Born in Brussels in 1950, Chantal Akerman is one of the best female directors of all time. She was born to Jewish parents who emigrated from Poland. His maternal grandparents and his mother were deported to Auschwitz. She decides to devote herself to cinema after being struck by the film The Bandit at 11 by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965 and after a course of study at the Brussels Film School in 1971 she moves to the United States, to New York.
Chantal Akerman in the United States
In the United States she made her first short film Saute ma ville, a burlesque-style tragedy made at the age of 18 about a young woman who blows up her oven and ends up destroying the entire city. The film receives critical attention and the appreciation of the Belgian director André Delvaux. Already from this work we understand the interest in a very experimental and innovative cinema, outside the rules and any industrial classification.
Chantal Akerman’s films are totally personal and intimate, a journey into the interior. Films that continually play on the concept of border, continually escape any classification and any genre, mixing very different styles and visual solutions. An interest shown by the beginnings and early years of his cinematographic activity.
A great lover of the Nouvelle Vague and the American avant-garde of directors Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Chantal Akerman creates her own cinema based on personal criteria, where the absence of action, the suspension of movement, the temporal experimentation are mixed to themes that become recurring. Her cinema is autobiographical, at times narcissistic, made up of reflections on religious themes, femininity and memory.
In the United States he made the short filmin 1972 La chambre. In 1973 an incomplete documentary on adolescents living in social centers, Hanging Out Yonkers, shown unfinished to the public in 2007 on the occasion of a full retrospective on the Belgian author at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Chantal Akerman’s First Films
In her first feature film Hotel Monterey, in 1972, she sets an emotional journey through the staging of time and space in a deserted place, without human presence. She makes the film completely on her own, from directing to script and production.
Other closed places return in Je, tu, il, elle, where the protagonist is Chantal Akerman herself in the role of a young voluntarily recluse who abandons her ego, just like her completely empty apartment, to then confront him, a truck driver , and she, a girl with whom he makes love.
The fixed shots and the dilation of time take on dramatic implications in Jean Dielman, 23 – Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels. It is a film made with the contribution of the Ministry of Culture of the French Community of Belgium. In this film he avoids revealing the drama in all its brutality to make it explode slowly before our eyes, following the logic of an unbearable time. Film about 3 days in the life of a young manic-depressive woman who lives alone with her son and prostitutes herself.
The daily gestures of the woman such as peeling potatoes, cleaning, reading a letter, filmed in real time and transformed into forced rituals, are paradoxically loaded with invisible presences, accentuated by the presence of Delphine Seyrig in the part of the protagonist. Distances and action no longer make sense in a hypnotic work like Jean Dielman, received by audiences and critics now in a cold, now lukewarm way, now enthusiastic depending on the perspective of the nationality of the beholder. The content of the film is still the subject of debate for feminist literature today.
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Chantal Akerman’s Other Films
After such a radical work, it is difficult to carry out other projects on an enclosed space. Chantal Akerman makes News from Home, an exploration of mental exile. The director’s voice imposes itself here in the most literal meaning, a single body of the film, now obsessed by the void and fixed plans of a spatially completed New York. Akerman reads her mother’s letters sent during the trip to the United States, up to the final sequence shot announcing the return.
Return to fiction suspended between travel and migration with Anna, the alter ego of Chantal Akerman, a filmmaker who travels between Paris and Brussels and Germany to show her films in Le rendez-vous d’Anna.
Once again the text but above all the increasingly marked presence of the characters’ journey create a particular form of static reflection that channels the emotions of the characters. There loneliness and the destiny of Anna’s self is also the essential component of the characters that intertwine in a loving dance step in which time seems suspended. Dance makes its appearance in the director’s universe in the course of three sequences, unique musical recurrences in a sound and vocal desert.
It then reappears in a documentary dedicated to the choreographer Pina Bausch, Un jour Pina a demandé, but above all in Golden Eighties, a reinterpretation of the musical comedy that still plays on the circuits of love and loneliness. Then return to the theme of his Jewish identity. The rhythm to the choreography, the music and the multiplication of points of view are enhanced in a well-planned realistic style.
Abandoning the dynamism of dance, Chantal Akerman returns to the theatrical value of the image and the word becomes the protagonist of the film Food Family and philosophy, words full of magic that address the theme of Jewish identity, already present in previous works. It is a reflection on his destiny as a family exile, of tradition, of affections, of stories. Chantal Akerman rediscovers the torments of drama in claustrophobic interiors in Nuit et jour, before returning to the theme of the perennial journey in D’est.
Foreshadowed by many previous films, a radical stylistic fracture takes place here: the frontal and prolonged fixed planes are added to endless movements in which the shot always appears as the only present border. The heart of the film is the problem of the shot in which people reveal themselves on the thread of the sequence shots.
Between Film and Modern Art
Escaping once again from the classifications between cinema and other arts, the director inserts D’est into the project of an installation, and proposes an exhibition within an exhibition in a contemporary art gallery from Minneapolis in Paris. Then he devotes himself to the reinterpretation of a genre with A Couch in New York, one comedy that still explores the idea of the border.
He returns with a personal documentary that touches fiction with Sud, an investigation into a racist crime and daily suffering in the South American states. Then he makes an adaptation from Proust with La Captive. Another installation film is De l’Autre coté, the penultimate director of Demain on déménage. Beyond the narrative pretext of illegal Mexican immigration, it is a reflection inherent in the entire work of the author on the idea of the border.