Akerman: The Integrity of Exile and the Everyday
Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man [sic].
– Flannery O’Connor
If I have a reputation for being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it. In general people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday.
– Chantal Akerman
A yearning for the ordinary as well as the everyday runs through Chantal Akerman’s work like a recurring, plaintive refrain. It is a longing that takes many forms: part of it is simply her ambition to make a commercially successful movie; another part is the desire of a self-destructive, somewhat regressive neurotic – Akerman herself in Saute ma ville (1968), La chambre (1972), je tu il elle (1974) and L’homme à la valise (1983); Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Aurore Clément in Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978); Circé Lethem in Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (1994) – to go legit and be like ‘normal’ people. je tu il elle and Les rendez-vous d’Anna both feature a bisexual heroine who wants to either resolve an unhappy relationship with another woman or to go straight; in Saute ma ville, je tu il elle, Jeanne Dielman and L’homme à la valise, the desire to be ‘normal’ is largely reflected in the efforts of the heroine simply to inhabit a domestic space. (This can occasionally develop certain farcical aspects, such as Akerman covering her ankles as well as her shoes with shoe polish in Saute ma ville, or in practically all of her J’ai faim, j’ai froid, the opening sketch of Paris vu par… vingt ans après (1984) – an entire coming-of-age film compressed into a dozen frenetic, hilarious and ultimately touching minutes.)
This desire for normalcy accounts for much of the difficulty of assimilating Akerman’s work to any political program, feminist or otherwise. As an account of domestic oppression and repression, Jeanne Dielman largely escapes these strictures, and Akerman herself has admitted that this film can be regarded as feminist. But she also once refused to allow je tu il elle to be shown in a gay and lesbian film festival and, more generally, has often denied that she considers herself a feminist filmmaker, despite the efforts of certain feminist film critics to claim her as one.
hand, her films are extremely varied. Some are in
On the other hand, paradoxically, there are few important contemporary filmmakers whose range is as ruthlessly narrow as Akerman’s, formally and emotionally. Most of her films, regardless of genre, come across as melancholy, narcissistic meditations charged with feelings of loneliness and anxiety; and nearly all of them have the same hard-edged painterly presence and monumentality, the same precise sense of framing, locations and empty space.
More generally, if I had to try to summarise the cinema of Chantal Akerman, thematically and formally, in a single phrase, ‘the discomfort of bodies in rooms’ would probably be my first choice. And ‘the discomfort of bodies inside shots’ might be the second.
It’s treacherous, of course, to attempt to squeeze an oeuvre as complex and as varied as Akerman’s into anything as formulaic as either of those phrases, and one would have to regard some of their applications rather freely. In the case of D’est (1993), for example, which is most likely her greatest documentary, ‘rooms’ would have to include such wide-open spaces as a crowded railroad station where sleeping bodies are crowded together like so many dropped handkerchiefs and a no less populated and urban bus stop in Moscow where a blanket of snow is falling, Similarly ‘open’ public spaces dominate her equally melancholic, New York-based News from Home (1977) and Histoires d’Amérique. Toute une nuit, an insomniac’s movie about insomniacs, ends with a sequence in which a couple’s lovemaking is gradually smothered, and all but obliterated from our consciousness, by the hectoring sounds of early-morning traffic outside – a kind of dialectical war between interior and exterior. The tortured aggressiveness of such a moment is part of what Akerman’s filmmaking is about – cold, elegantly symmetrical compositions and brutal sounds being hammered into our skulls with an obstinate will to power that sometimes makes Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood seem like frolicking pussycats in comparison.
Yet it’s hard to be too
conclusive about this impression of aggressiveness. By way of contrast, Nuit et jour (1991) reverses the mood of Toute une nuit and initially presents
insomnia as a kind of precondition for the utopian romance of Julie and Jack,
an infatuated young couple from the provinces who’ve recently come to Paris and
live in a small flat near Boulevard Sebastopol – a sentiment expressed at the
very outset of the film as they lie together in bed: ‘Are you sleeping?’ ‘No.
Are you?’ ‘No.’ ‘You and I never sleep.’ ‘Never when we are together.’ ‘We like
movement better.’ ‘Yes, it’s true.’ ‘When I sleep, I don’t live.’ ‘Neither do
And in the case of Jeanne Dielman, which is almost certainly Akerman’s greatest fiction film, one would have to admit that the discomfort of the title heroine (Seyrig) in the rooms of her own flat only begins in earnest during the latter portion of this 201-minute feature, when her routinised life slowly starts to become unraveled. Prior to that, however, one could argue that Jeanne’s ‘comfort’ is strictly a matter of her keeping an encroaching sense of panic at bay through her compulsive routines – a feeling of panic that eventually overtakes and engulfs her.
