Directing one of the most well-known feminist films, Chantal Akerman was influential in both the feminist movement of filmmaking as well as kitchen sink realism. Through long takes and depiction of everyday activities, Akerman captured the mundanity of life as a housewife and the mania that is induced when the mind is not provided with opportunities for enrichment. Her work paved the way for a closer analysis of femininity within cinema, and also for examining psychology in a novel means. Akerman unfortunately passed away just over 5 years ago and would’ve turned 70 this year. As a means to commemorate her life, this month’s retrospective features her films.
Saute ma Ville (1968)
By Jessica Moore
Spectatorship and estrangement are entwined at the roots of Chantal Akerman’s filmography, as seen in her first short film Saute ma ville. The camera pans across modernist buildings and an ascending elevator shaft to the score of a disorientating song from a young girl, played by Akerman, who scales the building’s staircase. We find ourselves situated inside the girl’s apartment, peering into unlikely rituals of domesticity to the sound of disembodied utterings, hums, and gasps of laughter. In each frame, there is a sense of solemnity and disjointedness that splits the ordinariness of Akerman’s subject matter; there is a sense of surrender at all sides. According to Akerman, Saute ma ville is a “mirror image” of her immersive portrait Jeanne Dielman, a microdose of her intrusive, disaffecting filmmaking. In all its exponential rapidity and self-destruction, Saute ma Ville is the earliest example of Akerman’s masterful reconciliation of aesthetics with humanity.
There is something incredibly visceral in Akerman’s filmmaking. Her camera possesses its own autonomy, and in Saute ma ville, we barely know who we are looking at. Mundanity is funnelled into an interiority so scarce that the titular explosion reaches us at the point of our most estranged: alienated from its absurdity yet unable to look away.
Hotel Monterey (1972)
By Nick Adrian
Not many filmmakers are able to capture a feeling of loneliness and isolation quite like Chantal Akerman. At first glance some of her experimental work, such as 1973’s Hotel Monterey, could feel like it is about absolutely nothing. Much like its thematic predecessor, La Chambre, this work focuses on various rooms in a run-down New York City hotel. The absence of sound and the alternating static and tracking shots give an almost unsettling feeling. Though nothing specific is stated, we get the impression that the hotel is empty. It feels off, contrasting with what most people associate as a lively city.
Hotel Monterey is a portrait of a different side of New York. The glamour of a romanticized Big Apple is quite literally out of the picture and we are left with a series of portraits of what many don’t see. It is a study of a city that can be slow, empty, and even off-putting. The uncomfortable realization might not come right away, but perhaps that is Akerman’s point. She was never one for fast-paced cinema, preferring to let her viewers learn patience. In this, they come to terms with this side of the city and maybe even learn to appreciate it.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974)
By Ben McDonald
Je, Tu, Il, Elle contains much of the DNA that would form Chantal Akerman’s next film and magnum opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – austere, largely static cinematography, a cryptic female lead (played here by Akerman herself), and an anxiously claustrophobic mood of loneliness and dread. The film begins with what appears to be a mental breakdown of a young woman in self-imposed isolation, showing her perform a variety of mundane tasks around her bare studio apartment for what feels like an eternity before finally leaving and getting picked up by a lewd truck driver. It’s hard to convey what is exactly so intriguing about the film – a description that seems to characterize much of Akerman’s work – but something about the bareness and vulnerability of its brilliantly played lead focuses every ounce of our attention and leaves us with an unshakeable feeling of powerful melancholy. Oscillating between intense solitude and equally intense carnal passion, there are few films that consistently bleed empathy for those suffering from depression and loneliness as poignantly as Je, Tu, Il, Elle, and the film remains a startling early feature from the seminal Belgian filmmaker.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
By Eugene Kang
Though Jeanne Dielman is about a single mother who makes money through prostitution, Akerman deliberately plays down any salacious elements of her “profession” (it doesn’t seem she would declare what she does on any tax forms) and instead focuses on her most mundane tasks such as preparing food, cleaning, going shopping, babysitting, etc. Many of these tasks take place in real time, and the viewer slowly starts to feel the weight of the mundanity of her existence.
All of this builds up to a conclusion that seems to come out of nowhere. Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne certainly does not give any outward signs of mental instability or spiritual despair however. The closest that we get is some slip ups in her routine – a crying baby, overcooked potatoes, disheveled hair. Because of the mundanity of the previous couple hours however, these differences seem like groundbreaking shifts in Jeanne’s world. It should be a cliche that people who are irritated by the smallest things feel that way because their lives are so mundane and small. It is a really difficult job for an actor to do “nothing” and Seyrig is the perfect blank slate that we need because this work is insistent on how it chooses to not telegraph its message.
While the scope of the film is small, the ambition certainly is not. This film works as a rebuke to the neorealist genre that supposedly captured real life as a criticism of the objectification of women and how they are forced to compartmentalize their sensual and domestic sides, and as an ambitious portrait of an woman who is not extraordinary in the least.
News From Home (1977)
By Nick Adrian
Chantal Akerman’s next New York film was 1977’s News from Home. Similarly to Hotel Monterey, this experiment took the concept of sustained long shots of empty hotel rooms and took it to the city streets. The footage is joined by Akerman’s own narration as she reads real-life letters her mother had written her during her stay. It is an interesting, broader take on life in New York, this time focusing on its people and their surrounding areas rather than Monterey’s singular location.
Like Monterey, however, News from Home is also a study in loneliness and isolation. Though the viewer virtually gets a “tour” of the city, they cannot help but notice that it is not in the brightest of tones. Akerman’s footage is not exactly flattering, instead showing us aspects of city life more grounded in reality. She shows New York City for what it really is: heavily crowded, unclean, and even overwhelming. She accentuates its consuming nature by occasionally drowning out her narration with street noise. It is implied that Akerman is not quite herself during her stay, indicated by her mother’s repeated pleas for her to write back to her letters. One could take this entire study as New York City from Akerman’s literal point of view. She stands to the side, a quiet observer in a world that she is struggling to take part in. It might be painful but she will always have her mother’s loving words ringing in the back of her head.
No Home Movie (2015)
By Henry Baime
No Home Movie, Chantal Akerman’s final film, is also perhaps her most emotionally impactful. Tracing conversations between the director and her mother, both in person and virtually, in the months before her mother’s death and only a year before Chantal Akerman’s own, there’s always a sense of fleeting mortality coming through even as the imagery is often so mundane. Though not Akerman’s only documentary about her own life, it feels like the key to understanding the rest of her works, granting an extremely close and personal look at the things that shaped her. No Home Movie explores Akerman’s mother’s experiences as a survivor of Auschwitz and the relationship between mother and daughter, while showing the foundations of imagery that became immortalized in Akerman’s earlier films, Still, despite it being as close to one person’s life as a film can get, No Home Movie feels like a universal film essay about the difficulties of seeing someone dear wither away and the appreciation for what was accomplished that only comes near death.