The great filmmaker Chantal Akerman died in October 2015; she was 65. She made her first short film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968), when she was just 18. Her first feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), established her reputation as a radical, feminist filmmaker. Over the next four decades, in her native Belgium and the US — as well as in China, eastern Europe, Israel and Mexico, among other places — Akerman made over 40 documentary and feature films; she also created installation and video art. The influence her work has exerted is inestimable. Following her death, the director Todd Haynes dedicated the screening of his latest movie, Carol (2015), to Akerman at the New York Film Festival, stating that ‘as someone thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted’ her work had changed the ways in which he thought about, and imagined, film. Over the following pages, nine filmmakers, curators and artists reflect on what Akerman’s work meant to them.
As always, in the immediate aftermath of an artist’s death, a sifting of the work is underway. Much has been written about the facts of Akerman’s life; this supplements the revealing autobiographical details and allusions to be found in many of her films. However, a discussion of her lesser-known works may also be a good way of reflecting on her seemingly inexhaustible and marvellously varied body of work. Everything that Akerman produced deserves minute consideration, for she was a generous and prolific artist.
D’est: au bord de la fiction (From the East: Bordering on Fiction, 1993). Akerman said she wanted to make this film before it was ‘too late’. But too late for what? Soviet communism was teetering and the old order was about to crumble. But so, too, was a cinema based on photochemical photography; documentary’s moment was dawning. Akerman travelled behind the tattered Iron Curtain with a 16mm camera and returned with this startling series of observations and slow tracking shots examining the gaunt faces of the steadfast survivors of history. These are the ghosts of a narrative that cannot be told with words. Speech is, in any case, at a premium in a fractured world, where ideologies of all kinds subsume everything; perhaps it is simply better to listen to sentimental pop while preparing dried sausage for a lonely supper. What emerges is profound, and compassionate.
L’Homme à la valise (The Man in a Suitcase, 1983). An apartment in Paris: ‘Chantal’ arrives home after travelling abroad only to find a house-guest has wildly outstayed his welcome. The noise he makes drives Chantal mad, not least because she is creatively blocked and desperate for peace and quiet. Franz Kafka’s unfinished short story, ‘The Burrow’ (1931), springs to mind. The plot seems trite, but this droll comedy allows for the free play and clowning of the sort that had launched Akerman’s career in Saute ma ville! (1968). On screen, Chantal is delightfully energetic; her presence focused and committed, her rhythms angled and perfectly timed. Words are never needed; her physicality gives us more than enough.
Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels, 1993). Commissioned for television, this film was shot on 16mm and focuses on a teenage schoolgirl falling in love with her lovely girlfriend: surely an episode from Akerman’s own life. On one level, it might seem like a familiar form of scripted drama but, on the other, there is so much here that is unlike what you normally see on television: sustained takes, faces observed as they listen and react, the careful capture of a fleeting emotion, a moment of disappointed expectation that dissipates in real time. Akerman is careful enough to allow her camera to roll on past the point at which others might have lost interest, allowing our minds and feelings to fill the space left so carefully open for us. The final scene – at a dance when it becomes clear that this love will be unrequited – is one of the most heart-rending in all of cinema.
D'est presents the ghosts of a narrative that cannot be told with words. Speech is at a premium in a fractured world, where ideologies of all kinds subsume everything.
Joanna Hogg & Adam Roberts
Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (With Sonia Wieder-Atherton, 2002) and Les trois dernières sonates de Franz Schubert (Franz Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas, 1989). Akerman loved music. She would sometimes sing spontaneously – in fact, at one of our screenings, she took the microphone and sang Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello!’ (1983). She loved all kinds of music – from Jewish liturgical music and popular songs to 1960s pop, French chansons and classical. In 1989, she made a film for French tv with the pianist Alfred Brendel. He plays and talks about Schubert, but what is remarkable is Akerman’s illuminating insights into the nature of film and of her own artistic project. Hers is an art of selection, of framing, of moving closer – or not. It is a patient art. Later, her close relationship with the great cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton gave rise to a series of films, made between 2002 and 2009, about music. They are showcases for Wieder-Atherton, of course, but are created as if the camera and the edit were another kind of instrument. In retrospect, Akerman’s entire project feels essentially musical.
