A Couch in New York : Chantal Akerman and Sex in the City

Uploaded 1 December 2001

Chantal Akerman’s most recent film, La captive (France/Belgium 2000), has been described as the latest contribution to a small cluster of works within her oeuvre that could be loosely categorised as “stories of lovers in the city” [1] . La captive thus completes a trilogy inaugurated with Nuit et jour (France/Belgium/Switzerland 1991) and developed in A Couch in New York/Un divan à New York (France/Belgium/Germany 1996) [1] . While many of Akerman’s films either overtly or obliquely explore the theme of desire, these three tales of romance situate the love story in an explicitly urban setting and in different ways, interrogate both the formal and thematic conventions of the romance narrative.

Where both La captive and Nuit et jour have attracted considerable critical attention, Akerman’s “least successful” film, A Couch in New York, has not been accorded the same degree of interest [3] [4]. The alleged failings of the film have typically been accounted for in terms of the mismatch of Akerman’s “subversive talents” with such a “flatout commercial endeavour” [5] For those convinced of the director’s status as “one of the most celebrated minimalists in contemporary movies”, A Couch in New York represents a disconcerting career indiscretion best ignored [6] . But it is precisely because of the supposedly anomalous position the film occupies in Akerman’s oeuvre, and the benign critical neglect with which it has been treated, that the film warrants closer inspection.

If “keeping a distance” is a strategic element in Akerman’s cinema that has simultaneously ensured the power of her work and discouraged a mainstream audience, A Couch in New York afforded the director an opportunity to engage with the sort of popular genre and attendant audience that had thus far eluded her[7] [8] . The film is as revealing as any of the more revered works in the Akerman canon. Rather than a directorial aberration, A Couch in New York incorporates the director’s key stylistic and thematic preoccupations within the broad parameters of a mainstream romantic comedy.

Akerman has described A Couch in New York as “what Hollywood would call a double fish out of water film”.[9] Written by Akerman with Jean-Louis Benoit, this “double fish out of water” scenario serves a series of interrelated, structural, ideological and aesthetic purposes. The film elaborates on Akerman’s abiding interest in notions of romantic love and desire, and the themes of exile, displacement and expatriation, issues explored at length in earlier films. A Couch in New York is also a typically shrewd and witty take on the genre of romantic comedy itself. Akerman’s whimsical and economical deployment of the standard conventions of the genre allows the director to expand on a comic sensibility that is an understated but nevertheless significant element in her work.

When A Couch in New York was released in 1996, the combination of a filmmaker “not noted for her humour” and the genre of romantic comedy was characterised as a thoroughly unnatural alliance.[10]  In tackling this genre, Akerman in fact builds on a comic inclination apparent from the earliest period of her filmmaking career. Akerman’s first short, Saute ma ville (Belgium 1968), is a grimly comic depiction of adolescent suicide. The black-and-white film, featuring Akerman herself, takes a humorous look at the horrors of domesticity. In one of the few analyses to focus on the lighter touch in Akerman’s work, Jonathan Rosenbaum linked Saute ma ville with the tradition of Keaton and Chaplin, observing that “the film refutes any view of Akerman as a sombre filmmaker”. [11]

Setting the (mise en) scène

A Couch in New York opens, unsurprisingly, in the city of New York, where disillusioned psychoanalyst Dr Henry Harriston (William Hurt) is desperate to escape his aggressively needy patients. Henry advertises for an apartment swap in the International Herald Tribune and Parisian Beatrice Saulnier (Juliette Binoche) responds. The two swap homes, sight unseen. Akerman immediately establishes a series of extreme contrasts between her two central protagonists. Henry’s restrained personality and obsessive neatness are reflected in the severe minimalism of his Fifth Avenue apartment – a space after Akerman’s own minimalist heart. His staunchly classical tastes and formal appearance suggest that Henry’s emotions, along with his household appliances, are on permanent remote control. He is in many ways, a worthy American counterpart to Akerman’s earlier incarnation of obsessive behaviour and repressed desire, Jeanne Dielman (in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles), (Belgium/France 1975).

