When reviewing movies for this blog, I often push myself to contextualize them within how they relate to my personal life or the current moment in pop culture at large. I doubt many people are reading these webcasts into the abyss anyway, so I mostly treat these posts as diary entries that help me tether my moviewatching habits to a specific moment in time or personal headspace. If I’m going to be entirely honest in these personal moviewatching diaries, I have to admit that there isn’t much room to contextualize my thoughts on Golden Eighties within a larger discourse, either personal or universal. I watched Chantal Akerman’s shopping mall romcom musical simply because its screengrabs looked beautiful, and I loved it for that exact surface-level reason. The film’s pastel cosmetic palette and soft neon blue lighting registered as a vision of 80s Shopping Mall Heaven in my mind, and my only frustration with it as a motion picture is that I can’t find a way to drink those colors through a funnel. It’s not a movie I wanted to watch so much as it’s one I wanted to drown in, but I still greatly enjoyed the experience of firing it up on the Criterion Channel.
To put it as reductively as possible, Golden Eighties is a Young Girls of Rochefort for the Madonna era. Besides restricting all its action to a single shopping mall, there isn’t anything especially challenging or avant-garde about its tangled web of unrequited loves – at least not on the level of what you’d expect from a Chantal Akerman film. The drama mostly concerns three parallel tales of missed romantic connections: a lonely waitress who trades long-distance love letters with a beau who moved abroad, an elderly couple who reunite after having their flame extinguished by The Holocaust in their youth and, the main attraction, a she-loves-him-but-he-loves-the-other-one love triangle you’d find in just about any 1950s teen musical. There are some political, often Feminist angles to how these relationships play out onscreen, especially in Akerman giving the equal space to an older, Jewish woman’s romantic & sexual desires (through her Jean Dieleman avatar Delphine Seyrig) among the vast cast of young, buxom Gentiles. Mostly, though, the drama is kept intentionally light & swoony, and it all culminates in the declaration that falling in love with different suitors is like trying on pretty dresses: not all of them fit you, but it’s fun to explore.
Akerman’s arthouse background shows more in the surrealism of the cheap sound stage setting than it does in the romantic themes. In real life, shopping malls are public, bustling spaces, but this deliberately frothy melodrama plays out in an insular, self-contained world consisting entirely of a clothing store, a hair salon, a movie theater, and a café. It’s an odd effect, especially as those limited, rigid settings fill with a chaotic flood of singing, dancing, chattering, fashionable women. I was fully convinced that the obligatory wedding climax was going to be staged right there in the food court, but it never came to that (unfortunately?). I don’t know that the dreamlike artifice of the faux shopping mall was entirely intentional, since Akerman spent years scraping together funding for a larger production she never got to realize. It really heightens the romance & melodrama at the film’s core in a way that makes it feel like a singular work of art, though, as evidenced by my desire to drown in the beauty of its screenshots. Every frame is a gorgeous beaut, as long as you have an affection for pure-femme 1980s commercialism, as I apparently do.
Golden Eighties is imperfect, and I suspect Chantal Akerman would’ve been the first person to admit that. Its shambling, let’s-put-on-a-show quality is just as charming as its playfully risqué pop music dance numbers, though, and my only real complaint at the end is that I wanted more songs and more costume changes. I went in desperate to see more of its dreamlike mall-world imagery, and I left with that same insatiable hunger, which I’ll chalk up to it being a total success despite the shortcomings of its production.