News From Home (1977). Akerman’s mother, Natalia or Nelly, is threaded through all of her films. Even when she’s isn’t there herself, a character or situation references her. In News From Home, Akerman is 26 and living in New York and her mother worries about her, as any mother would. But Akerman is preoccupied by her mother too, even if sometimes she would rather not be. We hear Akerman reading her mother’s letters; her voice is in her daughter’s head, therefore in our heads. Akerman brings us close to the New York that her mother cannot see and imagines to be dangerous, but Akerman shows us the streets are safe; people go about their daily routine and sometimes are curious enough to stare back at the camera.
Nuit et Jour (Night and Day, 1991). All of Akerman’s films are songs. When we first met her in 2014, she sang Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ (1971) to us, as we walked along Marylebone Road in London. We joined in:
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while …
Akerman herself was like a character from a Jacques Demy musical or, indeed, one of her own musicals. Not for nothing was she named ‘Chantal’; in French, ‘chant’ means ‘song’.
From the opening scenes of J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I Am Hungry, I Am Cold, 1984), new wave mannerisms are invoked with a call-and-response between the film’s two female protagonists. Naughty girls run wild on a trip to Paris, picking up lovers, singing for their supper, smoking, starving, not caring. Think François Truffaut or early Jean-Luc Godard. Akerman was never one to adopt someone else’s style or idiom, nor to make direct reference to other films, and yet here she seems to be enjoying the break with her own tradition, breezily making her very own new wave cinema. She’s part of a community of filmmakers – not, this time, the loner or the one who has to bear the burden of being a prophetess of a new kind of cinema.
The 2014 screening we organized of Toute une nuit (A Whole Night, 1982) had a shadow cast over it. Akerman’s mother had just died and we told the audience before showing the film. We were all saddened, imagining Akerman’s distress. Through the many autobiographical aspects of her films, we felt we had come to understand something of what her mother meant to her. She was Chantal’s anchor, the person she came back to, the person she felt most at home with.
Gustav Mahler set Friedrich Rückert’s poem Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (Often, I Think They’ve Gone for just a Moment, 1833–34) to music in his song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children, 1901–04). Akerman used this sad music in the film:
I think they’ve gone for just a moment
Soon will they be reaching back homewards in safety
The day is fine.
Oh, have no fear:
They merely go on a longer walk.
Indeed, they have but just gone out now,
And will be here at home in a moment …
(Translation by David Paley)
Akerman had rhythm. Every sound and image in her films clocks in and out at a perfect tempo: the clip-clop of shoes on a pavement, a door abruptly shutting. A physical reaction courses through our bodies – exactly as the filmmaker would want it. She’s talking to us with her body (and, of course, always with her head).
Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996). Pure pleasure: a romantic comedy to beat them all. We want it to end happily and Akerman doesn’t deny us that pleasure – all the corners of the story come together beautifully. When the building, the rooms, the walls and the bars of the balcony that separate the lovers become irrelevant (they literally climb over the silly contrivances that have kept them apart) – arbitrary physical constraints are evaporated in a single leap of cinematic abandon that make us cry out with happiness. This is cinema as a series of random obstacles suddenly transformed before our eyes into a cinema of joy.
Pure sadness. When we first planned Akerman’s retrospective, No Home Movie (2015) didn’t exist, except, perhaps, in her mind. It never occurred to us that when we watched it for the first time, not only would we be mourning the death of Akerman’s mother, but mourning the death of the filmmaker herself – which feels almost like the death of cinema. You can read into this film whatever you like. An image of a tree moving violently in the desert wind, its branches always springing back, is an image of survival, yet there are no survivors here. Akerman created an unsurpassed body of work with all the richness and depth of a life lived fully and intensely. She never put a foot wrong. Why don’t more people know this?
An artist living and working in Berlin, Germany.
I first saw Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in London in about 1990. I remember the slow unravelling of the narrative being punctuated by the departure of most of the ica Cinemathèque audience. A few years later, I had the opportunity to introduce the film, and the intimacy of the small audience allowed me to challenge everyone to stay until the end of the 210-minute film. The denouement is extraordinary, but the manner in which we are taken there is what makes it the most subtly dramatic film I have ever seen.
Jeanne Dielman lives with her son in her apartment on quai du Commerce. He goes to school in the morning and returns at night. She gets up and makes him breakfast. She folds away the bed, washes up, puts things away, puts on her coat and leaves her apartment to go shopping. An hour of the film has passed. We have been with her while she has washed every plate, wiped clean every surface, folded every blanket. We are not given a moment’s relief from the increasing monotony and claustrophobia of her life.