Where Henry is a rational man of science, Beatrice is a passionate dancer. She is as messy and impulsive as he is neat and orderly. Her apartment is a work in progress in the multi-ethnic district of Belleville. With tradesmen hammering overhead and discarded clothes underfoot, her home is an inspirationally cluttered space littered with the signs of an exuberant life fully lived. Beatrice’s answering machine runs hot with the earnest pleas of besotted lovers while, in New York, clients leave hostile phone messages demanding Henry’s professional attention. She describes his home as “peaceful” ; hers is visibly and audibly chaotic.

Location, Location, Location

If A Couch in New York can be understood as part of Akerman’s “stories of lovers in the city” trilogy, the urban setting is clearly central to an understanding of these three films. Notions of place and space in A Couch in New York are significant in a number of ways. First, and most transparently, the cross-cultural romance between Henry and Beatrice brings together two characters representing the two continents that have defined the director’s cinematic landscape. In her peripatetic existence as a filmmaker, Akerman has returned consistently, if not obsessively, to the landscape of America. In shorts, documentaries and fiction films, America features as a source of cinematic inspiration. Significantly, the America of Akerman’s films is a cultural and historical topography invariably imaged and imagined in relation to a European counter-reality.

An early Akerman work, News From Home (Belgium/France 1976), definitively inaugurated the notion of an imaginary America in Akerman’s oeuvre. [12] This hybrid blend of documentary and autobiography featured Akerman’s characteristic combination of static and tracking shots of New York locations, accompanied by the filmmaker’s dispassionate voice-over, reading her mother’s letters from Belgium. The film’s disjunctive relation of voice and image, the contrast of detached cityscape imagery with intimate details of Belgian life, produced an abstracted America of the imagination, rather than a prescriptive portrait of the city.

News From Home closes with a lengthy and elegiac image of the receding New York skyline. Some twenty years later, A Couch in New York opens with the same night skyline, albeit overtly stylised. The accompanying lyrics deliberately and over emphatically paraphrase the specific appeal of this location in Akerman’s work. [13] It is a charmed image which Akerman repeatedly returns to in the film. The director’s acute double vision consistently contrasts Henry’s jaundiced American perspective with Beatrice’s wide-eyed, European gaze. Entranced with America, the land of “cable, cigarettes and booze”, Beatrice enthusiastically embraces the New York sky, the streets, the apartment – even Henry’s profoundly neurotic clients. [14] Akerman’s “attempts to create a magical atmosphere…with fairytale skies” have been regarded as undermining the film’s appeal. [15]  However, this “magical atmosphere” is entirely consistent with the director’s perspective, where New York is figured as a veritable fantasy land – as seen through the eyes of a French ingenue. In a number of Akerman films, New York is figured as a symbolic silhouette, one that functions as a chimerical rendering, not simply of the city, but of America itself [16] .

If Akerman’s film invokes both Europe and America, it equally foregrounds the theme of movement between these two locations. (Even its title, technically, is double-barreled, appearing in both English and French in the credits.) A Couch in New York is an unusual contribution to the genre – a romantic comedy underpinned by a dual discourse of expatriation. The “double fish out of water” premise thus represents an appropriately colloquial reformulation of Akerman’s enduring preoccupation with the politics of place, exile and alienation. The director has spoken repeatedly about her ambivalent relation to her Jewish heritage. The daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, she has identified with the difficulties of the “second generation” – the children of Holocaust survivors – in coming to terms with a history often misguidedly repressed. “And because they didn’t tell us about that past, because they didn’t pass it down to us, what they did pass down was precisely this sense of uprootedness” [17]

This sense of uprootedness and associated themes of isolation and alienation are insistent textual and subtextual thematics running through Akerman’s work. In News From Home, Akerman’s own alienation is registered in her detached images of New York and their disjunctive relation to the accompanying voice-over. Rendezvous d’Anna (France/Belgium/GFR 1978) details the autobiographically inspired journey of a female filmmaker across Europe. As the title suggests, the film is concerned with both movement and stasis, encounters and departures – above all, with Anna’s enduring sense of dislocation, even, and most profoundly, in the moment of her arrival home. Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy (France/Belgium 1989) – a series of dramatic monologues interspersed with Jewish humour – conveys the experiences of Holocaust survivors against the backdrop of a new life in America. It is a film fundamentally informed by notions of the journey, displacement and expatriation.

