Stranded in the Jungle--30

Chantal Akerman

SHOPPING. A woman kisses a man, with all the signs of passion. "How I love you, how I love you," she exclaims. She turns around, and kisses a second man with equal passion. "How I love you," she exclaims to him as well. One love, it would seem, is just as good as another. I am watching Chantal Akerman's 1986 film Window Shopping. It's a musical, set in a shopping mall. The mall is a self-contained little world. It has all the amenities one might need: a beauty salon, a clothing boutique, a soda counter, and a cinema. The lighting is bright and uniform, without shadows. The tiled floors are exquisitely clean. This mall is where the movie's characters work and play, and sing and dance. Above all, it is where they gossip and flirt. Like so many musicals, Window Shopping is about love: its yearnings, its fantasies, and its disappointments. Everybody in the film is frustrated in love. Everybody loves somebody who doesn't love them back. It's either the wrong person, or the wrong place, or the wrong time. Even when the passion is mutual, it doesn't last. In Window Shopping, all love affairs end the same way: with disinterest on one side, and disillusionment on the other. Each person who falls in love suffers the same embarrassment, gets swept up in the same elation, is tormented by the same jealousy, and ends up feeling the same bittersweet regret. We would like to believe that our romantic experiences are unique. But in fact, they are all pretty much alike. That's why it is so easy to tell when somebody is in love. We all recognize the signs. Each stage the lover passes through, each emotion the lover feels, is like another costume he or she puts on. Indeed, the characters in Window Shopping always seem to be trying on their moods and desires, in the same way they try on clothes and hairstyles. Their postures and movements are as stylized as the poses of the mannequins in the display windows behind them. Their behavior conforms to stereotypes of romance and retail sales alike. The lines they speak are clichés, familiar from countless earlier films. Everything they do and say seems framed in ironic "quotation marks." Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) puts on a fake smile of greeting whenever a customer enters her shop. But her expression changes to a troubled frown when she recognizes one customer as her long-lost love Eli (John Berry). Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) scoops ice cream and pours Cokes for her customers, even as she laments her boyfriend's departure for Canada. Lili (Fanny Cotençon) and Robert (Nicolas Tronc) tap their feet in a kind of dance, as they make out behind a fitting-room curtain. The hairdressers in Lili's salon wash and dry their clients' hair, gossiping all the while about the latest breakups and betrayals. These gestures are all marvelously transparent. Each of them is a perfectly realized pose, free of ambiguity or depth. Akerman frames them all with exquisite care. She places the camera at just the right distance to call attention to the smallest details of these movements. And she slows down the pace of the movie just enough to make us feel the full duration of each event. The result is an almost hallucinatory heightening of the real. These everyday gestures are performed with such economy and precision that they seem to be larger than life. No wonder they blossom into song and dance. Each production number in Window Shopping freezes an emotion in time, magnifies it, and explores its every nuance. Near the end of the film, Mado (Lio) is dumped by her fiancé. She stands there stunned, still wearing her wedding dress. Jeanne hugs her, as sad music swells up on the soundtrack. Extras gather in the background, swaying slowly to the music. We expect Mado to sing, but she does not. Instead, someone else sings on her behalf. The lyrics repeat the story of disappointed love. A few of the extras dance a desultory waltz. Then, all of a sudden, the tempo picks up. The melody shifts to a major key. The lyrics become hopeful, even triumphant. They proclaim, against all evidence, that love conquers all. Now the screen is full of motion. Everyone is dancing, whirling around, exchanging partners. Even Mado is caught up in the frenzy. The production number is no longer about her particular plight. Rather, it has taken on a life of its own. The feeling of being in love floats free. It appears in its pure state. It has become something more than human: an ideal, or a perfect stereotype. Of course, this ecstasy cannot last for more than a moment. The final shot of the movie abandons the shopping mall and its fantasies. Instead, we are on a busy street, in the open air. Monsieur Schwartz (Charles Denner), who owns the clothing store, sums things up for Mado. Love is just like buying a dress, he says. If you can't get the one you want, try another. Sooner or later, you'll find something that fits. People can't go about naked, after all.

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