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’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.