In A Couch in New York, Henry’s flight to Europe, a reverse diasporic liberation of sorts, confers no real freedom but, rather, compounds his sense of ennui. Where the European Beatrice becomes a New Yorker with apparent ease, Henry is both unable to adapt to Parisian life, and on his return to New York, equally estranged from his own home town. He is ultimately a “real nowhere man”, adrift in an American “nowhere land”. In the improbable context of a mainstream romantic comedy, Akerman explores the complexities of expatriation and dislocation so germane to her oeuvre. Henry’s tragi-comic experiences thus engage with the fundamental notion that identity and belonging are not necessarily bound to the materiality of place and space. Henry’s liminal status symbolises an underlying crisis of personal identity that in turn reflects the “sense of uprootedness” acknowledged by the filmmaker herself.

Akerman further extends the significance of place and space, adding another layer of complexity to the film. When Henry returns to New York in the latter half of the film, the action is centred almost exclusively in his apartment. He discovers that, in his absence, the untrained but sympathetic Beatrice has taken over his practice. Under her tutelage, Henry’s dog, his most demanding clients and even his indoor plants are thriving. Intrigued, Henry masquerades as a client, John Wire. In the emblematic comic scenario of disguised identity that transpires, Henry learns some psychoanalytic home truths of his own. He feels strangely but increasingly at home, in therapy, on the other side of his own couch in New York.

If New York is symbolically significant in Akerman oeuvre, Henry’s apartment functions as a condensation of the surrounding cityscape, a space where the most significant character interactions take place. It has been suggested that in Nuit et jour the apartment shared by Julie and Jack stands in for the city that surrounds it. “Paris, the big city, is reduced to the size of the room”. [18] The labyrinthine spaces allow the lovers to shut out the rest of the world, to both avoid and engage with each other, to make love, talk, argue, reconcile and make love again. The city itself is present only as a series of anonymous streets and locations presented in a deliberately low-key manner – a fountain, a cafe, the river.

A not dissimilar strategy is at work in A Couch in New York, where Akerman exploits the expressive possibilities of interior space. As with the tight framing of characters in windows and doorways in Night and Day, Akerman utilises the severe verticals and horizontals of the apartment to organise characters, particularly Henry, as compositional elements. Equally, the space functions as an exclusion zone, shielding the occupants by foreclosing on the outside world, represented by the stylised New York skyline. With its long central corridor and Zen-like ordering of rooms, Henry’s apartment functions as a way of directing character interactions, most significantly the “consultations” between Beatrice and Henry. As with the circumlocutory exchanges between Julie and Jack in Nuit et jour, the charade of doctor and patient in A Couch in New York is played out through the entrances and exits, the movement through space and the solemn procession to the analyst’s couch.

Love American style

In some respects, A Couch in New York presented Akerman with her most difficult challenge. It was an opportunity for this most iconoclastic of contemporary European auteurs to work within the constraints of the most paradigmatic of Hollywood genres. In other respects, romantic comedy was peculiarly suited to Akerman’s formal and thematic preoccupations – her enduring interest in exploring the complexities of both romantic love and the idea of genre itself.

From the very beginning of her career, Akerman’s films have evidenced a well-documented disregard for the conventions of genre and a wilful blurring of the boundaries of fiction, documentary and autobiography. In her first two decades of filmmaking, Akerman’s interrogations of genre coalesced around the comedy and the musical. Key works included overt variations on slapstick comedy in J’ai faim, j’ai froid (Belgium 1984), L’Homme à la valise (France 1983) and more obliquely, the autobiographically-based farce with slapstick overtones, Family Business: Chantal Akerman Speaks about Film (GB 1984). Akerman worked over the musical in similar fashion, in stylised, deconstructive meditations on the genre in The Eighties (France 1983) and Golden Eighties aka Window Shopping (France/Belgium/Switzerland 1986).

