A Belgian in New York
It was in the 1970s, the first decade of her career, that Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman created the works that would define her. Informed as much by her brushes with the experimental film scene in New York as by her own past, these early films—including her masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—show her unique penchant for combining daring formal experimentation with deeply personal rumination; her austere portraits of dislocation and isolation reflect not only her aesthetic outlook but also her Jewishness, sexuality, and Belgian identity. They would make her, as the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman later wrote, “arguably the most important European filmmaker of her generation.”
Though New York, where she moved in 1971, at the age of twenty, provided the fertile creative ground out of which her style would grow, Akerman had begun experimenting with film back home in Brussels. Enamored of the cinema since seeing Godard’s Pierrot le fou at age fifteen (“I decided to make movies the same night,” she has said), she attended and then dropped out of film school, after which she raised the money for and made, at only eighteen, her first film, the 35 mm short Saute ma ville (1968). Set in a tight kitchen space, this debut in some ways anticipates Jeanne Dielman, though in terms of style and content, it’s actually the inverse of that highly structured look at domestic routine: here, an unbounded camera captures the erratic movements of a young woman, played by Akerman, as she impulsively destroys her kitchen and herself. There’s a French New Wave playfulness to Saute ma ville’s anarchy; the director later called it her Chaplin film.
That approach was about to change drastically. In the year and a half that Akerman lived in New York, she was exposed to the work of such avant-garde filmmakers as Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Marcel Hanoun, and Jonas Mekas; this was, as she would later describe it in an interview, “the most determining factor on my cinematography.” It was during this time, watching films at the East Village’s Anthology Film Archives between shifts at various jobs (including coat checker, photo-lab assistant, sculpture model, and porn theater cashier), that Akerman discovered that cinema could be unshackled from narrative, that one needn’t tell a story to generate emotion and suspense with images. The structural films she was experiencing and learning from were often shot in real time, with minimal setups and long takes, all to elicit a visceral response from viewers. It was during this time, too, that Akerman met cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who had worked with Rainer and would go on to work with Snow, and was to become Akerman’s most important collaborator in this early part of her career.
In 1972, Akerman and Mangolte worked on two challenging, self-financed 16 mm works that reveal the director’s immersion in formalist cinema. In the first, La chambre, a camera slowly and silently pans 360 degrees around a cramped tenement apartment several times, on each rotation picking up the same objects—a red chair, a table decorated with plates and fruit, a calendar, discarded socks, a sink piled high with dishes—as well as Akerman herself, lying on a bed, brilliant shafts of light streaming through the window behind her. The only figure in the room, Akerman changes her position and demeanor every time the camera returns to her: at one point, she stares into the lens; at another, she looks dazedly off, playing with an apple; later, she tosses and turns under the sheets. Her behavior grows odder, and so, ultimately, does that of the camera, which, on the fourth rotation, suddenly changes direction. This shift may at first seem insignificant, but it in fact holds the key that unlocks much of Akerman’s work to come, in which she creates tension through the slightest visual alterations, encouraging close study from the spectator.
In the second of her 1972 experiments, Akerman again wanted to draw viewers’ eyes to elements in the frame that they might not otherwise have considered. Similarly focused on architecture and interior spaces, Hotel Monterey is grander in scope than La chambre. Through a succession of elegantly composed, silent shots—some tracking, some static—Akerman transforms a run-down Upper West Side single-room-occupancy hotel (where she had sometimes spent nights with a friend) into a site of contemplation and unconventional beauty. There was barely any planning: Akerman knew only that she would start filming on the hotel’s main floor and end at the top, and that she wanted to emerge from dark into light, night into day. The shoot lasted one night, approximately fifteen straight hours, during which Akerman and Mangolte would put the camera down wherever it felt right and roll until Akerman’s gut told her to stop. Akerman later explained that “the shots are exactly as long as I had the feeling of them inside myself”; about the overall conception, she said, “I want people to lose themselves in the frame and at the same time to be truly confronting the space.” The result is minimalist yet rich: the viewer, wandering these mostly vacant hallways, elevators, and bedrooms, grows hyperaware of her or his own physical presence. A hotel is a place meant to be occupied, yet this one is largely drained of visible people, so it often seems like a way station on the road to some netherworld.
