Chantal Akerman (1950 – 2015)

Chantal Akerman

If I have a reputation for being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday. – Chantal Akerman

At the age of 25, Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. At the age of 24, Chantal Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. That wasn’t even her first feature. That was Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and she had made a few shorts before, including Hotel Monterey and La chambre. What makes these set of films astonishing and makes Akerman’s prodigy so much more impressive than that of Welles is that she seemed to have arrived fully formed.

These early films, especially Jeanne Dielman is remarkable for its conviction, its authority and its genius. There’s very little hint of the precociousness that is so visible in Kane or other early films such as Before the Revolution by Bertolucci (made when he was 21). Akerman’s film display great maturity, rich observation and incredible experience. The style of the film, the lengthy duration of its shots, its extended compositions and rhythms, the eschewal of straight narrative comes from a confidence and commitment that is far from the province of youth. It comes not just from knowing what it means to be an outsider; it comes from the ability to be objective and critical of the same experience as well, filtered by a command of framing and rhythm that escape many film-makers with a lifetime of experience.

Akerman is a Belgian daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz and her mother was the only survivor and the young Chantal had to cope with her mother’s trauma in the camps alongside her adolescence. Akerman was an outsider at school (being both Jewish and homosexual) and at the age of 15, she saw Godard’s Pierrot le fou and turned to making films. After making Saute ma ville Akerman traveled to New York in 1971 and her films form the crucial synthesis between the American and European avant-garde. Her films are inspired by Godard and the New Wave and also by Brakhage and Michael Snow and they are generally remarkable in the sense that, for all its autobiographical nature, Akerman is considerably engaged with the world. She has made movies in Israel, in the American South and Russia after the fall of the USSR. For Almayer’s Folly, she went to Cambodia and shot on location in Phnom Penh. She’s made art installations, documentaries about Jewish jokes, about Pina Bausch and her final film No Home Movie (2015) is an interview with her mother.

A biographical sketch of Chantal Akerman’s life is not necessary to appreciate the force and beauty of such films as Jeanne Dielman, Les Rendezvous d’Anna, News from Home, Golden Eighties, La Captive, Almayer’s Folly. Yet at the same time it’s inescapable with this film-maker and not just because her films are heavily autobiographical. It comes because Akerman, like Godard, is a film-maker with a strong personality. Her films are personal, self-reflexive and come from a rich capacity for invention. Like Godard, there is an aspect to Akerman’s misé-en-scene that carries a sense of performance – her compositions, the distinct rhythm of the editing, the movements of the actors and actresses – that has a level of playfulness and wit despite the rigor and difficulty of the style of these films. Her own interviews in magazines, the self-portrait she made for Cinéastes de Notre Temps, her lead performance in Je, tu, il, elle, her narration in News from Home also bear the sense of an artist creating and imparting a sense of self on the reader and audience.

Her movies are similar to John Cassavetes in a crucial respect, regardless of the many other differences in style. They keep you on edge, they grab your attention and through the force of the images and the performances, they create the effect less of a viewing than an experience. Jeanne Dielman for instance is not a movie where “nothing” happens, nor is it, as often misunderstood a movie where “nothing” happens.The movie provides you over the course of three days a depiction of the way the tiny rituals and activities of everyday life provides a stage on which you can perform a certain role and function. Far from a kitchen sink depiction of “reality”, it is indeed a highly stylized and symbolic film, and a movie of considerable ambiguity and mystery.

This assertion manifests itself even in her more recent films – La Captive and Almayer’s Folly. Both are adaptations, Proust and Conrad respectively and both are remarkable in the way the film creates images sounds and performances dealing with obsession, love and identity. They are also some of the most visually beautiful movies ever made. Some unforgettable moments of Stanislas Merhar’s Simon chasing Sylvie Testud’s Ariane across Paris in La captive, the image of Nina (Aurora Marion) singing to the camera at the start of Almayer’s Folly, Almayer cutting a swathe through a forest before parting himself from his daughter. One thinks of a wealth of feeling and detail whose like will never come again.

