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CHANTAL

AKERMAN
WORDS BY MISSY MOLLOY

131
Chantal Akerman’s first feature film, Je, tu, il, elle (1974), is Je, tu, il, elle, ostensibly erotic, voyeuristic material is flattened
divided into three distinct segments (the title implies four, but out and drained of any pornographic interest by the detachment
the film leaves the tu/you enigmatic). The first section features of the medium-long shot, by framing that crops the sexually
an unnamed young woman (referred to as “Julie” only in the active areas of the actor’s bodies, and, in its final sequences,
end credits), played by Akerman, alone in a sparsely furnished by exhausting the voyeuristic regard, depleting one variety of
room. The woman attempts to write a letter, but her writing visual pleasure, replacing it with the pleasure of abstraction.”
process is marked by hesitation, boredom, frustration, and delay. Akerman often used distinct framing and long takes to shift
She writes and rewrites pages and arranges them on the floor, viewers’ perspectives on sexual images, which could otherwise
takes her clothes off and on, moves furniture, lies down on a have provoked more predictable responses.
mattress, and eats sugar out of a bag with a spoon. All the while,
a voiceover narration interrupts the otherwise static, precisely The formal elements highlighted above are not unique to
composed long takes. Je, tu, il, elle. Akerman’s other films also prompt viewers to
speculate about the intentions behind her artistic choices, which
The scene is radical on multiple grounds: first, because it deviates mainstream films typically conceal (e.g., through continuity
from the cinematic tendency to illustrate the creative process editing). Akerman spoke about the motivations behind these
through a montage of feverish activity, instead marking the choices in the 2010 documentary, Chantal Akerman, From
intervals between actions as significant; second, because the Here: “When people are enjoying a film, they say, ‘I didn’t see
images of the woman alone in the room stress an insatiable desire the time go by,’ but I think that when time flies and you don’t
for connection that drives her artistic efforts (rather than an end see time passing by, you’re robbed of an hour and a half or two
product), yet the voiceover’s explicit address to the anonymous hours of your life. Because all you have in life is time. With
“you” is ambiguous; and finally, because the often-naked woman my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your
onscreen does not appeal to the desires of a male producer or body.” She obviously intended her unorthodox filmmaking
viewer. She does not strike “sexy” poses gleaned from popular strategies to impact viewers in unexpected ways and to prompt
culture; her nakedness seems to result from her own preference. reflection on the artistic process and spectatorship. Akerman’s
groundbreaking work in the 1970s (produced while she was
Akerman’s cinematic choices are deceptively straightforward; only in her 20s) received unprecedented accolades from film
simple shots and understated editing mask highly complex critics and practitioners in male-dominated professions, thus
ideas about creativity, sexuality, and desire. Take her treatment cementing her place in the film canon. She was quickly deemed
of sexuality and the female body; in several images from Je, an exceptional filmmaker because of the relative dearth of female
tu, il, elle, the framing and posture of Julie’s naked body are directors when she came on the scene and the critical acclaim
reminiscent of the traditional function of naked women in for her most praised work, the 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai
Western art, yet they simultaneously highlight the uniqueness of du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
this particular female body, which represents her desires, rather
than appealing to external measurements of sexiness. Writer My perspective on Akerman’s reputation as an exceptional
Gary Indiana commented on Akerman’s treatment of the body filmmaker has been strongly impacted by her well-documented
in WACK! Art and The Feminist Revolution, a collection of essays resistance to the labels frequently attached to her work, namely
and art edited by Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark: “In “feminist” and “queer.” On multiple occasions, Akerman referred

"AKERMAN’S CINEMATIC CHOICES ARE DECEPTIVELY


STRAIGHTFORWARD; SIMPLE SHOTS AND TRANSITIONS
IN FACT COVER HIGHLY COMPLEX IDEAS ABOUT
CREATIVIT Y, SEXUALIT Y, AND DESIRE."
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080
Bruxelles. 1975
© Paradise films
Courtesy of Royal Film Archives, Brussels
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080
Bruxelles. 1975
Courtesy of Paradise films
"IT WAS THE ONLY WAY TO SHOOT…THAT FILM—TO AVOID
CUT TING THE WOMAN INTO A HUNDRED PIECES, TO AVOID
CUT TING THE ACTION IN A HUNDRED PL ACES, TO LOOK
CAREFULLY AND TO BE RESPECTFUL."

