Every Home a Heartache: Chantal Akerman
by Jon Davies
“I don’t feel I belong anywhere. On the contrary, I have the feeling that I am only attached to the land under my feet. And even there the ground is often a bit shaky.”
– Chantal Akerman (1977)
On October 5, 2015, the brilliant filmmaker Chantal Akerman committed suicide in Paris at age 65 after many years of suffering with manic-depression – she recalls her first mental breakdown took place at age 34. A Polish Jew who came to Belgium in the 1930s, Akerman’s mother, Natalia (“Nelly”), was later sent to and survived Auschwitz but refused to discuss the experience with her daughter. The two were extremely close, and Akerman’s suicide followed her mother’s death by just a year.
Akerman was fascinated by her matrilineage, and her films are her offspring. She, her mother and her sister all added their own writing to her grandmother’s diary – the one outlet the woman had to express her private thoughts. Akerman was delighted to find out that the canvases her grandmother had painted – apparently in secret – turned out to be huge depictions of women looking out at the viewer.
Akerman’s identity was bound up in being a daughter. She wanted to throw away labels like “female,” “Jewish” or “lesbian.” Recognizing her as a daughter honours the intensity of her bond with her mother and her grandmother, as well as the way her films proudly drew on and reimagined her trans-Atlantic cinematic lineage.1 As a teenager in Brussels, Akerman skipped school to see movies, including the titles playing at the experimental festival in Knokkele-Zoute.2 At age 15, she watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and it sparked her desire to make films.
Akerman’s cinephilia was voracious; her early experiences with film established the medium as a generative field of freedom from the boundaries of identity. In her 1979 essay “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” B. Ruby Rich identified dominant cinema as the Cinema of the Fathers and the avant-garde as the Cinema of the Sons. Where does that leave a daughter like Akerman, shaped by fathers like Robert Bresson and sons like Andy Warhol? Kate Rennebohm posits, “Her avowed linkages with other artists … were a way out of essentializing categories.”3 In addition to European art cinema, Akerman was powerfully drawn to the liberatory potential of structural film. Misconstrued throughout its history as devoid of pleasure, emotion and drama, this genre of formalist experimentation proposed a radically reciprocal relationship between image and viewer that she harnessed and developed in her singular body of films. The result was an analytic and humanist gaze capable of distilling a profound sense of “everything matters” from a surface that simulated “nothing happens.”4
The emerging feminist film criticism of the 1970s enthusiastically took up Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there was little consensus on what precisely made it feminist and to what degree. (Note that Akerman was only 24 when she wrote and directed it.) Was it in her rigorously minimalist approach, her sensitivity to her female protagonist’s monotonous domestic labour, Jeanne’s abrupt killing of a man with a pair of scissors, or all of the above? Or did the climactic murder ultimately pander to the expectations of a patriarchal dominant cinema? Of Delphine Seyrig’s enigmatic performance as the widowed Jeanne, critics asked: “what’s beneath her smile?”5
In a discussion with women affiliated with the feminist Camera Obscura journal in Berkeley in 1976, Akerman said she saw Jeanne Dielman’s feminism in the film’s keen attention to a woman’s daily gestures,6 but she did not believe that one could definitively identify a woman’s voice or perspective in film tout court. 7 She would remain adamant that there should be as many different cinematic languages as there are different individuals, regardless of gender. Feminist criticism of the 1970s was too prescriptive for Akerman’s mercurial spirit – she was wary of its essentialism.
Akerman’s cinema is liminal – she was perpetually drawn to the in-between, capturing it with a rare force.8 Many of her films portray the movement of people across distances or their absorption within claustrophobic spaces. Rather than a serene “room of one’s own,” domestic interiors conceal gendered labour and violence, secrecy and shame, where traumas both large and small unfold with few, if any, witnesses. The affective depth of Akerman’s cinema is reminiscent of the seemingly boundless oeuvre of the late Louise Bourgeois, her Cellules installations mutant abstractions of Akerman’s enclosures. With the mother a perpetual presence, each room also takes on the quality of a womb.
In Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), made in the heady year of 1968, the 18-year-old nascent filmmaker plays a young woman who arrives home and sets about destroying the kitchen through maniacal acts of cleaning and cooking. Akerman’s vertiginous first film culminates in a showy domestic suicide.9 The Chaplinesque adolescent careens about the room, sealing it up with tape before turning on the gas stove, lying on top and blowing herself up, a climax we hear but do not see. Her actions anticipate the violent gestures of Martha Rosler’s performance video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) by seven years, and the finale acts as an homage to the explosion that ends her beloved Pierrot le fou. The kitchen is not simply a space of women’s subjugation but a stage for the quotidian to play itself out, a “minor” site imbued with psychodrama in Akerman’s work. This decimated kitchen is the first of many fraught interiors in her oeuvre, and Akerman would return to the kitchen with a vengeance in Jeanne Dielman.
In the late 1960s, Akerman dropped out of film school and in 1971 moved to New York, a journey many Europeans had made before her. French-born Babette Mangolte – the marvelous cinematographer on many of Akerman’s early films – took her to the Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium Film Workshop to watch American avant-garde films, as well as experimental dance performances, which Mangolte perceptively documented. Marked by Pop and Minimalism, for example, New York art at the time was engaged in a certain “hyperrealism.”10
The structural films that Akerman saw in New York commanded her attention most of all. As defined by critic P. Adams Sitney, “structural film” foregrounds the medium’s formal elements and celluloid’s materiality by privileging overall structure in lieu of narrative. Sitney declared Canadian Michael Snow the “dean” of structural film for works like the canonical _Wavelength _(1967), its parameters determined by a static camera slowly zooming into a photo of the sea on a loft wall over 45 minutes. Incidents hinting at narrative – such as a murder – occur but the zoom’s progress continues, ignoring dominant cinema’s concern for plot.
Soon after, the then-New-York-based Snow made two films structured by the panning of a camera. <__> (Back and Forth) (1969) stages an eclectic range of events inside a classroom for a camera that pivots back and forth, both left and right and up and down. His earlier but lesser-known “sketch” Standard Time (1967) allowed the camera to rotate a full 360 degrees within a distinctly domestic space. Here we see the apartment Snow shared with fellow artist and partner Joyce Wieland, the camera taking in their record player, TV, ironing board, dishes and bed. Wieland appears in the room – the camera’s movement follows her steps only once, as if by accident – alongside appearances by a cat and a turtle. (The objects stay still, naturally, while living creatures move in a dynamic dance with the camera.) With the camera occupied by its perpetual pivot, capturing the textures of the everyday, the room and its denizens seem to be caught unawares.
Akerman’s first film made in New York, La chambre (The Room) (1972), takes Standard Time’s rotating camera, slows it down and locates it in her own small apartment, the director lounging in bed. Unlike in Snow’s film, where Wieland initially appears decapitated – the waist-high framing only recording her from the neck up at first before we see her full body in bed and walking around – Akerman’s presence is centrally framed in this short, silent self-portrait. The panning camera takes in the room at a far more meditative and meticulous pace than the aggressive spinning of Standard Time, which occasionally moves so fast that the domestic mise-en-scène is destroyed in blur. Piled high with clutter, Akerman’s cozy room seems to contain her whole life within its walls. The camera takes in chairs, a kitchen table, stove, dresser, bed, desk and door. After circling the room counter-clockwise twice, the camera pivots back and forth as if closing in on her presence. Each time the camera brushes over her, Akerman changes pose in the soft refuge of her bed – often looking directly into the camera, rocking back and forth under the covers, handling and eating an apple. This intimate interior pan expands into the astounding tracking shots in her later non-fiction films that measure often grueling distances traveled by her subjects: the arduous journey across the Mexico–United States border in De l’autre côté (From the Other Side) (2002), for example, or the horrific route that James Byrd, Jr.’s body was dragged by white supremacists in Sud (South) (1999).
In the silent Hôtel Monterey (1972), Akerman’s second New York film, she and Mangolte traverse the cramped rooms, hallways and elevators of a down-at-heel Manhattan hotel, moving from the front lobby up to the rooftop. The film’s treatment of the space wavers between social documentary and structuralism.11 Crepuscular and cloistered, it is the first of her elegies for those in perpetual migration – its patient portraits of residents in their modest suites foreshadow the domestic tableaux in D’Est (From the East) (1993) while its surface textures would not be out of place in the hotel rooms of her Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). Here Anna is a stand-in for Chantal, an itinerant artist touring her new film across Europe. In the final scene she collapses in her own bed, listening to her answering machine messages – the voices of a litany of intimates who recede further into oblivion with each passing day she spends away from “home.” Akerman’s characters appear within homes but rarely “feel at home.”12 She respects their privacy, avoiding hyperbolic displays of emotion in favour of a clinical gaze and detached delivery of dialogue.
Of all the avant-garde films she saw in her time in New York, Akerman was most impressed by Snow’s La Région centrale (1971). Reportedly she and Mangolte watched it four times in a row, which amounts to 12 hours of viewing. In contrast to his earlier films discussed above, which were each bound to a single circumscribed interior, Snow situated his epic in a remote northern Quebec landscape. Snow had a remote-controlled machine designed that would free his 16mm camera to move 360 degrees in any and all directions through the rugged terrain. Seemingly defying gravity, the mechanical eye is unmoored from a human point-of-view, inducing disembodiment. Martha Langford calls the experience “vertiginous, hallucinatory, and defining of the technological sublime.”13 Akerman describes how “[t]he sensory experience I underwent was extraordinarily powerful and physical … I learned from [Snow’s films] that a camera movement… could trigger an emotional response as strong as from any narrative.”14
The autonomy of the artwork has traditionally been held as a paragon of freedom. As cinema is the most immersive medium, facing its challenges head on – with mutual respect – and even giving oneself over to its demands can be a transformative experience.15 Akerman decreed, “Equality, always, between the image and the spectator.”16 Poised in the cinema, contemplating the screen, subjectivity can drift. Are there certain perceptual experiences that cinema is capable of that can be claimed as almost “universal” – a dangerous word – on a phenomenological level? In a structural film, can subjectivity be detached from social reality and the machinations of power, oppression and hierarchy, if only fleetingly? In structuralism’s exigencies, Akerman found liberation. With the camera operating in a programmatic way, the spectator’s attention is freed to critically consider what unfolds in front of her eye. What else is freed with it?
Akerman argued that “you always know where I am” in her films – thereby evading the risk of dominant cinema’s voyeurism.17 While likely an overstatement, I appreciate her repeated claim that the camera was held at her own height rather than the standard height that was only ever the standard of male directors. In her frontal camera positioning, she sought to put “two souls face to face equally”18 – the one onscreen and the one in the audience. The extreme duration and reductive minimalism she learned from structural film generates boredom and attenuates perceptual awareness: “[Viewers] feel this time, in their own bodies. Even if they claim to be bored… to wait for the next shot is also already to feel oneself living, to feel oneself existing.”19
As many commentators have noted, Jeanne Dielman’s domestic chores mimic those of Akerman’s structural aesthetic: her meticulously scheduled rituals of shopping, cooking and cleaning – and of course sex with visiting johns – are mirrored by the rigorous formal gestures of her director. Ben Singer quips: “The camera would no more pan or show a close-up than Jeanne would serve mashed potatoes before their scheduled evening in her weekly menu.”20 Patricia Patterson and Manny Farber conclude that Jeanne herself is a structural film.21 Shot in long takes that allow us to “look carefully and to be respectful,” in Akerman’s words,22 Jeanne’s ordered routine soon snaps. Akerman’s structuralism, which invigorated the avantgarde’s programmatic routines with the affect and narrative experimentation of European art cinema, lies in her embrace of materiality – of bodies and social reality, space and time – in the face of illusion. Unlike in Wavelength, the murder in Jeanne Dielman has gravity – it is a rupture from which Jeanne does not recover as she sits bloodstained at film’s end. At her core, Akerman is as interested in people as in the structures they must navigate.
Returning to Brussels after her sojourn in New York, Akerman made her first feature Je tu il elle (I You He She) (1975), again playing the protagonist, under the pseudonym “Julie.” In the first part of the film, she confines herself to her spartan bedroom, eventually moving out the furniture, writing letters and eating sugar compulsively from a tattered paper bag. The hermit moves her mattress around the space, almost as if measuring the environment, grafting her body and psyche onto the architecture. Critics noted that her spare physical actions recalled the post-minimalist works of Yvonne Rainer, whose performances Akerman encountered in New York’s Judson Dance Theater. Julie’s languorous entropy takes shape as a choreography of the everyday. These hermetic and repetitive rituals become instrumentalized in Jeanne Dielman, and in being “productive” to family and society they numb rather than indulge the self.
Legendary for its candour and youthful awkwardness, the lesbian sex scene that closes Je tu il elle is amplified by a highly sensitive soundtrack of shifting bed sheets and heavy breathing. While the camera maintains a respectful distance from the lovers, it still feels like we can hear every sound that they can. Akerman’s use of sound more broadly – particularly in creating a tension around pointof-view and evoking what is nearby but just out-of-frame – contributes greatly to suffusing the spaces she films with affect, charging them with suspense.