Akerman made films for the big screen, they made everyday life a grand epic and they gave the outsider a freedom to assert his or herself without sentimentality or compromise. They are films of an artist who was relentless in pursuing the truth.

A Series of Links on Akerman:

1) Richard Brody in the New Yorker

In effect, Akerman transformed the visual styles and narrative forms, the dramatic syntax and artistic codes of the modern cinema, into a woman’s cinema. Subjecting the art to a kind of free aesthetic psychoanalysis, she worked in a vast array of genres and forms. She made her personal life—and her body—the subject of her 1976 film, “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” (I, You, He, She), in which she plays the lead role, as a lesbian who travels to visit her ex-lover (Claire Wauthion). That year, in New York, she filmed one of the most resonantly painterly and personal city pictures, “News from Home,” the soundtrack of which features letters written to her by her mother. Her 1982 film, “Toute Une Nuit” (One Whole Night), is one of the most delicately choreographed of all love films, a fusion of observational documentary and the bittersweet theatrical precision of Max Ophüls’s exquisitely scathing romances. Her choreographic inventiveness fused with Pina Bausch’s in the 1983 documentary “One Day Pina Asked …,” as well as in the 1986 musical “Golden Eighties,” set in a Brussels shopping mall where the antic and seductive comings and goings are marked by the legacy and memory of the Second World War.

2) Jean-Michael Frodon in Slate

(translated from French by Sudarshan Ramani)

Chantal Akerman is dead. She was 65 years. She committed suicide. But, death, in every sense, was there since the beginning, and it had even preceded her birth. Her first short film, Saute ma ville ended with the explosion of her Brussels kitchen – made in 1968, of course. And of course, from the moment she was born, in the year 1950, behind her laughter, her magnificent voice hoarse with cigarette smoke, behind the glow of her green eyes that no one will forget even if they met her once, the shadow of the Shoah was never absent.

It was never absent, not even in the frenzied musical comedy (Golden Eighties, 1986), or the adaptations of Proust (La Captive, 2000) or Conrad (Almayer’s Follly). It was there in her documentary on Pina Bausch (One day Pina asked me 1983), and of course in South (1999), where her pure rage against racism in America is transmuted into pure beauty.

The Shoah had crushed her family and extended indefinitely a veil of inhuman terror into the world, which she never forgot. No question of course of this trauma explaining her suicide, or finding within it the causes for her act. Rather, one must recall this in order to appreciate that her œuvre and her life demonstrates that for a long time, she had lived with death present by her side.

3) Kent Jones on the Lincoln Center website.

She had a horror of clichés and neat formulations, and it seems to me that she was always trying to wriggle out of the straitjacket of such size-ups and classifications as feminist, structuralist, leftist, or “essentially” Jewish, even when they were made in her favor … Chantal was direct, tough, and emotionally extravagant. She was small in stature but she commanded a room with her fatigued stance, her grand and sometimes wicked smile, her wild rough-grained voice, and her eyes. The eyes had it. I’ve rarely looked into a pair of eyes so bewitching.

As a filmmaker, she didn’t have a commercial bone in her body. She gave it a try with Golden Eighties and A Couch in New York and, to a certain extent, Tomorrow We Move, all of which are fascinating films, the latter in particular, a dizzying, angular, breathless movie with an undercurrent of anxious sadness. There are some funny, lyrical passages in A Couch in New York (and in the resolutely deadpan black and white short J’ai faim, j’ai froid), but she didn’t really have the temperament for comedy or high spirits. She made films of extraordinary tonal control—for instance, Toute une nuit, the ferocious La Captive and, of course, Jeanne Dielman—but I would hesitate to call any of them elegant. Elegance wasn’t her thing. She was involved, deeply so, with the sounding of mysteries and enigmas drifting or hovering just beyond the everyday world, the shattering strangeness of people living through a hot summer night or trying out for a movie musical or walking the halls of the Hotel Monterey. In a sense, all of her movies are ghost stories populated by future phantoms.

