In Memoriam for Chantal Akerman
On October 5, 2015, Belgian director Chantal Akerman died at the age of 65, leaving behind a legacy of over forty films. Her desire to make movies was kindled as an adolescent after viewing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965).1 As she explained in a 2010 interview, this film contrasted starkly with the bombastic Hollywood fare offered in most Belgian cinemas: “When I saw Godard’s film, Pierrot Le Fou, … I had the feeling it was art, and that you could express yourself. […] So as a little girl, I went out of that place, the cinema, and I said, ‘I want to make films. That’s it.’”2 Although strongly influenced by New Wave directors such as François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, Akerman developed a style uniquely her own, becoming a pioneer in experimental and feminist filmmaking.
It is significant that her earliest feature films—including Hotel Monterey (1972) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—were made during the period when French theorists including Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva were urging women writers to develop écriture féminine, a unique voice able to challenge phallocentric norms by inscribing female difference in language and text.3 This is exactly what Akerman did, albeit in the medium of cinema. Her use of long takes, carefully framed shots, and minimal story line forces the viewer to actively engage with on-screen imagery. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that Akerman teaches us a new way to see. For example, when viewed through her camera lens, the Hotel Monterey loses its customary bustle and glamour and becomes a prison of marble and plaster, a warren of endless hallways leading to silent rooms inhabited by nameless guests. One experiences the same sense of constriction and tension when watching Jeanne Dielman, as the female protagonist (a middle-aged housewife) repeats the same gestures day after day, trapped in the monotony of her existence yet powerless to escape it.
In an interview, Akerman admitted that as time went by, she felt constrained by the slow, exacting style for which she was known. Making comedies such as Un divan à New York (1996) and Demain on déménage (2004) allowed her to be freer, more vibrant when directing.4 Nevertheless, her focus remained unchanged: throughout her career, she sought to portray the complexity of interpersonal relationships and the impossibility of truly connecting with the Other.
1 Pierrot le Fou [Pierrot the madman], directed by Jean-Luc Godard (Neuilly-sur-Seine Cedex: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie, 1965), 110 min.
2 Chantal Akerman, interview by Sam Adams, A.V. Club, January 28, 2010.
3 Hotel Monterey, directed by Chantal Akerman (New York City: Janus Films, 1972), 62 min.; Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, directed by Chantal Akerman (New York City: Janus Films, 1975), 201 min.
4 Un Divan à New York [A couch in New York], directed by Chantal Akerman (Paris: Polygram Vidéo, 1996), 90 min.; Demain on Déménage [Tomorrow we move], directed by Chantal Akerman (Paris: Gemini Films, 2004), 110 min.