Chantal Akerman


(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Chantal Akerman (Belgium, 1950) debuted with films of various duration that felt like the melancholic meditations of a lonely young person. During the 1970s she lived in New York.

The hour-long silent Hotel Monterey (1972) explores the environment of a hotel: people viewed from a window, people in the hall, an old lady searchin for something in her purse, people comeing and going... the camera takes the elevator and we see just the door of the elevator and, when it opens, the hallways of the various floors... the camera stops for several seconds in front of a bed lit by two lamps on each side... then it moves and we see that somebody is sitting at a table... the door closes... in another room a guest smiles at the camera without moving for a few seconds... a young woman leaning on the furniture viewed from outside the room... dark hallways... a hallway with the sign "exit"... the elevator door viewed from behing a pillar... empty rooms... views from the window... the camera turns around showing a panorama of the city... roofs, tenements, the river... and finally the street below. And absolutely no sound. Akerman behaves more like a photographer than a filmmaker: the camera is often still for a long period of time, inviting us to truly penetrate the essence of a scene the way a photograph does.

The 11-minute short La Chambre (1972) consists simply in a 360-degree panorama of a grim cluttered room: table with food, desk, stove with kettle, door, dresser, the woman lying on her bed and eating an apple. The camera goes around once, twice, then goes back, then moves randomly. The woman stops eating, rubs her eyes and lies down to sleep.

Je Tu Il Elle (1974) is three films in one: a voyeuristic diary of sub-ordinary life, an existential drama of masochistic depression, and a sexual melodrama. The very long shots amplify the meaning of meaningless actions, and sometimes non-actions. She roams a meaningless world, whether in the intimate shelter of her room or in the exposed infinity of the highway. She doesn't speak except to herself. This is not a heroine, this is an acute case of quasi-suicidal alienation. Her life is basically limited to the most primal behavior of an animal, like hunger and sex.

Julie lives in a small and scantily-furnished room and mostly eats sugar. She specializes in routines that she repeats day after day until she exhausts all possible variations. Hence she paints and repaints the walls of her room. Hence she moves her mattress countless times. Hence she writes letters frantically on pages, or the same letter over and over, a love letter with explicit confession of sexual desire. She spreds the pages on the floor, get naked in bed, and... waits. She crawls around her room half naked in the dark and in the morning we find her crouched in her bathroom, breathing heavily. The noise of traffic and footsteps of passers-by wakes her up and she starts eating sugar on her mattress. Then there come four days of snow. She stares naked from her glass door to a suburban landscape that is no less boring and insignificant than her room, countless pages still spread on the floor. When it finally stops snowing, she returns to her diet of sugar.

Then suddenly she decides to leave her home. She hitchhikes and is picked up by a truck driver. They stop at a restaurant where they watch a serial on the restaurant's tv set. They don't speak the whole time. She is attracted by the man. They stop again, this time at a bar, where everybody is friendly and talkative, but, again, she doesn't utter a word. Back in the truck, the driver tunes the radio to English-language broadcasts. They stop again at a restaurant, where they drink and smoke without talking. Then suddenly, as they get back in the truck, he starts talking but only to instruct her on how to masturbate him, which she does obediently. After this man-only sex, he starts talking nonstop about his wife and his erotic life (girls he picks up on the road). The camera only shows the man talking, not the woman listening. She still hasn't said a word. From a hotel room we suddenly shift to an elevator. She is visiting a friend, who seems both thrilled and afraid of seeing her. They hug. They stare at each other without speaking. Julie is hungry. The other girl makes her a sandwich, then another one. Then Julie starts unbuttoning her friend's blouse. Her friend shakes her head disapprovingly but then they get into bed. A very long sequence shows the two bodies making love. The following morning Julie gets up and leaves without waking up her friend.

Her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), follows, documentary-style, almost in real time, three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a young widow who lives at 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The film is mostly shot from a low angle with no camera movement. Jeanne's is a life of habits, some absolutely predictable and one highly unusual. Her house is mostly empty of humanity, but is full of colorful furniture, worthy of a Flemish painting. The furniture, the clothes and the woman's composure emanate a sense of tidiness. Superficially, she seems to be the quintessential housewife of the pre-sexual revolution era trapped in a dull domestic routine of cooking and knitting. She creates the perfect order, an order made of habits, tidiness and, above all, silence. The long takes of a camera that rarely moves serve the purpose of maximizing the sense of monotony. At one level, this is an elliptic study of doomed loneliness: what will happen to her when even her sole company, her son, moves out of the house? The camera is often left behind in the room that she just vacated, as if to indicate that the future could be even more harrowing than the present. And the future might already be here: her son is as indifferent to her inner life as her customers.
Akerman's style can be defined neither as "austerity" nor as "estrangement": it is something in between; just like the housewife/prostitute is neither Polansky's Rosemary's Baby nor Bunuel's Belle du Jour.

