Because The Night: The Timeliness Of Chantal Akerman’s ‘Toute Une Nuit’

One of Chantal Akerman's lesser known works feels singularly important during times of global isolation. Toute Une Nuit telegraphs the importance of human connection over one finite period of time and now plays like a foggy memory, finds Patrick Preziosi

The dialogue of Chantal Akerman’s 1982 film Toute Une Nuit is delivered largely in isolated phrases of touching banality: “I love him”; “Can’t you stay?”; “I miss you”; “Let’s go dancing in town.” As was the defining characteristic of the late Belgian filmmaker, Toute Une Nuit lives as an assemblage of nonevents––those less often committed to film––that still carry with them a deep, empathetic comprehension of the everyday, which could be wielded for effects both equally interrogative and emotive. When Toute Une Nuit does feature moments that hew closer to conventional devices of narrative and plot, they’re whittled down to their essentials, residing within the most mundane passing declarations and gestures.

Taking place over one night in Brussels, the film evinces the sinuous, effervescent nostalgia that courses throughout those hot and balmy summer evenings. Playing as a series of richly textured tableus, the mostly static camera of DOP Caroline Champetier trains itself on vignettes of varying length featuring full-bodied embraces, phone calls punctuated by the longing of distance, breakups, recouplings and impromptu dances. As nearly all of what plays on screen is rather allusive, entirely bereft of contextual material, Akerman achieves an aura of singular intimacy as each and every unknowable figure on screen is defined by their romantic dispositions, whether they are resoundingly melancholic, poignantly fulfilled, or even both. The film is as rigorously assembled as Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels or News From Home, but its expansive network of varyingly smitten characters lends Toute Une Nuit a sweep that’s as digestible as it is immersive.

I found it a poignant experience rewatching Toute Une Nuit the other day; in times of social distancing and the like, its pared down tapestry of nightlife plays like a foggy memory, although it’s not just the now-absent socializing, dancing, courtship and so on it evokes, but the sheer, overwhelming element of choice that underpins it all. All the dalliances, hookups, pairings-off and bouts of individual contemplation are defined by such, as Akerman’s ruminative filmmaking, although nearly wordless, channels sensations of deep thought and decision making. At one interval, a man slips a letter through a woman’s door and then slinks away. The woman comes outside, letter in hand, momentarily––though palpably––mulling over what to do. She then chases him down the street, and upon catching up, utters the film’s favorite word: “come.”

The roundelay of encounters in Toute Une Nuit isn’t solely in service of romance and all its implications, but also of anticipation, hope, even risk, all of which the night provides the perfect backdrop for. At one point, a middle-aged woman sneaks quietly out of an apartment, almost making it down the stairs before being intercepted by a man who asks her where she’s going. Instead of answering, she asks his name, and the illusion of them being better acquainted evaporates as they introduce themselves. Then––as is the film’s leitmotif––they hug and pull each other close, and the woman drops her purse. In this scattered selection of shots, Akerman has built up a narrative rife with potentialities: infidelity, a passionate one night stand, maybe a hint of a new, more loving relationship than what had preceded. Just as quickly as you can walk away, you can be roped back in just the same; similarly, characters will materialize from or fade back into the impossibly black ether of nighttime shadows created by streetlights.

Elsewhere, desire is channeled physically, though the film eschews anything close to actual sex, much less even any sort of liplocking. But when two bar patrons––whose familiarity with one another is indiscernible––suddenly come together for a seemingly boozy dance of precarious twirls and heavy petting, the film doesn’t need to rely on anything more, its intended effect transcending the likely drunkenness for something more pure and bodily. An inscrutable relationship brought forth as an intense moment of caress, playing out with now irrepressible attractiveness; it makes the time in which interactions could be purely predicated on touch and not much else feel like eons ago.

Brief conversations follow a similar trajectory of subtle spontaneity: in a scene of unabashedly heartwarming plainspokeness, an elderly woman asks her snoozing husband if they should go out into what she calls a lovely night. He arises, responds with “come,” and they leave their house together and walk off smiling down the lowlit street. Such an ability to make decisions based solely on one’s immediate emotions and desires is apparent from the film’s first true multi-scene passage, in which a dressed-up and tearful Aurore Clément paces her apartment muttering “I love him.” She places a phone call presumably to the one she’s enamored with, but hangs up when he picks up. She leaves and hops into a cab taking it to, you’d think, his apartment building, watching him through his window from the street below, before then deciding just to walk away. It’s a scene both romantic and gutting, and thrives on the agency of Clément’s character, even if her own personal feelings are seemingly compromised by the unknown circumstances of this relationship.

For a film so preoccupied with romantic chance, Akerman frequently returns to many of her solitary characters which populate a great portion of the latter half. This acknowledgment of aloneness is what makes Toute Une Nuit such an attractive display of human interaction, or lack thereof. The aforementioned, always lingering, possibility of the night retains even more significance, then, as some do just decide to stay indoors. Our current everyday resemble those who appear to be loafing and lazing about in the (dis)comfort of home – but even then is the option of a soiree or rendez-vous still palpable, as demonstrated by surrounding scenes. A mustachioed man appears to have trouble sleeping in the summer heat; a typist at what appears to be a garment shop clacks away, occasionally drifting in and out; a man awaits an intercontinental phone call from a lover in New York on his balcony, and speaks to them in endearingly attempted English when they do ring, counting down the days until they’ll once again be united stateside. Akerman moves from the streets and bars to apartments, balconies and staircases without a seam showing, fashioning a true “city symphony,” in that Toute une nuit feels attuned to the rhythm of Brussels’ denizens alone.

Though all the events of Toute Une Nuit are brought forth with a refreshing simplicity, it’s a film whose own quietude masks just how much actually happens within, the scenes already listed only scratching the surface. Characters do return fitfully, but they’re invariably flanked by new and unfamiliar faces. The nights are so active and lively that most long to return to them, such as those who opt to sleep during the day, or the near-desperate dance of the couple at the film’s close, the sounds of daytime traffic and obligatory phone calls encroaching upon the swooning pop song––Gino Lorenzi’s “L’amore perdonera”––on the soundtrack. Even though the night can even dip into humdrum territory for some, it still attains an almost fantastical air for how stripped of pretense it is, save for its defining elemental lustiness. Who knows when such fundamental impulses will be enacted without compromise again?

As all the documented encounters are defined by an effervescent fleetingness, Akerman’s film feels steeped in its own nostalgia already. Such subtle longing is furthered by its prudent use of music, which nearly always seems to be wafting through the walls of an adjoining room, intimating another sensation of memory; although diegetic, it feels teleported from elsewhere. Likewise, it channels the passions and emotions (some markedly more romantic than others, but still under this umbrella of intimacy all the same) that are enacted between a city’s poles of hope and risk, the majority of which are inarguably impossible right now. So for now, at least, Toute Une Nuit tantalizingly captures the vast spectrum of romantic fulfillment––charting everything from wistful loneliness to dramatic reunions––that currently remains just out of reach.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today