set is the music score from the movie A Couch in New York, which Akerman directed. (Yes, I know. It’s not a great film. Everybody has jobbing periods in their lives, mmkay?) SWA was in charge of the score and she did the typically remarkable job of reimagining the familiar pieces like Cole Porter’s “Nigtht and Day”. A lot of the music is her own, however. In addition to the cello-piano and cello-violin duos, we have the very intriguing series of cello-drums works on the disc. This score is probably the best thing about that unfortunate film.

This box set is a must for Akermaniacs (among whom I belong), but others may not get as excited by the fact of a brilliant woman behind the camera observing, sensualising, analyzing another brilliant woman in action with a musical instrument as much as I do.

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