INTRODUCTION FOR A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ALTYAZI ON THE WORK OF CHANTAL AKERMAN
It is with a very heavy heart that I write this introduction. Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker whose work I have loved and admired for several decades. In the many eulogies and obituaries that have come out since her untimely death on October 5th, there is one sentiment that consistently comes across: the deep and lasting impression her films have made on so many of us. Her films were not for all tastes, her unadulterated vision was too strong for some, but for those of us whom she touched, she did so in an indelible way....
Akerman was a prolific filmmaker, often working for television in between her larger projects, and always experimenting with form. She made feature length fiction films, shorts, experimental films, documentaries, and in the last 20 years, she made several forays into the world of multi-channel installations for galleries and museums. While some have tried to force her into categories, whether based on her multiple identities (Jewish, lesbian, feminist, child of holocaust survivors), her gender (female), or her filmmaking inclinations (minimalist, structuralist), these have always failed to encompass the breadth of her work and as she actively opposed any categorization other than ‘filmmaker’ in her lifetime, I believe we should respect her rightful resistance and remember her as what she was, a great filmmaker, full stop.
I was introduced to her work in a film class in 1983, where we watched her magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman: 23 quai du Commerce 1080, Bruxelles, a film she made in 1975 at the age of 24. Jeanne Dielman is an unforgettable film, not only for the experience of duration, which, at 3 hours and 45 minutes, can be challenging in the extreme, but for its bold reinterpretation of domestic time as worthy of representation, and for the unflinching directorial style. With uncompromising attention to the slow, precise, rhythms of everyday routine, the film has the structure of an inverted thriller, every bit as knuckle-whitening as a fast-paced action film, only in reverse. Few filmmakers before or since have been as brave and forthright in their cinematic language. Once you acclimatize to Akerman’s sense of timing and indeed her dry humor and off-beat sensibility, it becomes something like a drug. You seek it out in other filmmakers’ work and when you can’t find it, you turn back to her with great longing and affection. To say that Akerman was a singular voice in cinema is simply to state a fact. To place her alongside the other cinematic greats of her generation (Godard, Fassbinder, Herzog) is to redress an historical injustice, as her work is every bit as innovative and important in the history of cinema as theirs, though she remained undervalued and under-recognized to the end.
Her films are too many to mention here, but I will review what are the highlights for me in her impressive, nearly 45 year, career. Her first film, Saute ma ville, was an unstudied send-up of domesticity, the lead part played with Chaplainesque impishness by an 18 year old Akerman herself. She plays the lead in her first feature as well, the impressive Je, tu, il, elle (1974), which she made only a year before Jeanne Dielman, and while less formally ambitious, it is just as taboo-breaking and memorable in its playful expression of a young woman’s independence and desire. We see hints of the feisty mercurial lead character again in two shorts she made a decade apart, J’ai faim, j’ai froid (1984) and the bewitching Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des anées 60 à Bruxelles (1994).
Her experimental film work of the early and mid-1970s was heavily influenced by the structuralist filmmaking of Michael Snow and the personal, almost home movie, style of Jonas Mekas. Yet her original voice as a filmmaker, literally and figuratively, comes across very clearly in her New York films, News from Home and Hotel Monterrey. News from Home, in particular, takes up many of the themes we find in her later work: nomadism, the fascination with the everyday, the imbricated lives of mother and daughter, the way in which history haunts the present. The exquisitely restrained camera work of one of her early collaborators, cinematographer Babette Mangolte, is one of the highlights of this film.
Akerman went on to make 12 more feature films and half as many feature length documentaries, the most memorable for me being D’Est, a film that comprised one part of her very first museum installation, Bordering on Fiction, which premiered at the Walker Art Foundation in Minneapolis in 1995. D’Est is a return to Akerman’s extreme long takes and her interest in the quotidian, yet it is also another form of ‘return’, where she in effect retraces the steps in reverse of her parents’ exile from Eastern Europe during WWII. Shot just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is at once a study of that present moment of transition and of the traces it still bears of the past. Akerman eschews archival footage and narration, counting instead on the penetrating gaze of her insistent camera to yield the insights of history for those patient enough to watch. With this installation, she began to explicitly revisit her Jewishness, not out of any particular religious conviction, but from the weight of its history as it pressed upon her.
Not all of Akerman’s experiments were a success, and when she failed, she failed spectacularly, as with the one and only mainstream film she endeavoured, the $10 million dollar box office bust, A Couch in New York (1996), starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche. The plot was simple enough and the characters well chosen for what was essentially a quirky romantic comedy. Yet Akerman’s irrepressible spirit forced an awkwardness and a just-off-the-mark sensibility that was too subtle for the film’s mainstream pretensions, and not pronounced enough for her experimental fan base. The film found its way to the graveyard of the cinema, where it surprised me more than once, first on an overnight bus from Bodrum to Istanbul and later on a transatlantic flight back to New York. I watched it all the way through both times, happy to be accompanied by her spirit in the unlikeliest of places. Although Akerman never worked with Hollywood again (or should I say, Hollywood never worked with Akerman again?), she did make several other relatively light-hearted features with mixed success, both before and after, such as Nuit et Jour (1991) about a woman dating two taxi drivers, one on the day shift, the other on the night shift, and Demain on déménage (2004), about a mother and daughter forced to live together after the death of the father. She also made two more weighty, and much better acclaimed, adaptations, the first of Proust’s La Prisoniere, in her La Captive (2000), and the second, of Conrad, in La Folie Almayer (2012). Akerman’s work on the whole was so intricately intertwined with her life and her sense of self that in 1997, when asked by Arte to make a filmic self portrait, she responded by making a film that, with the exception of a somewhat rambling and artless straight to camera introduction by Akerman herself, was comprised exclusively of footage from her films. In effect, she was saying, look to my films if you want to know anything about my life, it’s all there. Indeed, Akerman is one of the most personal directors we have ever encountered in the cinema, the force of her vision and personality, as well as her recurrent obsessions and tropes, form an integral part of the experience of her work. One feels, the more one gets to know her work, the better one knows her, to the point of making her death feel very much like a personal loss.
Akerman, a life-long sufferer of depression, died at her own hand, only a year after she lost her mother, a holocaust survivor whose simple life as a petit-bourgeois housewife in Brussels was at the center of inspiration for most of Akerman’s work. It’s as if with her mother/muse gone, there could be no more reason to go on. Life, for her, seems to have become unbearable. Yet I remain grateful at least, that her films remain and perhaps more than any other filmmaker I can think of, she lives on for us in her films.