Chantal Akerman has addressed themes like otherness and incarceration, starting with her own background and that of her mother, a survivor of the Nazi camps. Otherness is a non-conformity Akerman lives, as a woman and a Jew. Is it possible to bring out the fact that the Other, for itself, is completely Subject? The extraordinary filmography of the artist, who has always called herself directly into play, brilliantly resolves this issue. Elisabeth Lebovici met the artist to talk about these themes and to reinterpret some of her past and recent works.
ELISABETH LEBOVICI: If one wants to begin with a loaded introductory statement about Chantal Akerman, one should definitely talk about borders, frontiers, limits, the other side and the side of the Other. These notions are also there in the way you deal with your work, your craft, your profession: are you on the side of experimental filmmaking, or in the history of mainstream narrative cinema? The side of cinema or that of art? Or all of the above? That would be my first question, since you were one of the most prominent filmmakers to “cross over” in the mid-1990s. What do you feel about this crossover towards making art?
CHANTAL AKERMAN: My history with installation was probably not an accident, though it appeared as if it were: it would never have happened without Kathy Halbreich, then the head of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, who asked me if I would do something in a museum context. That was probably in the early 1990s, when the curator Michael Tarantino had repeatedly observed that my films were a major influence on contemporary artists. You know I didn’t learn about art. I ran away from school when I was 15. I was never really exposed to exhibitions before the early 1970s, the best years to me, when I found myself in a small group of the New York avant-garde, with Babette Mangolte, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Annette Michelson, whom I respect so much...
Anyway, it happened because of Kathy Halbreich. At the time I was doing “Night and Day”. She said she was interested in history, I said I was equally interested in the polyphony of languages. I had been wanting to go towards Eastern Europe for twenty years – and it was just opening up – in order to work with the different Slavic languages, which are distinct but sound quite similar. I wanted to do a work about changes in voices and languages, a project that then developed on its own into a totally different form: while the texture of the soundtrack is very important in “D’Est”, there is not one word in the film. At the beginning I wanted her to produce such a film; I didn’t care about the art thing. In the meantime I found money and did “From the East”. One year later, maybe two, I was told that funds had been raised for an installation, and I began playing around with the film material I had already gathered. It happened when I had three reels of the film, and I was playing with time. I saw four minutes that worked together in these three reels. Why? I don’t know. There were four minutes. And then we found eight times four minutes, 24 screens as in 24 images per second; that is how the installation found its own agency. I wrote the last, 25th part as something more visually abstract, but with a very intimate text that evoked something more like a memorial. It also deals with limits, death, the camps. My fixation with borders comes from the camps. When you touch on that limit – and I touched it very closely through my mother, who was in the camps but was never able to talk through her anxiety – this border takes on the source of the anxiety, it becomes an “anxious Abject”. In “From the Other Side”, for instance, I show the wall to my mother and ask her what it brings to mind, and she says: “you know what”. When it is internalized, experience is given without speaking, transmitted as a spectral presence; you cannot separate yourself from it. In the film “Down There” the notion of the ‘Other’ takes on more complexity, because it’s the same side, but the other side, the inside too. I try to connect to that internalization, because it’s something you have to live with, that lives there before you. But it’s hard. The reason is that I touched another limit, which is myself.
EL: Talking about borders and confinement, home and breaking loose... Isn’t that what home is about? When one looks at Jeanne Dielman in her kitchen, or when one finds oneself immersed in your last installation, shot in and from your home, the camera is the operator to feel confinement, beyond the visual depiction of space...
CA: The jail is very, very present in all of my work, in “”La Captive as well as “Jeanne Dielman”... sometimes not so frontally. Now when you enter America, you have to put all of your fingers in ink, it’s like entering a big jail. Do you know that you cannot smoke anymore in Central Park? New York is not like it was in the 1970s, everything was happening then, now it’s much more about money. France is terrible, you feel no energy at all. In America you still have energy, but mostly for bling.
EL: For you, where does this notion of the other side come from?
CA: From Emmanuel Lévinas. He is part of my culture. For two years I attended his classes at ENIO (École Normale Israelite Orientale): he would always have a young person, a boy or a girl, read an excerpt from the Bible, standing in front of him, a minuscule, fragile figure surrounded by tons of books, and then he would get started and go far, far away... I often quote his statement: “When you see the face of the Other, you already hear the words ‘Thou shalt not kill’”. If only he had been heard. How could I not hear it! The other face is also the face of the viewer, I have always thought: I have an understanding that making films is very much about frontality, about facing off.
EL: The notion of the Other has also been reassessed by feminism, first by Simone de Beauvoir when she observed that “he is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” – that is, the non-subject, the non-person, in short, the mere body. Being on the other side, then, is also being on the side of the Other, reclaiming the self.
CA: It was such an emancipating time, between 1968 and 1973. I felt free to make “Je, tu, il, elle”, which was then an incredible provocation. I shot the film in one week, and at first I tried to have another woman play my part, a substitute for my own body.
But I soon realized it had to be me, my body. Just as in “Saute ma ville”, which I now think is my queerest movie. “Saute ma ville”, to me, is the opposite of “Jeanne Dielman”: the story of a girl who talks back to her mother, who explodes the norms confining women to womanly tasks, who breaks everything in kitchen and does everything in a crooked way – and yet, for all that, it is a love story: the film is dedicated.
EL: I love the way you deal with your own body – defying its sense of gravity as well as its respectability – in “Je, tu, il, elle”, for instance, where after your long journey you finally enter “elle”’s apartment, and the first thing you do is to trip on the carpet and fall down...
CA: I’m a female Charlie Chaplin, I could have made slapstick comedy. I’m thinking more and more about acting again, in my films. My body in a movie is very important, it says something by itself, it has the weight of the Real. I can’t have actresses playing my clumsiness. It seems impossible for me to be in a restaurant without knocking something over: my gestures are too large, or I’m pursuing my thoughts and get startled. You’re out of convention with your own body, with your own way of moving. When I was a child, and being raised in such a conventional bourgeois high school, I thought it was a question of class, I attributed my non-conformity to the fact that I was a Jew. I didn’t attribute it to gender then, but I realized later that the other girls were already built to fit what a young woman was raised to become, in conformity with their future as women in a normative society: my parents didn’t have the time, they didn’t succeed. When I was fifteen and ate too much chocolate, and put on weight, my father suddenly realized that I had to get skinnier to be sold to a man; he wanted me to wear dresses but it didn’t work. When I was 18 I rushed to Paris, then I rushed to New York, to get even farther away. The only person I didn’t succeed in making that split with was my mother, because she was a camp survivor, and I was born when she was older, in 1950. I still think of myself as an old child...
EL: On the other side of gender difference?
CA: Well, for several months I joined the feminist faction of “Psych et Po”, with Antoinette Fouque, which made it normal to expose yourself. But that’s another story...
EL: But you were recruited to film a case history of Freud: was it Anna O?
CA: No, it was “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”. I was just asked to help, not to do the film myself, and was soon pulled away.
EL: Psychoanalysis is part of your life, but could you film Freud?
CA: I remember that Dora was fascinating. But there are so many people who have thought about psychoanalysis after Freud. For instance, there is this theory of André Green, in “Narcissisme de Vie, Narcissisme de Mort” (1983), about the complex of the dead mother, where he writes about the ways maternal depression abandons the child and his or her craving for being held, comforted, accompanied.
EL: Taking sides with the mother?
CA: At the beginning I thought that since she didn’t have any voice, I would be speaking for her, but it turned out not to be so true, it was just my way of explaining things. What is true is that I was speaking for all women: “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”: what woman didn’t feel something about that? When “Je, tu, il, elle” was released my telephone was bombarded with calls from people who identified with what I was showing. When a figure appears that has rarely been exposed, it indicates that something was probably boiling.
EL: I have always been struck by the fact that in “Je, tu, il, elle” the performance of sex is there without its reality, as in the scene between two naked women. Not only do you deconstruct heteronormative sex, but in many of your films you also contradict the notion of sexual pleasure as a climax for the psyche. This very much goes with Leo Bersani’s notion of the “Freudian Body”, which disengages the equation between release of sexual energy and jouissance.
CA: In “Jeanne Dielman” I showed that not having pleasure was her last freedom. If Jeanne had found pleasure in having sex with her client, she would have been surrendering to the men with whom she was working. I had endless discussions with Delphine Seyrig, who said that once you had pleasure, you would want to repeat it... I was only 24 and she was over forty, she was “the subject supposed to know” (Lacan), but I struggled to make her believe me: fighting against pleasure is Jeanne’s resistance, it is her way of existing, her jouissance in relation to the obligation of pleasure, which was the doxa at the time I shot the film. From the 1970s on another obligation had come for women, taking the place of choice and freedom. In “Les rendez-vous d’Anna”, when the main character (played by Aurore Clément) is in Germany, she tells the guy she’s not in love with him, that he has to put his clothes back on. Again, this is resistance to such pleasure obligation.
