In praise of: Chantal Akerman

Not so long ago as some plumbers hacked away at the the tiling around my shower, I watched a very powerful documentary about the (Belgian-born) film director Chantal Akerman; it was almost a hidden experience, trying to make out Akerman's words while the men worked, crashing and bashing at all available surfaces. You can watch the 2015 documentary, dir. by Marianne Lambert, I don't belong anywhere here, or check out the trailer:

Two parts from the documentary particularly affected me and remained with me afterwards. First, when Akerman talks about how in her work she wants us experience the film as if it were happening in 'real time' (or what the US director Gus Van Sant says Akerman calls 'her time'). 'Often when people come out of a good film they say that time flew without them noticing,' she says. 'What I want is to make people feel the passing of time, so I didn't take two hours of their lives, they experience them.' For her the notion of forgetting time, via escapism, is a kind of theft.   

Van Sant says that placing the camera in the same location as the actor gives the scene a kind of hyper-authenticity while also opening it up to chance occurrence, outside the director's control. To illustrate this the documentary includes an extraordinary scene from Akerman's 2011 film, La folie Almayer where you see an actor who sits still, in the centre of the shot (another figure is half-obscured in the darkness). You notice his skin, his bony chest, the half-shadow on his body and then over time and then quite suddenly, within a few seconds, there is a dramatic change in the light that transforms the image, by chance.

'I am cold/The sun is cold/The sea is black.' 

Here is the famous scene of a woman peeling potatoes from the film that launched Akerman's career when she was only 25 and is perhaps her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). With its natural sound, unmoving camera angle we watch the woman work and yet it's unavoidable for us not to feel something: her quiet desperation, or oppression, her boredom. 

The film is largely silent. The central character doesn't speak and yet this lack of commentary is extraordinarily powerful. In this respect it reminds me of an Australian film, Samson and Delilah (directed by First Nations film-maker Warwick Thornton, 2009) where the Aboriginal male character says only one word - his name - during the film; we observe him, we watch what happens to him and how he reacts, but he does not speak. (Even though the tone and location of the two films could not be any more different from one another).   

Here in this interview, Akerman speaks about how she wrote the film quickly, in two weeks. Interestingly Akerman refers to the way she wrote the 'gestures' of the film, not the words, or dialogue. These gestures, these chores that made up the central character's daily domestic routine are the essence of the film, giving her some peace, echoing absent Jewish rituals and providing the film with its unmistakable quality that is part menace, part voyeurism (and all about containment) that Akerman likens to a 'Greek tragedy'. 

The other scene from the documentary that so struck me was an extraordinary sequence were Akerman filmed a very long shot from the back of a moving car of a road with no commentary. This road was the location where a Black American man was murdered (tied to the back of a car and dragged to his death). Over time the very substance of the road, the bone-coloured dirt, its texture, becomes abstract and takes on a kind of presence outside of how we would normally perceive it. (It reminded me of moving water, even though the colour was wrong). It's unnerving, but meditative: unsettling and with a certain beauty even if it is difficult to explain why.

All One Night [Toute Une Nuit] (Chantal Akerman, 1982) - this excerpt from the Vincent Canby New York Times review captures something of the magic of her work.

In the course of a long hot night in Brussels, a succession of men and women meet and make love, or don’t meet and are bereft, as the Akerman camera observes them at a discreet distance...

[Toute Une Nuit] is probably as good a choice as any for getting to know this most seductive of avant-garde film makers.

Akerman’s work is mimimalist to the extent that instead of compressing time, she seems to stretch it to the point where one can hear the beginning, middle and end of a single footstep. She composes her films of facts presented without comment or emotion, as if they were inventories. Yet at their best, her films are loaded with the associations that she magically evokes from the cooperative viewer.

To read more about Akerman's art that changed the direction of cinema, see this feature article on Akerman in the New Yorker published after her death from suicide last year and this obituary from the New York Times, or this feature detailing the way other directors have been inspired by her work (also from the Times).