There are of course many other exceptions or variations to my formula that could be found in Akerman’s work: ‘rooms’ may not adequately cover the shopping-mall setting of her musical Golden Eighties (1986) and, for that matter, ‘discomfort’ may be imprecise regarding Les années 80 (1983), its documentary prequel. The shopping mall in Golden Eighties, for instance, sets up an interesting ambiguity about whether one is inside or outside – until the shock of the ending, when the film finally moves out into the open air. The frightening entrapments of La captive (2000), loosely derived from Proust’s La prisonnière and Albertine disparue (as well as evoking, more indirectly, Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne  through its contemporary setting that evokes the past, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo  through its hypnotic, obsessional intensity), may have more to do with brains and feelings than with rooms.
possible that some of the discomforts found in Nuit et jour, A Couch in New
York (1996) and Demain
on déménage (2004) may be more a matter of real estate than of rooms per
se. Toward the end of Nuit et jour,
Julie (Guilaine Londez) and Jack (Thomas Langmann) decide to knock out a wall
in their flat, largely as a means of rejuvenating their own relationship, and
the physical change in their apartment leads to them to decide to throw a party
and join a larger world. A Couch in New York develops its initial premises by crosscutting
between dissimilar flats in
More generally, any close consideration of Akerman’s early films over the first decade of her career – Saute ma ville in Brussels, La chambre and Hotel Monterey in New York, and then, back in Europe, je tu il elle, Les rendez-vous d’Anna and News from Home (which combines images from New York with letters sent from Brussels) – has to acknowledge that the discomfort of bodies in rooms, including Akerman’s own body in the first, second and fourth (and, more implicitly, in the sixth) of these, is a virtual constant. ‘I want people to lose themselves in the frame and at the same time to be truly confronting the space,’ Akerman once said of Hotel Monterey (as recalled by Michael Koresky, on the DVD of that film released on Criterion’s Eclipse label), (1) which implies that the discomfort of spectators – by which I refer to both their placements and their displacements – is as pertinent as the discomfort of the on-screen bodies.
Like Akerman, whose middle name is Anne, Anna Silver (Clément) in Les rendez-vous d’Anna is a Belgian Jewish filmmaker; and like Akerman when she made the film, she’s in her late twenties and currently lives in Paris. The film covers a three-day trip she takes by train back to Paris from Cologne, where she introduces a film (an event that we don’t see) and picks up Heinrich (Helmut Griem), a schoolteacher whom she later kicks out of her hotel bed.
|1. Michael Koresky, ‘Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies’.|
On her arrival at the
The next night, arriving in Paris, she’s picked up by her regular boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who takes her to still another hotel. Finding him feverish, she takes a cab to a late-night pharmacie to buy him some medicine. Finally returning home – it’s still dark – Anna plays back the recorded phone messages that have come during her absence.
As a plot, this is obviously quite minimal. Each of the ‘encounters’ described above consists mostly of a monologue – by Heinrich, Ida, the German on the train, Anna herself (to her mother), her French lover, Anna again (when she sings him a song), and the voices on her recording machine (one of which, incidentally, is Akerman’s). In keeping with Akerman’s usual respect for real time, large chunks of this mainly unacted material are simply set down like slabs in front of the viewer without the usual punctuation of camera movements, fades or dissolves. In a manner recalling Bresson, Antonioni and Straub-Huillet, the locations where these monologues are placed seem featured, lingered over – persisting before, during, after, and even in between the words that are spoken there, constantly threatening to swallow them up.
René Magritte’s painting Man With Newspaper (1927-8) tells me something about the customary disquiet of Akerman’s world. In it, four panels, two on top and two on the bottom, show the same corner of a sitting room, with one difference: in the first panel a man is seated at the table by the window reading a newspaper, and in the other three panels, neither the man nor the newspaper is in evidence. A narrative is implied between the first and second panel – the disappearance of the man and newspaper – without being confirmed, and we’re left with the eerie fact of three identical ‘empty’ rooms. Similarly, many of Akerman’s settings suggest absence even more than presence.
Akerman has described her first film, Saute ma ville, made when she was only 18, as her attempt to do something Chaplinesque. I strongly suspect that she was thinking about Chaplin’s fourth comedy short made at Mutual, his justly celebrated One A.M. (1916), where, apart from a cab driver glimpsed briefly at the very beginning, Chaplin is the only actor in sight, his character arriving at his own home and proceeding to interact catastrophically with the various props he encounters as he tries to get upstairs and go to bed.
Chaplin’s narrative pretext for all the comic chaos engendered is his character’s extreme drunkenness. Akerman – whom we hear manically and wordlessly singing offscreen from the very outset, and is also the only character we see, arriving home and in her case restricting her activities there to a kitchen – provides no narrative context of any kind beyond a certain punklike rebellion against the various domestic rituals that she performs or pretends to perform. These are the same sort of rituals, such as cooking, eating, cleaning up, and polishing shoes that, seven years later, Jeanne Dielman will compulsively embrace, although in this case Akerman’s own frenzied and parodic enactments eventually culminate in a series of offscreen explosions from a gas stove that fulfill the film’s apocalyptic title. (The ‘cleaning up’ that she performs earlier is in such a destructive manner that it recalls the final sequence in Vera Chytilova’s radical Czech farce Daisies, released two years earlier in 1966, when the two teenage heroines pretend to ‘clean up’ after their protracted and extravagant food orgy inside a banquet room.)
