Chantal Akerman: a primer

Throughout her career, the great director Chantal Akerman – who has sadly died, aged 65 – pursued certain themes and ideas. We offer a guide to some of the most important.

Cristina Álvarez López , Adrian Martin

from our February 2015 issue

Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman

It’s a well-known fact, often rehearsed in interviews, that at the age of 15, Chantal Akerman saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and decided that her vocation was to be a filmmaker. Today, looking back over the career of this Belgian-born, mainly France-based director, we can happily conclude – and this cannot be said of everyone who makes such statements – that her own work has been worthy of the film that inspired her cinephilia.

Akerman has restlessly explored every variation on her favourite audiovisual forms, from her early shorts of the late 1960s and immersion in the New York avant-garde scene of the 70s, through bold narrative features such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and The Meetings of Anna (1978) that made her a fixture of festivals and film studies programmes around the world, intermittent excursions into documentary, and eventually on to her diversification, since the 90s, into gallery installations that are sometimes ingenious ‘reassemblies’ of her movies or sketches for imagined projects. Through all this, she has stayed true to certain abiding concerns and underlying drives.

The following Akerman Primer, coinciding with a comprehensive two-year retrospective presented by A Nos Amours at the ICA in London, annotates a few of these recurring forms and themes in her work while trying to respect the fierce tension beneath it: an audiovisual art (across all media) that can be youthful, free, lyrical and romantic, yet is always transforming itself into an angry, probing, sometimes melancholic reflection on the troubled state of things. And then it finds renewed hope and energy, a reason to go on living and struggling, in that selfsame lyricism…

Portrait(s)

Some of Akerman’s earliest works, like L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971, resurrected more recently in installation form as In the Mirror) or The 15/8 (1973), co-directed by Samy Szlingerbaum (in which a young Finnish woman is caught by the camera in long fixed takes while her voice drones on the soundtrack), are experiments that can be classed in the tradition of the cine-portrait as practised by Andy Warhol and Philippe Garrel, among others. Many of her subsequent films – from Jeanne Dielman to the touching Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60s in Brussels (1994) – are painstaking studies of women who negotiate their daily lot.

Le 15/8 (1973)

Le 15/8 (1973)

As with many filmmakers, Akerman’s work can be taken as autobiographical in nature, and hence a self-portrait. But, across her oeuvre, this presentation of self takes multiple, indirect paths. We are left, as spectators, to trace the recurring obsessions and pick up hints of her personality traits – and she herself has sketched out a guide, Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1997). In The Meetings of Anna, a director (Aurore Clément) travels to Germany to present her latest film. Along the way, she has various encounters with different people – some planned, some not. The tone of these meetings is often anguished, as if some intangible but impermeable barrier separated her from the world. This leads to relationships with others that can seem dry, barren, even violent – as we see also in her early feature Je tu il elle (1974). At other times, the heroine of Meetings of Anna appears to take refuge in a limp, passive assent to whatever is surrounding her.

The self-portrait effect is intensified – and complicated – still further when Akerman acts in her own films, such as in Je tu il elle and the delightful, too-little-seen Man with a Suitcase (1984). In this comedy with absurdist and Chaplinesque touches, Akerman’s panic over having to share a living space with an unfamiliar man transforms itself, step by step, into a perverse, morbid obsession with spying and keeping tabs on him. But, as her films often show, desire can be born in the strangest, least rational ways. Akerman’s simultaneously awkward and beguiling shot at making a commercial romantic comedy, A Couch in New York (1996), starring Juliette Binoche and William Hurt, attests to this: nothing really brings these two souls together except serendipity, coincidence, attraction to the absent traces and tantalising signs of each other’s preoccupations.

Desire/trauma

In many of her films, Akerman portrays unconventional sexual relationships, highlighting the complexity of issues relating to gender roles, sexual difference and erotic orientation. (In a 2011 interview, she declared: “What are men and women? For the woman, it has to happen as a fantasy, it’s not sex that makes her orgasm; she can be more polymorphous, like a baby. She doesn’t need to fetishise her own sex like men do.”) While her work can easily be read as a feminist exploration of these themes, there is also a personal, idiosyncratic charge – a polymorphousness – that is too rich to fit into a reductively militant, ideological agenda.

Night and Day (Nuite et jour, 1991)

Night and Day (Nuite et jour, 1991)

In fact, some of the most poetic and overwhelming moments in her work – like the final scene of Portrait of a Young Girl, the encounter with the lover in The Meetings of Anna, or most of Night and Day (1991), The Captive (2000) and Almayer’s Folly (2011) – take up these concerns in order to chart a desire that forms complex circuits of projection, substitution and transposition between people. Ambiguity reigns when love walks in the door.