At a little more than an hour in length, Hotel Monterey was Akerman’s first sustained experiment in duration. Her interest in making the viewer engage with the passage of time, as well as the boundaries of space, would fuel the rest of her films in the 1970s, including her next New York work, 1976’s News from Home. (In 1973, Akerman had begun another New York film, Hanging Out Yonkers, intended as a portrait of that Hudson River city, to be accompanied by a soundtrack of local children’s voices, but it was never completed because of money and postproduction difficulties.) Though it wasn’t shot (with funding from French television) until after she had moved back to Brussels and made two feature films there—1975’s Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman—News from Home has its origins in her stay in New York: the impetus for this exploration of physical and emotional dislocation was the series of letters her mother sent her while she was abroad.
The foundation for News from Home, made up of contained, episodic long takes of Manhattan streets, parking lots, and subway trains and platforms, had been laid in her previous work, both the New York films and Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman, which were more narrative driven but equally systematic. By punctuating News from Home’s 16 mm footage of desolate cityscapes with her own voice reading her mother’s letters, Akerman creates the perfect combination of the personal and the formal. The film’s long takes (about fifty in total) add up not to a simple compendium of detached urban imagery but to a kind of autobiography.
From the letters, we learn much about Akerman’s home life, if mostly the mundanities, such as birthdays, babies, and illnesses—and if you know that Akerman’s parents are Holocaust survivors, her mother’s desperation to keep in contact becomes all the more poignant. Yet we also gradually begin to suspect Akerman’s reasons for leaving. The content of the letters constitutes something of a linear narrative, as the tone of the writing moves from inquisitive (“Please write about your work and your life there”) to passive-aggressive (“I was surprised not to get a letter this week”) to agitated (“You never answer my questions, and it’s bothering me. Please answer this time”). By matching her mother’s words with images of dirty old diners, storefronts, and public transportation (never any interiors of houses or apartments), Akerman creates a palpable sense of alienation—from home, from family, from past, from identity. She has remarked that her interest in structural cinema and its play with repetition, rhythm, and expectation may stem from her Jewish upbringing, with its precise rituals. That formal rigor is certainly clear in News from Home, which is further connected to her Jewish heritage in its depiction of exile—one could even call it a highly idiosyncratic diaspora tale.
Akerman would later make more films in and about New York, but those she created there in the seventies, love letters to the city as well as evocations of isolation, were experiments that shaped the rest of her career. That knowledge makes the closing image of News from Home—a ten-minute, unbroken shot from the stern of the Staten Island ferry as it departs from the city, the lower-Manhattan skyline framed finally with foggy, melancholy grandeur—doubly touching. It’s a good-bye to New York, and also to Akerman’s most artistically formative era.
Je tu il elle: Form Follows Dysfunction
After her fruitful early sojourn in New York, Chantal Akerman returned to Brussels in 1973, full of renewed creative energy. That year, at age twenty-three, she embarked on her first narrative feature; of course, informed by the experimental films she had seen and created in New York, this would hardly be a typical narrative. Shot on 16 mm in little more than a week, on a very small budget (part of which she raised by working as a typist for several months), Je tu il elle (1975) was Akerman’s most character-based film yet. Like her earlier movies, it was about estrangement, only this time depicted not through the absence of the physical and the sexual, faces and bodies, but through an emphasis on them.
With an obsessive focus on routine and repetition—which Akerman’s next feature, the epochal Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, would expand to mesmerizing lengths—Je tu il elle dramatizes a woman’s desperation to control her own life. Yet rather than remain a prisoner of the stifling rhythms and spaces of the home, this protagonist ultimately refuses confinement. As in her debut short, Saute ma ville, also about a young woman who rejects domesticity, Akerman herself stars, this time as Julie, a shiftless creature who craves independence and isolation. But as the film continues, we gradually glean, through her voice-over—which might come from letters we see her writing to an unknown party, possibly the “tu” (you) of the title—and her interactions, that the life she is fashioning for herself is leaving her adrift and emotionally dissatisfied.
