In the 1996 television documentary Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker describes the life of her maternal grandmother, Sidonie Ehrenberg, an aspiring artist. As a wife and mother living in Poland, Ehrenberg painted despite the gendered restrictions imposed upon her by her Orthodox Jewish milieu. After the Nazis invaded the country, Ehrenberg was sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed in 1942 along with her husband. Her daughter Natalia survived; she was still a teenager when the camps were liberated. Ehrenberg’s artworks were never found after the war, yet Natalia, Akerman’s mother, preserved something of them in her memories of childhood. Ehrenberg used enormous canvases, and her subjects were straightforward: women’s faces gazing outward, “and that’s all,” Akerman explained in the documentary.
The genius and audacity of Akerman’s work lies in its recognition that such seemingly unremarkable images contain bounties, and that marginalized lives like Ehrenberg’s, decimated by time and silenced by tragedy, possess spectral qualities that, until Akerman began making films, had yet to be evoked in any art form. In her own marginality as well as that of her maternal forebears, Akerman located the raw materials she needed to spark a radical reinvention of cinema. She staged one, miraculously, within a few years of picking up her first camera.
Akerman was an autodidact who, very early on, intuited the limitations of a traditional filmmaking education. She was cognizant of the singularity of her vision. Throughout the 1970s—amid the opening act of her prodigious career—she absorbed the influences of the cutting edge of the era’s culture, which she digested and applied, tout de suite, to her own emotional terrain. The young filmmaker’s formidable first decade of work illuminates her inner world, giving shape to her experiences as a traveling artist and a modern woman who was simultaneously at odds with and a product of the previous generation—its inhibitions and domestic shackles. Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), in part a tribute to the life of her mother, stands as the culmination of the director’s fixations in these early years. To innovate with the seemingly boundless confidence that she exhibited meant first working through what she knew best—herself—and starting from a ground zero of lived experience. In this way, Akerman elevated banal activities like cleaning, watching, eating, writing, and thinking, endowing them with the monumentality of Ehrenberg’s work. Like the staring women in her grandmother’s paintings, Akerman’s characters are outsize presences, and our connection to them is startlingly direct.
Akerman was the eldest daughter of Polish refugees who settled in Belgium after World War II. Her mother—who went by the nickname Nelly—had been sent to live with her grandmother after being rescued from Auschwitz. A few years later, she married Akerman’s father, Jacques, who was also Jewish and had spent the duration of the war in hiding. In Brussels, the Akermans led a seemingly average working-class life. Jacques had a job at a leather shop, and in the summers the family frequented the nearby beaches of Knokke-le-Zoute. Chantal was a gifted student, but she cared little about academic validation; she often skipped class and found shelter in the local cinema. Her parents were mostly indifferent to her truancy. Her father was more concerned with finding her a Jewish husband, and her mother “signed my report card half-asleep on her bed,” as the filmmaker later recalled.
No one had described the camps to Akerman, and yet their horrors weighed on her with a terrible force. Though Nelly never talked about what had happened in them, it was evident that the experience had broken her. Like many of the Jewish women Akerman had known as a child, Nelly obsessed over household tasks to avoid confronting her demons. During these early years, Akerman understood that it was her duty to not make things worse; she stayed small and silent and out of the way of her mother’s pain. The Holocaust’s influence manifested for the young filmmaker in the form of recurring nightmares in which “Jews were playing violin with clenched smiles” and people resorted to cannibalism.
At fifteen, Akerman encountered Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which spectacularly externalizes its maker’s frustrations with consumerism and bourgeois society. A chaotic portrait of lovers on the lam, the film decries the world’s cruelties—and laughs about them too. Upon seeing it, Akerman instantly resolved to make movies. Her first completed effort, the thirteen- minute Saute ma ville (1968), was fueled by a similarly anarchic spirit, applying Pierrot’s tragicomic nihilism to the domestic sphere, which she had come to scorn. Akerman plays a woman who mocks the cleaning habits and meticulous behaviors of a good housewife by destroying her own kitchen and, ultimately, herself. It’s clear that, for Akerman, being stuck at home meant inevitable ruin.
As soon as she came of age, Akerman bolted. She began her lifelong drift, leaving Brussels for Paris, where she lived in a maid’s chamber without heat and attended lectures by France’s leading public intellectuals—including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the Marxist social theorist Gilles Deleuze, and the ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. She lived in Israel for a period as well; there, she cohabited with a boyfriend who died not long after their short-lived relationship ended.
