Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery & copyright Chantal Akerman.
“Most of the time when people like a film, they say, ‘I didn’t even feel the time pass.’ I want the film-goer to feel the time pass.”
— Chantal Akerman, who killed herself in Paris October 5, 2015
“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”
— J. Hoberman
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2015 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on the DI/AV on November 6, 2015. Interested in reading more about famous artists who killed themselves? Click here to read our recently updated (and lavishly illustrated) article “L’éclat de Stael — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun”on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction. For more images of Akerman’s work and a review with translated excerpts of Corinne Rondeau’s “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” click here.
PARIS — Exiting an artist’s atelier off the rue de Couronnes while touring the Open Studios of Belleville last Spring, I almost came face to face with three teenaged marines wielding AK47s, guarding a low building on the edge of the hilly Parc Belleville. When I quipped later to a French pal that it was nice to see the government finally doing something to protect artists and told her the location, my friend observed, “That’s around where Chantal Akerman lives.” While it’s not inconceivable that a renowned Jewish film-maker might be considered as needing of protection as Jewish schools (usually unmarked here, as if the spectre of the Deportation still makes French Jews discrete), in the end it might be tempting to conclude that for the Brussels-born film director and installation artist, who killed herself here in Belleville (from where I write you) October 5 at the age of 65, the biggest enemy was herself. But this would be letting off too easy a pop-centered public and media which supports less and less artists who march to their own drummer and who are more interested in giving us awareness than diversion.
Years ago, alarmed that I had used the term ‘slow suicides’ in a story for her Princeton creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, handed me an essay she’d written critiquing suicides, notably Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The suicide, she wrote (employing the term as a noun), can’t actually desire to kill herself, because death is a negative, and one can’t wish for a negative. The death wish is thus a surrogate for another desire, e.g. “I want you to love me,” “I want to hurt you,” “I want you to stop hurting me,” “I want to be recognized.” As if it weren’t enough that the suicide had taken her life, Oates would also deny her the franchise of her choice, simultaneously insulating society from being indicted by her death.
While it’s true that no one can look so deeply into the soul of another as to divine why they decided to hasten their reunion with the Divine, given that Akerman took her life on the same day the French legislature had resumed debating the right to choose to end one’s life, given her proclivity to provoke, and given that by the accounts of her colleagues she seems to have suffered when her films didn’t get enough attention, it seems fair to consider her suicide not just as an act of personal desperation by a perennial ‘manic-depressive’ but as a rebuke. The French media’s very reluctance to address why or how she chose to end her own life (initial reports here referred simply to her sudden death or ‘disparition,’ and even once the suicide was acknowledged, no details were reported and there was no probing of the ‘why,’ normally a fundamental question for any journalist) suggests the troubling questions of culpability her action raises. If anything, the media’s scant coverage of her death — Akerman didn’t even get her 15 minutes — confirms that she didn’t get the attention she deserved, and raises the question of whether things would have been different if she had a penis. During the week of her death that I monitored coverage on the cultural radio programs, the commentators and critics seemed anxious to move on to discussing Woody Allen’s latest remake of the same film he’s been making for the past 30 years and the ‘new’ Warhol exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, while the Cinematheque Francaise could hardly be expected to intrude on its umpteenth homage to a popular American film-maker — in this case Martin Scorcese — with a mini-homage to Akerman. After all, they’d feted her in… 2000, and so a one-off screening of her latest film, “No Home Movie,” November 16 would surely be sufficient. (The Cinematheque Toulouse will do better by her, programming a week-long homage March 2 – 9.)
Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie- Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.
No one has even posed the question of why Akerman might take this drastic action on the eve of an anticipated grand success, in this case the first large-scale English-language exhibition of her installation work, being presented October 30 – December 6 at the Ambika P3 gallery by Ambika P3, a Nos Amours (which organized the complete Akerman retrospective in the UK from 2013 through this year), and the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the opening of “No Home Movie.” She was even scheduled to give a master’s class last week-end.
It seems only fair, then — to Chantal Akerman — to at least try to interpret her suicide, even if we can’t ultimately ‘understand’ it.