In the first section of the film, Julie is alone in an anonymous, sparsely decorated, ground-floor apartment for days on end; she is anxious, compulsively rearranging furniture, scribbling letters and placing them on the floor in an order known only to her, and, most disconcerting, shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into her mouth. Julie’s repetitive behavior is captured in maddeningly long takes that emphasize its unbreakable irrationality. Her simultaneous desire for freedom and need for order make for a decidedly odd character, and make Je tu il elle a particularly strange, purposefully alienating experience. The overall disjunction Julie creates finds echoes in her voice-over, which often contradicts what we are seeing on-screen: “I lie motionless and alert on my mattress,” she says over the opening shot, though she sits in a chair; “When I looked up suddenly, there were people walking in the street,” she says as she looks down at the bag of sugar.
In the film’s second and third acts, Julie abandons her self-imposed isolation and has two sexual encounters, one with a truck driver, the film’s “il,” and the other with “elle,” her ex-girlfriend. The sex acts in both cases are drained of conventional eroticism—the former an impersonal hand job from the passenger seat, the latter a prolonged nude bedroom session that lasts for ten minutes of screen time over the course of only three shots. In both scenes, Akerman severely complicates our voyeuristic impulse through flat, detached compositions. The distance we feel from Julie is compounded by the inky black and white Akerman uses to further obscure her throughout. The film’s lasting impression is one of complete dissociation, from narrative, from body, from life.
Les rendez-vous d’Anna: Meetings with Chantal
In the years between Je tu il elle and her fourth feature, Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), Chantal Akerman had become an art-film sensation, thanks to Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Her ultimate expression of the reassurance and anxiety of routine and her most evocative visual exploration of space and time, Jeanne Dielman tied Akerman’s distinct long-duration camera approach to a challengingly drawn-out narrative of domestic confinement. Made with an entirely female crew and focusing on the stultifying household routines of an isolated woman, it was hailed in Europe and America as possibly the greatest, purest feminist film ever made, even if Akerman insisted that was not her intention.
With such adulation came hefty expectations for her next narrative feature, and though Les rendez-vous d’Anna clearly had much in common with Jeanne Dielman (aesthetic spareness and impeccable structural integrity, as well as the use of a major leading actress), the film was considered a failure. One of the reasons for this was its rejection, on political grounds, by many of those who had embraced Jeanne Dielman, since Anna was funded by a major, male-owned film company (Gaumont) and Akerman was working with a crew composed mostly of men, among them, for the first time, cinematographer Jean Penzer (The Two of Us). “All the women who went to see Jeanne Dielman . . . didn’t want to see Les rendez-vous d’Anna, because they said I was already corrupted,” Akerman later said. “Can you imagine that?” Yet what this controversy proved, especially to those who may not have seen her pre–Jeanne Dielman work, was that Akerman’s films were not agenda driven. The elegant, odd beauty of Les rendez-vous d’Anna is its refusal to fit into any generic or political parameters; like its wandering protagonist, it’s unattached and searching.
The film can’t help but come across as autobiographical, since its heroine, played by Aurore Clément (Lacombe, Lucien), is a Belgian filmmaker. Like all of Akerman’s main characters to this point (Je tu il elle’s Julie; News from Home’s unseen letter recipient; Jeanne Dielman), Anna does not express her feelings through dialogue but through action or nonaction, or by simply listening to others—her reserve is a protective shell against an alien world. Akerman further represents this estrangement by situating Anna in stark environments: she is traveling through northern Europe on a tour to promote her latest film, and Akerman shoots every city and town she visits as if it were the same arid nowheresville. Through Anna’s meetings, whether with a one-night stand (Helmut Griem), an ex-lover (Jean-Pierre Cassel), or her mother (Lea Massari), we begin to piece together the details of her life and her profound disconnection from everyone and everything.
Les rendez-vous d’Anna is a film about a voyage, though the destination and purpose are unclear. And as with many of Akerman’s films, before and since, it’s also a story of displacement. Like the attractive stranger (Hanns Zischler) Anna meets on the train to Brussels, who’s lived in six different countries, Akerman has been constantly on the move since the seventies, making films not only in New York and all over Europe but also in Tel Aviv, Texas, and Mexico. She’s director as nomad.