A combination of youthful determination and good luck put Akerman on the map. While abroad, she worked to gather money to pay off the debts she had incurred while making Saute ma ville. Meanwhile, the film remained parked in a Brussels film lab owned by the critic and programmer Dimitri Balachoff. After Balachoff finally watched Akerman’s film, he connected the fledgling director with his colleagues in Flemish television, which was a haven for shorts and experimental films. From there, Akerman tracked down Eric de Kuyper, a writer and filmmaker who at the time programmed De andere film, a television series known for broadcasting works by underground filmmakers like Andy Warhol and rising European auteurs like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “I was impressed by the direct spontaneity of [Saute ma ville] as well as by the maker,” de Kuyper has said (Akerman, after all, had turned up at his doorstep, movie in tow). “So of course I showed the film.” The day after Saute ma ville played on TV, Belgium’s leading filmmaker, André Delvaux, sang its praises on his radio program. According to de Kuyper, Akerman still looked like a child when she arrived on the film scene. Yet, essentially without training or guidance, she had made something that inspired the support of bona fide pros.
Throughout her time in France and Israel, Akerman continued writing. She drafted essays, plays, and scripts, one of which would turn into her next short, L’enfant aimé ou Je joue à être une femme mariée (1971)—her first film to receive external financing. De Kuyper stepped in as an investor and was involved in the shoot. The thirty-two-minute film, which was shot at a villa in the South of France and revolves around a young mother’s confessions, was a major departure from Saute ma ville, despite sharing that earlier work’s antipathy toward womanly domesticity; L’enfant aimé found Akerman experimenting with duration and employing long stretches of dialogue to capture the turning of her protagonist’s mind. Yet Akerman was overwhelmed by the scope of the project. How to direct technicians? How to capture the various angles of such a large setting? She considered the film a failure and hurriedly changed gears.
In late 1971, Akerman moved to New York City. Before Saute ma ville, she had begun film school in Belgium but almost immediately dropped out, frustrated by the academy’s heavily theoretical curriculum—an obstacle to someone desperate to hit the ground running. The city that never sleeps would provide a more satisfying education for such a restless, enterprising young artist. Taken under the wing of the French filmmaker and photographer Babette Mangolte, the twenty-one-year-old dipped in and out of various local avant-garde circles. At Anthology Film Archives, Akerman discovered the work of Michael Snow and Jonas Mekas; she attended screenings of films by Yvonne Rainer and Richard Serra as well as performances by the Philip Glass Ensemble and Richard Foreman’s experimental theater troupe. She was usually broke and took countless odd jobs, posing as a nude model or manning coat-check booths. “I was finally living,” she later wrote. “I discovered new ways of life and other people, even if I sometimes ended up walking through the city all night because I had nowhere to sleep.”
Energized, Akerman made two silent films using money she stole from her gig as a porno- theater ticket-taker: La chambre and Hotel Monterey (both 1972). These two films explore cramped interior spaces through rigorous formal experimentation inspired by structural cinema, an avant-garde movement that began in the 1960s and produced minimalist films that generate ideas and sensations by emphasizing technical and material processes. Michael Snow’s work in particular was a revelation; it taught her that “a camera movement . . . could trigger an emotional response as strong as from any narrative.” With Hotel Monterey, Akerman sought to capture the fuzzy, ephemeral state that she had occupied as a new arrival in a city of strangers. With Mangolte serving as her cinematographer on both films, Akerman demonstrated a new command of technique and composition that allowed her to summon these elusive experiences, which she once described as “nothing but mist.”
But Akerman wasn’t interested in making purely conceptual films like those of her structuralist heroes. Her work was personal: even Hotel Monterey, which is composed primarily of shots of blank walls and hallways, is cut from Akerman’s life and imbued with the estrangement she felt as an expat with wobbly English skills. Before she was attracted to sound and light, writing had been her first passion. And just as she gravitated toward the mechanical ballets of the structuralists, her taste in literature was formally transgressive. Akerman despised emotional manipulation in art and sought to break free from the linear conventions of storytelling. L’enfant aimé, for instance, lays audio of a mostly one-sided conversation over protracted scenes of a mother engaging in domestic upkeep and observing herself in a mirror. The listener (played by Akerman) sometimes appears in the frame, disrupting our sense of continuity. Is the mother speaking to her friend throughout the entire film? This narrative ambiguity points to the inspiration of modernist literature—the dissolved temporal barriers of Virginia Woolf, and the subversions of the nouveau roman, the heavily descriptive, antirealist literary style practiced by writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.
In 1973, Akerman returned to Europe, where funding for the arts was much more generous than in the United States, and embarked on her first feature. Je tu il elle (1975), which she had written as a novel in the late sixties, is divided into three parts and is based on one of Akerman’s first mental breakdowns and her experiences hitchhiking from France to Belgium. The director immerses us in the present tense of these ordeals: a depressive episode unfolds silently, showing a woman (played by Akerman) lying around, writing, and eating sugar by the spoonful; later, a scene of a sexual encounter extends past ten minutes. These tests of endurance, without words, create the sustained intimacy of a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Another film Akerman made after her move back, the medium-length Le 15/8 (1973), employs fractured narration to create a similar effect: an aimless Finnish woman speaks in voice-over while she putters around an apartment and smokes cigarettes, but her words (largely banal) mean less than what their patterns reveal about her psychological torpor.