From her earliest works such as Je, tu, il, elle (Belgium 1974) and Les rendezvous d’Anna (Belgium/France/Germany 1978), Akerman has also consistently explored the romance narrative or love story, and concomitant issues around sexuality, identity and desire. These explorations have been predominantly registered from the point of view of female protagonists. Toute une nuit (Belgium/France 1982), Akerman’s most formally rigorous inquiry into the love story, predates her urban romance trilogy by a decade. Featuring a huge cast of characters in thirty five different narratives, the film details a series of apparently unconnected romantic encounters over the course of one night in Brussels. Each encounter deals in some way with the complexities of love, longing, desire and separation. The film has been described as bravely tackling the formally and thematically depleted territory of the love story. The film concentrates on the brief moments that often constitute the turning points of traditional feature films – the parting, the embrace, the moment of sexual longing. It rescues singularity and energy precisely where the pressure of convention has turned the representation of love into cliché. [19]

While thematically affiliated with this earlier work, A Couch in New York takes a different strategic approach to the investigation of romantic love. Akerman again tackles the “formally and thematically depleted territory of the love story”, but in A Couch in New York she enthusiastically embraces the “cliché”. The specific co-ordinates of that “cliché” are made clear midway through the film, where Akerman has her romantic heroine wax lyrical about a romantic movie she has just seen. Where her friend Anne decries the “happy ending with smaltzy music and the lovers looking at each other like two cows in the field”, Beatrice is moved to tears and defends the film as the “most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”[20] . She goes on to directly correlate this experience with the feelings she has when Henry “opens up to her”. In the course of the film, both Henry and Beatrice make frequent reference to love as an illness or a disease involving extreme suffering, affirming the notion of romantic love in its most hyperbolic and “clichéd” understanding. In foregrounding these conventional expressions of romantic love while simultaneously undercutting the genre of romantic comedy, Akerman is both critiquing and redeeming the love story as a cinematic “cliché”.

Romancing the Comedy

Steve Neale has argued for the emergence of a new cycle of the Hollywood romantic comedy in the late 1980s and ongoing into the 1990s – the “new romance”. [21]  It is a cycle which provides a useful context in which to situate A Couch in New York, a film that Akerman is clearly positioning, in terms of location, characterisation and thematics, in just such a mainstream American context. Neale distinguishes the “new romance” from an earlier counterpart, the “nervous romance”, primarily in terms of the typically conservative ideology underpinning the former.

Where the “nervous romance” of the late 1970s and mid 1980s foregrounded the problematic nature of relationships and commitment, and often featured pathologically nervous or neurotic protagonists, the “new romance” mitigated the eccentricities of its protagonists and reaffirmed the surety of heterosexual romance. [22] In doing so, the “new romance” constrained its female protagonists, countering the threat of their independence and ultimately securing them in traditional roles. [23] A Couch in New York, contiguous with the “new romance”, is interestingly positioned in this mainstream romantic comedy context. Akerman’s film both draws on and deliberately overstates a number of the features of this cycle, but is also a transitional text, anticipating a further shift in the genre towards the end of the decade and beyond.

If, as noted above, the transatlantic locations in A Couch in New York serve a broader formal and thematic purpose in Akerman’s work, they equally provide a framework from which to develop some of the fundamental elements of the contemporary romantic comedy. The apartment swap thus constitutes the “meet cute”, the device by which two strangers are brought together in order to initiate romance. [24] The device has varied considerably in the history of the genre, reflecting the influence of the sexual and cultural politics of any given period [25] .  Akerman’s scenario and its subsequent ramifications represents an interesting variation on the device, drawing on both classic and contemporary examples of the genre but also incorporating the director’s specific preoccupations. [26]

The apartment swap ensures that Henry and Beatrice are separated for a considerable period of screen time. They learn more about each other – in intimate detail and in absentia -than if they had actually met. [27]  Akerman’s playful and economical cross-cutting between New York and Paris shows Beatrice and Henry exploring their new domains. Each contemplates the clothes and personal preferences the respective apartments reveal. The contrasts between the two suggest they are an archetypal example of the seemingly incompatible couple of classic romantic comedy. But Akerman extends this simple premise, making these domestic spaces work as a preliminary arena for seduction.