The easy answers include that suicide is not uncommon for children of Holocaust survivors (Akerman’s mom, who died in 2014, survived Auschwitz, while her grandparents did not); and that she was headed there anyway, given that her first film, “Saute ma ville,” shot in 1968 when she was 18, ends with the director/star opening the gas valves, putting her head in the oven, and blowing up her whole apartment. French commentators haven’t been shy about pointing to this as an early telegraphing, but having recently seen the film, what I remember most is Akerman’s absolute ebullience. Practically still teen-aged Chantal ecstatically hum-singing (the sole soundtrack), gleefully tossing things out of the cupboard onto the floor and then sweeping them into a corner, boiling spaghetti then rapaciously but matter-of-factly wolfing it down without savoring it, scotch-taping over the crevices of the doors and windows. Her early and greatest triumph (spoiler alert), the 1975 “Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” ends with the heroine, a middle-aged woman (the normally glamorous Delphine Seyrig, uglied-down) who prostitutes herself to pay for her indifferent late teen-aged son’s schooling, stabbing to death a client, but that doesn’t mean Akerman was destined to inflict that fate on, say, an indifferent journalist.
Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.
Broadcast interviews with some of those colleagues closest to her suggest Akerman’s determination to follow her own path — both in the stories of her films and her balancing between categories, whether fiction and documentary, or installation artist and cineaste — didn’t square with her desire to be loved, or at least to have a larger and more appreciative audience.
“I think she had a hard time making films today,” suggested the French film-maker Claire Denis, interviewed on France Culture radio. “Not because she was in bad shape or depressed, but because the cinema no longer offers the means to people like her, and I find that 37 films, it’s not enough. To see a film by Chantal Akerman…. Chantal was a warrior. One day we went to London together, to the British Film Institute, and Chantal said that we needed to reflect together, we had to find a way of financing tunnels to rescue Jews stuck in Russia who can’t go to Israel.”
The director Roman Goupil, who like Akerman gives voice to the voiceless and who assisted her on “Rendez-vous avec Anna,” recalled her clear eyes, her sense of humour, and her virulance: While they were scouting locations in Germany, “She systematically started fights in all the bars and night clubs” they frequented. For Akerman, “All Germans were suspect.” But the key quality — in understanding her suicide — may be what Goupil called her “Exaltedness.” Considering whether “Saute ma ville” was a predictor of her final act, Goupil noted Akerman’s telling him, “It’s not what you think it is. I would have adored Charlot,” putting her heroine more in the line of Chaplin’s tragi-comic tramp, although, Goupil added, “There’s an immense wound behind, and that comes back in permanence in our discussions, of the Holocaust, of the Marxist dogma that she doesn’t understand.” While Denis lamented that her death means “We will get no more films from Chantal,” Goupil consoled her that, “We miss her, but her films are there. ‘Jeanne Dielmann’ is something absolutely magnificent, and which is a benchmark in the cinema.”
Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975, featuring Delphine Seyrig. 35 mm film, 200 min., color, sound. Production: Paradise Films, Bruxelles, Unite trois, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman.
While this piece is not meant to be a recapitulative of her oeuvre, it’s worth pausing on “Jeanne Dielmann…” As too often happens with artists who address the plight of women of all classes, the film is sometimes praised for championing the feminist cause by focusing on a heroine essentially at the mercy of men, supporting her egotistic son by prostituting herself to men who don’t see her as more than a sex object. While this may be true, and laudable, it ignores her larger, filmic achievement. In “Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman tinkered with the mechanism of the medium itself; if film is largely about time, Akerman messed with the timing and managed to give the illusion in 3.5 hours of about 48 hours conveyed in real time. I found a copy not in a European cinematheque but my local library in a Latino neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. When I recommended it to the librarian, a woman of about my and the heroine’s age, I was afraid that if it bored her to death — because of the length and because on the surface, nothing much ‘happens’ until the end — she’d no longer take my suggestions seriously. But she came back to me and stated simply, “It’s about routine, and what happens when you get trapped in it. And the importance of ritual, and what happens when that gets disturbed.” There’s a segment in which Jeanne patiently makes her morning latte — precious because it’s a moment just for her — tastes it, and, scowling, throws the whole thing out and starts over again; the milk has perhaps turned rancid. In the extraordinary ‘making of’ documentary by Sami Frey — he of Akerman idol Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a part” (his “Pierrot le fou” inspired her to make films) — Akerman’s seen making Seyrig repeat the scene again and again until she slows down enough.