Yet if there is one thing that has left an indelible and unambiguous mark on Akerman’s work, it is the Holocaust. She comes from a Jewish-Polish family; her maternal grandparents perished in Auschwitz. Her mother – a crucial figure in her life as well as in her filmography – survived the camps but was deeply affected by the experience. (Tomorrow We Move, in 2004, dramatises this, amid the general context of a light comedy.)

Akerman carries within herself traces of the trauma suffered by these previous generations; her family history has come to shape the style, tone and preoccupations of her cinema, as she testifies in her recent book Ma mère rit (My mother laughs). The vexed question of Jewish identity in the contemporary world is at the heart of such projects as Dis-moi (1980), American Stories (1989) and Là-bas (2006). The feature-length documentaries South (1999) and From the Other Side (2002) have no direct relation to Jewish issues, but in these tormented tales of racial lynching and mass immigration it is not hard to detect a deep link to Akerman’s perennial themes of Holocaust and diaspora.

From the East (D’Est, 1993)

From the East (D’Est, 1993)

In some of her European projects, such as the experimental documentary From the East (1993) and The Meetings of Anna, this troubled history returns in the form of a ghostly presence. In the former, Akerman travels with her cinematographers (Rémon Fremont and Bernard Delville) to various sites in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As she has acknowledged, many of the extended tracking shots in the film – exterior spaces populated by long queues of people waiting in the freezing cold – remind her, inescapably, of Holocaust images of Jews in line, waiting to die. In The Meetings of Anna, Europe’s complicated past intermittently pops up as a topic during the characters’ conversations, while the streets, the train stations, the people themselves seem fixed in the landscape of an eternal war.

Minimalism

Much of Akerman’s output, across all media, is based on strict, elementary formal decisions about how to shoot and structure what is arranged or observed before the camera. Whether it is the repetition of In the Mirror, the fixed shot with a slow zoom of Moving In (1992), or the steady, omnipresent, lateral tracking shots that formally unite a documentary like From the East with a fiction film such as The Captive, the form is always insisted upon, and it builds both a system for each individual work and an overall ethics of her very frontal gaze. “When you avoid low angles and subjective shots,” she has remarked, “you avoid fetishism. When you film frontally, you put two souls face to face equally, you carve out a real place for the viewer.”

Moving In (Le Déménagement, 1992)

Moving In (Le Déménagement, 1992)

This systematic, rule-bound, dispositif side of some Akerman pieces can, at first glance, seem severe. La Chambre (1972), an early short made the day after completing the no-less minimalistic Hotel Monterey (1973), is based on a slow pan around the director’s own domestic space while she stays in bed – bed being a privileged site for many sorts of experiences and exchanges in her art. At an almost comical highpoint of La Chambre, the pan suddenly changes direction – as if the appearance of the auteur within the frame somehow impelled this reversal.

At the age of 24, Akerman made what remains (fairly or not) her canonical masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman – 200 minutes to record three days in the life of a Brussels housewife, played with unforgettable precision by Delphine Seyrig. A unique film of surprising maturity, Jeanne Dielman is composed exclusively of long takes (each of which charts the spatial and temporal dimensions of small, everyday actions such as cooking and cleaning) in repeated settings: a kind of score that charts the mundane routine presiding over this woman’s very ordinary, typical life. All remains unchanged until a series of small but calamitous incidents announce to us that the precarious balance of this life has started to go awry. The camera angles remain the same, in their framing, position and distance, but the substance of the images is now utterly different: some malaise has crept in to destabilise them.

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

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

Jeanne Dielman is the greatest film ever made about domestic alienation, but its greatness is sui generis. It immediately divided cinema history into periods ‘before’ and ‘after’ itself. Many have subsequently tried to build a film of this type but no one has managed to grasp daily human behaviour with the same authenticity, intensity and strange beauty as Akerman does here. And this is because her minimalism is not a mere stylistic cloak draped over a storyline but the beating heart of her film.

The minimalism tag can be a little dry when attributed, over and again, to Akerman; it misses the special, minute kinds of narrative and pictorial tension she creates in her interplay of sounds, images, situations and stories. Above all, the description can short-change the crisp, tangy sensuality of her style. Bodily sensations, the expansions and contractions of time, energies of all sorts, human or non-human – all are palpable in her films and in her multi-screen installation pieces, such as Women from Antwerp in November (2008) with its celebration of the joys of smoking, or Maniac Shadows (2013).

Day and night

One of the most precious aesthetic experiences that Akerman’s cinema offers us is the passage from day to night (and vice versa). In the Chris Markeresque short Night Falls on Shanghai (2007), the encroaching night completely transforms a cityscape: neon lights invade the darkness and two buildings that occupy the centre of the frame turn into screens trumpeting images of a globalised world. In All Night Long (1982), Akerman follows several characters during a summer evening in Brussels. The final sequence of The Captive explores all the possibilities of night as something that can be ‘painted’ on film: two lovers struggle in a sea devoured by inky blackness, and the situation becomes a dance of reflected light on water. Almayer’s Folly returns to the celebration of night as a realm of mystery, the place where dreams burn (“in the night, he waits for you”) and narrative conflicts bring death.

