- Femme VeritéThe Films of Chantal Akerman
In Chantal Akerman’s work the element of paradox is everywhere, fractal, supreme. In this she is an artist of her time and place and perhaps most emphatically her gender: Born in Brussels in 1950 to Polish Holocaust survivors, Akerman’s is a life emerged from the death camps. Raised by and among women who appeared to Akerman suffocated in domestic amber, she rallied for her own freedom, deciding as a teenager besotted by Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou to make films. In claiming her freedom, Akerman helped to form a narrative tradition where there had been none. For Akerman the highest expression of that freedom was to explore in her art various contexts of female confinement. And the keenest signifier of Akerman’s pervading sense of rootlessness, of unbelonging—a reaction, perhaps, to the threat of confinement of any kind—would also be her truest anchor in the world: her mother, Natalia.
At twenty-one, Akerman left Belgium for New York City. There she began collecting the footage that would comprise News From Home—scenes of 1970s New York presented in a series of extended, static takes. The images of lone streets, active subway platforms, and storefront windows bristle with longing. Cool-toned and frank, Akerman’s New York is also a sort of dream of suspended animation, where stillness and movement, presence and absence, expectation and reality hang together in a fruitful ambivalence. The ambivalence is ours for being so powerfully and enigmatically hers: Akerman is implied, as few film-makers are, in every frame of her films. The more lonely and anonymous the image, in fact, the larger she looms.
That there is so little useful distinction between Akerman’s features and her so-called documentaries suggests an artist in search of her own tradition, a separate context beset by questions of separation. Akerman narrates News From Home with actual letters from her mother—ordinary, newsy missives couched in ennui and recrimination. The mother of the letters awaits always her daughter’s too-rare and too-brief replies; she alludes to deadly boredom, her suffering an apparent function of the separation at hand. “Try and write,” one letter implores. “It’s all I have left.” The mother dreams of her daughter, as do other family members. She professes support [End Page 203] for the daughter’s adventures but asserts a higher claim with each plaintive word. Akerman’s voice, light and even, is matched and frequently overwhelmed by the sound of New York traffic, New York subways, New York life. Set against the city scenes, the narration soon joins in their rhythm, and from this active, ongoing synthesis derives a sense of lived experience, of consciousness. Subsumed, clarified, and subsumed again, the letters and their murmured claims prevail.
News From Home appeared in the wake of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the 1975 film that established the then-twenty-five-year-old Akerman as one of the era’s major directors. Akerman’s mother, Natalia, saw herself in Jeanne Dielman’s study of a woman bound by domestic ritual, a system within which to manage her larger oppression, and to fend off madness, for a time. On its release, the New York Times called Jeanne Dielman “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.” The 201-minute film was received as a statement of feminist solidarity, the young Akerman’s determined window on a hidden generation of women, their predicament and its consequences. It can also be viewed as a statement of emancipation: Here is life—a specifically female kind of life—as Akerman herself will never, ever live it.
Speaking in I Don’t Belong Anywhere, a documentary profile shot shortly before her 2015 death, Akerman wonders if “throw[ing] Jeanne Dielman in her [mother’s] face was very generous of me,” describing the film as “a kind of mirror that wasn’t necessarily something [women of that generation] appreciated seeing.” In the same documentary, Akerman says it was...