She tells a lot of stories and not all true but there
are some that are true and usually these are sad stories, not funny ones. She
tells the funny ones when we're all together and they come to her and they're
not always true either but sometimes they are.
A Prologue (which is also an Epilogue)
It was one of those days
when I wondered what the number of my house was again.
It was 23, wasn’t it?
It might seem like a
funny question, I mean, why wouldn’t you know what number your house is? Every
day, you stick your key in the lock, open the door and your life can begin.
Routine gives a sense of security. Some people even say the muscles in your
body have a sort of memory; every time you turn that key, your hand
automatically moves anticlockwise to unlock the door. You don’t need to think
about it. Problems only start when something happens to disrupt this automatic
The potatoes boil dry.
You have an orgasm. The post office is closed. Those kinds of things.
Funny question or not,
there are just days when you wonder about stuff like that. Why should you know
your own house number? I mean, you know where your house is, don’t you? You
know how to get home, without having to know the name of the street and the
number of the house, right?
Anyway. It’s 23. I live
at number 23. I realised this, as if for the first time. It was both reassuring
– I have a house number, 23, so I must have a house, I am someone who has a
house, I am someone, I am – and slightly disconcerting. Does having a house also mean you have a home? Do you then suddenly belong
And furthermore. I was
standing in front of number
The film can start at any
So there I was. In
Brussels. At the end of a
long journey through the work of the cineaste Chantal Anne Akerman, born to
Polish Jewish parents on 6 June
A journey guided by two
signposts. The milestones in Akerman’s work. One says: ‘You are fundamentally
rootless.’ The other: ‘What does it mean to be a woman?’
I stood there feeling
somewhat ridiculous. How many people would call a telephone number from a film
in the hope of getting to talk to the protagonist? Or wear a yellow raincoat in
order to dance as well as Gene Kelly? That wasn’t it. I can dance in the rain
like that without the yellow raincoat. Nor was it a pilgrimage to walk in the
footsteps of actress Delphine Seyrig, who plays Jeanne Dielman; nor even to
retrace the steps of Akerman herself. But, as I was standing there, I realised
that, in a way, it was. I was
standing on the paving stones over which they had walked; even if they weren’t
the very same ones. They were still
the same footsteps. The footsteps of real people. And of fictional ones. And of
others yet, who may just be a bit of both. Real and fictional.
It was a primary impulse,
to be physically close to the space that remains, between film and reality;
because there, in that no man’s land between fact and fiction, between one
reality and another, one flickering beam of light and another, lies the truth
that only film can illuminate. More concrete grounds for identification are
Akerman’s films, there is an essential moment of receptiveness, somewhere
between the being and non-being of her images. I could equally have gone to
Hell’s Kitchen, the backdrop to News from
Home (1976), or Hotel Monterey (1972) – if it were still there. But
She herself summed up her
main themes in the self-portrait Chantal
Akerman par Chantal Akerman (1997): ‘Language, documentary, fiction,
Jewishness and the Second Commandment’. That last named item is the key to
everything. In an interview with Jean-Luc Godard in Ça cinéma in 1979 (she summarily decided to become a filmmaker
after seeing Godard's film Pierrot le fou from 1965), she explains how creating images always has something to do with
idolatry. This is the reason she makes cinema that is as ‘distilled’ as
possible. She also returns to this idea in Lettre
d’une cinéaste (1984), and in the multimedia installation Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’est
(1993-1995), which she created from her film D’est.
prohibiting idolatry (the creation of false images) inherently leads to
questions about the legitimacy and the value of representation as it has been
passed down to us throughout film history. This commandment naturally begs the
question (or perhaps is preceded by the question) of whether it is possible at
all to depict something, or to imagine it. A question of existential
significance to cinema itself, and one that is occupying filmmakers now more
than ever before.
Akerman’s search for
images that represent nothing, and mean nothing else (except perhaps themselves
– and even this is difficult enough) while she focuses her camera on observing
the minutiae of women’s lives, is expressed in the first instance by her style:
distant, clean, sober, looking at the image outside of the image. Rootless,
detached images. Images in the Diaspora. Is it possible to return home, to
where the image can exist, outside of the commandment? Is such an image even
rootlessness goes further than style, or the momentum within film history that
linked this style to feminist film theory. It comes from Akerman’s biography,
as a child of Holocaust survivors; or from even further back, in the legend of
the wandering Jew.
