Postscript: Chantal Akerman
The Belgian-born, Paris-based director Chantal Akerman died on October 5th, at the age of sixty-five. According to Isabelle Regnier, of Le Monde, she committed suicide. Neither Akerman’s name nor her work is as widely known as it should be. It is no overstatement to say that she made one of the most original and audacious films in the history of cinema, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” It premièred at the Cannes Film Festival, in May, 1975, the month before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Akerman was younger than Orson Welles was when he made “Citizen Kane,” younger than Jean-Luc Godard was when he made “Breathless.” The three films deserve to be mentioned together. “Jeanne Dielman” is as influential and as important for generations of young filmmakers as Welles’s and Godard’s first films have been. Akerman presented monumentally composed, meticulously observed, raptly protracted images of a woman’s domestic routine—Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) preparing cutlets in her kitchen, for instance. These images prove cinematically that the domestic lives of women are the stuff of art; that women’s private lives are as ravaged by the forces of history as are lives lived on the public stage of politics; and that the pressures of women’s unquestioned, unchallenged, and unrelieved confinement in the domestic realm and in family roles is a societal folly that leads to ruin, a form of violence that begets violence.
“Jeanne Dielman” is an intimate film of majestic choreography. It distills a cinephilic passion—for classic Hollywood melodramas, Godard’s long takes, Jacques Tati’s pointillistic comedy, and Jacques Rivette’s and Andy Warhol’s experiments in duration—into an utterly personal and distinctive form. It takes on the subjects and the clichés of melodrama, such as prostitution and murder—those, in particular, of so-called women’s movies—and extrudes them with a profoundly modern psychological resonance, as well as a political fury.
“Jeanne Dielman” is also a Holocaust film, with a protagonist torn by her memories, as were Akerman’s own parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Akerman’s last film, “No Home Movie,” screening at the New York Film Festival tomorrow and Thursday, is a film of her mother, Natalia, in her Brussels apartment, and among the subjects that they discuss are the events leading to her deportation to Auschwitz and the attempt to return to ordinary life in Belgium after the war.
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. (There, Seyrig plays yet another Holocaust survivor named Jeanne.)
She made one of the great cinematic coming-of-age dramas, “Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the Nineteen-Sixties in Brussels,” one of the great documentary self-portraits, “Là-Bas,” and, in 2011, an ecstatic, hallucinatory yet trenchantly political adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Almayer’s Folly.” She anticipated that movies would burst the bounds of theatres to take up residence in museums and art galleries, creating installations based on several of her documentaries, and, in 2008, an original gallery installation, “Women from Antwerp in November,” a fusion of cinephilic consciousness and female identity that seemed like the seedwork for a new decade of dramatic features.
Akerman also made a wildly rapturous, sinuously erotic Proust adaptation, “The Captive,” which came out in 2000. With its fusion of Hitchcock and Mozart, of frozen poses and burning desires, it’s nearly as radical a refraction of melodramatic forms and moods as was “Jeanne Dielman.” It’s also how I met Chantal Akerman.
In June, 2000, after the première of “The Captive,” at the Cannes Film Festival, it had its première screening in Paris. I was in Paris to do research for a Profile of Jean-Luc Godard, and I wanted to talk to Akerman about his work, because, famously, she was inspired, at the age of fifteen, to make films when she saw “Pierrot le Fou.” The listing for the screening of “The Captive” mentioned that Akerman would be on hand for a Q. & A., so I went in the hope of meeting her afterward.
And that’s what in fact happened—but first I saw the film with astonished delight, and then witnessed the Q. & A, which was unlike any that I’ve ever seen, before or since. The audience was composed mainly of young people, of the age of college students or recent graduates, and, after the screening, they were eager to engage Akerman in discussion about the film. A young woman sitting behind me raised her hand; Akerman called on her, and the viewer asked a fairly complex question filled with academic language. Akerman responded sharply, “Is that how you talk to your friends?” The woman stayed silent; Akerman persisted, asking whether the question represented the way that the young woman talks in real life and wondering why that’s the way she chose to talk to Akerman.
It was a hard lesson for the young woman; it was a lesson for me, too. I would have hated to be on the receiving end of Akerman’s tirade—as, if I had asked a question first, I might well have been. If there’s one thing that Akerman achieved in her films, it’s the elevation of private life, of what’s extraordinary about what’s seemingly ordinary, into the apt matter of art. Her work is recklessly, freely personal, and she came before the audience that day in order to have a personal discussion in public. In a few harsh phrases, Akerman changed forever the way I think of—and approach—events onstage. She made me think about what I say and, with her emphasis on the intimate, the sincere, and the spontaneous, made me not overthink what I say.
When I spoke with Akerman in the hallway after the screening, she gave me her phone number and address. When I called her soon thereafter, she invited me to visit and interview her at her apartment, in the Twentieth Arrondissement. There, she offered me chocolates from Belgium. While we talked, her phone rang. It was her mother, and they talked for a little while. She spoke with love about Godard’s films, but she also spoke about the sense that she got from one of his recent films, “JLG/JLG,” a cinematic self-portrait: “You watch it and say to yourself, ‘Oh, my, things aren’t going well for him at the moment.’ He must be really sad to make this film. I’ve rarely seen a film of his that gives me such an impression of sadness.”
It’s inevitable that, in the wake of Akerman’s death, her last film, “No Home Movie”—a title that twists doubly around itself to suggest a movie about no home, about the feeling of having no home—will give a terrifying impression of sadness. Its empty rooms and still foyers, blank doorways and yearning distances, the looming threat of death will inevitably, for now, seem to dominate the passionate and vital energies, the drive for creation and for life that inspire it as well.