Akerman’s cinematic coming of age ran parallel to the women’s rights movement of the seventies. In Paris, where Akerman was primarily based during that decade, there were mass demonstrations against the country’s rape and antiabortion laws, and activists rallied around the idea that women’s personal lives have political stakes. Just seven years into her career, amid the development of a new consciousness around gender and sexuality, Akerman set out to make Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which many regard as her most important film.
Delphine Seyrig, an icon of the French New Wave and a militant feminist, had encountered Akerman’s work while serving on a jury that awarded a prize to Hotel Monterey in 1973. Soon after, the two women resolved to work together. The actor helped secure funds for Jeanne Dielman, which would be Akerman’s biggest project to date—a challenge that Akerman would meet head-on with an ambitious and formally radical concept. The script, written in the style of a nouveau roman, details three days in the life of a housewife, stretched out like taffy to convey the breadth of each moment, its snarl of time and sensation. Akerman’s past works had attempted this on a smaller scale, but Jeanne Dielman, with its three-hour-plus running time, cranked the premise up to the size of an epic—one that brings together all the properties of Akerman’s previous films: the feminist revolt of Saute ma ville, the existential isolation of Hotel Monterey, the trembling first-person unease of L’enfant aimé and Le 15/8. To watch Jeanne Dielman is to enter a new wavelength that positions viewers as witnesses to the full psychic and material scope of one woman’s quotidian life.
Akerman was only twenty-four when Jeanne Dielman premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival. Its canonization since then—in 2022, it was named the greatest film of all time in Sight and Sound magazine’s once-a-decade critics’ poll—speaks not only to the steadily increasing recognition of women filmmakers from past generations, but to a broader understanding of Akerman’s centrality to modern film history. Consider the formalist tableaux of directors like Michael Haneke and Todd Haynes, who evoke dark moods with static compositions, and the introspective women who populate the films of Kelly Reichardt. Traces of Akerman’s work can be found today across diverse trends in contemporary world cinema, and even in popular television’s frank depictions of sexuality and mental illness.
It certainly has helped that Akerman herself was a charming, commanding presence, and that she was relentlessly precise in her vision for Jeanne Dielman, even while working with veteran collaborators, some of whom bristled at the high levels of control this young woman exerted over the production, Seyrig included. Film critics talk about figures like Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Jerry Lewis—each a performer, director, writer, and control freak all in one—as consummate auteurs, and surely Akerman stands among them, with Jeanne Dielman representing only the first major breakthrough in a decades-long career full of restless reinvention.
Akerman—who died by suicide in 2015, a few months after her mother’s death—would be the first to admit that she could never stay in one place, never settle into one version of herself. She struggled with depression and claimed to never feel at home—a mood that her work would continue to evoke with a kind of forlorn spirituality. In the wake of Jeanne Dielman, Akerman made two loosely autobiographical films that gesture at the themes of exile and romantic disillusionment that would become increasingly central to her work in the coming decades. News from Home (1976) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) both exert a melancholic force; the women in them are phantasmal, existing at a painful remove from one another—physically absent in the former, perpetually roaming in the latter.
For Akerman, no one more powerfully represented the gulf between the self and the other, or the friction between appearances and interiority, than Nelly, who the filmmaker once said was the sole subject of her work. Akerman was obsessed with her mother but also desperate to get away from her and conceive of herself on her own terms. In News from Home, Nelly’s longing for Akerman is seized and transmitted through the filmmaker’s own voice. To make the film, Akerman returned to New York City and assembled footage of locations she had frequented earlier in the decade. Over extended shots of desolate streetscapes and subway platforms, the disembodied director reads the letters she received from her mother during that previous stint in the city, staging something like a séance in which each woman exists in a separate realm, grasping at the other through the dark. Another mother figure appears in Les rendez-vous d’Anna, which depicts a filmmaker’s journey across Western Europe, connecting Akerman’s ideas about the transience of human connection and intimacy to a broader world exhausted by tragedy.
The specter of Ehrenberg’s paintings particularly looms over this period in Akerman’s career. These artworks may have been giant, their faces commanding and unadorned, yet they existed for Akerman as mere traces of Nelly’s fading memory. However long and hard Akerman looked at her mother, Nelly also proved distressingly out of reach. The revolution of Akerman’s early films is rooted in this profound alienation. Jeanne Dielman may receive the most attention as a feminist lodestar, but the innovation of the other works from this era—and the bravery implicit in their elevation of subjects who are characterized not just by their womanhood but by their loneliness, sickness, and boredom—go well beyond the trappings of gender. These films remind us that cinema can reconfigure our perception of reality, adjusting our vision and giving form to the unknowable blur that is another person’s life.
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