In the ‘ego document’ Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, the
filmmaker suggests that she is not the right person to talk about what her
films are about, as that is what her films are about. The person best qualified
to talk about this is the Other.
This is, of course,
reminiscent of the ideas of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in which the
transcendental is revealed in our meeting with the Other, ‘in all his
otherness’. In the case of Akerman, the viewer – the one who looks – is this
unknowable, unannexable Other; like her characters, who – for her and for us –
are also viewers. And because her cinema is not a cinema of seduction (in the
traditional, Hollywood sense), nor a cinema of objectification, appropriation
and subjection, there is no idolatry.
When she started making
films, in the 1960s and ‘70s, this discussion took place principally within the
feminist discourse, and although this frame of reference is still relevant to
the understanding and appreciation of her work (and perhaps precisely still
relevant now), I do not consider this to be an essential framework.
If we take the moment in
film history where we currently are as the starting point for the perception of
her work, this Diasporic, scattered image gains even more urgency. In a
dominant image culture in which images are constantly being stretched into ever
greater metaphors and language is being eroded, it is important to see past the
image as sign with another meaning. If – as with Akerman – there is no
representation, no subjection of the viewer to the dominance of the image, then
there is also no hierarchical division between auteur and character, or between
character and viewer.
Then, there is only a
Or maybe not even that.
Only an experience.
So there I stood.
4.22 Light Years from Hoge Minstraat 5a,
Do you remember how, when
we were small, we always used to send letters to one another? From Judith to
Judith. O. would sit between us on the back seat – she was too young to
write, but was really good at playing Post Office, and she gave us envelopes
she had folded herself, with stamps and franking marks she had drawn herself.
Three sisters travelling through
You have now played them
I don’t know any more
exactly what I wrote about – the Judith I dreamed up for myself. You wrote
about Judith the actress and I think I wrote about Judith who was writing.
Which is why, I think, I didn’t really mind giving up my name. I was more than
happy with my little footnotes in the book of days.
The best thing was always
to really post a letter, somewhere in
and then find it waiting for us, many weeks later at home.
Everything went back to
normal. In the morning we went to school and in the afternoon we returned to
our bohemian enclave in an orderly rural street, where our housewife neighbours
left and right scrubbed the pavement in front of their houses every day with
befuddling, foul-smelling bleach, thereby reducing their world to those few
clinically sterile square metres before their front doors.
They could have been
called Jeanne Dielman, if we had known who Jeanne Dielman was – Jeanne Dielman
who, at that very moment in Brussels was putting the potatoes on to boil,
opening the door for her four o’clock client, until right there behind her
closed bedroom door something happened that turned everything upside down. They
were not our role models, because we had mothers and grandmothers and
great-grandmothers who knew their own minds and went to work and travelled the
Which is why it took a
very long time for us to really see them. Although it could, of course, also be
because their cleaning products stupefied us.
Then, one afternoon, a
letter from the future dropped into our letter box.
Jeanne Dielman also
receives letters from afar; from her sister Fernande, who lives in
Canada, where she carries out the same endless
repetitive housewifely tasks as Jeanne in
cleaning, polishing shoes, going for a stroll after dinner. Neurotic rituals
meant to hold the discomforts of the world at bay. To not feel the rushing of the
blood, that pounds, boils and seethes.
Letters play an important
role in all of Akerman’s early films. Letters from home. Letters to home.
Letters from her overly concerned mother. As an eighteen-year-old, Akerman
briefly studied film at
Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de
Diffussion, but quickly decided to quit the course to make her first film. Her
‘Chaplin film’, as she would later refer to it: the black-and-white Saute ma ville (1968), an absurdist
Nouvelle Vague-like caper through the life of a young woman. It could easily be
a day in your life, when you were studying theatre in Brussels twenty years
later, at a school with a somewhat shorter name: an energetic whirlwind of a
girl who did everything women were expected to do in those days, but turned
upside-down and inside-out by the absolute conviction of her youthful/disarming
overconfidence. Dancing up the stairs, cooking spaghetti, totally disorganising
the kitchen in the name of cleaning, all the while whistling furiously and
taping up the doors and windows, and when she was done: oops-a-daisy, head on
the gas. Then just a spark and – boom!