All Night Long (Toute une nuit, 1982)

All Night Long (Toute une nuit, 1982)

For Akerman, day and night are two separate universes powered by different energy sources. The entire poetry of Night and Day is built upon this idea. During the day, Julie (Guilaine Londez) makes love with her boyfriend, Jack (Thomas Langmann), in an unfurnished Paris apartment. In the evening, while this guy goes to work driving a taxi, Julie wanders about with a book under her arm. She soon meets another man, Joseph (François Négret), and spends time with him at night, while she continues to see her boyfriend during the day. In this film, day and night each accrue distinct locations: the city, with its cafés, lit streets, cars, fountains and hotels, comes to life with the darkness; while, each dawn, Julie races back to her apartment like a troubled Cinderella.

But then, as always in Akerman, there is also the reversal of any classic system of day/night poetic symbolism. In her jaunty but bittersweet musical Golden Eighties (1986), we are confined, for most of the time, inside a shopping mall where both day and night are artificially induced and controlled, and no stray window lets in a trace of the world outside; Akerman preserves the shock of the elements – daylight and street noise – for the final, disconcerting tableau just beyond the mall’s doors.

Walking

Next to Naruse Mikio, Akerman is the cinema’s greatest poet of the act of walking. Her characters perform every possible variation on this action. They march in straight lines and wander in circles. Their humble two-steps can suddenly become performance art, or song-and-dance. Sometimes they are like the celebrated flâneurs of big cities who found hidden wonders tucked away in anonymous coves and corners; at other times, they drudge along like automatons, at the bidding of the daily grind. Occasionally they are accompanied by tension, even menace.

The Captive (La Captive, 2000)

The Captive (La Captive, 2000)

Akerman’s integral, non-fragmented way of filming these walking figures – whether leading the way, following along on a lateral path or standing stock still as they disappear into the distance or darkness – always stresses the steps made, one by one. Her distinctive walking shots emphasise, equally, the time it takes to traverse even a small distance – because the shortest path can be decisive in films such as The Captive.

For Akerman, walking provides a vital physical continuum, an unhurried bridging between realms: her characters literally cross the space that separates the factuality of everyday life from the fantasy and intrigue of fiction. Story is often synonymous with catastrophe in Akerman, cued by an unforeseen glitch in routine (as for Jeanne Dielman) or a high heel that slips on the pavement. So walking provides a safe way back for her characters, an Ariadne’s thread connecting them to an ever-delicate state of stability. By means of this stepping in and out, Akerman provides a mirror for our own activity as spectators, negotiating the illusions and lures of narrative.

The two endings

Akerman’s most recent fiction feature, Almayer’s Folly, is loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s first novel. Moved to the 1950s and focusing on a protagonist (Stanislas Merhar’s Almayer) who watches his dreams take flight and die in the Malayan jungle, Almayer’s Folly grows like a river stream hit by a tropical storm. On its surface, the film displays all Akerman’s old, familiar rigour and severity: fixed takes, carefully choreographed moves and a narrative of gender division (this time involving a father and daughter) that might well reinforce all our most pessimistic assumptions about the abyss between men and women in the modern world.

Almayer’s Folly (La folie Almayer, 2011)

Almayer’s Folly (La folie Almayer, 2011)

But surprisingly, introducing the film at festivals around the world, Akerman described its production as a personal liberation – “I told everyone in the cast and crew, ‘Let’s breathe, let’s live a little!’” And when quizzed by an audience member as to the bleakness of its ending – a long take of the abandoned Almayer slowly receding into himself, a grim, apocalyptic note – Akerman retorted: “Ah, you mean the second ending!”

The first ending, in terms of the strict chronological unfolding of the story, came much earlier –  in fact at the very start of the film. There, Almayer’s daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), witnesses what also appears to be a terrible event – the murder of the lover who has whisked her away to a new life. But her reaction is unexpected: Akerman has her approach the camera, look directly into the lens and sing, a capella, Mozart’s motet Ave Verum Corpus. All the violence, murder, death, guilt and remorse of this tale is – for the length of this song – magically dissolved in the offscreen space.

This is a musical moment of the kind often seen in Akerman’s career (in 1983’s The Eighties, she even does the singing herself), in which the liberation of voice and body is frequently accompanied by an ethereal disconnection from the narrative itself, and an implacable drifting away from its conventional code of weighty morality. A utopian moment of release, set against all the disasters of history that weigh upon the memory of individuals.

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