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Phantom Memory

The haunted films of Chantal Akerman

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Chantal Akerman’s filmmaking career started with a bang. As a fan of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou in 1968, the Belgian teenager made a short movie, starring herself, in her mother’s kitchen. In Saute ma ville (roughly, “Blow Up My Town”), she messes about the tiny tiled space, doing nonsensical “chores” and singing to herself—and then turns up the gas. Cue a black screen, then explosion sounds, and a master European auteur was on her way.

Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman

Akerman’s most famous work, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is more like the silence before the bang. The three-hour 1975 film, which begins a week-long revival run at Film Forum in New York City on January 23, is usually dubbed a landmark feminist film but is actually a landmark film of any stripe. It’s simple, really: Akerman attentively chronicles three days in the life of a widowed Brussels homemaker, including her turning tricks to provide for her son (discreetly, not Belle de Jour style). It’s action-packed, but for the most part not with the sort of action you usually see: prepping a chicken breast, scrubbing a bathtub, quiet dinners, reading—all shot, lit, and framed with care. There’s still nothing quite like it, and most amazing was Akerman’s age: at 24, she had written and directed a mature work that seemed to contain a lifetime of experience.

In a sense Akerman does carry several lives within her, like many of her generation, through the experiences of her family. Born in 1950 to Polish Jews who had resettled in Belgium, she belongs to the ranks of second-generation survivors: her mother lived through Auschwitz; her grandmother and other relatives were killed there. (Her father spent the war in hiding.) In Brussels, her parents were shopkeepers, and, caring and hardworking, they took the position of trying not to “burden” their children with the past. But the trauma of the camps filtered down. Her mother, for example, pushed food on her daughter, believing that her normal-looking daughter was anorexic.

In her films, Akerman works out this transmitted sense of phantom memory, and the weight of inherited autobiography. Yet the range of films she has made in the past three decades includes a mall musical (Golden Eighties), a hypnotic Proust adaptation (La Captive), a romantic comedy (Un Divan à New York), and a revue of jokes and stories performed by actors, amateurs, and Akerman (American Stories/Food, Family, and Philosophy). For her 1993 documentary D’Est (“From the East”), she traveled through several countries in the former Soviet bloc. She consciously avoided a “back to roots” approach—she’s said she simply felt “drawn to ‘there’”—and instead filmed a dense, unannotated album of disparate faces and places—men walking down a deserted twilit road, bundled-up crowds in a Moscow train station, a child rolling a toy car at home. Despite the historic period of transition, there’s not a whole lot going on, strictly speaking. As the title of Ivone Margulies’s monograph on the filmmaker puts it, Nothing Happens. And yet the stuff of life is happening, and, increasingly in Akerman’s recent work, we also sense the tectonic forces of History with a capital “H,” too, underneath it all.

Akerman’s style here and elsewhere—keen yet hands-off, with an overarching yet internally flexible conceit—shows the influence of the ominously dubbed Structuralist filmmaking that had its heyday in the 1970s. Ground zero was New York, where Akerman visited and lived several times; over a seven-month period in 1972 she worked as a waitress, a model for New School sculpture classes, and even a cashier at a midtown porn theater. She admired the diary-like films of Jonas Mekas, himself a Lithuanian refugee, which she compared to “homemade cooking”; La Région Centrale, an improbable work by Structuralist heavyweight Michael Snow involving a programmed camera on a mountain peak, also stuck in her mind. Teaming up with cinematographer Babette Mangolte, Akerman conducted her own austere experiment in observation and lighting, Hotel Monterey, at a since-demolished welfare haunt on the Upper West Side.

Yet as critic Amy Taubin has succinctly observed, Akerman ultimately took such impersonal constraints and combined them with an open, humanist heart. News From Home (1977) elegantly and poignantly punctuates the picturesque worn-out streets of Manhattan with readings from her mother’s sweetly concerned letters from Belgium. (“It was nice to get your note…I am sorry that it was so short.”) That Akerman does the voiceover, speaking for and through her mother (both exiles of different sorts), demonstrates the layering of experience in her films. In an interview on a recent Belgian DVD of the film, her poised and engaging mother (who puzzles over the lack of get-up-and-go among like-aged friends) puts it best. “It’s funny, all her films have a bit of me in them,” she observes, puttering about a kitchen very similar to the one in Saute ma ville. “Just like Hitchcock…I also have a part in all of her films.” It is Akerman, by the way, who conducts the interview.