This was not how she
Two details. Prior to
commencing her manic race through the stairwell, she takes the post from the
letter box and, having arrived in the kitchen (which is in fact the kitchen
from Akerman’s parental home, in the same way that all her observations of
everyday activities, in all their poignancy and pain, are also loving odes to
her mother’s life as a housewife), she pins one of the letters up on a kitchen
cupboard. This image returns later in the short film La chambre (1972), which Akerman shot during a brief but highly
productive stay in New York. The film consists of a 360° pan around Akerman’s single room apartment in New York
– a letter on which we can just read the salutation ‘Dear Chantal’ is pinned to
the wall. It could easily be one of the letters from her mother, which would go
on to play a role in News from Home –
a film told entirely through letters.
In New York, she got to
know the work of North American avant-garde artists Michael Snow, Jonas Mekas
and Yvonne Rainer. This meeting with their work freed her from the conventions
that dictated that film stories had to be told through emotion, suspense and
plot. In their place, she put the real-time shots and long takes with fixed
frames favoured by the Structuralists. As in the work of Mekas, which straddled
the journal, travelogue and documentary formats. Here too, she met camerawoman
Babette Mangolte, with whom, along with La
chambre, Akerman went on to make a large number of other films during the
1970s, including Jeanne Dielman.
There is another
important moment in Saute ma ville.
Before everything really goes pear-shaped in that kitchen, the protagonist just
catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. A little disruption. She sees
herself. But she also doesn’t. But, it is also the actress Chantal Akerman who
sees herself. She is protagonist, performer and director. And just for a
moment, in that mirror, all the walls of the theatre are broken through. It is
not only the Brechtian fourth wall that disappears through an alienation
In these early films, Akerman
often plays herself. In her first feature-length film je tu il elle (1974), she even plays a pivotal role. But is she
also acting? And is she also playing herself?
It is a question we must
ask, but cannot answer. Bearing in mind the Second Commandment, she cannot
create an image of herself. Neither can she ask this of the actresses in her
fiction films, whether they are called Delphine Seyrig (Jeanne Dielman; Golden Eighties, 1986); Aurore Clément (Les rendez-vous d’ Anna, 1978);
Guilaine Londez (Nuit et jour,
1991); Circé Lethem (Portrait d'une jeune
fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles, 1994); Juliette Binoche (Un divan à New York, 1996) or Sylvie
Testud (La captive, 2000; Demain on déménage, 2004). Films about
love, and relationships, and sexuality, and above all about the question of how
the main characters they play can define their identities in a world in which
they are always confronted by another. Levinas would say that the answer to
this is only revealed at the moment you come face-to-face with the Other.
Often, Akerman’s fictional characters haven’t yet even opened their eyes to
really look at the Other. They are still grappling with the throes of the self.
In addition to je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman, the semi-autobiographical (although, is this even a
relevant label in relation to her work?) Les
rendez-vous d’ Anna (about a female filmmaker on tour), Golden Eighties and Portrait d’une jeune fille are on the list of films Akerman
compiled when asked in 1997 to make a contribution to the long-running
television series Cinéma, de notre temps by Janine Bazin and André S. Labarthe. The result was a self-portrait. She
would really have preferred to tell her story purely through film fragments.
But as this didn’t suit the format, she read out a text on camera. You could
see it as a letter to the viewer. In it, she states – among other things – that
she is an unreliable teller of stories. And that honesty is always artificial.
48 °12′16″N 16°22′04″E
In 2005, Akerman taught
briefly at the University of Tel Aviv, and lived in an apartment complex a few
streets from the sea.
Producer Xavier Carniaux,
with whom she had made the documentaries Sud and De l’autre côté, among others,
encouraged her to make a film here, too. It was so obvious: her being a
daughter of Israel, and having so often taken a place as the starting point for
a film, and now being on the spot – but the idea didn’t appeal to Akerman, at
The image made by the
light falling through the blinds onto the ground proved irresistible, however –
and there, in that light, a new film was born. A diary-like testimony, in which
Akerman remains indoors for most of the film, the camera fixed on that window
with its blinds, and reflecting on the possibilities of making a film in or
about Israel, and thinking about history, family, memory.
The title Là-bas refers to the fact that Akerman
is finally over there, in the promised land, which is how Akerman’s family
called it when people left Europe to set up home in Israel; over there, in a
country of war, which seems so far away from Europe; but also over there in the
sense of being outside, in contrast to the inside where most of the film takes
place. Là-bas is a radical refusal to
show everything that is happening outside: the city; life; the traffic; the
people; the children playing. We can only hear all this. Sounds and images of
people on balconies opposite, leaking in through the gaps in the blinds.
There is such an ‘over there’
in many of Akerman’s films. Her window is not only – like the cinema screen – a
window on the world, but also a barrier between here and there. Windows,
curtains, blinds work both ways – they shut us in and shut the world out. Every
room is both a sanctuary and a prison. Home is never just home; a slight sense
of unease is always present in this tension between safety and threat.
It can be seen in the
blue neon light that shines onto the walls of Jeanne Dielman’s living room. Or,
for example, in how the first thing filmmaker Anna in Les rendez-vous d’Anna does in her German hotel room is open and
then close the windows (and how many hotel rooms and other ‘temporary’ spaces
can be found in her films!). She spends a lot of time standing, staring out of
the window. Or the house swap Parisienne Juliette Binoche and New Yorker
William Hurt undertake in Akerman’s most commercial film, Un divan à New York, before finally meeting one another (or
themselves) through the doors to a balcony. It can also be seen in the maze of
corridors and rooms with far too many doors and mirrors that act as windows in
the Parisian apartment of Simon in the film of Proust’s La captive – a dark, obsessive work about the game of attraction
and repulsion played by lovers, which she had portrayed in a generally less
gloomy light in her fictional works of the 1980s and ‘90s. It is also heard in
the testimony of the letter-writing protagonist of je tu il elle, who tries to shut the world out, until she is
finally forced to go outside. There’s no getting away from ‘over there’.
In Là-bas, Akerman herself is also forced to go outside, to buy a pack
of cigarettes, thereby allowing the world to come in. She witnesses the
aftermath of a bombing and, at that moment, her film about refusing to make a
film becomes a film about the impossibility of making a film.
You could call the
documentaries Akerman made around the turn of the millennium ‘accidental
films’. D’est, a journey through
Eastern Europe, was the result of a research trip for a film about Russian poet
Anna Akhmatova. Sud was inspired by
fragments of Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), which Akerman saw while teaching at Harvard, and the works of William
Faulkner and James Baldwin that deal with the south of the United States – in
particular, Baldwin’s musings on the beauty of the trees, on the one hand, and
the invisible weight of the bodies that hung from them, on the other. But when
she finally started filming there, another story pushed its way into the film.
The shades of a violent past were reawakened when young James Byrd Jr. fell
victim to a racist lynching. Nevertheless, Sud is not about this murder in the traditional documentary sense. In keeping with
her original idea and source of inspiration in Baldwin, Sud is an evocation of what the Dutch poet, sculptor and painter
Armando has called the ‘guilty landscape’.
This statement naturally
gives rise to objections. The landscape is a landscape – not beautiful, not
ugly, not guilty and not innocent, but free from value. But what Armando means
is that the landscape bears no testimony. It allows the horrors to pass. The
trees keep growing. The grass takes over.
For Armando, who as a boy
grew up in the shadow of a transit camp during World War II, this is the only
way left of understanding the world. Like Akerman’s, his work is not narrative;
he neither points the finger at perpetrators nor focuses on victims – the
horrors of the war are fundamentally indescribable. We also find this idea of
the guilty landscape in James Benning’s Landscape
Suicide (1986), for example, and in John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007).
If Jeanne Dielman is the pillar on which Akerman’s early work rests,
then the way in which Là-bas follows
from her documentary work of the 1990s is the anchor for her current position.
She has stayed inside.
She has exposed herself to her own camera-eye. Then she went outside. She has
maintained a distance. But she has seen it.
She has come home.
That is a place where you
can’t stay for long.
