“Akerman’s Most Accessible”

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On Thanksgiving Day, I curled up on the couch to watch a film while the aromatic smells of the holiday meal wafted into the living room from the kitchen. Looking to watch something with a lighter tone, I remembered that some kind soul had uploaded Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996) to YouTube, and decided it would be the perfect film for that day.

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The film opens with the famous New York City skyline. Dr. Henry Harriston (William Hurt) is a therapist who is bored by his life and annoyed with being constantly bombarded by his patients’ phone calls in which they describe their fantasies and breakdowns in minute detail. Looking to add some excitement and freshness to his life, he takes out an ad in the paper for an anonymous apartment swap with someone in Paris. Beatrice Saulnier (Juliette Binoche) comes across the ad by chance and jumps at the opportunity to go to New York, and they both rush off to each other’s apartments with unfinished business left behind for each other to deal with. Henry arrives at Beatrice’s flat to a mess of dirty dishes and dirty laundry, and then must with more phone calls (the very thing he was trying to escape) from Beatrice’s many boyfriends. He is even attacked by one in the middle of the night, who he then hilariously counsels. Meanwhile, Beatrice explores the city, cares for Henry’s beautiful golden retriever , and offers her unprofessional but miracle-working advice to Henry’s patients. Exhausted by the language barrier and Beatrice’s boyfriends, Henry returns to New York to quit the apartment experiment, but by then Beatrice has become so absorbed in her role as his fill-in therapist and has even assigned her friend Anne (Stephanie Buttle) the position of receptionist. He is unable to “make an appointment” to see her, so he pretends to be a patient so he can get his apartment back, but his plans fall through when he ends up falling in love with Beatrice through their weekly heart to hearts. Henry keeps up the ruse until his true identity is eventually revealed …

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This has been referred to by many as Chantal Akerman’s “most accessible” film. This is perhaps due to the fact that the dialogue is mostly in English or because it’s a simple rom-com with none of the deeper political or social commentaries most of her other films contain. I find that this is my least favorite film of all of the ones I’ve seen by Akerman so far because it lacks the social analyses that I loved so much in her other films. Binoche’s talent is wasted on a childish and clueless character who speaks in an affected high-pitched tone that is clearly not Binoche’s own and which only ceases being annoying after you get used to it halfway through the film. Hurt is dull, dull, dull, but I find him so in most films. The story is clever and cute and flows well, and I appreciate its understated romance that omits what I expected would be a cliché and melodramatic reveal at the end. Still, all the film can really offer is an hour and a half of entertainment. Fans of Akerman’s probably won’t care for this film as it appears to be her attempt at making a more mainstream picture and lacks the distinct qualities her other films have. It seems like Akerman tried to put her own twists and touches on this Hollywood love story, but the boring characters and empty acting combined with the conventional tale overpowered her efforts.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2

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