EL: Your body returns in the installation “Maniac Summer”, 2009, which I saw at Marian Goodman in Paris (2010); but not as a prevalent image, not as the center. It is night, and a ghostly image appears on just one of the three screens of the installation, doing things, office work, at the computer, on the phone. Then, on the two other screens placed on two other walls, we see a park with children, and a courtyard viewed from a Parisian apartment...
CA: I did this first part at random, just putting the camera beside me and forgetting about it, doing whatever I was doing. Then I moved the camera to my window, shot a little bit outside, organizing a landscape that was almost unrecognizable. It was more of an orphan film, without subject, object, author... “Maniac Summer” is very much about the other side of the figure, about abstraction. I had heard someone talking about Hiroshima, and it had made a great impression. The intense radiation of the blast left afterimages on walls, shadows of the bodies of people who were standing there, in the instant before they fell. I found the idea of these traces of death very moving, and tried to go forward with that idea in video, which was complicated as a medium for this kind of transformation: when the image falls, what stays on the walls afterwards? It falls into abstraction. Hiroshima is the landmark for the second half of the 20th century. I was born in 1950, this is my time. There are still things to be done about that century. As for the new century, I think we still don’t understand what is going on, at least for the moment. Did you read Jean-Claude Milner’s “Les penchants criminels de l’Europe démocratique”? It’s an extraordinary book, using the texts of Benjamin and Gershom Sholem, and trying to demonstrate how for Modern Europe the name “Jew” was thought of as a problem to solve. Milner explains that beyond all discourse, Europe would not have constructed its unification without the death of the Jews, without the extermination camps.
EL: Your present, however, is the 21st century: you are doing a retrospective at MuHKA, in Antwerp, and then there is “La folie Almayer”, your latest feature film, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad.
CA: Not exactly. There is one chapter at the end of the novel that broke my heart, when the girl, the female protagonist, is running away. I read that chapter, and that same night I saw “Tabu” by Murnau and it clicked, you see. That’s why I decided to do the film, thanks to one chapter of “Almayer’s Folly” and “Tabu”, because of the simplicity of that film, where Murnau was able to say such emotional things with almost nothing. My film is about the relationship of a father and his daughter. The father goes mad because he loses her. He is a very weak character, and I saw that as a challenge. My cousin in Toronto told me that in America they would never accept a weak man as the main character, so in a way it is also about gender definitions.
EL: You live in New York, you have a job at CUNY. What are you teaching?
CA: I’m not teaching, I’m helping graduate students with their thesis projects, which consist in making films. I push them to improve their scripts, to improve their work with actors and sets, so in a way I’m like a good producer, one who interferes a lot. I enjoy doing it and I’m very moved when suddenly some kind of clarity emerges. But there’s a lot of ignorance of cinema. When I ask “did you see All About Eve?”, many of the students have no idea who Mankiewicz was. One of the students wanted to make a film about a band, which is an iconic theme in America, so I told him he had to see “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” by Straub-Huillet, which would show him how to shoot a band. That’s what I’m fighting against. Did you know that the school where I’m teaching is the one that gave Hannah Arendt a position after she fled from Europe? When Arendt came to America, there was a quota at Harvard regarding the number of Jews who could attend the university or be part of its faculty. Such quotas were abolished only in the 1960s. So all the Jews went to CUNY and donated money there, as well. That’s how I got the job. I always end up talking about what happened when the Jews fled from Egypt: it took them forty years – or three generations, in those days – to forget all the signs of slavery. Forty years, the space for oblivion, in order to be released from that bondage and to enter Israel. That’s why I think Pessah, or Exodus, is one of the most important books about slavery. Many countries in Africa didn’t get that time of forgetting, and the people who came out of the camps in Europe didn’t have such time either. If I put myself into a kind of prisoner situation, it is because my mother gave that to me. She didn’t have the forty years, either. That’s why the Genesis is the most important book in the world: because of the Exodus, because of idolatry, too. For me the crucial issues are: no idolatry and losing everything that made you a slave.
EL: What is your next project?
CA: I have a gap in my hearing ability. High notes are getting a bit imprecise. I would like to make a film that describes all the effects of this. High pitches are the ones that help us to precisely locate sound sources. I would like to write about it. Blindness is very romantic, it already has its place in literature, in the great myths, first and foremost that of Oedipus, of course. This is not true of deafness. I would like to underline the effects of this impairment.
MOUSSE MAGAZINE, Issue #31, November, 2011
Tap-tap-tap... Preceded by the clicking of her high heels, a young woman (Sylvie Testud) walks through the Place Vendôme in Paris, the camera following her in one unbroken shot until she reaches her car. A young man (Stanislas Mehrar) follows her, gets into his own car, and continues tailing her.
In Marcel Proust's “À la Recherche du temps perdu” the young woman was Albertine and the man was Marcel. For “La Captive” (1999), her latest narrative feature to-date, Chantal Akerman, adapting “À la Recherche's” fifth volume, calls her Ariane. While much has been written about Proust's driver/companion Albert, who might be hidden behind the oddly feminine name of Albertine, Ariane is a name without masculine equivalent: in Greek mythology she was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae who fell in love with Theseus and gave him a magic ball of twine to find his way in the labyrinth.(1) In ARiANE, one finds five letters of AkERmAN. From Proust to Albert to Albertine to, finally, Ariane and Akerman, there is a vertiginous interplay of sliding equivalences, of masks that simultaneously frame, hide and reveal some secret. In the film Ariane's partner, lover, captor and tormentor is named Simon, preserving the narrator's Jewishness, as well as alluding to Albertine's family name: Simonet.
In “La Captive”, updated to contemporary times, Simon lives a comfortable existence of ‘homme de lettres’ in a large bourgeois apartment that he shares with his grandmother and a housekeeper, Françoise,(2) and in which he keeps a young woman of unclear social status. Plagued by allergies and asthma, Simon is unable to accompany Ariane when she goes out, however, suspecting her of loving women, spies on her and relentlessly questions her to find out if she is 'lying' to him. What unsettles him, ultimately, is the enigma of femininity. What is a woman? And which mystery is hidden when two women are together? Proust explores the masculine side of this question, probably transposing his own anxieties - what hidden pleasures could his (male) lover find with a woman? Conversely, in most of her films, especially those with a (semi)autobiographic resonance (“Je tu il elle, Les Rendez-vous d'Anna”, “Portrait d'une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles”),(3) Akerman portrays women who desire both men and women, developing, however, a more intimate bond with the latter. For a female director the challenge posed by an adaptation of the Proustian text is that Marcel is constructed as the subject of desire - who acts upon it, obsesses about it, suffers from it - and Albertine is its unfathomable object. While both Sylvie Testud's outstanding performance and Akerman's peerless direction give Ariane a complex subjectivity and agency, what she does off-screen and what she thinks remain a mystery. Is it because the effects of female authorship are not powerful enough to dispel the 'active/passive heterosexual division of labour' uncovered at the core of film narrative by Laura Mulvey: 'woman as image, man as the bearer of the look'?(4) Or is a more interesting (transgressive) structure at work here: a woman attempting to look at another woman who loves women through the eyes of a man who tortures himself by trying to understand female homosexuality from the inside? Threatened by the contiguity/continuity between two female bodies that the homosexual bond entails, the boundary between two individuals can nevertheless be restored by the introduction of a third term, intervening from the other side of the gender line.
In “Portrait d'une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles” (1993), Akerman lays this structure bare by turning the main protagonist (the subject of desire) into a rather innocent, albeit passionate, teenage girl, Michèle (Circé), with a hopeless crush on her 'best friend' at school. As Danielle's confidante she is an accomplice, the unwitting witness of the latter's awkward search for a 'dream man'. Michèle escapes her predicament by cutting out of school, meeting Paul, a handsome and sensitive deserter, having sex with him, and then handing him on to Danielle:
- You'll meet him on my behalf. Then you'll tell me what happens. No, you won't tell me anything.
- You know I always tell you everything.
- Sometimes, I would prefer for you not to tell me everything. Go: he's going to be the man of your life ... After that, my mind will be at rest. But you musn't tell me anything from now on. I should no longer observe your quest.
If not knowing is a torture for Simon, knowing is no less painful for Michèle. Those are the two reverse sides of the same predicament: there is something to know. The beloved woman does not want you the way you want her - she wants somebody else, of another gender. The subject is reduced to being the witness/non-witness of a coupling that keeps being concealed from his/her gaze, like a half-forgotten primal scene in which the forbidden body of the mother was glimpsed as 'belonging' to someone else.
