In memoriam: Chantal Akerman, 1950-2015

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle (1975).

It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I first heard the name Chantal Akerman.  Her films didn’t play on cable TV when I was growing up and were not easily available on video, nor do I ever remember seeing them mentioned in any of my books on European cinema.  She never seemed to be listed among the ranks of great European filmmakers.  Then, when I was twenty-one, I listened to Todd Haynes’ audio commentary for [Safe], in which he names Akerman and Kubrick as two influences on that film.  I had seen all of Kubrick’s films; I had never seen a single film by Akerman.  

Acquainting myself with her work proved difficult.  At that time virtually none of her films were available on DVD in North America.  I eventually found a PAL-encoded European DVD of Jeanne Dielman (1976), which (after some toggling with the region-encoder) I was able to play on my laptop.  I watched it over the course of several nights while eating dinner, a domestic routine that seemed to match those of its title character, who is famously shown making meatloaf and peeling potatoes in real time.  

Akerman in her first film, the short Saute ma ville (1968).

Akerman’s films are now more readily available to North American viewers, thanks largely to the efforts of The Criterion Collection.  But they threaten to remain inaccessible to many viewers as a result of their supposed severity and their difficulty.  For many (especially those who have not actually sat down with her work), Akerman would seem to epitomize European art cinema—or, more specifically, European feminist experimental cinema—at its most rarefied and pretentious.  Citations of her films are often reductive and make them sound gimmicky.  To describe Jeanne Dielman as I myself have just done, as an audacious exercise in minimalism, is to risk overlooking its wittiness, its formal beauty, and its oddly lulling, repetitive rhythms.  It’s about a lot more than just peeling potatoes.

Jeanne Dielman will probably always be Akerman’s masterpiece, partly due to its ambitious length.  (Running three and a half hours, it could be said to have invented a new genre—the domestic epic.)  But Akerman’s other films afford other pleasures.  Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) (which I’ve written about here) is darkly comic in its interrogation of feminine behavior and affect.  Je Tu Il Elle (1975) (discussed here) is avant-garde cinema at its most unexpectedly confessional and sexy.  And Akerman’s 1997 reflections on her own filmography (discussed here) are playful, reflexive, free-wheeling.  The long stretches of Je Tu Il Elle in which nothing seems to happen are the opposite of boring; Akerman had a way of finding intimacy and drama in the mundane details of everyday life.  In the wake of her death last week she leaves behind a body of work that every cinephile owes it to himself to discover—challenging, yes, but also bold, sensuous, and very much available. 

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman.

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