Plxxx Vxxxxxxxx 23, xx22 AV Bxxxxxxxx
When Nanouk Leopold’s
film Brownian Movement premiered in
the Netherlands in the spring of 2011, the film was discussed by male critics
in almost all of the big Dutch newspapers, but no one mentioned Jeanne Dielman. I don’t know whether
this means anything, but it is striking. With the odd exception, the film was
given a pretty rough ride, criticised for its psychology and ethics (the
protagonist was accused of being unfathomable and acting in an objectionable
manner) – even the argument that its slow pace was a disqualifying feature was dragged
out of the cupboard. Charlotte (Sandra Hüller) from Brownian Movement is a contemporary sister to Jeanne Dielman; she
is married, a mother, a successful career woman, who creates a safe haven for
herself in an apartment in Brussels where she can live out her sexual
fantasies. How and to what extent she actually puts these fantasies into
practice is the mystery of the film, which – with its reserved camerawork,
cinema of gestures and interiors, and thematic questions about the extent to
which we can ever really know the other, even within a relationship – owes more
than a little to Akerman’s fictional works, from Jeanne Dielman to La captive.
The way in which the film was received therefore also represents a big step
back in time.
When Jeanne Dielman premiered, in 1975, the film’s female perspective
was an essential part of its reception. The film was seen as an indictment of
the oppressed existence and suppressed sexuality of women, whose freedom of
movement was limited pretty much to the space between the sink and the fridge.
This was the heyday of feminist film theory. Film theorists such as Claire
Johnston and Laura Mulvey argued that, in traditional Hollywood films, women
and the female were always defined in relation to the dominant perspective of
the man and the male, and that feminist cinema would have to liberate itself
from this cinematic viewpoint via a detached way of observing. Famous scenes
such as Jeanne sitting in the bath or brushing her hair are classic examples of
a de-eroticised cinema. Furthermore, the female perspective of Jeanne Dielman was also discussed in
another way: Akerman’s choice of a camera position at her own eye level –
considerably lower than the standard Hollywood one – gave the film a literally
different, female perspective.
I always find it
difficult to look objectively at things like male or female perspectives. In
film theory, being conscious of this is an essential instrument with which to
identify dominant viewpoints, and thereby reveal hidden preconceptions.
Unravelling these silent assumptions is the job of every film critic, and not
only in terms of man/woman, black/white, young/old, East/West,
heterosexual/homosexual; these are always quantitative results based on
research in the field, not qualitative results. There is, of course, also a
small additional problem in these times of post-modern relativism: are we ever
really able to think outside the boundaries of our thought? In other words, as
a woman can we ever really understand a male perspective, and vice versa? And
etcetera. No one would dare maintain such a thing these days. Legitimate, but
deadly: if you can’t see past your own boundaries, why should you do your best
to look the Other in the eyes? This eventually leads to a film perspective
dictated by the largest common denominator.
Akerman’s detached gaze
has now become commonplace in contemporary art films. Feminist film theory is
in hibernation. We wear our preconceptions on our sleeves. But consciousness is
not enough to reveal these. There are still more male than female Jeanne
Dielmans in film history, as in the surrounding worlds of filmmakers and
evaluators. It is high time that film theorists got back down to it and
investigated whether Dielmans like Misael in Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad (2001) or Viorel in Cristi
Puiu’s Aurora (2010) – to name but
two – are treated differently from Charlotte in Brownian Movement, or from Melanie in Maren Ade’s Der Wald vor lauter Bäume (The Forest for the Trees, 2003), Mia in
Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2005),
Grace in Fien Troch’s Unspoken (2008)
or Eva in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk
About Kevin (2011). Or even from the way in which Valeska Grisebach looks
at her male protagonist Markus in Sehnsucht (2006). Or.
À propos on a postscript
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
So what was I doing,
standing there? To be honest, I had jumped onto the train to Brussels on an
impulse, to see with my own eyes that Brussels was no longer Brussels, and the
Quai du Commerce in particular no longer the prim middle-class thoroughfare
from Kanaal to Noordwijk. I wanted to see that film and real life had gone
their separate ways. But I didn’t find what I expected. After office hours, the
streets around the megalomaniac office buildings of the Flemish Government at
the foot of the Noord station are deserted; cardboard shelters erected by the
homeless on the pavements the only signs of life. A fur coat lay on a bench. A
bizarre image. It was
Don’t forget to turn down
Your loving sister (who
will finally sign with her own name),
Plxxx Vxxxxxxxx 23, xx22
And Everything Beyond
30 June 2011
Originally published in Retrospektive Chantal Akerman, a publication of the Viennale/Austrian Filmmuseum, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
from Issue 2: Devils
© Dana Linssen 2011; English translation from the Dutch © Mark Baker 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.