Henry and Beatrice become increasingly intrigued by the personal topography of the other. She finds his aftershave “refreshing, intoxicating” and appropriates his wardrobe. He is fascinated by the passionate disarray of her clothes, books and other ephemera and the impassioned love letters from ardent boyfriends. Even their domestic pets reveal much about their respective owners – Henry’s Edgard is an impeccably trained if spiritless Golden Retriever, while Beatrice’s flat is colonised by free flying doves. In these early establishing scenes, the two characters’ sensory encounters with the objects, surfaces and space of the other thus become invested with the erotic charge of a first embrace [28]  Akerman’s droll exploitation of the “meet cute” thus serves a dual purpose. It satisfies the structural imperative of romantic comedy to both promote and prolong an incipient desire between the protagonists. Equally, it conforms, however broadly, with Akerman’s enduring interest in the representing the complexities of desire and romantic love on screen.

“Playing” for Laughs

Akerman’s deliberately overstated approach to romantic comedy is further sustained in a series of formally and thematically rigorous ways. Her leading characters are not merely eccentric individuals, often a feature of the genre, they are thoroughly outré types. If the contemporary romantic comedy often posits the eccentric qualities of protagonists as conferring a “uniqueness and individuality” on the couple, then Akerman exploits this convention to its fullest ironic potential. [29]  Her leading man is thus a “major” New York psychoanalyst who is himself clearly neurotic. [30]  Even his dog Edgard is maladjusted. Beatrice on the other hand suggests an almost parodic version of the contemporary Parisian bohemian, all passion, uninhibited artistic impulse and fey kookiness. The “accent on artifice; the vaguely stylised, unrealistic approach to performance” that attracted the ire of critics, serves to amplify the already exaggerated quality of Akerman’s characterisations. [31]

In foregrounding the eccentricities of their respective characters, Akerman also exploits the screen personas of her two lead actors. Hurt’s career has been defined by roles that emphasise a certain lugubrious on screen quality His characters are often introspective, inscrutable or dour and beset by personal crises of a emotionally painful nature. [32]  In Henry, Akerman has Hurt play a poker-faced conflation of these on screen characteristics. Binoche, while notable for a series of dramatic roles predominantly in the European cinema, has an ethereal and whimsical screen presence, that in A Couch in New York, Akerman harnesses for more broadly comic purposes.

If the romantic comedy typically employs the device of mistaken or disguised identity, Akerman top loads her film and opts for both. She makes plenty of mileage out of early scenes following the apartment swap. Henry’s patients labour under the amusing misapprehension that Beatrice is a substitute therapist. It is their ridiculous self-absorption that quickly co-opts “Dr Saulnier” into the profession. In subsequent scenes, Beatrice unwittingly counsels psychoanalyst Henry, who is masquerading as a patient, thus effecting a further comic double whammy.

The therapy consultation in turn, becomes the unlikely means by which the potential lovers are brought together. These scenes deploy key strategies in the romantic comedy genre, providing the potential couple with opportunities to both “play” together and “learn” more about each other. [33]  Thus:

playing together, having fun together, are key elements in the ethos of romance to which romantic comedy as a whole — and not just the screwball films – seems to be dedicated. [34]

But where the typical duo of romantic comedy often play at being a married couple, thereby establishing their shared interests and ultimate compatibility, in A Couch in New York, Beatrice and Henry act out an amusing charade of doctor and patient. [35] In Akerman’s sly take on the genre, these passages of “playing together” involve an absurdly reductive psychoanalytic discourse which effectively becomes the language of love. Akerman herself has fun here, taking sharp aim at some sacred tenets of the therapy business. [36]

The untrained Beatrice is thus required to navigate the “sometimes dangerous profession” of psychoanalysis, applying, often with hilarious effect, a thoroughly vulgarised version of Freudian theory to her hapless patients. [37]  Oedipal complexes, transference and traumas buried in the “deepest depths” thereby account for the increasingly troubling attraction Beatrice feels for Henry, and that he appears to reciprocate. [38]  Her risible interpretation of non-interventionist listening strategies – a sympathetic reiteration of “yes” and “uh huh” – becomes the unlikely means of a slow seduction.

Educating Henry

If therapy constitutes “playing together” in Akerman’s romantic comedy, it equally fulfils the function of “the learning process, a process in which the members of the couple come to know themselves as they come to know one another”.[39]  This is a central imperative of the genre that ultimately ensures the couple’s compatibility and mutual love. Neale has argued that the “new romance” has required its female protagonists to undergo the steepest learning curve, modifying their eccentricities and compromising more in order to achieve romantic resolution. [40]

It is here that A Couch in New York is at its most provocative. Akerman has her romantic heroine compromise very little in the course of the film. An appreciation of all things American and some rudimentary counselling skills is the only learning Beatrice is required to do. It is Henry who is radically re-educated in Akerman’s scenario. He learns to relinquish control, to become comfortable on the other side of the analyst’s couch, to fall genuinely in love and ultimately, to be “really frank” and thus more like Beatrice. It is Henry who finally moves from his couch in New York to Beatrice’s apartment in Paris.

If the sexual politics of the romantic comedy are manifest most explicitly in this “learning process”, through the relative weight given to masculine and feminine discourses, Akerman’s A Couch in New York is an interesting contribution to the genre [41]  While the romantic comedy has a theoretical commitment to the notion of an equal partnership and a mutual learning process, it has been argued that it is rare to find a contemporary mainstream romantic comedy in which the male protagonist knows less and therefore has to learn more than his female counterpart. [42]  A Couch in New York is one such example. The learning process in Akerman’s film is inscribed principally through the emotional changes Henry undergoes, and the values and knowledge he acquires from Beatrice.

This is hardly surprising from a director who has maintained a consistent interest in the representation of issues of female desire and identity. But it does represent a significant ideological difference that further distinguishes A Couch in New York from its contemporary “new romance” counterparts. Rather than conforming to the conservative ideological agenda of the “new romance”, Akerman’s film anticipates a further shift in the romantic comedy in the latter half of the 1990s. If, as suggested above, the genre is theoretically committed to the ideals of an equal partnership and a mutual learning process, an increasing number of mainstream romantic comedies of the late 1990s and beyond, begin to genuinely engage with this proposition. [43] A Couch in New York represents a transitional text, one that reasserts the independence of the female protagonist of the genre and reinstates the ideal of equal partnership.

Desiring Women

However broad the interpretation of romantic love, it is this emphasis on the uncompromising individuality of the female protagonist in A Couch in New York which again links the film definitively with Akerman’s earlier work Nuit et jour. The latter film is fundamentally structured by an investigation of female desire. A more formally innovative work than A Couch in New York, this lyrical meditation on romantic love is structured around what initially appears to be a conventional romantic triangle. In Nuit et jour, Julie struggles to balance two relationships, staying awake at night with Joseph and spending her days with Jack. As with A Couch in New York, love is figured as a form of sickness, a condition from which its three protagonists variously suffer. The circuitous narrative allows each character to continuously and repetitively reflect on their feelings and motivations.

An unconventional romantic heroine in both appearance and attitude, Julie is forced to choose between Jack and Joseph but ultimately rejects both in favour of autonomy. In a lengthy take that concludes the film, Julie strolls toward the camera, a slight, self-satisfied smile playing across her face. It is a surprising but entirely logical denouement from a filmmaker whose motivating interest is “in the status of the representation of woman – her desire, her self-image, the image others create of her and for her”.[44]  Despite their formal disparities, Nuit et jour and A Couch in New York can be understood as variations on the theme of female desire within the broad framework of a traditional love story, ultimately resolved in the feminine affirmative.

