Chantal Akerman’s recent death, her alleged suicide, colors how many people will view her work. But she was much more than her struggle with depression and her form of death. Perhaps most important was her work, which varied from the commercial to artistic to avant garde filmmaking.
A Belgian film director, her influence on feminist filmmaking and avant garde cinema was substantial. Akerman was born in Brussels to Holocaust survivors. Her mother, Natalia, survived Auschwitz, where her own parents (Akerman’s grandparents) died.
At age 15, upon seeing Jean-Luc Goddard’s Pierrot le fou, Akerman decided to make movies. At 18, Akerman began studying at the Institut National Superieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion, a Belgian film school, but dropped out to make her first short, Saute ma ville. (Available on YouTube here.) To subsidize the film’s costs, Akerman traded diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange.
Shortly after Saute ma ville, Akerman moved to New York, where at the Anthology Film Archives, she was impressed with the work of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.
In 1972, she released two shorts, La Chambre 1 and La Chambre 2, as well as her first feature film, Hotel Monterey. These works reveal the influence of structural filmmaking through these films’ usage of long takes. The protracted shots serve to oscillate images between abstraction and figuration. Her films from this period also signify the start of her collaboration with cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who worked on La Chambre, Hotel Monterey, Hanging Out Yonkers, Jeanne Dielman, and News From Home.
Akerman returned to Belgium in 1973 and received critical recognition for her 1974 feature, I, You, He, She (Je Tu Il Elle).
Perhaps her most significant film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, was released in 1975. The film allows three days in the life of a seemingly ordinary housewife, Jeanne Dielman, to play out for the audience in almost real time. The day to day activities of Ms. Dielman are so hypnotizing, an audience might not notice at first that Ms. Dielman is also a prostitute. She only takes one client per day, going to bed with a man in between her everyday chores of shopping and cooking her son’s dinner. Upon its release, The New York Times called it, “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.”
Akerman, who was 25, has said she was able to make a film about a woman–an older, widowed woman–because, “at that point, everyone was talking about women” and that it was “the right time.” The film took five weeks to shoot. Akerman used an all-female crew for the film, which she claims did not work that well. “Not because they were women, but because I didn’t choose them.”
In his recent profile of Akerman, The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody points out that during Jeanne Dielman‘s filming, she was younger than Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane or Jean-Luc Goddard when he made Breathless. Brody insists Jeanne Dielman deserved to mentioned together with those film greats, noting, “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.”
Feminist film critics praised the film. B. Ruby Rich said, “Never before was the materiality of woman’s time in the home rendered so viscerally…She [Akerman] invents a new language capable of transmitting truths previously unspoken.” However, Akerman was reluctant to be seen as a feminist filmmaker, saying, “I don’t think woman’s cinema exists.”
Akerman seemed to avoid anything that could categorize or ghettoize her filmmaking in a particular way. Although she was a lesbian filmmaker, she avoided labels and refused to have her work featured in LGBT film festivals.
Directors like Todd Haynes, Sally Potter, and Michael Haneke have credited her as a major influence. J. Hoberman, a former film critic for The Village Voice, likened her to Goddard and to German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
She sought to break free of linear narratives and direct explication in both her cinematic essays and her documentary work, preferring to leave essential things unsaid. The trauma of the Holocaust was a continuing theme in her work, but one which remained below the surface. Only recently, as she began working on a documentary about her mother, No Home Movie, did she wish to discuss the Holocaust explicitly. However, her mother was not willing to recount her experiences. More broadly, No Home Movie is a documentation of a relationship with an older relative as they grow older and sicker. Many say Akerman was in a dark emotional state after her mother’s death and suffered breakdowns for which she was hospitalized.
It’s hard not to view Akerman’s last work in the context of her death, but instead, we must remember her legacy and filmography, rather than one small part of her life.
Sources: New York Times – Jeanne Dielman