Tap-tap-tap. Ariane climbs a staircase at the end of a cul-de-sac where she has parked her car. Mesmerised by the sound, Simon follows her on silent, efficient soles. The young woman disappears and Simon is now guided by the clicking of the invisible high heels. In the labyrinth of the city, where every street corner may hide a deception, every grove shelter a forbidden embrace, every smile conceal a treacherous seduction, the tap-tap-tap is the only 'ball of twine' that the despondent and jealous lover can grasp. It complicates the fort-da game(5) that Simon plays with Ariane, redoubling the original visual dilemma (now you see her, now she's gone) into its aural version (now you hear her, now you don't). If you don't hear her, maybe she's behind you, barefoot, or she's in bed, asleep and waiting to be ravished with her eyes closed as in a Romantic painting. Yet, if you hear something, maybe it's not her but another woman wearing similar high heels (cosi fan tutte)(6) for there are hundreds, thousands of women in heels in the maze of streets, hidden staircases, public parks, hotels, restaurants, theatres and back alleys of Paris. When Simon starts following Ariane, the tap-tap-tap is the sign, both alluring and reassuring, of the young woman's presence. As the narration unfolds Simon is increasingly confronted to the multiplicity of high heels. The clicking of heels thus becomes the vertiginous signifier of an overflowing femininity. Julia Kristeva reminds us that, for Proust, Albertine has no fixed identity but always appears as a 'plural' being, a 'multi-headed goddess'. 'A woman could not be individuated. A petal in a bunch of flowers, a seagull in a flock of birds, or a mere reflection, detail, indistinct and interchangeable feature. [A] woman/women is always in an undifferentiated plural; she goes in group or bevy...'.(7)
One night Simon is looking for Ariane, who has left earlier wearing a white scarf. Every woman met in the shadows, attracting his attention through the clicking of her heels, seems to be wearing a similar scarf - offering herself to his gaze, or talking to him, or passing unnoticed behind him, or followed by him, half-surprised, half-frightened, in a dark staircase. Unable to fully possess the woman, Simon is reduced to grab pieces of femininity through visual or aural signs that turn out to be lures. Since more than one woman can wear high heels or white scarves, there is no way to distinguish one from the other and the protagonist is constantly mistaking the shadow for the prey.
A sign of multiple femininity, the clicking of the heels, however, awakens in the subject the dream of a unified signifier. To the child in bed, waiting for his/her mother's goodnight kiss, the tap-tap-tap signifies her arrival and then her cruel departure. It is also a bridge between absence and presence. The woman may be unseen but the sound of her footsteps reveals her proximity. She is not, however, motionless but walking - either in your direction (you're going to see her, embrace her soon) or away from you, or even passing you by. Here is the paradox: a woman who walks resists ultimate fetishisation for she is in constant motion; yet the shoes she wears are among the most coded objects of male sexual fetishism. One of the many subversions offered by Akerman's filmic text is a reformulation of this fetish within the economy of female sexuality. If a fetish signifies a lack, it may not necessarily be, as in the Freudian orthodoxy, the lack of a penis but, more essentially, the lack of a presence. Desired women in Akerman's films are often constructed as missing, inaccessible, lost. Signifying the ever-changing, ever-torturing distance between subject and object, the clicking of the heels is an important trope in the construction of her cinematic space. In her universe the shoe might be a fetish, but it is a fetish in motion, always connected to a gesture, an inflexion of the female body: polishing it, putting it on, taking it off, standing, pacing, walking, running, dancing.
Few filmic oeuvres pay more attention to the musical, emotional and structuring roles footsteps can play in narrative. There are countless instances in which the arrival of the beloved woman is preceded by the sound of her footsteps, in which the tap-tap-tap of high heels function as a permanent echo of a female protagonist's mundane activities or hidden emotions. Footsteps also signify the complexity of human interactions in a city, or sometimes, simply, the presence of other human beings. Reaching the bottom of her depression, the heroine (played by Akerman herself) of “Je tu il elle” (1974) stops 'paying attention to the footsteps. They were too numerous, or too loud during the day.' Later, standing naked in front of her window, she hears 'footsteps, which then stopped. Someone was looking at me. So I remained motionless and naked, so that others passing by might look at me.'
The male shoe fetishist conceives the connection between the feet and the shoes as unproblematic for the woman; she can slip in and out of them in a second and walk in them without being hindered. However, as women know, high heels can be a torture; they are pleasant to look at but not necessarily to walk in. In “Je tu il elle” Akerman wears heavy knitted socks and uninspired clogs. Michèle, her teenage stand-in in “Portrait d'une jeune fille”, is shown dressed as a tomboy (blue pants, stripped T-shirt, flat black shoes). She explains to Paul that one of the elements of her conflict with her father is that 'I don't want to wear chic clothes. It's a torture. Especially wearing stockings.' Stockings, of course, are part of the fetishistic apparatus that involves garter belt and high heels and constrains feet as well as body. Yet, as she continues talking about her 'weird ideas' about clothing, Michèle inserts the disturbing comment that 'the name embroidered on the school's blouse, it's like a stigmata'. No less disturbing is Paul's reply: 'A name, it's better than a number.' Unconsciously, the young people know why Michèle's father wants her to dress with a certain decorum, and why she rebels against the emotional weight he's laying on her. The dress code is to conjure the poorly forgotten memories of the nudity in the camps, the numbers tattooed on the arm, the exhausting marches on bare, bleeding feet, the heaps of women's shoes in the storerooms.
Akerman's oeuvre displays an ambivalence between the tropes of forgetting and remembering, as well as about the codes of gender definition. It is my hypothesis that both ambivalences are connected, unfolding, one in a tragic mode, the other in a playful one. As in a Jewish joke, narrative pleasure springs from the intersection of these two registers. Most Holocaust survivors said nothing about their experience to their children in order to 'spare' them. The task of the next generation was to decipher this silence. Akerman never made a film about the Holocaust - even “Histoires d'Amérique” (1988)(8) unfolds a playful jocularity - but keeps alluding to it obliquely, thus mimicking the indirect discourse of the Holocaust survivors. Similarly, while her narrative strategies shatter the conventional representation of femininity, she still partakes in and is fascinated by tropes that could be qualified as 'pre-feminist' - bringing this duplicity of approach to its higher level of complexity and artistic maturity in “La Captive”. Already in “Portrait d'une jeune fille” this ambivalence was beautifully captured. As she is walking on the street with Paul, whom she has just kissed on a whim, Michèle stops in front of a window that we guess to contain a pair of shoes:
- Look at those! Don't you find them awesome!
- Yes, you're right. You want them?
- You don't have to buy me a pair of shoes because of a kiss.
Paul and Michèle are framed in medium close-up, talking to each other while looking in the direction of the window. There is no reverse-angle shot of the famous shoes but, Michèle being a teenager in 1968, we can imagine them as a pair of sophisticated, ultra-feminine high heels. Their conversation drifts toward the nature of Michèle's conflicted desires, her 'impossible' search for 'closeness', her double attraction for both Paul and 'the one' she wanted to make suffer. Here we find two of Akerman's major tropes. One, at the narrative level, is the woman who loves two people. The other is the refusal to cut and show the object of the protagonist's desire. Later, during a party, the camera stays on Michèle's face for a long time as she intensely watches Danielle who dances with a young man to the tune of James Brown's 'It's a Man's World'. At the end of the film, pushed by Michèle in Paul's direction, Danielle produces a radiant smile, but the young man is never shown. This cinematic grammar sweetly implies that the pair of shoes is no less an object of desire for Michèle than Danielle is, or later, than Paul is becoming for Danielle.(9)
People who were once deprived of everything, or whose parents were, are sometimes overcome by a violent, irrational desire for shoes or clothes. The ownership of material goods fills the gap once created by poverty or physical abjection and, on the scale of human emotions, becomes a stand-in for emotional fulfilment. This adds a new perspective to the speech about the 'fickleness of the heart' that closes “Window Shopping” (1985).(10) In the film's last scene, Mr. Schwartz (Charles Denner), the clothes shop owner, attempts to comfort Mado (pop singer Lio) who, still in her wedding dress, has to cope with the fact that Robert won't marry her.
- You see [one dress] in the window you've got to have, but maybe it's too
expensive... Or maybe it looks well on the rack, but not on you. So you
have to choose another. After all, you can't walk around naked!
