“I rejected [the label ‘feminist filmmaker’] at the time but now I want to keep it. I want to take it back. I thought that we had arrived at a moment when it was not necessary anymore, but I realized that it’s […] not true. It’s just not true. So now I am saying loud, ‘I am a feminist.’” -- Chantal Akerman, in a 2010 interview with GreenCine Daily
Chantal Akerman’s feminism is a feminism of the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian. Her films are perhaps the purest cinematic expressions of the notion, central to so many theories of feminism, that the personal is political. Built out of the seemingly innocent or unremarkable details of everyday life—phone calls, meal preparation, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, checking into a hotel, riding in a car—they call into question the meanings of such acts, particularly for the women in whose lives they have become familiar routines. In drawing our attention to these “simplest” of details, and by defamiliarizing them via her beleaguered heroines, Akerman reveals the extent to which gendered codes structure even the most casual of interactions or experiences.
The women in Akerman’s films are, in themselves, structuring absences, blank screens that reflect the network of gendered preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations swirling around them. Enigmatic, beautiful, and steel-eyed, they may appear to move through the worlds of her films emotionlessly. They look hard, cold. They are surfaces of which other people’s ideas about what women should be and do bounce off. Sometimes they even serve to illuminate the gendered assumptions of Akerman’s critics. In his liner notes to Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), Michael Koresky claims that the film is about its heroine’s “estrangement,” her “profound disconnection from everyone and everything” around her. True, Anna (Aurora Clement, pictured above) is often characterized by a blank, detached gaze—as is the title character of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976). But we should not presume that these women are numb to the world around them. To do so assumes that woman’s natural state is one of smiling ebullience, and that anything less reads as hostility or distress—a notion that Amy Cunningham addresses in her valuable essay “Why Women Smile.” Akerman’s stone-faced female characters may indeed be grieving, conflicted, and ambivalent, but we might alternately read their deadpan gazes as ways in which they intentionally buck the gendered conventions to which women are so often expected to adhere. Anna’s refusal to reassure us with the comforting image of the smiling woman becomes her way of answering back to a world of spectators—on both sides of the screen—who demand it.