Natalie Gravenor | Wednesday October 7th, 2015 | 9
Death is like taxes, and “thanks“ to social media there is no dearth of reports of cherished personalities exiting at a ripe old age and/or far too young. But the news of Chantal Akerman’s passing put a particular pall over yesterday.
Akerman was a filmmaker who decisively influenced the way I think about cinema and what its relationship to life and society can (and should) be. My first encounter with her was not one of her films, but her singular public persona – sarcastic and garrulous. It was in the early 90s, a group of college friends and I were incensed at the invisibility and lack of career opportunities for women in media as an indicator of general inequality. We channeled this sense of injustice into a project that entailed creating a space on TV to screen new work female directors and research about why they had tougher going than their male counterparts, especially supposedly with audiences, which industry captains then used as a justification for not hiring women. As part of this research we watched an informative doc called “Women Making Movies“ which interviewed female helmers working in Hollywood (then as now a select few), U.S. indies and European art house cinema. Of course all the pioneers and icons were profiled: Kathryn Bigelow, Susan Seidelman, Lizzie Borden, Martha Coolidge, Agnès Varda and naturally, Akerman. Her terse answer to a question about feminism in her work was “I don’t make feminist films, I make Chantal Akerman films!“ A brilliant retort coming from a director who created the seminal “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), to this day an amazing film that like few others shows the experience of women relegated solely to the role of homemaker and mother and how social relations had become commodified. The film’s long duration (201 minutes) and long takes not just stated things about the mundanity of housework, they made the viewer actually feel it. (In a recent interview, Akerman said that her use of slow montage also serves to empower the viewer – to create his or her own film by minimizing authorial imposition.)
Akerman had me intrigued, so when soon after I had watched the documentary her 1975 feature debut “Je, tu, il, elle” was playing at the cinemathèque-like Arsenal in Berlin (pre-move to Potsdamer Platz, at its funkier Schöneberg location near the KaDeWe department store and gay clubs), I dragged an elementary school friend visiting from out of town to see it. Said friend is very smart and open to checking out new things, although her film tastes were more mainstream, so she cheerfully went along. The film was a trip, as I had never seen anything like it before (even at this point, where I had some exposure to experimental cinema and had been watching indies since my teens in the mid-80s). The black and white, seemingly off the cuff film belied a very clear structure. Akerman herself delivered a monologue, eating powdered sugar from a paper bag while wondering about which color to paint her room (musing about shades of blue or green in a black and white film was absurdly hilarious and at least for me posed questions about the nature of color and vision). This was followed by an awkward encounter between Akerman and a female lover and Akerman having a quickie with a male trucker, played by Niels Arestrup, as I much, much later found out. Any image of lesbian desire was very interesting to me because of its relative scarcity back then, and my straight schoolfriend had also always been bi-curious, largely only in theory. Nevertheless, I was a bit concerned that she might be irked that we wasted her only chance to meet in Berlin on some weird film. After the screening was over, we had a coffee somewhere nearby. We talked for hours about “Je, tu, il, elle”, its depiction of sexuality and flaunting of narrative conventions (our favorite: Akerman breaking the fourth wall by looking straight into the camera and giggling during the trucker episode, like an outtake that was left in.) My friend still enjoys especially mainstream films, yet years later she mentioned how “Je, tu, il, elle” really stuck in her mind – in a good way.
So the news had reached me, too – Akerman was one of the most innovative and versatile (no gender qualifier here) filmmakers to work with the medium, period. I sadly still haven’t seen all her work – an endeavor that’s high on my to do list – but what I have seen was mostly staggering. My particular favorites were the postmodern musical “Golden Eighties” (1986) and its companion “Les années 80” (1983), a “making of” of sorts which chronicled the auditions, and the early shorts “Saute ma ville” (1968) and “La chambre” (1972). Akerman also was equally adept in documentary and essayistic works. “Un jour Pina m’a demandé” (1983) saw her beat Klaus Wildenhahn hands down in the Pina Bausch documentary duel, almost 30 years before Wim Wenders dropped his “Pina” tribute. “D’ Est” (1993), a road movie exploring Eastern Europe in the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, brought a welcome anthropological, formalist, yet also humanistic view that was largely absent in the stridently triumphalist ideology of much work about “New Europe” during that time. “De l’autre côté” (2002), her investigation of the border between Mexico and the United States, was also shown as a video installation. Akerman thus found a more hospitable home in the art world, as art house cinema had become less nurturing for uncategorizable talents like herself. Along with Harun Farocki, she is, in my opinion, the filmmaker to most successfully accomplish the transition from black box to white cube, truly thinking spatially and not just projecting a video conceived for other viewing situations upon a gallery wall. The only headscratcher in Akerman’s art career was presenting “Jeanne Dielman” as an installation. The whole point of “Dielman” was to mercilessly submit the viewer to real time – as boring, painful but also meditatively inspiring that experience could be. A gallery visitor catching a few minutes of Delphine Seyrig cleaning the kitchen in passing before moving on restlessly to the next exhibit seemed to defeat the purpose.
Despite the genre’s often very strict, often geometrical plot patterns, the almost mainstream romantic comedy was the only realm that seemingly eluded Akerman’s brilliance. “Nuit et jour” (1991) had a promising plot – a woman who divides her time between two lovers, one works by day, one at night – but was ultimately sunk by three rather forgettable leads. “Un divan à New York” (1996) boasted the star power of Juliette Binoche and William Hurt as a lovesick Parisian and a put upon New York analyst who trade apartments and lives. “Demain on déménage” (2004) was equally uneven. But thanks to some presumably autobiographical elements concerning the mother-daughter relationship – Akerman’s mother Natalia, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, has figured strongly in her work, notably “News From Home” (1977) to Akerman’s final film “No Home Movie” (2015) – and fine performances by Sylvie Testud as an Akerman-alter-ego and French screen legend Aurore Clément, the film somehow rang true. The year Akerman presented the film at Berlinale, I was working for the official festival magazine. I was very excited that I was assigned to interview her. It was a bit intimidating, but ultimately enjoyable, with Akerman countering questions and interpretations she found off with a raucous “mais non!”
The Akerman film I most cherish is the short “Portait d’une paresseuse” (1987), her contribution to an omnibus film about the seven deadly sins, entirely directed by female filmmakers – Akerman was in the company of Ulrike Ottinger, Helma Sanders Brahms, Bette Gordon, Maxi Cohen, Helke Sander and Valie Export. The “lazy woman” of the title is Akerman herself, struggling to overcome her inertia – for her, the filmmaking process begins with getting out of bed, washing, dressing. In retrospect, I see this wickedly funny and meta miniature with a twinge of sadness, considering the depression Akerman reportedly struggled with, barely keeping it check with therapy and her ever boundary testing work, right until her death. “No Home Movie” premiered at Locarno – to mixed reviews, but isn’t that often a sign of a work’s power to engage? – and on October 7 played at the New York Film Festival. Even if Akerman had left us only her 70s and 80s milestones, the loss would hurt. But seeing she was still in the full throes of creativity, and her sharp, inquisitive, witty persona was so present in much of her work – on camera or as offscreen narrator, interlocutor or interrogator – it feels almost like someone we know personally and like is now suddenly gone.