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A Couch In New York

     There are certainly pleasurable moments in Chantal Akerman's A Couch in New York: Juliette Binoche, starring as a Frenchwoman, Beatrice, in New York, leaning into the breeze out the window of her Yellow Cab; William Hurt, playing psychoanalyst Henry Harriston, sauntering across Brooklyn Bridge at twilight; intricate traveling shots down multicultural Brooklyn streets in which it's impossible to unravel if the crowded sidewalks contain randomly scattered real-life or have been choreographed beautifully with extras.

     Otherwise, A Couch in New York comes off as an agreeable, fairly conventional romantic comedy made by someone who well understands formula, and has mastered, for good or bad, the mechanics of East Side/Central Park New York Woody Allens: rarified 90s stories of the rich with a retro Hollywood-in-the-30s feel.

     "But would you have known that Akerman was the filmmaker?" the person asked who watched it with me. No way, I replied, and yet it's the signed work by the brilliant Belgian avant-garde cineaste who is residence this year at Harvard's Carpenter Center.

     Her other films are more overtly challenging and complex; yet A Couch in New York is almost the least accessible because the directorial intentions are so elusive.

     Is Akerman playing at making a goodhearted, slightly sentimental, bourgeois romance, with Astaire-Rogers mixed-up identities? Or is she actually making one of those? Is A Couch in New York a quiet little cinema joke, all muffled ironies? Or is the movie as straight-arrow as it seems?

     Here's the Hollywood-style high-concept story: Hurt's arrid, uptight New York analyst, Henry, swaps apartments through the Herald Tribune with Binoche's Beatrice. She turns his scrubbed suite into a comfort zone, with scattered clothes, overrun plants, and his big dog allowed to romp freely. He starts to clean up her messy Paris flat, but it's quickly stormed by her mourning courters. All seek even a perfume whiff of their vanished Beatrice.

     Simultaneously, Henry's patients are desperate for help, any help. Beatrice assumes his psychoanalytic practice. Though a total amateur, she proves a lifesaver (more than he?) for his all-male clients, because of her sympathetic, directive, personal approach. Meanwhile, he listens to her mooing boyfriends until he can't take any more. This American in Paris returns secretly to New York, and secretly to spy on Beatrice. Who is she?

     He comes to her office, pretending to be a patient, John Wire. Soon, he's spilling his guts out about his anxieties. And she's falling in love with the man on her couch, hoping that his obvious feelings for her are more than (a new word for her), a "transference."

     Adhering to '30s Hollywood genre traditions, Akerman supplies a confidante for each protagonist (Stephanie Buttle, Paul Guilfoyle) and a hysterical society dame (Barbara Garrick) for Henry's appropriately unsuitable fiancee. For the first time, Akerman uses international stars for her leads and, in line with the non-subersive surface of her movie, she doesn't scramble at all their expected screen personas.

     Binoche is a sensual flower, melting hearts with her honesty and vulnerability. As usual, Hurt hurts, his insides smoldering subtext. There's only one place in the movie where Akerman goes consistently overboard, and we know she is winking at the story: with the affable dog, who chases a taxi to the airport!

     Again, why did she make A Couch in New York? "My decision to aim for comedy and humor," Akerman offers in a press-kit interview,"may be because, at a quite difficult time in my life (my father was slowly dying), I didn't have any choice except to write a comedy to survive."

(November, 1997)


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