An American in Paris

The concluding scenes in A Couch in New York provide an appropriate point at which to close this discussion. When Henry and Beatrice return separately to Paris, they talk, sight unseen, from either side of the adjoining balcony. Henry’s true identity has still not been revealed. As the conversation proceeds and Henry reiterates key phrases and exchanges they have had as doctor and patient, Beatrice finally understands that her patient John Wire is none other than Dr Henry Harriston. Unlike the happy ending of many conventional romantic comedies, there is something deliberately anti-climatic about the denouement in Akerman’s film. The revelation of Henry’s identity, Beatrice’s surprise and their subsequent embrace feels decidedly contrived, over and above the standard level of contrivance demanded in generic terms. Given Akerman’s agenda of embracing the “‘cliché” of the love story, it is unsurprising that the director should choose to undercut what should be the most powerfully cathartic and resonant moment in the romance narrative.

The unconvincing quality of the resolution in A Couch in New York thus registers the cumulative effect of Akerman’s persistent tweaking of the genre. Even among the film’s infrequent admirers, there is a sense, as with the final scenes, that the film as a whole “does not entirely work”. [45]  The director’s abiding interest in issues of romantic love and desire combines, sometimes uneasily, with her playful generic interventions. It is this equivocal quality that accounts, in part, for the film’s lack of critical or commercial acclaim, but it is also what makes the film such an interesting Akerman work.

If Nuit et jour is “a film in a light mode that is so revealing of Akerman’s major concerns”, one could make a similar claim for A Couch in New York. [46]  While the latter lacks the formally innovative strategies of other Akerman works, the film is equally revealing in illustrating how the director engages with a prescriptive generic form. Akerman’s tilt at the romantic comedy is thus both consistent with the formal and thematic preoccupations that characterise her work and, given its mainstream generic trappings, an unusual Akerman proposition. The film incorporates the director’s signature themes – exile, expatriation, romantic love, desire, identity – with a formal interrogation of genre itself. If scholarship on Akerman’s work has consisted “almost entirely of fleeting glances” this discussion constitutes yet another, justifiably circumscribed “fleeting glance”.[47] ]It is a glance aimed specifically at an unfairly neglected but nevertheless significant contribution to the Akerman canon.

