Chantal Akerman: 10 essential films

We recommend some of the finest places to get up to speed with the innovative work of the late, great Chantal Akerman.

Michael Ewins
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Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

For almost 50 years, until her suicide on 5 October 2015, Chantal Akerman was one of the cinema’s most original postwar auteurs – a documentarian, anecdotist, comedian, chanteuse, and restless innovator. She was Jewish, born in 1950 to Auschwitz survivor Natalia Akerman, and over the course of her many shorts, features, and installations, Chantal obsessively chronicled the legacy of her ancestors.

Her final project, No Home Movie (2015), is a deeply moving work of remembrance. Shooting on crude, consumer grade video, Akerman documents her mother’s ailing health through diaristic long takes, and punctuates their interactions with extended landscape shots from the Middle East. Like an estuary of memory, these narratives converge around political and private histories of the Shoah, and No Home Movie becomes a testament to the sorrow weathered by a matriarch and her ethnoreligious people.

The Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, speaking at Akerman’s funeral, recited a Jewish phrase which seizes upon the power of her films, and the influence Natalia exerted over them: “Nishmata Tzroura Bitzror Hachayim.” “Her life is woven into our own.” Reflecting on her work, it’s clear that no other film artist bequeathed to her audience such intimate proof of having been here as Chantal Akerman. And this is what she leaves us – a cinema of unmade beds.

Saute ma ville (1968)

In her blackly comic debut, Akerman plays a ‘Chaplinesque’ loner, shuffling through domestic mishaps in a fugue state. Just as an unhinged camera disrupts the spatial order of her kitchen, the increasingly frantic girl destroys a quotidian arsenal of objects – pots, pans, mops – which have shackled her gender for generations. A cartoon Smurf on the door orders “Go Home!”, and in the end, marking the first acknowledgment of her Jewish lineage (and conscience), she commits suicide by resting her head against an open gas hob.

Je, tu, il, elle (1974)

Je, tu, il, elle (1976)

The commas in the title suggest corporeal and spatial displacement, and this becomes the subject of Akerman’s narrative triptych. In intimate but enervating encounters, the director-actor attempts to locate a meaning in routine – first an insistence upon it, and then a decisive break. Made after her return from New York, it’s Akerman’s most affecting study of the self, particularly devastating because her on-screen persona’s attempt at emancipation only exacerbates the rootless, shifting ennui that haunts her. The first lines, “and then I left”, could just as well be its last.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Cinematographer Babette Mangolte described Jeanne Dielman as “a 40s story shot by a 70s camera,” and critic Manny Farber elaborated upon the camera’s subject, “space… as it becomes spiritualised and proliferates ideas”. That space is Jeanne’s (Delphine Seyrig) tidy, one-bedroom apartment, where she performs daily chores that Akerman felt the cinema had “devalued”. By placing the weight of uncompressed time onto each task – bed-making, potato-peeling, washing up – they become evidence of an unknowable psyche. Jeanne’s routine is so precise that a missed button becomes a forecast of doom, beginning a wrenching undoing of the clockwork pattern that had riveted the first half of this 200-minute masterwork.

News from Home (1977)

News from Home (1976)

Akerman regularly incorporates letters into narrative, but News from Home, and the massively underseen Letters Home (1986), are her only epistolary films. Both projects explore the relationship between mother and daughter through readings of their correspondence, and as Akerman recites the messages her mother sent during a two-year sojourn in New York, images of the city unfurl in dry but mesmeric montage. It’s a deeply moving film – an archive of memories not only personal, but architectural, as News from Home is also one of the great portraits of pre-Giuliani New York.

Tell Me (1980)

Tell Me (1980)

In her first frontal engagement with the Holocaust, Akerman travelled to the homes of three female survivors and interviewed them in their living rooms. “I don’t have much to tell you,” each woman begins, before delivering a hyperthymestic spiel on her experience during and after the war. Anticipating her quasi-documentary American Stories (1989), food here becomes a motivation for conversation (“Eat, or I won’t tell you more”), and philosophy naturally extends from testimony. The severed family is the theme of this film, and so Natalia’s disembodied voice is laid over its structure.

Toute une nuit (1982)

Toute une nuit (A Whole Night) (1982)

A city symphony, composed of blaring traffic, halting footsteps and amorous whispers, all suspended on the breeze of a humid Brussels night. In her narcoleptic melodrama, which fragments three-dozen narratives into their boldest expressions (“Come with me!” “I love you!”), Akerman turns the whole world into a series of opening and closing doors, which, as the daughter of immigrants and a lifelong nomad, it had most likely become to her by 1982. It’s like an Ernst Lubitsch film where everybody is sad, but, looking forward, Claire Denis’ Vendredi soir (2002) would be impossible without this poetic nocturne.

American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1989)

American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1989)

“Jewish girls like three topics of conversation in particular…” And so the film – an anthology of monologues, folktales and skits, sprung from the Jewish-American experience – finds it title. In much of Akerman’s work, a self-referential circularity creates deeper resonance, and the closing image of News from Home is mirrored here by the opening shot of a ship coming into port in New York City. The rest of the film – like the rehearsals in Les Années 80 (1983) – wriggle out deep truths from Brechtian artifice, and build a touching, funny portrait of life after the 20th century’s mass diaspora.

From the East (1993)

From the East (1993)

A cousin to News from Home, separated by oceans but not aesthetic or ideological principle. While that film contemplated Akerman’s personal migration, From the East traces a passage from East Germany to Moscow and documents the changing face of eastern Europe. It’s a startling and sad film, composed in a rhythm that alternates between tracking and still shots, or progress and stagnation. Akerman’s wide frames suggest that inhabited space can still reflect absence, and the long takes of queuing citizens – nameless, and viewed fleetingly – create a sense of travelling but never arriving.

A Couch in New York (1996)

A Couch in New York (1996)

Almost 30 years after News from Home, Akerman finally made her love letter to New York, but by this time her life was equally bound to France, so the story becomes an apartment/culture swap comedy – from Belleville to Manhattan. By turns lyrical and screwy, it’s not Akerman’s best work, but it is an essential one-off in her filmography, and no film has better captured the cerebral serenity of William Hurt or the intensified delight of Juliette Binoche, squared off in an elegant pas de deux.

A l’est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (2009)

A l’est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (2009)

Sound has been essential to Akerman’s cinema since Saute ma ville, but the strongest influence on her incorporation of music into narrative has been her life partner Sonia Wieder-Atherton; a classical cellist and composer for several of her features. This conceptual performance traces a similar path to Akerman in From the East, bringing together compositions from central and eastern Europe (“they have changing borders and different cultures, but are impregnated with each other”), and Russia. Performed at a radio studio in Warsaw, this is one of Akerman’s most beautiful and overlooked films.

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