The same thing goes for shoes (and Akerman makes sure that the Schwartzes sell shoes as well, and orchestrates two close-ups of Delphine Seyrig putting a magnificent pair of high heels on a customer, then on a dummy). Like in “La Captive” and “Portrait d'une jeune fille”, in “Window Shopping” shoes become the substitute for the women who wear them - half-way between the fetish (they trigger desire) and the sign (they signify a presence/absence). A musical comedy, the film starts on a static medium shot of the smooth, glittering floor of a shopping mall, on which seventy-five-odd women, framed from the knee down, pass, either alone or together, walking or running, in all possible directions. Flowing, colourful dresses or straight black skirts, flat shoes, small heels, formal footwear, sophisticated high heels, blue, red, black, yellow and even pink. The shot lasts 2.10 minutes; over a rendition of two songs of the film ('The Tango of the Shampoo Girls' and 'At Night'), the passing of shoes becoming swifter and swifter, the pace accelerating, and we start to notice that the same shoes, the same dresses, are reappearing. In the mall women are not going from A to B but round and round, like laboratory animals. In the course of the diegesis we may recognise some of these shoes - they belong not only to shoppers but to working-class women: the bevy of hairdressers and shampoo girls who work for Lili (Fanny Cottençon), the salon owner, femme fatale and kept mistress of a businessman/gangster. The shoes these young women wear are not only made for walking but for working; they are their uniforms. On the other hand, the first time Lili appears, royally, at 11:30 am, she is seen descending the stairs in a striking red dress, barefoot, a red bag and a pair of red shoes playfully dangling from her left hand. “Window Shopping” interlaces several narrative strands - the most moving being an unexpected reunion between Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and Eli (John Berry), the American who had taken care of her when she was just out of the camps. The film's red thread, however, is the love quadrangle between the Schwartz's son, Robert (Nicolas Tronc), Lili, the young hairdresser Mado and Monsieur Jean (Jean-François Balmer), Lili's protector. (Characteristically, Akerman adds more angles to the love geometry, for Pascale, Lili's best friend, also pines for Robert and at some point Lili makes a spectacular exit on Eli's arm.) In a moment of anger at Lili, Robert proposes to Mado. Yet, on the eve of the wedding, Lili makes a no less theatrical comeback. As she hides behind the stage-like red curtain of the dressing room, Robert recognises her by the way she impatiently clicks her fine black high heels. A few moments later, returning to the shop in her wedding gown, Mado sees Robert's and Lili's shoes involved in some erotic dance in the space between the curtain and the floor and understands that she's done for.
An even more scattered narration, “Toute une nuit” (1982)(11) follows snippets of the lives of seventy-five anonymous characters during a hot summer night in Brussels. Lovers on the lam, married couples taking a stroll, teenagers eloping, chance erotic meetings, stolen embraces, one-night stands, lovers parting or being reunited, lonely walks through the city, insomniac's sleepless moments, a cigarette quietly smoked at a street corner. Some appear only once. We are allowed to follow others, ever so slightly, as their stories develop more fully. A few of these stories stand out, including one that involves the only recognisable star of the lot, Aurore Clément,(12) a woman unhappily caught between the love she feels for one man and the love another man feels for her; she paces her apartment up and down without daring to make a phone call, or runs through the streets to stand below the window of the object of her passion. In another, a housewife packs a suitcase while her husband is asleep, walks away, checks in at a small hotel, and throws herself on the bed, still wearing her white suit and high heels. We see her later, carrying her suitcase on a deserted square at dawn, and then sneaking back home and finally into bed by her snoring husband just in time for the alarm clock to ring and for her to get up. Earlier in the film two strangers, a man and a woman, sit at contiguous tables in a café without looking at each other while the erotic tension mounts. When they get up at the same moment, they violently grab each other.(13) A few shots later they are dancing with a passionate and awkward abandon to the tune from a jukebox. As they slowly retreat in the back of the café the women's shoes become visible - a pair of golden high heels, quite improbable for such an occasion.
Realism is not what governs the subtle choreography of “Toute une nuit”. The film is constructed like a musical, structured by its soundtrack as much as by Akerman's lauded visual compositions. The mood is given by a few musical numbers whose source is sometimes diegetic (the jukebox), sometimes not. Gino Lorenzi's “L'Amore Perdonera”, a syrupy Italian love song, is overlaid over two crucial sequences - the faux closure of the Aurore Clément story (she dances with one man while whispering in his ear how much she loves the other one) and the little girl dancing (see below). The soundtrack is a multi-layered symphony populated by the tunes and noises of the city and the ever-present sound of footsteps.
All the women in the film, young and old, pretty or plain, wear high heels and can't move without being 'betrayed' by their constant clicking. Akerman plays on this in two different sequences. A woman goes down a flight of stairs, having removed her shoes to escape unnoticed, and joins a man waiting for her outside. Another, in the morning of a one-night stand with a younger man, attempts to sneak out from his house on tiptoes but is caught by her lover and an awkward but sweet exchange of first names follows. Akerman also pays attention to children's footwear. In a disturbing sequence, a tomboyish little girl enters a café where a lonely middle-aged man is drinking himself to an alcoholic torpor. The only markers of the child's femininity are her little red boots, quickly glanced at (no boy would wear these), and her voice when she invites the man to dance. Accepting, the man is embarrassed, not knowing what to do with his body, his hands reduced to caressing the little girl's short black hair as she snuggles up to him. Then, as abruptly as she had entered the place, she leaves.
The high heels worn by the shampoo girls, window shoppers and anonymous passers-by in “Toute une nuit” and “Window Shopping” are as artificial and 'theatrical' as tap-dancing shoes in American musicals and fulfil a similar function: they provide a rhythm, a musical counterpoint to the story. Yet, never losing her sense of irony, Akerman acknowledges they can be a bore to wear as well. One of the 'Jewish jokes' of Histoires d'Amérique is passed between two men, but it could uncannily fit (or 'misfit' as the case may be) women.
- Oi! My shoes hurt!
- Why are you wearing them?
- I owe money to the butcher, to the baker, to the landlord. I have two
daughters so ugly, who knows if I'll be able to marry them. My son is a real
idiot. And my wife nags, nags, nags. Each time I come back from a fruitless day
of work and look at my bills, look at my family, at that point, I could kill
myself. So I take off my shoes, and this minute ... it's the only thing that
makes life worth living.
The most famous woman in Akerman's cinema, Jeanne Dielman, does not experience the relief of taking her shoes off - except at the very end of the film. A full-time housewife and part-time hooker, she does a lot of walking, even though her wanderings are mostly confined to a restricted space - from her bedroom to the kitchen to the living room, to the grocer's, cobbler's, post-office, the vendor of notions, the little square, the café where she sits in the afternoon, the entrance where she greets her johns, the bedroom again, the bathroom where she scrubs her body afterwards.(14) It seems important to rescue “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975) from being described as a 'realist' film simply because it explores the semiotics of women's daily gestures as nobody had done it before. Instead it alludes to, subverts and reworks the tropes of genre film. As in a horror movie, the spectator is put in a situation of suspense, experiencing a vague feeling of gloom, waiting for the catastrophe to happen, for the 'monster' to spring out of nowhere and kill. And like a classical musical, it features a glamorous blonde whose clothes, shoes and haunting tap-tap-tap are given centre stage.
Jeanne abides to a strict, abstract dress code. She wears a generic white blouse covered by a blue cardigan, with a black skirt and conservative brown heels. Her colour-coding is unwavering. When working in the kitchen, she puts on a blue housecoat, which she takes off as soon as the doorbell signals the arrival of a john. When she goes out, she has a light-blue coat on. In bed she wears a white nightgown, and when she goes to the kitchen to polish her son's shoes and prepare the coffee in the morning she puts on a blue bathrobe, slightly shorter than the nightgown, with a pair of short-heel light-brown slippers. Between breakfast and the moment she says goodbye to her son, she has managed to slip back into her full 'dowdy-but-formal' attire. Never seen barefoot (as Akerman elides the bedroom scenes, but one), Jeanne is constantly accompanied by the clicking of her shoes or slippers that resonate in the empty apartment for her ears only, or signify, at different moments, femininity-for-sale or loving-but-distant motherhood.
Jeanne is shown as lacking a language of her own (she's unable to talk about herself, as her son, Sylvain, keeps entreating her to do with an earnest and boyish insistence that will monstrously develop into Simon's feverish questioning of Ariane). It is as if the musical tap-tap-tap of her heels was her only form of aural expression.(15) She clings to it, as a signifier of both her identity and her lost dignity. From the little she reveals, one surmises that this loss occurred before her husband died, before she started turning tricks in the afternoon. What happened to Jeanne and her family during the war? What or who killed her parents, forcing her to live a dull life in her aunts' house? Why is it that nothing seems to matter, as if everything had been rendered insignificant by an overwhelming catastrophe? One Jeanne echoes another, and one is reminded of Mrs. Schwartz (also played by Seyrig), whose heart was 'dead' after what she'd seen in the camps leading her to choose a dull life with a man she didn't really love rather than passion with the American soldier.
As Jeanne Schwartz says, 'as long as there is food to eat', or as her husband adds, as long as people buy clothes, things will be okay. For the alternative is too horrible: 'If we don't make it through, there'll be another horror. And this time none will be spared.' It is another Jewish joke that 'while Jewish men have the Wailing Wall, Jewish women have their families'.(16) Families to cry over, indeed, but also to feed, clothes, hold together and manage. While Jeanne's ancestors may have walked miles in the Polish or German plains to find food for their children, she matter-of-factly turns tricks to feed her son. This is what a good Jewish mother should be able to do.
Jeanne Dielman is an Ashkenazi Jew; her family and Akerman's come from the same parts of Europe - they share the same history, but not the same daily habits. 'When I started working on “D'Est”', Akerman recounts, 'I was surprised to see that at home, people were wearing bathrobes and slippers. In my family, in Brussels, we used to change into such clothes as soon as we got home, but nobody else I knew did the same. I found the origin of that custom in Eastern Europe.'(17) While Jeanne peels potatoes in real time, the way she dresses is not entirely 'realistic'. And maybe, in our excitement at seeing women's work represented so accurately for the first time, we forgot the specific work of the filmic text itself, we jumped to conclusions about the referent (a mistake common to 'misrepresented' people) instead of focusing on Akerman's masterful command of cinematic signs. The real-time filming of some actions - such as similar moments in Jean Eustache's “The Mother and the Whore” (1973) - was not meant to have a documentary value but to convey a certain quality of emotion, a certain essential truth about Jeanne's inner life and maybe ours. Cinema works through visual and aural means to communicate the invisible and the inaudible. A blue cardigan and a pair of shoes sometimes say more about human life than the Kierkegaard aphorisms that young Michèle earnestly quotes to Paul.
Jeanne's formal-wear, especially her shoes and slippers, are the corset that holds her soul together, the dam that prevents abjection and disorder from pouring into her life. For we know all too well who the women are who went barefoot in history - those who lost everything in a pogrom, those who left their suitcases at the entrance of the camp, those who went naked to the gas chambers. And as the other Jeanne (Schwartz) fiercely hopes, 'that won't ever happen again. Never again.'
Yet catastrophes, even minor ones, do happen. A john stays too long, the potatoes burn, my son speaks with a Flemish accent and is slipping away from me, an unexpected orgasm shatters my body, and here I am, trying to repair my composure with this idiot in my bed. In the last ten minutes of the film, Jeanne never puts her shoes back. When she goes around the bed to stab the man, we only hear the sound she makes when she picks up the scissors. Gone is the tap-tap-tap of her heels, the solemn, sad, yet stylish music that had marked the rhythm of the entire film. In the last shot Jeanne sits silently in the living room, waiting. Comparable to moments in “Je tu il elle” or “Toute une nuit” (always at the apex of a crisis), the drone of the traffic and city noises invades the room. The dam has collapsed; real life is entering, yet too late, Jeanne's world again.
For you can never keep reality completely at bay. The film that most echoes “Jeanne Dielman” is a minimalist documentary (long, uninterrupted sequence shots, no voice-over, no translation), “D'Est” (1993),(18) shot in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is also a film resonant with footsteps. They make a joyous sound when people are crowding the streets wearing stylish footwear to keep on with their busy day, when they go on a family outing, seek the excitement of the night, or go dancing. It becomes more grim when shoes are crushing frozen snow, clicking against icy roads, stepping over freshly fallen snow, wading through slush, or when ageless peasant women, wearing unsightly rubber boots, are picking potatoes in a muddy field. It becomes a sinister sound when emanating from crowds of people waiting in the street, under the snow, at night, in the dead of winter - or in immense waiting rooms - or in noisy train stations. Akerman captures the agony of waiting through relentless tracking shots (some lasting over six or seven minutes). She skips the referent so we don't know what these people hope to find at the end of their wait. Food? Ration coupons? Administrative papers? Jobs? The arrival of a train, of a bus? These moments become instances of pure waiting, multiplied into hundreds of conscious minds. Some read books or newspapers, some knit, some carry children, some sleep, some talk or complain, some stare vacantly ahead of them or look at the camera with absent-minded curiosity. Gone are the smart city shoes and dancing shoes. People are wearing no-nonsense clogs, heavy boots, bootees; they stamp their feet to keep warm or express their impatience; they are going nowhere, they have walked far in the cold to arrive here, and now they are stuck. Nothing is more desolate than the noise of immobile footsteps, giving the space of waiting its typical, unmistakably recognisable resonance.
There are many ways of waiting - being motionless, pacing up and down, or running because you can't stand it anymore. You can wait for love, for the potatoes to cook, or you can wait for the train. And if love comes, or if the train arrives, you don't know where it's going to take you: maybe to another horror. The originality of Akerman's representation of women is that she shows them as active desiring subjects, even when they seem to be repressed or in a position of passivity. Instead of focusing on Jeanne's alienation, why not praise the incredible courage and gumption this middle-aged widow is displaying when turning tricks (as difficult a job as any) instead of despairing or turning to welfare? Instead of seeing Ariane as 'acted upon' by Simon's desire, why not see her as a modern woman who, by loving men and women at the same time (not an easy feat), acts upon her own desires? Whether they are waiting, hiding, cooking or running, Akerman always shows women on their feet. Their shoes, indeed, were made for walking.
Special thanks to Yvonne Rainer who showed me the importance of women's high-heel shoes in “Toute une Nuit”, and indirectly inspired this text.
— Bérenice Reynaud
1. For all her troubles Ariane became Theseus's concubine, but shortly after he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.
2. The name of Françoise is kept from the original novel, as well as that of Andrée, the heroine's confident who, at the protagonist's request, accompanies her in her outings, and Levy, a friend of the narrator who come to return a borrowed book.
3. I you he she (1974), Meetings with Anna (1978), Portrait of a Young Girl from the Late Sixties in Brussels (1993)
4. Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York: Routledge, 1988, pp.62-63
5. Fort-da (gone-there) were the exclamations of Freud's grandson when throwing and recovering a cotton reel to re-enact and master his mother's departure. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, New York: Norton, 1961, pp.8-9.
6. Lit: so they do it all. This is, of course, the title of Mozart's opera - an ode to sexual freedom and cynicism - that appears on the soundtrack of La Captive.
7. Julia Kristeva, Le Temps sensible, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1994, pp.95-96 8. American Stories (Food, Family and Philosophy)
9. The name given to the two schoolgirls also connotes Akerman's love of pop music. 'Michelle... Daniel...' are romantically connected by the Beatles song.
10. The French title of the film is The Golden Eighties. However, when an earlier version of the film, Les Années 80 (1983) was released in the US, it was given the title The Golden Eighties. So the US distributor of the second film gave it the title Window Shopping, which I use in the text to avoid confusion.
11. All in One Night.
12. A quintessential Akerman actress, Clément was the eponymous heroine of Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978), appears as a singing waitress in Les Années 80 (1983), the blueprint version of Window Shopping, and plays Léa, the 'promiscuous' actress who befriends Ariane in La Captive.
13. A similar scene occurs later in the film with another couple in another café.
14. The destination of Jeanne and Sylvain's ritual outings is not shown, and there is an unexplained moment in which Jeanne is figured by a train, but these moments suggest an off-screen space not included in the text of the film itself.
15. The jingle of the anklets traditionally worn by East Indian women seems to fulfil a similar function.
16. Not recounted in Histoires d'Amérique.
17. Chantal Akerman, e-mail to the author, July 2002
18. From the East.
AFTERALL JOURNAL, Autumn/Winter 2002
© 2002 Afterall, University of the Arts London; Berenice Reynaud, Chantal Akerman. All rights reserved.
To meet Chantal Akerman is to experience someone incomparable: a person of uncommon force, capable of wresting a film from a well of the worst production problems, like those that arose during “Almayer’s Folly” (2011); a person of immense vulnerability, to gauge the extent that she offers herself to others, provided they do not represent power of any sort, whether political, economic or symbolic; a creature capable of the most extraordinary gestures, small and large alike. What other filmmaker, for example, would have offered all her resources to her bankrupted producer, as Chantal did for Paolo Branco in 2008? Instinctively – never a matter of doctrine but of living proof – Chantal Akerman lives and acts day-to-day the teaching of Emmanuel Levinas: thinking through the Other. We shall see how this ethics structures a conception of the image. On the one hand, we find iconophobia, that is, the rejection of the idolised image (‘in the Sanhedrin Tractate, it is written: one must not say to another, wait for me by such-and-such idol’ – Maimonides, “Laws Concerning Idolatry”). On the other, figurability: an analytical relationship to the world founded on a deep understanding of the complex interplay of projections comprising human exchange – an interplay that the cinema can legitimately take as its very material.
In the heat of the summer of 2011, although busy with the release of her new film, Chantal Akerman offered all the time needed to elaborate on this interview – which she reread and corrected while scattering I don’t know throughout, to reject, with characteristic tenacity and exactitude, any pretense of mastery. I have organised this wealth of material like a small, private encyclopedia, both alphabetically and chronologically, while interweaving commentaries on the films chosen by Chantal for the carte blanche series offered by the Viennale (The Vienna International Film Festival) and screened at the Filmmuseum. The title of the interview is, of course, a homage to the 1957 musical comedy “The Pajama Game” (the “Golden Eighties” of its era), which, Jean-Luc Godard wrote so well, yields to an ‘unrestrained’ joy in freedom, ‘the pleasure and the need to dance’. (1)
NICOLE BRENEZ: A for Akerman, it’s logical. Let’s give this interview a concrete, historical frame: it’s July 2011, you’ve just finished “Almayer’s Folly”, and we’re talking against a backdrop of violent economic crises and revolutions. How are you taking them?
CHANTAL AKERMAN: I was born in 1950, in a very poor family, but in the context of the post-war era, things were getting better and better, at least in the Western world. Today, it’s hard to imagine what will happen once we’ve suppressed everything that allows people to get by halfway-decently. Or unfortunately, maybe it’s not so hard to imagine.
NB: Do you think that the next revolution could come from the extreme right in Europe, that the Arab Spring could be suppressed by the fundamentalists?
CA: Maybe. Maybe, yes, there are days when I tell myself that. I always believe the worst. Unfortunately, history has tended to give me reason. In 1941, the Americans knew that the war was won, and they started to organise the escape of the Nazi heads with the Vatican. In 1972, they appointed a criminal, an old officer in the stormtroopers, to the head of the UN [Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General from 1972 to 1981]. Power has no soul. You can’t be surprised by anything. Today, the neoliberal lobbies insist that we cut the budgets for education, health, assistance programs for the poorest people – everything that makes the world livable. Two years ago, during the first crisis: I was in Miami, and in the Haitian quarter I saw all the multi-coloured houses closed up and barricaded. I wanted to paint some sheets different colors and write a soundtrack taken from what happened to the people who lived in these houses, and make an installation.
NB: Why didn’t you do it?
CA: When things don’t happen right away, I lose my drive. And anyhow, I had to prepare “Almayer”. But I regret not doing it.
NB: ‘The fall of a European in Malaya. That is what [Joseph] Conrad wanted to write about when he started his first book, “Almayer’s Folly”’. So begins your note on the film’s intentions before shooting.
CA: Yes, the first note. There have been so many more.
NB: For me, ultimately, I saw a film centred around primal feelings, a film about l’amour fou, a portrait of a man in terrible love with his daughter. Is it anything like an idealised portrait of your father?
CA: No, no, certainly not. I don’t think we need to go rifling through my autobiography. It’s imprisoning.
It’s the problem of love in general: is it for the other person or one’s self? Almayer is driven by the love he thinks he holds for his daughter; overwhelmed by his calamitous life, he has nothing else. He represents the anxious, depressed side that his daughter won’t share.
Almayer and his daughter represent two characters and sides of me: the daughter who dares to leave home, as I did when I was a teenager; and the depressed father, who, like me, is immersed in his own sense of loss. We fall back on autobiography. Better not to. Anyhow, that’s how I explain the film to myself, for the moment, and my desire to make it – but everything is always more complicated. Or much simpler.
When I read Conrad’s book, there was one scene that struck me: the father is going to talk to his daughter, so that she’ll stay with him, so she’ll return. It moved me to the point of tears. I don’t know why or how, but I genuinely believed this feeling. It’s not the colonial who interested me. That same night, I saw Murnau’s “Tabu” (1931). And I felt a sort of spark between this scene and “Tabu”. And it was at that spark that the desire to make this movie came about.
NB: What exactly does Almayer want for his daughter?
CA: For his daughter, I don’t know; he needs a reason to live. To exist. What could he give his daughter? Nothing.
When she leaves with a guy she doesn’t love, it’s because anything would be better than staying with her father. It’s her mother who pushes her, her mother’s who’s more practical. Maybe it’s better to get to know someone to be able to love them later on, like it used to be in arranged marriages. Little by little, they can learn to respect each other. Well, sometimes. In the end, I don’t know.
NB: You entered into the field of cinema on your own, without going through a school or institution or group, and little by little you’ve carved your own path through force of will, without ever compromising. How did you get into the sphere of plastic arts?
CA: By chance. I’ve never seen myself as an artist. Kathy Halbreich, who was working in a museum, asked me to do something. I set myself to it. It started like that. I enjoyed it, I kept doing it.
To make ‘art’ is usually wonderful. The art market is another thing. It’s often tied to power, to the phallus – but not always.
In cinema, when you make a film, even for four people, anybody at all can enter the darkened theater; it’s democratic. In the art world, there’s an elitism that reigns sometimes that’s tied to capital. Fortunately, not always. In the Renaissance, the Medicis let Michaelangelo make revolutionary work like ‘The Slaves’. Claude Berri, who, like my father, was a small Jew who came from leather and fur, would get up and say he was looking at his Yves Kleins. They were his. What was he really looking at, the painting or its value? Both, without a doubt; I don’t know. Ultimately, it’s touching.
My father also started to buy paintings at the end of his life. Bad paintings, but he liked them. I find it very moving.
NB: Today the speculators don’t buy the works they like; they put their names on a list and wait to acquire a painting they haven’t seen by an eminent artist.
CA: Fortunately, they’re not all like that. But it’s true, for example, that the paintings sold at auction fetch astronomical prices.
After the revolution – and it really was one – of Duchamp, a kind of perverse spirit has quietly taken hold and now everything is supposed to be art. When Steve McQueen spits on the ground, he declaims that it’s art. I know, it’s a provocation – but not only that.
NB: So how do you manage to work in the context of the modern art market?
CA: It’s turned out that, up to now, I’ve been able to work through intermediaries whom I’ve respected. Not only in public museums, also in private markets. I respect Suzanne Pagé, at one point the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who advises [Bernard] Arnault. There have sometimes been real modern patrons, like Sylvina Boissonnas, the Schlumberger heiress, who sponsored the Zanzibar group and then, unfortunately, the ‘Psychoanalysis and Politics’ Group. Or the De Menils, also from the Schlumberger family who, instead of locking their works up, founded DIA Beacon and transformed an old Nabisco factory not far from New York into an exhibition space.
But in the end, art usually serves the rich – the phallus. Occasionally, there are collectors who are really in love with art. Again, nothing’s simple. Before the war, the gallery owners kept the artists alive – not through speculation, but through love for the artists and their works. Even when it’s exhibited, often in palaces, art becomes just the exhibition of a limitless ego. But, all the same, it’s good that it gets shown.
NB: Jonas Mekas had a line about Mankiewicz’s “Cleopatra” (1963): why all this lavish delirium on-screen instead of just buying a big gold nugget and exhibiting it directly as is?
CA: Ah, I hadn’t heard that one. The Golden Calf. Idolatry. And before the Golden Calf, slavery, the pyramids. We have to reread Exodus, it remains so true.
I’m not on-board with Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2002): art doesn’t serve a powerful purpose, it doesn’t reconcile people with each other. And not European art. I sometimes have the impression that German Romanticism led to the war. But maybe it’s just an impression.
NB: Besides your scripts for “Les rendez-vous d’Anna” (Albatros, 1978) or “Un divan à New York” (L’Arche, 1996), you published two books: one play, “Hall de nuit” (“Night Lobby” L’arche, 1992), and a story, “Une famille à Bruxelles” (“A Family in Brussels”, L’Arche, 1998).
CA: For many reasons, I believe more in books than images. The image is an idol in an idolatrous world. In a book, there’s no idolatry, even if you can idolise the characters. I believe in the book; when you immerse yourself in a huge book, it’s like an event, an extraordinary one.
NB: What books were events for you?
CA: It happened more when I was young. These past few years, one event has been Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate”, published fifteen years after he died. And Varlam Shalamov’s “The Kolyma Tales.”
NB: Two Russian stories that document the war and the camps.
CA: Yes. Always that.
There were heroes in the camps. My mother, when she was 15 in the camp, worked nights manufacturing battle supplies for Krupp. A soldier from the Wehrmacht visited the camps and said, ‘it’s not normal for children to be working at night’, and he moved her to the day shift – but everything else, the imprisonment, the exploitation, the death, all this he found normal! My mother and her aunts were taken care of by an older woman who would save them a bit of bread so they could stay alive. During the death march, when the Nazis saw that they were flanked by the Americans and Russians, they emptied the camps and made the prisoners walk barefoot, or with paper to wrap their feet, from one camp to another. My mother doesn’t realise it, but her aunts supported her when she fainted, and they chewed her food for her so she could eat.
NB: ‘The world is no more, I’ll have to carry you’, wrote Paul Celan.
CA: They were saved by some French soldiers who were heading in the other direction, when they suddenly heard these women talking in French; they stopped, wrapped them in their overcoats and led them to the Bremen bridge on the American side. They brought them to a hospital and fed them bite by bite, which saved them. So many people died by starting to eat again too fast.
BRESSON (ROBERT), “MOUCHETTE” (1967)
CA: The ending of the film, with Mouchette rolling toward the river, is tremendous. With so little, Bresson makes us feel so much about the world: Mouchette rolls alongside all those who have ever been sacrificed; all those who haven’t been just raped but destroyed. All those who have been rolled in the mud.
NB: Mouchette prefers to remain in solidarity with her poacher-rapist and to die rather than stay with the old village dignitaries. She’s in solidarity with her class.
CA: Yes. I don’t know. Perhaps. I only remember the ending. When I was shooting D’Est in the Ukraine, we ran out of gas. Some peasants siphoned the gas from their car to give it to us, but then didn’t want us to leave and prepared a feast. Poor as they were, they cobbled together what they could to offer us a meal of a king. They didn’t know Prokofiev or Shostakovich, but they knew that when someone’s hungry, they have to eat. Stalin himself ‘forgot’ to plan for the plowings, and caused a famine in the Ukraine that led to the deaths of seven million people. Even though he came from there, the Ukraine. Nothing is simple. Those same peasants could still have massacred the Jews in the war. The same peasants or others.
NB: What’s so frightening in “Mouchette” is that ferocious desire to die, this assertion of death. Mouchette tries three times before she manages to drown.
CA: Yes, it’s often like that when one wants to die: keep trying and then it comes. It’s also a film about France, which could be so beautiful and hides a kind of horror. Later, Mouchette is going to be buried, and the land is tied to the killing. It’s why I don’t trust the land. Blanchot wrote a beautiful text on the Jews and nomadism in “The Infinite Conversation”: he affirms nomadism and the book. (2) No land, no killings: Blanchot explains that land equals blood and that the world is nothing more than an enormous cemetery, still bloody, while the book can be a bloodless land. To live without one’s own land is to risk becoming an enormous slaughterhouse. Nomadism is beautiful and it’s heroic. But is it good to be heroic all the time?
CA: I was living in a maid’s chambers without heat. The winter after ‘68, it was frozen. I was living at 86 or 88, rue Bonaparte, and there was no water. Across from me there lived an old couple, a painter and his wife, in two maid’s chambers where they’d lived their whole lives. I had just a small lamp with me that I put on my belly to keep warm. I went to the student’s residence with my foam mattress that was three centimetres thick. I lived there and met plenty of people, strangers, and they welcomed me. Sometimes I’d put my gear in the hallway. Where I stayed, the ice was thick over the windows; I never lived in luxury, but in Brussels at least our place was warm. My father must have assumed all of his, but he let me go; he obviously knew I’d get by. Paris was the city of dreams, the city of writers, and I wanted to write in Paris in a maid’s chambers. Not in Brussels. My cousin was in Paris, and she paid me a little to take care of her baby daughter. I didn’t take the Métro; I walked. But I still don’t know Paris. It’s all been erased.
NB: You treat this situation of poverty and freedom in a lot of your films. “Almayer” gives one example, when Nina runs away from boarding school and wanders through the streets, penniless.
CA: Yes, certainly. You work with your material. That’s all you have.
Later, I lived on the rue Croulebarbe, in the same building as François and Noëlle Châtelet. With Alex, a young man who was studying Chinese and Laozi, I’d go to Vincennes to listen to Deleuze and Lacan. Lacan was really sarcastic, especially with the girls; he’d take up their questions to mock and ridicule them. He was already into his Borromean knots, and nobody understood any of it. Deleuze, I only saw him one time, I don’t remember it well but I remember the atmosphere: lively, impassioned, fun. I met Alex when I was 13, through DROR, the Zionist-Socialist Jewish movement. Alex had a small allowance to live on, and he came to live with me. He had a tiny hotplate, and I’d buy whatever was cheapest, carrots and rice – it got monotonous. There were showers and some underfloor heating that nobody liked. Alex wanted to take me hitchhiking in Japan, but I left him. He was handsome, despite his acne. He committed suicide, and I learned about it while I was waiting in line to see a film. He also wanted to be Rimbaud. He talked very little about himself.
NB: In your maid’s chambers, what did you write?
CA: I wrote “je tu il elle”, but as a novel, not a film. It was only years later  that I made the film. I hitchhiked back to Brussels to see the girl, Claire, who’s in the film, and I had all sorts of adventures with the truck drivers who picked me up. It was dangerous. But that’s how we lived at the time. I also helped my cousin Jonathan to write a play about Van Gogh, and I read Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. And then I cracked. I cut my hair close-cropped, I went back; my father was shocked, it was obviously an act of self-mutilation.
DIRECTING THE ACTOR
NB: Do you recount these episodes of your life to your actors, so they understand the stakes of what they’re playing?
CA: No. I don’t tell them any of that. And when I make a film, I don’t think about any of it. And the film isn’t even tied to it. Here I’m talking, I’m letting myself go. I’m talking because I think it’s what you want to hear. But a film is something else. I don’t say anything much to the actors. I just try to make the right choice. That’s all.
For “Almayer”, we didn’t rehearse, I didn’t give instructions; I gave them a space and they went for it. When they moved, we’d follow them, like in a documentary. They were each free to do as they pleased, or almost.
Rémon Fremont is a great documentary cameraman; it was with him that I shot “Sud”, “D’est”, “De l’autre côté”, and a narrative, “Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the ‘60s”. At the end of shooting, he cried in my arms; he told me he’d never been so happy. Everybody was really happy; everyone felt like they had their own room to breathe and, at the same time, they felt in harmony together. Stanislas Merhar especially, he understood the path we’d taken, but I hardly told him anything: just some suggestions, sometimes in the most discreet ways. While playing, Stanislas would talk about himself, I think, about his own relationship to life – or non-life: I could tell what he was doing and I accepted it. When we first met, for “La Captive”, he didn’t say a word to the crew during shooting, except to me and Sylvie [Testud]. Everyone thought he was haughty but, no, he was just a little ‘autistic’. He came on-stage and could only see his work. We have a very strong relationship, which nothing could ever undo; we each have total trust in each other. The kind of mutual respect we’ve attained makes everything peaceful between us; it will never be betrayed. As is often the case in cinema.
NB: Even for the last shot, which is so virtuosic and intricate, you didn’t plan anything?
CA: Absolutely not. There was no need. We kept Stanislas’ chair moving toward the sun, very slowly. He talked, he kept quiet, he listened to the sound of the river, he looked at me, I told him to keep going; the scene lasted 10 minutes and I selected a fragment from it.
NB: You’ve shown unparalleled energy. You salvaged Almayer from a black hole of extraordinary production problems, like a lot of your work.
CA: My energy comes in fits. I spend half my time in bed. Luckily there’s a window now in front of me, and I look outside. Before, there was a wall. I had my first manic episode at 34. My life changed, something broke down: something of that energy that filled me when I was younger.
NB: What was the nature of this change?
CA: Previously, I had felt a kind of energy in life, with moments of depression of course – but I read constantly, took notes, was curious about everything. Then it was gone … The breakdown knocked me out. Before, I walked barefoot in the street, I brought poor people home, I wanted to save the world. Imagine, I telephoned Amnesty International to try to get them to dig a hole to the other side of the earth, to Siberia, so they’d get out all the people imprisoned in the camps! I wanted them to have 10,000 Socialist Jews brought to Israel to change the government and make peace … But I wasn’t living there, and it’s for the Israelis to know what’s to be done. Not for us who live here, for the time being, securely.
I want the days to end early. I go to bed at 5pm, at 8pm, with sleeping pills. Without complaining. That’s how it is. I cope with my illness. It’s an illness like any other.
NB: So what fuels you? How would you describe yourself?
CA: How would I describe myself? My first response would be, ‘I’m a Jewish girl’. But if you asked me, ‘what does it mean to be Jewish?’ I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I had to leave the Jewish community to get by, and sometimes I miss it. When I see orthodox Jews walking in my neighborhood – leaving the synagogue, with their black hats – I tell them, ‘Shabbat, Shalom’, and it does me some good. It’s stupid, I know, but that’s how it is. They look at me weirdly but they respond, in a low voice, ‘Shabbat, Shalom’. At that moment, I feel like I belong – or the opposite, that I’m looking to belong, even for just a second. It’s a funny thing – besides which, I love Israel, even if it’s its own form of exile. One more type. I feel good there, usually, even if I don’t agree with the government. Even if I know that, for Israel to exist, it has to act like other races. To shed blood, and seize lands.
When you’re with Jews, even if you hate them, there’s something already present, something unspoken there. (Except with self-hating Jews). There can’t be any anti-Semitism.
Still, it was a Jew who denounced my mother. He was a doorman at a nightclub. He’d hidden my family to get money from them and, when the money ran out, he denounced them. He was taken down by the Resistance; he was an Untermensch. Nothing is simple, and whenever I say anything, I want to say the opposite as well.
NB: You don’t hesitate reusing a Nazi term?
CA: No. Not for this man. Maybe I should leave their vocabulary to themselves, but it has left its marks.
My father never wore the yellow star. His sisters hid him in a convent, and the nuns tried to convert him. The Jews don’t have the right to proselytise, unlike the Catholics and Muslims. My grandparents were so naïve; they couldn’t imagine what was going to happen to them, and thought they were being taken off to work. My grandmother’s paintings were stolen.
FILMOGRAPHY (ANNOTATED BY THE FILMMAKER)
“Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town)” 1968
The opposite of Jeanne Dielman. Charlie Chaplin, woman.
“L’enfant aimée ou je joue à être une femme mariée (The Beloved Child or, I Play at Being a Married Woman)” 1971
A failure, lost.
