Chantal Akerman, the Cinema of Interiority

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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

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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.

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Hotel Monterey (1972)

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. 

“Hotel Monterey” is an experimental cinematic work created by Chantal Akerman in 1972. This film represents a significant milestone in the career of the Belgian director and offers a profound exploration of space, time, and the human experience through a unique visual approach.

“Hotel Monterey” is a visual meditation on an abandoned and surreal space: the Hotel Monterey, located in the heart of New York City. Chantal Akerman captures the essence of this place through a series of static and prolonged shots. The footage explores empty rooms, long hallways, silent corridors, and desolate elevators of the hotel. The director focuses on the stillness of these spaces, allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in their decaying atmosphere.

One of the distinctive features of the film is its use of time. Akerman challenges the traditional notion of editing by speeding up or slowing down the pace of static images, creating a unique temporal experience. This manipulation of time and space invites the viewer to reflect on the human perception of the surrounding environment.

Despite the apparent lack of narrative or central characters, “Hotel Monterey” evokes a sense of loneliness and isolation. The shots of empty rooms and silent hallways reveal human presence only through indirect visual clues: an abandoned suitcase, a partially open window, or a half-closed door. These details evoke a sense of absent presence, a kind of ghostly presence in the hotel.

The soundtrack is absent, allowing environmental sounds to emerge, such as the hum of pipes, the whir of elevators, and distant footsteps. This silence contributes to the surreal and contemplative atmosphere of the film.

In conclusion, “Hotel Monterey” is an experimental cinematic work that challenges traditional narrative conventions, focusing instead on the sensory experience and the relationship between space and time. It is an immersion into the stillness and abandonment of an urban place, offering a deep and contemplative look at the ever-changing nature of our perception of the world.

Je, tu, il, elle (1974)

“Je, tu, il, elle” is a profound reflection on isolation and alienation. The film follows a young woman, portrayed by Chantal Akerman herself, as she embarks on an emotional and physical journey through her everyday experiences. The narrative is minimalist and abstract, and the director uses prolonged shots to capture the details of the protagonist’s daily actions.

The first part of the film explores the solitude of the protagonist in her room, where she performs simple yet meaningful gestures. She then takes a road trip across France, during which she has chance encounters and shares moments of intimacy with others. The narrative is underscored by a voice-over that reflects on the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist.

“Je, tu, il, elle” challenges traditional narrative conventions, emphasizing an intimate and contemplative gaze into the inner life of the main character. The film offers a deep and experimental exploration of solitude, desire, and the search for meaning in everyday life.

Jean Dielman (1975)

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. 

News from Home (1977)

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. 

“News from Home” is an experimental cinematic work that combines images and sounds in a highly contemplative manner. The film presents a series of static shots of New York City, capturing everyday scenes of urban life such as people walking the streets, passing subway trains, and glimpses of the city.

What makes the film unique is the presence of a soundtrack primarily composed of readings of letters written by Chantal Akerman’s mother, narrated in voice-over. These letters, sent by Akerman’s mother from Brussels, express concern, love, and the nostalgia of distance. The mother’s words provide an emotional counterpoint to the city’s images, creating a complex dialogue between the filmmaker and her family.

The combination of static urban images and the loving voice of the mother offers a unique glimpse into the filmmaker’s life and her experience as a Belgian immigrant in New York City. The film explores the sense of belonging, geographical distance, and the importance of family connections.

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Le rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)

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.

Un jour Pina m’a demandé (1983)

“Un jour Pina m’a demandé” is a documentary directed by Chantal Akerman in 1983. This film offers an intimate and affectionate look at the renowned choreographer Pina Bausch and her innovative work in the field of contemporary dance.

“Un jour Pina m’a demandé” is an affectionate tribute to Pina Bausch, one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century. The documentary takes us into the creative world of Pina Bausch and provides a unique perspective on her artistic vision.

The film features interviews with Pina Bausch herself, along with extraordinary dance sequences from her spectacular productions. Viewers can observe Pina’s creative process, her working methods, and the sources of inspiration behind her groundbreaking choreographies.

“Un jour Pina m’a demandé” captures the energy and innovation of the choreographer through intelligent cinematography. The dance sequences are filmed with a focus on choreography and the performance of the dancers, offering a captivating glimpse into the beauty and intensity of her work.

The film is not only a portrait of Pina Bausch as an artist but also a tribute to her ability to transform dance into a powerful and provocative means of expression. It is an opportunity to get closer to an iconic figure in the world of dance and to appreciate her extraordinary artistic legacy.

Histoires d’Amérique (1989)

Abandoning the dynamism of dance, Chantal Akerman returns to the theatrical value of the image and the word becomes the protagonist of the film Histoires d’Amérique (1989), 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.

“Histoires d’Amérique” is a documentary that explores the stories of Jews who emigrated to the United States during the 20th century. The film features a series of interviews with men and women from different generations who share their personal and family experiences related to immigration and adaptation to life in America.

Through these testimonies, the film traces an intimate narrative of the Jewish diaspora, from European roots to the new challenges and opportunities that immigrants faced in America. The stories range from the hardships of arrival and adaptation in a new country to the preservation of Jewish culture and aspirations for success.

Chantal Akerman, with her attentive and respectful direction, provides a space for reflection on the meaning of identity and memory in the Jewish diaspora. The film celebrates the diversity of experiences and perspectives within the American Jewish community.

“Histoires d’Amérique” is a cinematic work that sheds significant light on the history and culture of Jews in the United States, offering an opportunity to appreciate the richness of their individual stories.

Nuit et jour (1991)

“Nuit et jour” is a film directed by Chantal Akerman in 1991. This cinematic work explores the intricate dynamics of human relationships through an intense and engaging narrative.

“Nuit et jour” is a cinematic work that explores the complex love relationships of Julie, portrayed by Juliette Binoche, a young Parisian woman leading a life of apparent abundance. Julie is married to a successful man and seems to have everything one could desire. However, behind this façade of happiness, lie unexpressed desires and profound dissatisfaction.

The film follows Julie as she embarks on a series of romantic adventures and grapples with the complexity of human relationships. Through chance encounters and passionate affairs, Julie seeks to fill the emotional void she feels in her life. Throughout the film, themes of desire, betrayal, and the search for meaning emerge.

Chantal Akerman provides an intense narrative and a realistic portrayal of human emotions. The film captures moments of intimacy and vulnerability in the characters, offering a sincere look at the challenges of modern relationships.

“Nuit et jour” is a cinematic work that invites the viewer to reflect on the complexities of human relationships and the choices people make in pursuing their desires and happiness.

D’est (1993)

“D’est” is a documentary film directed by Chantal Akerman in 1993. This cinematic work provides a unique look at daily life in some regions of the former Soviet Union shortly after the collapse of communism.

“D’est” is an extraordinary documentary that captures daily life in some regions of the former Soviet Union shortly after the collapse of communism. Chantal Akerman, the director, travels through this vast land, capturing images of people, places, and moments of historical transition.

The film does not offer a traditional narrative or structured dialogue; instead, it relies on visual and auditory images to convey the atmosphere of these places. Akerman’s cameras record the struggles of people as they try to adapt to a new world undergoing rapid change. Faces, gestures, landscapes, and buildings are seen, all with a deep attention to detail.

“D’est” provides an honest and raw look at life in these regions, highlighting the challenges and hopes of those trying to survive in a context of tumultuous political and economic change. The director captures the essence of the post-communist transition through a contemplative and observational perspective.

Chantal Akerman’s film is a work that challenges the conventions of traditional documentary and invites the viewer to reflect on the meaning of freedom, loss, and resilience in a time of profound historical change.

A Couch in New York (1996)

“A Couch in New York” is a film directed by Chantal Akerman in 1996. This is an example of her work that explores the complex dynamics of human relationships, often with a touch of romantic comedy.

“A Couch in New York” is a romantic comedy that follows the intertwined lives of two characters, Henry, portrayed by William Hurt, and Béatrice, portrayed by Juliette Binoche. Henry is a New York therapist who decides to temporarily exchange his hectic life with that of Béatrice, a young Parisian woman in need of a break from her busy existence.

As Henry finds himself in Béatrice’s small Parisian apartment, and she settles into his New York apartment, both begin to explore each other’s lives. This cultural exchange leads to comedic and romantic situations as the two try to adapt to the different atmospheres of the two cities and gain a better understanding of themselves and their relationships.

The film offers a reflection on the cultural differences between Paris and New York and the different perspectives on life and love. It’s a story of personal discovery and how encountering the other can lead to a greater understanding of oneself.

Chantal Akerman infuses her unique style into this romantic comedy, adding depth and nuances to the character dynamics. “A Couch in New York” is a lighthearted yet touching work that explores the universal theme of love and the pursuit of happiness.

Sud (1999)

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.

The film, which had its premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the International Confederation of Art Cinemas Award, was later released on DVD in 2016 as part of a box set that also included “D’Est” (1993), “De l’autre côté” (2002), and “Down There” (2006). “Sud” delves into the profound impact of the tragic dragging death of James Byrd Jr. on the residents of Jasper, Texas.

This powerful documentary was financed by Institut national de l’audiovisuel, La Sept-Arte, RTBF, and the Ministry of Transport and Communications’s Yle. It was produced by Iikka Vehkalahti and edited by Claire Atherton. The film not only premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival but also made appearances at various international film festivals, including the 2000 Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the 2000 International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 2000 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the 2001 Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Festival (where it received the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Award – Special Mention), the 2006 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, the 2011 Vienna International Film Festival, and the 2018 Jerusalem Film Festival.

Tomorrow We Move (2004)

“Tomorrow We Move” is a film directed by Chantal Akerman in 2004. This film explores themes of family, relationships, and moving through a lens of comedy and drama.

“Tomorrow We Move” follows the story of a mother, portrayed by Sylvie Testud, and her daughter, portrayed by Aurore Clément, who live under the same roof but lead very different lives. The mother is a successful writer, while the daughter is a talented musician. Despite their differences, their relationship is complicated and marked by tensions.

When they decide to move to a new house, family dynamics intensify. The film explores the challenges and emotions associated with change, adapting to new environments, and complex family dynamics. As they try to organize the move, secrets, conflicts, and moments of intimacy between mother and daughter come to the surface.

Chantal Akerman provides engaging storytelling that blends elements of comedy and drama to explore family dynamics and the challenges of everyday life. “Tomorrow We Move” is a work that reflects on family relationships, personal aspirations, and the importance of communication within the family.

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