She waits for the shops to pull up their shutters in the morning. We sit with her having her scheduled cup of coffee. She puts the chocolate in her bag to keep for her son. We return to her apartment. The doorbell rings and she takes her middle-aged male guest down a corridor to the only room we don’t know about. We are jolted into realizing she is working as a prostitute. He leaves, and we are with her again as she methodically washes herself in the bathroom.
She used with total effectiveness cinema's greatest tool: the edit. Jeanne Dielman is so finely edited that we can no longer differentiate our real time form Jeanne's real time.
She is back in the kitchen preparing the supper. We are with her while she peels every potato. Her son returns: slouching, morose, taciturn. This is day one. When she drops her potato peeler on day two, you jump out of your skin. By day three, you can no longer bear the fragile grip she has on her life. When the man in the room takes too long and the potatoes get ruined, she is panicked, flustered, disturbed – and has to run out of the apartment to get more. She puts her coat on over her apron, and the fine choreography of her life is shattered.
When I first met Akerman in 1998, she told me that every moment, every gesture and, especially, every pause of the film had been worked out beforehand, even down to Jeanne distractedly playing with sugar lumps on her Formica tabletop, which comes over as a rare spontaneous action in her day. Akerman made the film in 1975 when she was 25. She filmed it on 35mm with Delphine Seyrig playing Jeanne. I told her that it felt like a very brave thing to have done, and she said that it wasn’t really, it was just that things were easier in the 1970s. I think she was probably right. Jeanne Dielman has its roots in happenings and performance, and these, in turn, were connected with the wider use of video and ‘real time’. Akerman took the characteristics of real-time recording but chose to work in film. She has used with total effectiveness cinema’s greatest tool: the edit. The result is that Jeanne Dielman has very specific time qualities: we know we are not spending every minute of the day with her in a real-time event, yet it feels like we are. It is so finely edited that we can no longer differentiate our real time from her real time.
I have never been so affected by a film as I was by Jeanne Dielman: it changed my perception of the possibilities of cinema and I continue to propose it to audiences when I can. It is still a radical work, not only on account of the film’s pitiless pitifulness, but increasingly it exemplifies how important the artifice and intensity of Akerman’s editing was in creating the fiction of time, especially in an era when real-time recording is so commonplace. Few filmmakers have touched the extremities in the way that Chantal Akerman did. Cinema has lost one of its greats.
Adapted from ‘The Time of our Lives’, which first appeared in the Guardian, 6 January 1999.
Film editor of The Brooklyn Rail, and programmer-at-large at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, USA.
I had dinner with Chantal Akerman in January of 2012, when the screening of La folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly, 2011) opened the inaugural First Look film festival at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Akerman was generally considered to be someone who was difficult to pin down but, during this meal, she was particularly distracted, getting up from the table a few times to smoke and to phone her mother, who she told me was in ill health again. When we did speak, in snippets, Akerman told me about her mother’s condition and the travelling agenda she had built around it.
I had more or less forgotten about this evening, but after I saw Akerman’s No Home Movie I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was unprepared then for the little stabs of loneliness and incompleteness this film would leave me with for weeks to come. Akerman’s shooting for No Home Movie was begun without a clear purpose. It was a work of open searching, with many different vistas, but it became, in the process, and in the editing, a raw, capacious homage to her mother, a Holocaust survivor living in Belgium whose health during the shooting of the film was deteriorating precipitously. The result is not so much a token of remembrance as a form of reckoning with a lifelong condition of absence, or of the knowledge of missing parts. Natalia’s persistent physical presence, her conversational manner and the hauntingly still shots of her apartment suggest that vacancies and loss were the unspoken and untransmittable markers of a long and impossibly traumatic life, and that mourning, for Chantal, began long before her mother passed away.
Manon de Boer
An artist based in Brussels, Belgium.
In the week following Akerman’s death, as an act of homage and as an attempt to hand down her work to the next generation, I started my film class with her film Hotel Monterey (1972). Sixty-five minutes of silence, just observing and tracing the hotel’s corridors and spaces: a glimpse of a person behind a half-open door, the reflection of light on the walls, a blinking elevator button in the dark. To me, it is one of her most radical films in terms of the experience of time and of a wide-embracing concentration.