Chantal’s films do not comfort. They jolt and they re-orient, they put you and me face to face with accumulating time, in whose shadow we live whether we know it or not. That’s the source of their terror and their great beauty—one in the same.

4) Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at The A.V. Club

Often characterized as a minimalist, Akerman was fascinated with long takes, sparse spaces (hotel rooms being a favorite), and meaningful repetition. That, however, doesn’t really encompass the scope of the filmmaker’s work, which ranged from documentaries to fiction features with stars and from adaptations of Joseph Conrad (Almayer’s Folly) and Marcel Proust (The Captive) to a pastel-toned musical set in a shopping mall (Golden Eighties). Akerman first came to New York in 1970, and the city would provide inspiration for both some of her best work (1977’s News From Home), and her most commercial (1996’s A Couch In New York, starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche). In addition to her filmmaking, Akerman also taught, including a lengthy stint at Harvard, where she was Andrew Bujalski’s thesis advisor. Most recently, Akerman took a position at the City College Of New York. 

Often haunting, sometimes haunted, Akerman’s best films derive their power from how they clue the viewer into what is being left unexpressed or unsaid; she could turn a long take of a person going about their kitchen into a portrait of the world they inhabited. Her latest, No Home Movie, recently had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. Like News From Home, the film takes its inspiration from the filmmaker’s relationship to her late mother, who survived Auschwitz but was unable to talk about her experiences.

5) At Fandor

Janet Bergstrom
, Sight and Sound

Akerman the filmmaker came of age at the same time as the new age of feminism, and her films became key texts in the nascent field of feminist film theory. Feminism posed the apparently simple question of who speaks when a woman in film speaks (as character, as director…); Akerman insisted convincingly that her films’ modes of address rather than their stories alone are the locus of their feminist perspective. The many arguments about what form a ‘new women’s cinema’ should take revolved around a presumed dichotomy between so-called realist (meaning accessible) and avant-garde (meaning elitist) work; Akerman’s films rendered such distinctions irrelevant and illustrated the reductiveness of the categories.”

J. Hoberman
“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

Jordan Cronk
“She’s one of the most political filmmakers I know, and yet not a single one of her films is about politics, or an overriding issue, or anything so blatantly topical. She approaches her subjects from a variety of (usually fixed) angles, often choosing to simply observe activities and the incidental development of the resultant dramas … Akerman’s style is modernist in its temporal conceptualisation yet somehow almost classical in its negotiation of physical and geographic space. A number of her films – including 1972’s Hôtel Monterey, 1977’s News from Home and D’Est – are about actual places, and as such stand as uniquely first-person meditations on public environments. But if the formalist frameworks and mundane nature of her chosen settings seem to suggest static cinematic experiences, Akerman’s best work manages to generate an internal dynamism wherein narrative and aesthetic economy work toward locating a nascent power in the actualities of our everyday surroundings.”

6) Her Brilliant Decade – Museum of Moving Image Interview

“The bond between mothers and daughters is present in many of your films.
AKERMAN: Oh yes, too much. I’ve tried to get rid of it. I’m a second-generation child. I was born in 1950; my mother got out of the camps in 1945. And, as soon as I was born, I was already an old baby, because my mother needed all of the room for her grief. She went to Auschwitz, her parents died, she survived. I felt that [grief] as a kid, so I couldn’t be angry. I had to protect her, I couldn’t exist in a way, only in relation with her. I will be 60 in a few months, and I’m finally saying I. A year and a half ago, I finally realized that I was angry, like a 15-year-old kid who has a revolution. Otherwise, I constantly adored my mother; it was a way to escape and hide my anger, not be able to exist. Because she was a woman, I couldn’t exist as a woman. She had grief, so I couldn’t have grief. She was hurt, so I couldn’t scream. As soon as I was born, I was already old, and I never changed, I’m still an old baby. You see what I mean? It’s a problem with second-generation children, after the camps. In psychoanalysis, [they] speak about the dead mother that you swallow inside you. It’s a bit complicated. It’s still problematic.

