Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen.
I think about Chantal Akerman’s first feature film, Je Tu Il Elle (1975), more often than I can say. More often than I had realised. She filmed time, and her time is utterly absorbing.
Since her unexpected death on October 5th, I’ve been wanting to communicate what Akerman – Belgian filmmaker, installation artist, writer – means to me, to fight for her to be recognised as she deserves. There are almost no words to express her significance, or for the shock of her death, and yet there have been many beautiful and vital tributes written.
Following Akerman’s death, the international film community expressed a deep and extraordinary grief. The director of the New York Film Festival, Kent Jones, programmed a number of her films to screen for free alongside her most recent work, No Home Movie, which is structured around a series of conversations with the artist’s mother. The Criterion Collection’s online streaming site made its database of her features free to view. Remembrances have poured out, along with personal essays tracing her influence on so many artists, filmmakers, and writers. We can only hope this unique, widespread response to Akerman’s death translates to an increase in the availability of her work, and to her name being more widely known, as it ought to be.
I was introduced to Je Tu Il Elle and to Akerman in my first year of university, when we were shown clips of Delphine Seyrig peeling potatoes, and of Akerman herself, alone, mesmerically eating from a paper bag of caster sugar for minutes on end. To my peers and me, these were iconic scenes, a portal into a different kind of cinema where time and narrative had new meaning. I’m sure those who witnessed these moments in the 1970s encountered this same portal, when Je Tu Il Elle was followed by Akerman’s most noted masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Now, I show these scenes to my own students as essential stepping stones to understanding what cinema can be: anything.
There is a wonderful book about Akerman’s work by Ivone Margulies, titled Nothing Happens. The book’s titular truth is one of the most celebrated aspects of her oeuvre. She made it acceptable for protagonists to be still, to lack motivation, to spend time doing nothing. She dwelled on banality, on routine, on patience, on existence as minimalism. Her dedication to static verisimilitude, to the ways reality can become cinema, is what pushed the boundaries – but it’s not that simple. She was inspired by the nouvelle vague, but she experimented and pushed beyond it because she knew that the cinema deserved more. She resituated the camera’s gaze and worked through other genres with the dynamic force of a master filmmaker.
In her first short film, Saute ma ville (1968), an eighteen-year-old Akerman cooks and cleans in her walk-up apartment, a prosaic yet irresistible debut. Her more than forty subsequent works include I’m Hungry, I’m Cold (1984), about two young women and their frenetic efforts for food and shelter; Golden Eighties (1986), a musical filmed in a hair salon inside a Parisian shopping mall; and the playful A Couch in New York (1996), something like an absurd romantic comedy. She filmed adaptations of Marcel Proust’s The Captive (2000) and Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly (2011), creating distinctive pieces of art while honouring the work of the original authors.
Both her fictional and essay films have autobiographical origins, whether starring Akerman herself, her stand-ins, or otherwise coming from a direction of exploration, of fascination with the world, with the spaces people occupy. She put herself into her cinema, uncompromisingly, lacing her histories and her memories in its very grain. She put her own body on the screen, as some filmmakers had done before her and many have since, but she went further, as a naked and powerful and brutally honest body. So many of us – women and artists, yes, but her reach is not confined to these groups – owe Akerman a debt. She created a space for herself where there was none, and she created spaces for the future where bodies and rituals and prejudices could be explored and challenged.
Like many others, I ‘never imagined a world where she wouldn’t be making films’. She was refreshingly candid (she would sometimes film in her pyjamas), and a true titan of our culture. Hers is a devastating loss to reckon with. But at least we have her films. Perhaps, like News From Home (1976), all of Akerman’s films were letters in cinematic form, where a simple letter wouldn’t suffice. All we can do now is keep writing back to her.