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 claimed that, at the age of 15, after viewing Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965), she decided, that same night, to become a filmmaker. In 1971, Akerman's first short film, Saute ma ville, premiered at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. That year, she moved to New York City, where she remained until 1972.
At Anthology Film Archives in New York, Akerman was impressed with the work of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.
Her first feature film, Hotel Monterey (1972), and subsequent short films La Chambre 1 and La Chambre 2 reveal the influence of structural filmmaking through these films' usage of long takes. These protracted shots serve to oscillate images between abstraction and figuration. Akerman's films from this period also signify the start of her collaboration with cinematographer Babette Mangolte.
In 1973 Akerman returned to Belgium, and in 1974 she received critical recognition for her feature Je, Tu, Il, Elle (I, You, He, She). Feminist and queer film scholar B. Ruby Rich noted that Je Tu Il Elle can be seen as a "cinematic Rosetta Stone of female sexuality".
Akerman's most significant film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was released in 1975. Often considered one of the greatest examples of feminist filmmaking, the film makes a hypnotic, real-time study of a middle-aged widow's stifling routine of domestic chores and prostitution. Upon the film's release, The New York Times called Jeanne Dielman the "first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema". Scholar Ivone Margulies says the picture is a filmic paradigm for uniting feminism and anti-illusionism. The film was named the 19th greatest film of the 20th century by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice.
Akerman has acknowledged that her cinematic approach can be explained, in part, through the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari write about the concept of minor literature as being characterized by the following things:
1. Minor literature is the literature that a minority makes in a major language; the language is affected by a strong coefficient of deterritorialization.
2. Every individual matter is immediately plugged into political because minor literature exists in a narrow space.
3. Everything has a collective value: what the solitary writer says already has collective value.
Deleuze and Guattari claim that these characteristics describe the revolutionary conditions within the canon of literature. Akerman has referenced Deleuze and Guattari on how, in minor literature, characters assume an immediate, nonhierarchical relation between small individual matters and economic, commercial, juridical, and political ones. While the filmmaker has an interest in multiple deterritorializations, she also considers the feminist demand for the exercise of identity, where a borderline status may be undesirable.
Akerman has used the setting of a kitchen to explore the intersection between femininity and domesticity. The kitchens in her work provide intimate spaces for connection and conversation, functioning as a backdrop to the dramas of daily life. The kitchens, alongside other domestic spaces, act as self-confining prisons under patriarchal conditions. In Akerman's work, the kitchen acts as a domestic theatre.
Akerman is often grouped within feminist and queer thinking, but she articulated her distance from an essentialist feminism. Akerman resisted labels relating to her identity like "female", "Jewish" and "lesbian", choosing instead to immerse herself in the identity of being a daughter; she said she saw film as a "generative field of freedom from the boundaries of identity". She advocated for multiplicity of expression, explaining, "when people say there is a feminist film language, it is like saying there is only one way for women to express themselves". For Akerman, there are as many cinematic languages as there are individuals.
Marguiles argues that Akerman's resistance to categorization is in response to the rigidity of cinema's earlier essentialist realism and "indicates an awareness of the project of a transhistorical and transcultural feminist aesthetics of the cinema".
Akerman works with the feminist motto of the personal being political, complicating it by an investigation of representational links between private and public. In Jeanne Dielman, her best-known film, the protagonist does not supply a transparent, accurate representation of a fixed social reality. Throughout the film, the housewife and prostitute Jeanne is revealed to be a construct, with multiple historical, social, and cinematic resonances.
Akerman engages with realist representations, a form historically grounded to act as a feminist gesture and simultaneously as an "irritant" to fixed categories of "woman".
In 1991, Akerman was a member of the jury at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival. In 2011, she joined the full-time faculty of the MFA Program in Media Arts Production at the City College of New York as a distinguished lecturer and the first Michael & Irene Ross Visiting Professor of Film/Video & Jewish Studies.