During the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the film-maker took questions after a screening of her 1996 “A divan in New York,” shown that night in a rare French dubbed version, but which I’d also seen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives (a prime source for Akerman when she was learning her trade). The story concerns a dour Manhattan psychologist (William Hurt) who exchanges apartments with a carefree Belleville Bohemian (Juliette Binoche, of course). When his clients mistake her for his replacement, she goes with the program, with improved results; he no sooner hits Belleville than the hammering by construction workers starts on his roof. (I can relate.) He heads back early, discovers her masquerade, they quarrel, she returns to Paris, he loosens up and follows her back. I loved the film — I hadn’t yet seen “Jeanne Dielmann” and realized that this was really what she was about — and thought Akerman would be pleased when I told her so. She, it turns out, hated it — no doubt because it was commercial — even complaining about spoiled stars insisting on their limousines. (She didn’t specify which.) In the same festival, when I took a fellow American to see Akerman’s film about racism in the south, my gal pal pointed to one of the white trash male characters and said, “I know that guy,” meaning that this director born in Belgium had succeeded in authentically capturing (without judging) an American archetype.
Reviewing the Ambika P3 exhibition in the November 4 edition of the Guardian, Adrian Sarle writes: “Akerman said she felt that the kind of films that sweep you up and make you forget yourself were robbing you of your time and of life itself. She wants you to feel every passing second. Watch or don’t watch, stay or leave. She makes me feel the world pulse through me, with all its urgency and all its stalled moments.”
I wonder — speculate, really — whether Akerman felt those seconds at an accelerated rate. I wonder if, sitting in her Belleville apartment with the trees just outside the window, she got trapped in her hyper-awareness. I wonder if she ventured out enough to the top of the parc Belleville, from the belvedere of which you can see the sun seting over the Eiffel tower at twilight and the changing colors of the foliage. I wonder if seeing three to five or, at times, even a platoon of marines guarding an unmarked Jewish school (in a neighborhood which used to be dominated by Jews, and is now the most multi-cultural in Paris) made her feel (rightly or wrongly) that after all these years, she was not safe from the anti-Semitism which took most of her family, even in Paris, with its hyper-protection of its Jewish residents. (When I see those guards, while I’m grateful for their service, the perceived threat that their presence represents makes me feel more anxious than assured. And I wonder how it makes those school-children feel about the world that surrounds them. They may not have to wear yellow stars, but do they feel, even if not accurately, just as marked?) I wonder how she felt about the fact that the operators of so many Jewish schools and synagogues still feel, 70 years after the Deportation and Shoah, the need to hide who they are. These are not my sentiments, so I am not projecting here but rather considering Akerman’s strong ties with her Holocaust survivor mother and her strong feelings for Israel. But mostly, I wonder about the responsibility of myself and my cultural gatekeeper colleagues in directing a cultural diet that doesn’t have room for a Chantal Akerman. (And not just in France; in the U.S., following her death, Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Jeanne Dielmann”… at 3h30 in the morning. Who can stay up until 3:30 in the morning to watch a three-and-a-half hour film, unless it’s with the goal of being put to sleep?) And I can’t help concluding that while she was providing us, uniquely, with a reminder of the preciousness of time, we failed to hold her precious.
Chantal Akerman is interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Special thanks to M.E..
Chantal Akerman, “Tombe de nuit sur Shanghai” (Nightfall in Shanghai), 2007-2009. Installation video, color, sound, 14 minutes, in loop, with two Chinese light boxes. Production: LX Filmes / Fundacao Gulbenkian. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman. Photo copyright Marc Domage.