The two major films of Akerman that follow, both
silent, the 65-minute Hotel Monterey and
The main point to be stressed here is that because she is both Belgian and Jewish, Akerman has a stance that is essentially that of an outsider in an international context. If one combines this stance with her preoccupation with normality and the everyday, one is reminded of what the English writer and broadcaster George Melly once said about Magritte: ‘He is a secret agent, his object is to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving like everybody else.’ (2)
While it is possible to link her work to that of a few other, much lesser known Belgian independents – such as Samy Szlingerbaum, with whom she collaborated on one of her earliest films, the hardly ever shown Le 15/8(1973) – and to see connections with a few Belgian painters (not only Magritte, but also Paul Delvaux, whose surrealist night scenes bear an eerie resemblance to some of her shots – although she once told me that she thought his lighting was ‘much better’ than hers), it is probably even more pertinent to note the degree to which exile is a recurring theme in her work. Major examples would include News from Home, Les rendez-vous d’Anna, Toute une nuit, L’homme à la valise, Golden Eighties, Histoires d’Amérique, D’est, A Couch in New York, and De l’autre côté.
2. Quoted in James Thrall Soby, René Magritte (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965), p. 7.
The latter of these films is worth considering in some detail, both for its personal significance and for the way it can be seen as the concluding part of a documentary trilogy preceded by D’est and the 1999 Sud. D’est, which travels from East Germany to Moscow soon after the collapse of communism, contains no interviews, and might be said to trace some of Akerman’s own personal family roots at the very moment when many of the people she’s filming are being uprooted, both physically and emotionally. Sud, perhaps the weakest of her documentaries, contains several interviews, though it elides her questions; it focuses on the town of Jasper, Texas, shortly after the brutal and racist murder there of James Boyd Jr. Here she’s basically a sympathetic tourist bearing mute witness to a hate crime – appalled by what she hears and imagines, but not bringing any fresh insights to her subject.
In De l’autre côté we hear Akerman interviewing Mexicans in Spanish and Americans in English. This time it’s evident that her interest in her subject goes well beyond sympathetic tourism. The final sequence, shot from the front of a car traveling down a freeway at night, features her own beautiful and moving monologue, spoken in French, in which she speculates about the fate of an interviewee’s mother, who disappeared after crossing the border into the U.S. We never see this woman, and she isn’t mentioned before this monologue, so we wind up imagining her as we would a character in a short story. Akerman traces some of her jobs and finds oblique references to her in the stray comments of other people, following the woman’s elusive trajectory as if she were a ghost fading into the anonymity of the hypnotic superhighway. This character’s fugitive and semifictional existence, which flits in and out of our consciousness before vanishing, provides a heartbreaking summation of all the hard facts about her and other Mexican migrants we’ve been absorbing over the previous 90 minutes. This is sensitive portraiture and investigative journalism, maintaining a respectful, inquisitive distance from its subjects that recalls some of Walker Evans’s photographs of Alabama sharecroppers in his 1941 book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In a way, Akerman’s powerful monologue serves as a kind of counterpart to Agee’s impassioned and empathetic prose.
She begins the film by interviewing a 21-year-old Mexican on the Mexican side of the border about his older brother; he tried to cross to the U.S. with a group, and all of them eventually perished in the desert. Next she focuses on portions of the border itself – a wide, dusty road, a field where three kids play baseball, and another road flanked by a high wall. Then she interviews Delfina, a woman in her late 70s, about her family, including the son and grandson she lost when they tried to cross the border. Her husband less stoically bemoans their loss. Akerman then turns back to the various landscapes along the border. Only much later in the film does she finally get around to people and places on the American side – spending time in a restaurant, then talking to a rancher and his wife, who express fears about Mexicans ‘taking over and doing a lot of damage’ by, for instance, carrying diseases. We hear Akerman ask them if September 11 has changed things. The wife says, ‘It makes us realise life is short.’ Her husband responds by saying he considers anyone who comes onto his property a trespasser, and the warning sign doesn’t have to be in Spanish either. ‘This is America,’ he concludes.
The cumulative impact of the eventless shots of the border wall that appear periodically over the course of the film is striking. In themselves the shots are fairly nondescript and uninteresting, but the more we accept the wall as part of the everyday surroundings, the more disquieting and menacing it becomes. This is especially true after we see lights on it at night and helicopters with searchlights moving along it, giving the settings some of the ambience of a lunar landscape. And we can’t shake that impression when we see illegal aliens being tracked from the vantage point of a plane in the daytime. The wall that appeared to be a neutral dividing line at the beginning of the film seems more and more like a scar once we see the kinds of pain and anguish it causes. And as Akerman’s title suggests, which side of the border we’re viewing it from can make all the difference. Being outside and being displaced remain not only constants in her work, along with an absorption in the everyday; they become defining values.
Originally published in Retrospektive Chantal Akerman, a publication of the Viennale/Austrian Filmmuseum, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
from Issue 2: Devils
© Jonathan Rosenbaum 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.