A middle-aged woman is cooking, alone in her house. An old man comes to visit her. When he leaves, he gives her money. She drops the money into a Chinese pot in the living room. She returns to the kitchen and continues cooking. Then she opens the window of her bedroom. She takes a bath. She sets the dinner table for two in a very tidy room. Her teenage son Sylvain comes home from school. She serves dinner. They start eating without saying a word. After dinner he starts doing his homework but she wants to read him a letter from her sister, his aunt, who lives in Canada. She reads the newspaper while knitting. She is making a sweater for her son. They go for a walk and come back. When he goes to bed, she tells him how she met his father, right after the war in which her parents had died. She wanted a child and she didn't care that the man was ugly. In the morning she walks to the kitchen and makes breakfast for both. Then she wakes him up. After breakfast she gives her son a bit of money and sees him off. Then she makes his bed and then her own bed. Everything is simple but methodic. She is obviously a very tidy person, and very devoted to her son. She puts a coat on, takes some money from the pot, and walks out. She enters a bank, fills a form and deposits the money. Then she takes a pair of her son's shoes that have holes to a cobbler. On the way back home she meets an acquaintance in the street and they exchange a few words. Someone rings the bell and delivers a baby, which she retrieves without any discussion, obviously another job she has. Then she starts cooking again. Someone rings the bell. She returns the baby and chats with the mother. She eats her lunch, then applies lipstick to her lips and combs her hair, then walks out again, this time to buy thread for her knitting. Then she walks into a cafe and has a coffee by herself. Someone rings the bell: a man walks in and they proceed to the bedroom without exchanging a word. Minutes later they walk out, she hands him his coat, he hands her the money, he leaves, she walks to the living room and drops the money in the Chinese pot. (We see the minute details of her life but not a single second of the sex). She opens the window, takes a bath, etc. She cooks, the son comes home, they eat, etc. After dinner she sets out to write a letter to her sister. Before going to sleep, her son tells her of how traumatized he was, at the age of ten, when he was told what sex is, He was terrified at the idea that his father was penetrating his mother, causing her pain. When his father died, Sylvain was actually happy. The following day the routine restarts, with minor variations, except that this time she sits by herself, motionless, in the living room, thinking. The neighbor (presumably another woman who prostitutes herself) brings her baby again. The baby keeps screaming. Jeanne loses her patience. Afterwards she goes out and looks in vain for a button, going from shop to shop. At her favorite cafe another woman is sitting at her usual table, and the usual waitress is not there. Again, Jeanne seems to be lost in her thoughts. Back home she receives another customer. This time we see the entire sex scene. He moves slowly over her. She is initially passive, indifferent, but then she cannot control herself and she has an orgasm. She gets dressed while the man is still lyind on the bed. No words are exchanged. She stares at the framed picture of her and her husband. Then she kills the customer with a pair of scissors. Then she sits at the table in the living room, next to the Chinese pot full of her money. For several minutes we stare at her staring at nothing, as she is perhaps simply revisiting her life. Eventually she bends her head and seems ready to start sobbing. She closes her eyes.

The 90-minute News from Home (1976) is basically a postcard sent by the filmmaker, vacationing in New York, to her mother in Belgium. The camera follows the public life of the city's inhabitants while the protagonist reads the private letters that she is writing to her mother.

Early morning... deserted streets... traffic begins... she starts reading while the camera stops in front of people sitting at the corner of the street... Suddenly it is night and the camera waits on the sidewalk, showing people who casually walk, chat, meet friends. The camera looks inside stores from the glass windows or the doors. Then back to a man sitting on the sidewalk. Then back to the activities of a store. Then it is closing time. The camera moves to the other side of the sidewalk, showing the store beyond the passing cars. It must be a hot summer night because children are playing with the water coming out of a hydrant. Then the camera takes the subway and shows the people in a car, and some of them look back, mildly annoyed. As the camera simply stares without moving, it is impossible not to notice that nobody is talking. A new day, people crossing the street at a busy intersection, she restarts reading her letters. Suddenly it is evening again and the camera is still staring at the same intersection, and she stopped reading. Back into the subway, this time we are facing the rails so that we can see the side of the train covered with graffitis. Morning again, and she's reading again. Children playing baseball in the street, despite all the cars parked on the side of the street. A tenement, an underpass, focused on the people moving towards the camera. Then the camera turns around outside a train station, a rare case when it is not simply still. Then the camera gets into a car and drives around, and then boards a train and shows the urban landscape as the train moves. Then into a boat and shows us the skyscrapers from outside the harbor, until we get the classic postcard image of the Manhattan skyline. And finally the boats moves away, and the skyline gets smaller and smaller in the distance. She stopped reading and we only hear the noise of the water.

The two-hour road movie Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978) follows a female filmmaker throughout Europe.

Nuit et Jour (1991)

Un Divan a New York/ A Couch in New York (1996)

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )