The movie musical has returned in full force in the last 12 months – but some have always been ahead of the curve. Chantal Akerman returned with her established formalist mastery and paid close attention to pop sensibilities of women in the workplace onscreen in Golden Eighties, exposing the contradictions of Reagan-era feminism. Lucy Walker takes us shopping in Akerman’s world to celebrate the primal pleasures of the movie musical and a new pair of shoes.
There is an elusive power behind a heroine’s signature shoe, that goes beyond ruby or glass slippers. When the chorus of Dolly Parton’s title track hits in the opening moments of 1980’s 9 to 5, a parade of kitten heels marches ahead so as to merely step upon the boss man’s ladder. In the 1987 Meyers/Shyer production of Baby Boom – a classic tale of whether or not one can “have it all” – varieties of loafers, pumps, and trainers blaze across the screen as the women wearing them prepare to take the New York City corporate world by storm. And then there’s the indelible image of Melanie Griffith trading in her Reebok high tops for a punishing pair of black platforms when she reaches the office in Working Girl. Women finding their identity in their preferred choice of footwear is a timeless trope spanning from Hans Christian Anderson to Carrie Bradshaw, but there is an added poignancy in the Reagan era of the Women’s Liberation Movement. This motif fits comfortably within the realm of 1980s pop-feminism – it acts as a plucky visual marker for a form of female empowerment deeply rooted in a consumerist ideology. Sporting their shoulder pads and fresh blowouts, these girls are prepared to do everything a man can do – but backwards and in branded™ high heels.
Chantal Akerman, whose formalist mastery left a lasting mark on avant-garde and feminist cinema throughout the 1970s, fits less comfortably in this realm. With her controlled composition and unflinching eye, Akerman creates vast worlds that capture generations worth of female yearning, often in the confines of a kitchen. Yet in the opening moments of her 1986 unheralded musical masterwork Golden Eighties, she unveils a new side to her vision with a collection of women’s shoes. Atop Marc Hérouet’s effervescent overture, a flurry of ballet flats and peep toes roam across marble floors with a determined spring in their step. The shoes are leading into a commercial wonderland, as their wearers start their day of buying and selling in a downtown Brussels shopping mall.
Akerman is among the ultimate masters of cinematic space: whether she is wandering the endless streets of New York City (News From Home), or suffocating in her heroine’s small flat (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles), her precision forges new ideas through familiar places. It is this structural dexterity that makes her oddly suited to the musical form. Of course, the classical MGM productions she draws upon in Golden Eighties bask in their artifice – the vivid colour palettes of studio sound stages seem to belie the sober minimalism that set Akerman’s previous work apart. There is, however, a similar care for every exacting detail of the filmic space, and a refined visual grace in which the camera and the players move through it. Here, her soundstage is the Galerie de la Toison d’Or (Mall of Golden Fleece): a colourful plaza filled with an equally colourful cast of characters. In the concourse is a coffee stand run by the heartsick Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) who aches over letters sent from her absent lover – in ballad form.
Surrounding Sylvie’s stand is a small clothing boutique managed by the elders, Madame and Monsieur Schwartz, respectively portrayed by screen legend and previous Akerman muse Delphine Seyrig and Charles Denner, in his final screen performance. Together they serve a familiar role within the genre – the wise veterans who have lived their golden years of musical youth but now act as confidantes (and occasional audience members) to the new crop of chorus guys and gals. Their twenty-something son Robert (Nicolas Tronc) – the so-called “Romeo of Ready-to-Wear” – is set to take over the family business, but not before having some fun with the girls from the salon across the hall.
Hairdressers/ingenues, Pascale (Pascale Salkin) and Mado (Lio) hopelessly vye for Robert’s affections, but he only has eyes for Lili, their manager (Fanny Cottençon). She channels Marilyn Monroe in her presence and her provocation, or at the very least Marilyn Monroe by way of Madonna in the ‘Material Girl’ music video. Central to Akerman’s own material world is the movie theatre that lies just beyond these three central points of action – for the cinema is where the shopping begins.
“People only die of love in movies,” the elder Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) tells her heartsick daughter (Catherine Deneuve) in Jacques Demy’s 1966 operatic masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Akerman consistently draws upon Demy’s work in Golden Eighties, allowing piercing moments of realism to transcend an artificial dreamland. But the film’s real ode to Demy lies in how it relates to the larger world of artificial dreams bought and sold through movies. Every longing aria sung by modern heroines is rooted in classical clichés. It is easy to imagine the Galerie as the shop girl’s own personal version of Jeanne Dielman’s kitchen. In that groundbreaking sophomore feature, Akerman tells the story of a widowed housewife through the framework of her daily routine. Jeanne meticulously prepares dinner in her small prism of feminine conventions that only serves to reveal the patriarchal structures of the outside world. Although the prism in this case has the vivid sheen of technicolor, and the choreographed movements are jovial rather than regimented, Akerman sees the shopping mall and the musical form as radical spaces to explore mainstream expectations of womanhood. Among the bevy of window displays and Clinique ads, there is a series of old prints for the timeless 1950 noir Gun Crazy that hangs in a quaint corridor behind the screen. As the evening dwells, hordes of window shoppers head to the theatre to catch the latest showing of Green Ice starring Ryan O’Neal – a prototypical adventure film with a stylization and cultural footprint firmly planted in 1981. At the heart of Golden Eighties is a glorious melding of contemporary and classical aesthetics, allowing Akerman to create her very own version of a Hollywood Dream Factory.
The movie musical has always been the ideal apparatus for Hollywood to sell its own mythos. I think back to the original backwards-and-in-high-heels icon Ginger Rogers and her band of showgirls in the opening moments Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkeley’s gawdy pre-code spectacular The Gold Diggers of 1933, defiantly bidding the Depression adieu whilst decked out in gleaming coins. It is not mere utopian escapism, as the harsh economic realities of the outside world are ever present. Rather, it is an audacious embrace of excess and grandeur only accessible to the average patron through the price of a movie ticket. The threat of recession looms large in Golden Eighties, along with the swaths of window shoppers roaming the mall. Even as they sing and dance their woes away, the chorus of material girls never stop selling.
Those piercing moments of realism that transcend the window displays and marble floors come from the exquisite work of Delphine Seyrig. As Jeanne Schwartz (an apparent nod to her seminal performance as Jeanne Dielman) Seyrig is well past the wide-eyed ingenue phase of her musical existence and has taken on the Madame Emery-esque role as the elder sceptic. But she, too, gets caught up in the lustre of the dream factory when her old American flame happens upon her storefront. They fell in love in wartime but she left before VE Day, resigning herself to life as a shopkeeper’s wife. His return sparks a newfound yearning for those classical cliches – yearning to be young, yearning to be beautiful, yearning to be loved. She finds herself buying into the false promise of the mall, the false promise of the musical, the false promise of the 1980s.
It is dark when she leaves him again, that vivid sheen of technicolor has disappeared when she lets out the simple and devastating truth: “I’m old.” Jeanne is no longer in the target demographic – for the movies or the mall. She can no longer ache over letters or dance away her blues or die of love; her circumstances cannot change with a chic blowout, or a new pair of shoes.
Lucy Walker (@walkerlucyg) is a writer and Film Studies graduate based in Toronto. Her passions include musicals, melodramas, and handmade sweaters. You can read about her cinematic and crafting pursuits at knittingandmovies.com