It is a very complex relationship.
AKERMAN: She was very beautiful when she was young. She still knows that, and projects that. She was trying to be elegant, because we were very poor when I was a child. And I totally internalized the fact that we were poor and that I should not ask anything of anybody, especially not of my parents. But my mother always wanted to be beautiful when going out with my father. When I was 2 or 3, she would ask me, “Chantal, should I wear this or that?” I had to say, “Have a nice night, have a nice evening,” like an old person already, giving, especially to my mother, all the space. Movies were pure sublimation. If I hadn’t done movies, I would have been dead. That’s why I was never there to be elegant, or wear nice clothes. My mother was the woman. I didn’t know if I was a man, a girl, a daughter, a baby, an animal….

7) Jonathan Rosenbaum in his piece Chantal Akerman: The Integrity of the Exile and the Everyday

“There are at least two potential obstacles to appreciating Akerman’s films that have a lot to do with the terminology routinely employed by film criticism. The first has to do with the role of a director and how it’s perceived. It’s widely believed, with some justice, that film criticism and appreciation in general made a significant step forward when the French term mise en scène started becoming more widespread during the 1960s … there is another French term, in some ways an even more important one, that hasn’t entered common usage, in part because the concept behind it is a little more difficult to grasp: découpage. In terms of its popular French usage, it has three separate but interlocking meanings: the final form of a script, the breakdown of a film into separate shots and sequences prior to filming, and the basic structure of a finished film … If the term mise en scène implies an industrial model of cinema, the term découpage implies an artistic or artisanal model … In this context it is misleading to talk merely about Akerman’s mise en scène in spite of her close attention to framing, because from that vantage point, many of her movies look rather anemic. It’s her découpage that matters — that is, not only what happens in her shots but what happens between them, among them, across them, and through them. (The same thing applies to practically all of the most important filmmakers in the history of movies: Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Orson Welles may be known to us as master directors, but their art is ultimately the art of découpage rather than simply mise en scène.)”

8) At Projectorhead

Sudarshan Ramani on Almayer’s Folly

There’s no question that Almayer’s Folly bathes with a vitality and freedom rare in contemporary cinema. Chantal Akerman of course has made some of the best films of the world for more than thirty years, mixing fiction films with documentaries, video installations and experimental work. Almayer’s Folly is her first fictional film for more than six years and a stirring return to 35mm cinema… Akerman had previously stated that she preferred urban over pastoral settings owing to the great presence of lines in the former. You wouldn’t be able to tell in this film, delighting as it does in the tangled woods, the overwhelming cover of the trees and the canals that surround the settlement of Almayer’s trading post.

Devdutt Trivedi with his essay, The Other Akerman: The Essay Film in News From Home (1976) 

It is curious to analyze the function of the cut in the making of an essay film. The editing of an essay film is closer to Robert Bresson’s use of discrete chunks than it is to Sergei Eisenstein’s use of continuous building blocks (shots).In Akerman, each shot has two halves: a location-space half (which is becoming fictional) and a narrative-space half (which is becoming-real).The shots function like a machine, and create a multiplicity consisting of various senses of speed and various senses of slowness.

I have argued as to how Akerman takes the film outside of the domain of intentionality. Filmmakers would disagree. They would argue that every shot has some degree of construction if not a very precise degree of it. I would therefore argue that there is a double intentionality in Akerman and Ozu where one process constructs the image: its fictional and “real” setting and another half which folds the intentionality back onto itself so that the new may be accidentally produced.

A question arises. What is Akerman’s construction of duration or its becoming-temporality? I believe that it is to go deliberately slower than the real. It is only when you go deliberately slower than the real that you at once come in contact with duration. Karl Marx argues that the temporality of capital is slightly faster than the empirical temporality of the everyday. This is precisely the opposite: i.e. going slower to at once place ourselves in duration. The film moves deliberately slower and then slightly faster.