Watching this early film anew with my students, I was more deeply aware of its silence than previously. I remembered Akerman’s voice. Her beautiful voice, so present in many of her other films. It was a deep but still-young voice in News from Home, where, in a voice-over, she’s reading her mother’s letters to her. It had become a more broken voice the only time I saw her in person, in May 2013 in Brussels. She was reading aloud her own letters to her mother in a four-hour reading session. She was sitting alone, not looking at the audience, almost physically absent, but her voice was fully there. It was filling the space, making you listen and inviting you to be with her, for a long time. There, as in all her work, she generously gave (her) time.
An artist living and working in Los Angeles, USA.
I met Akerman only once, as a young artist, after her opening at the Jeu De Paume in Paris in the autumn of 1995. Her installation there of D’est was conceptually revelatory for me. By juxtaposing a formal cinematic version of the 107-minute work with a room of 24 fragments looping on monitors, Akerman acknowledged the curious relationship film has with the gallery space. Owning the durational nature of her film and its minimalist structure, she effortlessly recognized that it was a composition of individual and filmic gestures – a symphony of parts. The disappearing social space that was so important in the film was mirrored in her installation: individuals and groups congregated and flowed through the various screens. I’ve only seen such a deft negotiation of cinematic and gallery spaces a few times since, and I’ve always thought of that installation as a compass.
It was with profound regret that I read of her death. For a woman of such insight and clarity of vision to find this world uninhabitable is devastating. To me, she was the real deal.
Director of Tate Modern, London, UK.
In 1995, I conducted an interview with Akerman in Paris for my television documentary Still/A Novel (vpro, Hilversum, 1996), about the question: ‘Did the cinema die too early or too late?’ I had worked with Akerman before. I showed, amongst other works, her Les années 80 (The Eighties, 1983) and La paresse (Laziness, 1986) in the exhibition ‘Au Coeur du Maelström’ at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1986. I had also loved her film on choreographer Pina Bausch, Un jour Pina a demandé ...
I once witnessed Akerman introducing one of her films with the insistence that, unlike other moviews, 'it did not take your time, but gave it'.
These and other films by Akerman – as well as the bewildering, unreleased film auditions for Les années 80, which she had ‘smuggled’ into my hands – I kept showing in the early 1980s to my film students in Brussels, Paris and Pasadena (among them, Sharon Lockhart). Nearly 20 years later, the conversation I filmed with Akerman in 1995 about the ‘death’ of cinema is still valid. Her words say a lot about how she felt about her beloved medium and her excursions into the field of art:
Chris Dercon Is cinema slowly coming to an end?
Chantal Akerman I don’t think so. Look at the films of oldies such as Manoel de Oliveira, Jean-Luc Godard or Éric Rohmer. They seem younger than most films made by young ones. The excursions that I make are just like children’s games: if you lose, you don’t get punished, and if you win, it’s like a party. And even though it makes little or no money, it still doesn’t do any harm. On the contrary: you don’t have to bother with major production costs or poor ticket sales. In the world of cinema, money is all that matters. In a museum or when you are writing, you don’t have to constantly think about money […] These installations in museums and exhibitions don’t immediately have to raise money. I can always do different things. When I receive an invitation to do something, I can say yes or no. And we’ll see what happens, or when. And of course there is the intense pleasure of ‘the first time’.
A filmmaker living in Val Verde, California, USA.
Chantal Akerman. When she ate a bowl of sugar in Je, tu, il, elle (I, You, He, She, 1974), I was hers. A few years later, I met her in an elevator in MilwaUKee. She was a giant. Later, D’est in Berlin. She was my hero. And then the news. I was saddened. She lived her life.
A filmmaker based in New York, USA.
We’ve lost control of time. Distraction and acceleration count amongst the world’s primary business schemes. The determination to steal our time is now largely focused online, but it was pioneered by the entertainment factories of TV and cinema. In 1975, Akerman threw a mighty wrench into that machinery. It was called Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
I once witnessed Akerman introduce the film with the insistence that, unlike other movies, ‘it did not take your time, but gave it’. This function was inseparable from its form. It set us across from a woman we’d otherwise never know. Her daily labour was bland and, ultimately, terrifying. The film kept us with her without escape until we had no choice but to feel time as she lived it: dispassionately, radically, unforgettably. The film has become a revenge and an antidote for all of the viewings where we end up feeling we’ve lost a couple of hours that we’ll never get back. We can’t get Akerman back, but I am so thankful for what she gave us. After Jeanne Dielman, her generous and resolute granting of time continued in News from Home, D’est and many other projects predicated on deep, patient observation and a tough, curious, intelligence unlike any other.
First published in Issue 176