In Jeanne Dielman, the sense of the past that seeps through can be complex. The film is commonly held to show the drudgery of woman’s work while according to it the dignity of being shown at all. (There’s more drama to a cooking mishap at one point than a visit from a john.) And for Jeanne Dielman, who is played with increasingly robotic serenity by Delphine Seyrig, busywork keeps the anxiety away; if nothing changes, everything must be okay. But in Akerman’s interview with her mother, as she draws her out on the subject of life in the camps, the practice of routine emerges as something terrifyingly vital, a desperate goal. As she recalls, so long as she and her companions were forced to work, purges might not occur; any departures from this routine were final ones.

Delphine Seyrig in 'Jeanne Dielman'
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman

At the same time, the routines shown in Jeanne Dielman—like Dielman wrapping a scarf around her teenage son, or unpacking his sofa bed each night—are what make up a sense of home. And so it is that Akerman can describe the film as “an act of love for those gestures that you are surrounded by as a child.” Elsewhere, she has also connected this routine with the comfort of religious ritual, and recalled the pleasure of praying alongside her grandfather as a small child. With his death, her religious schooling stopped, and though she says her lack of belief makes a return impossible, she always missed the rituals and meaning of prayer. (In Nothing Happens, Margulies quotes Akerman as searching for “rhythms of psalmody” in some of her lilting voiceovers.)

From her grandfather’s generation, it is her maternal grandmother with whom Akerman feels a special bond. An artist, she painted “big canvasses,” according to Akerman’s mother, none of which apparently survived her death. But a text did survive: her diary, which Akerman’s mother preserved and inscribed with her own loving memorial. (Her daughters would in turn add their own.) Excerpts from this diary are central to a 2004 work by Akerman, one of the several installations she has started creating in addition to filmmaking and writing. These reflect an ever-stronger interest in opening up multiple perspectives and voices; for instance, To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge features projected text from the diary and a video of Akerman and her mother discussing the camps. (The curious title refers to both a French idiom and food neurosis.) From one daughter to the next, to the next, a lineage of stories and reflections is maintained. Akerman’s creation builds on the unfulfilled aspirations of both her grandmother and her frustrated mother.

Akerman’s installations have allowed her a new way to revisit and retrace both the past and her own works. (They’re also easier to fund than films.) A recent traveling compendium exhibition, scheduled to appear next at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, reconfigures her old works, including D’Est, into multimonitor installations. Besides two films looking at the American South and Mexican bordertowns, a third had appeared in film form as recently as 2006: Là-bas (“Down There”), a largely housebound rumination in Israel during her ambivalent stay there as a visiting teacher. (The title refers to her family’s term for where those who left Europe for Israel went.) Akerman has also employed a gallery space to perform a previously published monologue about her father’s death, A Family in Brussels, written in the overlapping voice of both her mother and herself.

It’s also possible the installations are an extension of Akerman’s preoccupation with the Second Commandment, which crops up in the D’Est installation and elsewhere. “Jews have a big problem with the image,” she said to Godard in a 1979 interview. “You do not have the right to make images, you are transgressing when you do, because images are linked to idolatry.” Akerman uses the stricture to explain the head-on frontal perspective she often uses when shooting: in her view, watching on a one-to-one level, face to face as it were, banishes the possibility of idolatry. Hence the tableau compositions in Jeanne Dielman and elsewhere. And so, too, does her use of triptychs of monitors in the installations prevent a submission to the flickering images. The aim isn’t a studied remove or a passive resignation; it feels like the view of a sensitive observer, somehow between two worlds but belonging to both. Fittingly, her films are full of shots from doorways, and her camera position often seems coincident with exactly where a fourth wall would be.

Some of these “dedramatizing” techniques might well express her experience growing up as a second-generation survivor: surrounded by the inescapable presence of a story that is not always elaborated upon and so remains to be broached and understood for oneself. Yet even as these experiences shadow so much of her art, Akerman, who today lives and works in Paris, has always resisted categorizing her films. “I’m not making a cinema for women. I’m not speaking to anyone specifically,” she told a French interviewer last year. “I’m not even trying to reach Jews.” But if Akerman is cautious about the meaning and reception of her films, they breathe the many facets of her identity—as a Jew, as a woman, as an artist. Her multilayered works speak for her, and for themselves.

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Phantom Memory

The haunted films of Chantal Akerman

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