©ROSE CAPP July 2001

[1] Ginette Vincendeau, “The captive”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 11, No.5, (May 2001): 45.
[2] Vincendeau specifically groups these three films together.
[3] Amy Taubin, “A Couch in New York“, Village Voice (4 February 1997). Australian Film Institute Clippings file, no page number available.
[4] I have not yet been able to see La captive, and I am also restricted to surveying analyses of Akerman’s work in English.
[5] Taubin.
[6] J.Hoberman, “Have camera will travel”, Premiere (July 1994): 38.
[7] Janet Bergstrom, “Keeping a distance”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No.11 (November 1999): 28.
[8] Akerman has spoken recently of her desire for a wider audience in relation to her most recent film La captive. See Nick James, “Magnificent obsession”, Sight and Sound, Vol 11, No.5 (May 2001): 21.
[9]Janet Maslin, “Sweet and sour, a romantic blend”, New York Times (20 November 1997) from Australian Film Institute clippings file, page number unavailable.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Jonathan Rosenbaum,
[12] Janet Bergstrom also uses this term in her psychoanalytically derived reading of Akerman’s oeuvre. See “Chantal Akerman: splitting”, Endless Night: Cinema, Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories, Janet Bergstrom ed. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press 1999): 273-290.
[13] The song “Via con me”, sung by popular Italian performer Paolo Conte, includes the lyrics “s’wonderful”.
[14] The heavily European-accented New York cabby’s definition of the pleasures of the American way of life!
[15] David Rooney, “A Couch in New York”, Variety (12 February 1996): 81.
[16] Aside from texts already mentioned, New York is also referenced in Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy and Family Business: Chantal Akerman Speaks about Film.
[17] Jean-Luc Outers, “Histories d’Amerique”, Cinergie (February, 1989): 6.
[18] Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (
Durham and London, Duke University Press 1996): 184.
[19] Ivone Margulies, 174.
[20] Dialogue from A Couch in New York.
[21] Steve Neale, “The big romance or something wild?: romantic comedy today”, Screen 33:3 (Autumn, 1992): 284-299.
[22] Frank Krutnik identified this early cycle of the “nervous romance”, nominating in particular, a series of Woody Allen films which exemplified the cycle ie Annie Hall (USA 1977) and Manhattan (USA 1979). See Frank Krutnik, “The faint aroma of performing seals: the `nervous romance’ and the comedy of the sexes”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 26 (1990): 57-72.
[23] Neale, 287. Neale’s examples of the “new romance” include Moonstruck (USA 1987), Working Gir(USA 1988) and When Harry met Sally (USA 1989).
[24] Mike Bygrave, “Farewell Rambo, hello Romeo”, The Guardian, 6, (June 1991): 30.
[25] Mike Bygrave, 30. Bygrave notes, in particular, the influence of feminism. Classic situations such as a boss asking his secretary out have been rendered less acceptable given the context of sexual harassment.
[26] The apartment swap in A Couch in New York is a variation on a location based romantic comedy that can be linked with earlier films including The Apartment (USA 1960).
[27] Again, Akerman’s film draws on the both past and present examples of the genre, Sleepless in Seattle (USA 1993) being an obvious contemporary forerunner.
[28] This scenario of indirect seduction is again, not without precedent in the genre, the most obvious example being Ernest Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (USA 1940).
[29] Steve Neale, 291.
[30]The neuroticism of Henry’s character aligns him specifically with the Woody Allen anti-heroes of the earlier cycle of “nervous romances”.
[31] David Rooney, “A Couch in New York“, Variety (February, 1996): 81.
[32] These characters are typified by his roles in The Big Chill (USA 1983), The Accidental Tourist (USA 1988) and The Doctor (USA 1991).
[33]Steve Neale, 292.
[34] Ibid.
[36]The discourse of psychoanalysis itself is of course not new to the contemporary romantic comedy, thanks largely to the efforts of Woody Allen, whose films have consistently mined the territory of analysis for laughs.
[37]The profession as described by Beatrice’s friend Anne.
[38]Beatrice’s turn of phrase.
[39] Neale, 293.
[40] Neale, 293. Neale cites Working Girl and Something Wild (USA 1986) as particularly explicit examples.
[41]Neale, 293.
[42]Neale, 293. Neale’s definition of contemporary necessarily only extends to the early 1990s. He has noted that the sex comedies of the 1950s and 1960s represent the only significant cycle of romantic comedies where this learning hierarchy is consistently reversed.
[43]While there are a handful of examples of romantic comedies in the early to mid-1990s that, along with Akerman’s film, play out a scenario of equal partnership, for example Groundhog Day (USA 1993) and The Truth about Cats and Dogs (USA 1996), the trend appears to be more marked towards the end of the decade and beyond. Some of these later examples include My Best Friend’s Wedding (USA 1997), As Good As It Gets (USA 1997), Chasing Amy(USA 1997), Runaway Bride (USA 1999) and most recently What Women Want (USA 2000).
[44]Janet Bergstrom, “Keeping a distance”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No.11 (November 1999): 28.
[45]Adrian Martin, “Un divan à New York/A Couch in New York“,Cinema Papers 120 (October 1997): 40.
[46] Ivone Margulies, 205.
[47]Catherine Fowler, “Review: Ivone Margulies Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday”,  Screen 39:1 (Spring 1998): 105.

About the Author

Rose Capp

About the Author

Rose Capp

Rose Capp (B.Sc., B.A. [Hons]) is a lecturer in cinema studies and is currently completing a doctorate on the representation of feminine evil in the contemporary Hollywood thriller in the Department of Visual Culture, Monash University. She is a freelance writer on film and a film critic for ABC Radio (The Sunday Show), the Melbourne Times and Ch 31 (Video underground).View all posts by Rose Capp →