Critic's Notebook: Chantal Akerman Turned Resistance to Norms Into Art

Chantal Akerman - H 2015
AP Images

Chantal Akerman - H 2015

The Belgian-born director was a highly influential pioneer of fine-art cinema with a strong feminist dimension.

Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman transformed deep personal currents of anxiety and depression into mesmerizing, groundbreaking, formally daring cinema. Much like their author, her films usually arrived at festivals wreathed in cigarette smoke, sexual ambiguity and feminist theory. In a career spanning more than four decades, Akerman amassed a vast body of work that indeed defied easy categorization in both shape and subject, often blurring the lines between drama, documentary and video art. Her films are full of hypnotically intense women smoking, suffering, rebelling, smoking, agonizing, ruminating, smoking some more, and having sex — then lighting up another cigarette straight afterwards.
Akerman’s death in Paris on Sunday at the age of 65 robs cinema of a hugely important figure, whose work influenced filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Michael Haneke, Sally Potter and Gus Van Sant. Details of her death remain sketchy but her sister Sylvane has reported it as a suicide, possibly brought on by depression over the passing last year of their mother Natalia, a Holocaust survivor. The Belgian-born director has suffered breakdowns and manic episodes since her thirties. Her most recent documentary No Home Movie (2015), based on a series of conversations with her mother, earned mixed reviews at Locarno Film Festival last month.
Though born in Brussels, Akerman spent much of her life in Paris and New York. Most accounts of her artistic origin story dutifully record how she resolved to become a filmmaker immediately after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) at the age of 15. Less often reported is how she later rejected Godard, branding the godfather of radical-chic cinema “anti-Semitic” and “an asshole." Born into a family of Polish-Jewish exiles, Akerman lost her grandparents in Auschwitz. The director’s intense but complicated relationship to her own Jewishness is a recurring theme her work, most notably in the semi-autobiographical drama Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978).
Akerman acted in several of her own films, including Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974), which ended with a graphic lesbian sex scene. Though much of her work could be considered “Queer Cinema” in its fluid approach to sexuality and gender norms, the director resisted attempts to categorize her sexual identity, simply claiming women are more “polymorphous” than men. Though her politics were clearly rooted in the liberal left, she was wary of fixed labels, even denying the New York Gay Film Festival the rights to screen Je, Tu, Il, Elle. “Nothing is simple,” she told one interviewer who tried to pin down her message. “Whenever I say anything, I want to say the opposite as well.”
A sublime experiment in meticulously composed minimalism, Akerman’s best known film remains Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Spanning over three hours and mostly shot in long, static, real-time takes, this forensically observed domestic drama stars Delphine Seyrig as a young widow whose narrow life revolves around housework, motherhood and clandestine prostitution. Exacting in both structure and subject, it paints a quietly ferocious portrait of the invisible prison walls that define feminine roles in a patriarchal society. The film remains a remarkable viewing experience four decades later, more Fassbinder than Godard in its controlled use of chilly melodrama and deadpan rage against the hidden machinery of power.
On its release, The New York Times called Jeanne Dielman “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema." A recent Sight & Sound poll voted it the 35th best film ever, the highest ranking for a female director. It remains a milestone in feminist cinema, all the more so for being made by a 24-year-old woman and an almost entirely female crew. “I do think it’s a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way,” Akerman told Camera Obscura magazine. “Like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental.”
The painstaking minimalism and formal rigor of Jeanne Dielman cast a long shadow over Akerman’s career, but she was smart and inventive enough not to be confined by critical expectations. In the 1980s she began making more joyful, accessible, relatively commercial films, from the steamy multi-character sex comedy Tout Une Nuit (1982) to the ebullient escapist fantasy Golden Eighties (1986), which feels like a Jacques Demy musical on amphetamines. She even made a brief foray into the U.S. mainstream with her poorly received English-language rom-com A Couch In New York (1996), co-starring Juliette Binoche and William Hurt. Akerman later described Hollywood as “Mecca, but not in the real meaning of the term — it’s Mecca where you go to flay yourself alive.”
In middle age, Akerman made more conventional comedies and literary adaptations, with mixed success, as well as politically charged documentaries about the American South and Israel. But she always kept one eye trained on the austere, quasi-abstract, minimalist style that defined her early career.
In 2011, Akerman joined City College of New York in the Media Arts faculty. Much of her later work was made for art galleries rather than big screens, a process she found liberating. “An installation piece is cinema without the hassles,” she told Lola Journal in 2011, “without all the humiliating terms of production.” Her 2007 video short Women From Antwerp in November is a case in point: a moody 20-minute montage of women smoking. This is classic Akerman, stripped to its essence: seductive, enigmatic, ambivalent and quietly addictive. European art cinema has lost one of its leading lights.