Akerman was also masterful in mining a feeling of tension from the juxtaposition of multiple channels of sound and image projection in her multi-screen video installations. Akerman’s D’Est is primarily composed of magisterial tracking shots observing crowds of people in Eastern Europe standing in lines and sitting in halls, waiting for the bus or train as well as capitalism’s encroachment. It was the first film that Akerman reconfigured as a video installation: D’Est, au bord de la fiction (Bordering on Fiction), in 1995. Her breaking down of the singular film projection into multiple channels cemented her as a central figure in the migration of filmmakers from cinemas to galleries at the time. More importantly, it allowed for a fragmentation of the image into disparate, adjacent perspectives – and soundtracks – that the spectator could navigate spatially, cobbling together contingent and transitory narratives from her figures’ gestures and faces. Another lesson from structural film: the frame is contingent, and while it may cordon off our area of attention, the rhythms of life continue outside its borders. Giuliana Bruno sees Akerman’s use of the screen in works like this as “a boundary and a threshold… between the internal and the external.”23 In Akerman’s installations, the filmmaker’s inquisitive, peripatetic style gets embodied by the spectators’ perambulations.
Heightening one’s awareness of being a body in a space, Akerman’s films capture how simply leaving the house can be a harrowing experience – any environment can become insupportable. Harkening back to Saute ma ville and Je tu il elle, the witty L’Homme à la valise (The Man with the Suitcase) (1983) sees Akerman play a version of herself, forced to share her apartment with a chap named Henri. She does everything in her power to avoid having even the most superficial encounter with the tall, affable interloper; her efforts soon take over her life. Two decades later, Là-bas (2006), her raw, diaristic chamber piece made in Israel, would be shot entirely from the self-imposed captivity of her Tel Aviv apartment, the weight of history and memory palpable in every composition. We only see and hear what she can see and hear through the window blinds – her interface to the tumultuous world outside and a framing device for her voiceover, which wrestles with the loaded subject of Israel through the lens of the personal. Her narration conveys her crippling anxiety: “basically I don’t know how to live, or go anywhere.”
Her close relationship with her mother is achingly portrayed in two films that Akerman made 40 years apart. In News from Home (1976) we hear the filmmaker read some of the frequent letters that her mother mailed from Belgium to her in New York, filled with details of the family’s mundane activities. We see neither mother nor daughter, we just hear the words – which reach us at a temporal remove – over methodically shot scenes of New York streets and subways, the city’s traffic noise often overwhelming the contents of the letters. As a dynamic source of her cultural life-blood, New York became akin to a second mother to Akerman, even if her ardour for the city and its built environment was no doubt so strong because she was an outsider.24 At the end of News from Home the camera leaves Manhattan’s dense and dirty urban grid aboard a ferry, taking us into the vast ocean. Akerman’s boat ride reverses the journey of millions of immigrants from Europe to America. With New York established as her formative context, this poignant shot symbolizes her return to the continent.
Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie (2015), documents the dying Nelly’s final time on earth, with daughter caring for and communicating with her mother. With its handheld camera work, it does resemble a home movie at times, and the kitchen features prominently as a space of mother– daughter communion. The depth of their love is finally exposed here. When the two are separated now, they communicate via Skype instead of through letters, with the daughter’s reflection merging with her mother’s image on the screen.25 Akerman was a tortured soul perpetually haunted both by the Holocaust – and in particular her mother’s silence about it, even in these last days – and by mental illness. She once confessed, seemingly off-handedly, “I have trouble even existing.”26 Akerman’s final multichannel installation, NOW (2015), pairs harsh desert landscapes with the brutalizing soundscape of modern warfare; disorienting in its naked violence, these scenes were perhaps the closest she came to the visceral maelstrom of Snow’s La Région centrale, as Andréa Picard points out.27
Speaking as an exilic filmmaker attuned to deep pain, precarity and rootlessness, Akerman once proposed, “[The way] I would like to film … corresponds … to the idea that the land one possesses is always a sign of barbarism and blood, while the land one traverses without taking it reminds us of a book.”28 She transformed how structural film techniques could be used to scrutinize the skin of the everyday, adhering to an ethos that respected both the forceful autonomy of her images as well as her audience’s critical, emotional intelligence. In our volatile and vulnerable historical present, her images compel us to sit patiently with them for as long as they may endure, to closely read their nuanced, manifold truths.