to these reductive descriptions as “ghettoizing.” “She was a gay writing on Jeanne Dielman, hyperbole abounds.
woman—proudly, unabashedly—who refused to be placed in
either category,” wrote writer and Akerman collaborator, Henry Jeanne Dielman has, like Akerman, been shaped by the double-
Bean, in an essay for The Forward (published after Akerman’s edged sword of exceptionalism. Set apart according to a set
death), adding that she would refuse to show her work in queer of specific criteria, the film has become constrained by those
or women’s festivals. I was reminded of Akerman’s strong stance criteria over time. Pigeonholing Jeanne Dielman does a disservice
on exceptionality when, during a December 2015 lecture to Akerman’s other works, which are under-screened, even by
by European film scholar Henry Bacon, a female filmmaker film scholars and teachers. And to students, who often receive
interrupted to voice her objection to his bulleted list of all-male an under-historicized, under-contextualized introduction to
directors, which illustrated the successful use of cinematic style this unusual, groundbreaking film, the title of Ivone Margulies’
to express existential concerns. When the woman challenged scholarly book on Chantal Akerman could seem apt: Nothing
Bacon to add a female director to his list, I immediately thought, Happens (Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist
‘he’s going to name Chantal Akerman,’ and a moment later, Everyday provides the most detailed analysis of the mundane in
he did. This is not to say that I’m clairvoyant; on the contrary, Akerman’s films.)
Akerman’s default status as the visionary female film director
whose work is on par with master innovators of film form There was one label, however, Akerman always accepted: “She
made the response predictable. But to cite her as a postscript never refused the ghetto of Judaism,” said Bean. “She was, it
is a backhanded compliment, suggesting that, while she isn’t a sometimes seemed, a Jew before she was anything, even before
primary example, she could belong on the list if a female director she was a person, and she was more of a person than anybody
was required. This inclusion after the fact illustrates the problem I’ve known.” Her mother, Nelly Akerman, was an Auschwitz
with labeling Akerman as exceptional—doing so marginalizes survivor, a fact that adds weight to Akerman’s use of the term
more than celebrates her work. “ghetto” to fight against restrictive art labels; through the term,
Akerman argues that separating specific groups from the norm
For better or worse, and in spite of Akerman’s aversion to labels, is dangerously isolating, rather than complimentary. In her essay
the notoriety of Jeanne Dielman overshadows the rest of her “The Long Journey: Maternal Trauma, Tears and Kisses in a Work
filmography and is frequently the go-to example for feminist by Chantal Akerman,” scholar Griselda Pollock writes, “Akerman
cinema in introductory film courses. For a sense of the film’s belongs to what is called a second generation who experience the
hyperbolic reception and premiere status in the Western film normal unspoken transmissions between parents and children,
canon, you need only skim the Wikipedia pages on Chantal except that what appears to be part of the cultural passing on is
Akerman and Jeanne Dielman. The following frequently recycled massive trauma; that which the parents do not tell, or even know
quotation appears on the page for Jeanne Dielman: “Upon its to tell.” Undoubtedly, Akerman’s films attend closely to mothers,
release, The New York Times called it the ‘first masterpiece of the and her awareness of her mother being singled out for her Jewish
feminine in the history of the cinema.’” Meanwhile, the entry identity colored her strong opinions on categorization.
for Chantal Akerman reads, “Akerman’s most significant film,
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [is] often Lauren C. Byrd’s entry on Chantal Akerman (in her blog titled
considered one of the great feminist films.” In much of the “52 Weeks of Directors”) includes some interesting details
about Jeanne Dielman’s production: “Akerman, who was 25, liked Anna more and consequently approved of her other
has said she was able to make a film about a woman–an older, characteristics—notably, her sexual fluidity? The discussion left
widowed woman–because, ‘at that point, everyone was talking me feeling frustrated at mainstream conventions that continually
about women’ and that it was ‘the right time.’” Akerman’s bold limit female representations and make experimenting with
approach to a subject that cinema had conventionally neglected unusual female characters risky.
is balanced by the sophistication of the film’s structure, design,
and execution. Akerman explains the film’s extreme long takes, Akerman’s work radically illustrates issues of identity and
three hour plus running time, and clinical compositions in sexuality. Complex existential concerns ground Akerman’s style,
WACK: “It was the only way to shoot the film—to avoid cutting which unrelentingly focuses on the basic elements of human
the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action experience and its boundaries in space and time. In an interview
in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The with Bergstrom (in 1976), Akerman explained her position on
framing was meant to respect the space, her, and her gestures “feminist” film: “I do think [Jeanne Dielman is] a feminist film
within it.” Her intent to focus on an “older, widowed woman”— because I give room to the things that were never, almost never,
not as a revolutionary statement, but in keeping with the interests shown in that way. Like the daily gestures of a woman, which are
of her time—resonates with film scholar Janet Bergstrom’s the lowest in the hierarchy in movies . . . [But] I don’t think we
commentary on this era of film studies, which she describes know enough about women’s film even to . . . speak in a general
as defined by sustained attention to female representation theoretical way at all.” Luckily, many women have made films
and authorship (in “Chantal Akerman: Heartfelt,” published in since Akerman’s statement; however, the vast majority of films
Sense of Cinema, volume 77). Akerman’s use of an all-female continue to be directed (and produced) by men, making the act
crew is further evidence of her audacity. As she explains in of watching a female-directed film in 2016 still exceptional.
Criterion Collection: Chantal Akerman  on Jeanne Dielman, “It
was important at the time that 80% of the crew be women. The world-weary Anna in Les rendez-vous d’anna (1978) is often
But people didn’t trust a woman cinematographer, for example. thought to resemble Akerman, who at the time of production
It was really considered a man’s job. Female sound recordists was, like the character, a pioneering female director trudging
practically didn’t exist. There were script girls, and women that around Europe promoting her films and collecting answering-
were editors or in charge of wardrobe or makeup. But there was machine messages in her empty Paris apartment. Anna appears
no one for lighting. Quite a few positions were very much off emotionally drained at points in the film, which suggests that
limits to women. So I wanted to show that it was entirely possible. being a pioneering female film director is not easy. Surely it
So we did.” She clearly delighted in overturning expectations. would be less exhausting to be one of many female film directors,
so that the specific qualities of your work receive more attention
During a heated, post-screening class debate about Les than your gender or sexuality.
rendez-vous d’anna—my favorite Akerman film—I came to the
disappointing realization that many of my students, including
most of the women, didn’t like the film or Anna, its main
character. They used many clichéd euphemisms (“I didn’t find
her character relatable”), but the gist was that they didn’t like
her the way they liked many female characters in mainstream
cinema; ultimately, their dislike resulted in a rejection of Anna,
whose character they criticized as detached, reserved, and
unappealing. In the film, Anna rarely visibly empathizes with the
people she converses with, who volunteer unusually intimate,
psychologically sensitive details about themselves without
prompt while Anna remains silent. If Anna had expressed
sympathy toward those she encountered, would students have