“Hotel Monterey” 1972
I can breathe, I’m really a filmmaker.
“La Chambre (The Room)” 1972
I can breathe but stay in bed. It was done the day after I finished Monterey.
“Le 15/8” 1973
With Sami [Szlingerbaum].
“Hanging Out Yonkers” 1973
Lost. It was on young junkies in rehab centers outside New York. It was really beautiful. I lent it to INSAS [School of Cinema of Brussels] and it was never found again, though not for want of trying.
“je tu il elle (I You He She)” 1974
“Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” 1975
Here things get complicated. I’d done what I wanted to do, so what to do next?
“News from Home” 1976
I love it. Still not free from my mother.
“Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna)” 1978
Tell me you love me, Chantal. (Always my mother.)
“Aujourd’hui dis-moi (Tell Me Today)” 1980
On grandmothers. I didn’t have one anymore; in voice-over, my mother talks of hers.
“Toute une nuit (All One Night)” 1982
“Les Années 80 (The ‘80s)” 1983
“L’Homme à la valise (The Man with the Suitcase)” 1983
“Pina Bausch. ‘Un jour Pina m’a demandé’ (Pina Bausch: ‘One Day Pina Asked Me …’)” 1983
Sadistic horror amidst beauty.
“Family Business” 1984
Charlie Chaplin (that’s me) and Aurore [Clément].
“J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I’m Hungry, I’m Cold, in Paris vu par… vingt ans après)” 1984
My friend and I. A little musical comedy without singing.
“Chantal Akerman (in Lettre d’un cineaste)” 1984
A rose is a rose is a rose, but it’s not an apple.
“Golden Eighties” 1986
It took five years. Les Années 80 was a test-run.
“Letters Home” 1986
Sylvia [Plath]. With Delphine [Seyrig] as the mother, and Coralie [Seyrig] as the daughter. Suicide.
“New York, New York bis” 1984
Lost. Third suicide (Saute ma ville, Sylvia Plath, and now me).
“Le Marteau” 1986
Four minutes long, a commission, the hammer flies. A film on an artist.
“La paresse (Sloth, in Seven Women, Seven Sins)” 1986
Sonia [Wieder-Atherton] works, I stay in bed.
“Rue Mallet-Stevens” 1986
I play at being pilot.
“Histoires d’Amérique” 1988
The Jews. (In exile, as usual.)
“Les Trois Dernières Sonates de Franz Schubert (Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas)” 1989
Schubert: dazzling. Entry into ‘true’ culture.
“Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (Three Strophes on Sacher’s Name)” 1989
“Pour Febe Elisabeth Velasquez, El Salvador (in Contre l’oubli)” 1991
Catherine [Deneuve] recounts the death of Febe Elisabeth Velasquez. At the end, she leaves the shot, as if it has been too much.
“Nuit et jour (Night and Day)” 1991
“Le Déménagement (Moving In, in Monologues)” 1992
Sami [Frey]. Sad and funny like Sami. Child of the war.
An evocation of war. Implosion.
“Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60s à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the ‘60s, in Tous les garcons et les filles de leur âge ...)” 1993
It’s a man’s, man’s world.
“Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman (Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman, for Cinéma de notre temps)” 1997
I was born in Brussels and that’s the truth.
“Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York)” 1996
Death of my father.
“Le jour où (The Day When)” 1997
At its heart, an homage to Godard.
“Sud (South)” 1999
James Byrd Jr. and the road. The road of death. Without a trace – or almost.
“La Captive (The Captive)” 2000
“Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (With Sonia Wieder-Atherton)” 2002
“De l’autre côté (From the Other Side)” 2002
… Smoke and mirrors (the United States).
“Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move)” 2004
Almost succeeded; I should have played the part.
“Lá-bas (Over There)” 2006
Chantal in Israel. Complicated.
“Tombée de nuit sur Shanghaï (Night Falls on Shanghai, in L’état du monde)” 2007
Not going well.
“À l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (In the East with S.W.A.)” 2009
“La Folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly)” 2011
Return to fiction.
NB: You also appear in Philippe Garrel’s “Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights” (1985) and “Les Ministères de l’art” (1988). Philippe is only two years older than you, and you have a lot of the same reference points, Rimbaud, Godard, and the same minimalist, anarchist tendencies …
CA: I don’t know if we have the same references. Young men dream of Rimbaud, not young girls. Anarchist? I don’t see myself in that word. I was there, of course, and I wanted to make films, in ‘68. Yes, Godard, of course, minimalist. I remember when Philippe came to the house to film “Elle a passé” … . I hadn’t slept the night before. He had an old camera, nearly broken. He had to secure the lens with his hand.
NB: That’s why that film is so stunning.
NB: You always talk about yourself in terms of a fille, girl, daughter; one of your self-portraits is titled “Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the ‘60s”, and the main female character in “Almayer’s Folly” is named Nina, petite fille or little girl. Fille signifies youth but most of all a filiation, a heritage. For you does fille mean not to be a femme, a woman?
CA: Possibly. Probably. I don’t know. I never grew up. I was always an overgrown child. Almayer is a father who has a dream for his daughter and maybe for himself in regards to her. I never followed my father’s dream, to have a family. I stayed a girl, the daughter of my mother. In the end, I don’t know.
My sister, yes: she started a family in Mexico. She has two beautiful, intelligent children. My niece is getting married soon and the line will continue. Sometimes I regret not having kids. Maybe I would have gone from a daughter to a woman – but whether that was possible for me, I don’t know. Probably not.
NB: So you determined to remain the girl.
CA: I wouldn’t say determined. But it’s what happened. I was the first child. My mother always scolded me for not eating, she obsessed over food. At three months old, I was sent to board in Switzerland, to eat porridge, always the same porridge, and they knocked my chin against the sink if I didn’t eat it. Things got better when my sister was born. As a teenager, I ate voraciously – which bothered my father, since you had to keep skinny to get married. He was a Jewish father, nine years older than my mother, with three sisters he also took care of, and my grandfather who lived with us. To show us what we should or shouldn’t do, he banged the palm of his hand on the table top.
NB: Something you often do yourself.
CA: Yes, probably. In the ‘50s, parents claimed their own authority; they didn’t want to be friends with their kids.
NB: They were the trustees and guarantors of a law. What values did your parents want to impart?
CA: Yes, the Fathers, in any case. You had to be a good human being. To act properly: there was what one did and what one didn’t do, and in the end it was that simple, even when you didn’t agree.
But, on the other hand, they didn’t encourage me to work at all. My father didn’t pay any attention to school, and for months I didn’t go. My mother signed my report card half-asleep on her bed. They never pushed me to study, even though I was quite good at school. But afterwards, high school was a disaster. Because I was a good student, they sent me to a very wealthy, rigorous high school for the intellectual elite, Belgian Freemason types. I met daughters of doctors, academics and captains of industry. I was an outcast.
My father became a worker when he was 12. On my father’s side, I come from a family that’s tumbled down the social ladder. My family in Poland was rich, and my grandmother was accustomed to a grand lifestyle. Her three daughters learned to play piano. But then they fled Poland with nothing and my father became a worker, a glove-maker, to feed his family.
He would have liked a son in my place, so his name would have been carried on. One day I asked him: ‘Have you seen what I’ve done with your name?’ He’d read a few articles on me, but it wasn’t enough; in any case I wouldn’t perpetuate his name, so disappointment was predetermined.
NB: What was your mother’s name?
NB: Almost an anagram of ‘Liebe’, German for ‘love’. [In Yiddish, Leibel signifies ‘little lion’].
CA: In her family, the most important person was her mother. Her father was a cantor in the synagogue and their marriage, of course, was arranged. My grandmother was already a feminist; she wanted to become a painter and get married on her own. She was born in 1905, and her mother was very religious. She didn’t get the life she wanted – no more than my mother, who admitted as much the day after my father died. With a kind of fury. This time, I was the one who couldn’t understand. Am I the repository of all that? Doubtless – all that, and other stuff, too.
NB: If you go back to your life, your freedom, your creativity – don’t you have the feeling of a kind of reparation?
CA: No, definitely not. What reparation? At first, I thought I was speaking out, since my mother never had been able to – but now I know that’s not it. That I never had a choice. Not really. Well, I don’t know.
I lack that kind of drive to be constantly turning my thoughts into actions … But everything comes from the journal of my grandmother. When I got sick for the first time, my mother fled, but left me the diary of her mother, who came from a very orthodox family. In 1919, at 15, she was writing: ‘It’s only in you, dear diary, that I can confide my feelings and my grief, since I’m a woman!’ She would paint in secret on Saturdays. My mother thinks I’m her heir, that it all comes from her. My grandmother made dresses and drew the models herself. My mother’s dream, before the war, was to learn to draw so she could open a fashion house with her mother. But that dream died in the camps along with so many others, and nothing more was possible.
When I wanted to make movies, my father didn’t want it. He was scared I’d be overwhelmed, that it would go badly. But my mother said, ‘let her’.
The diary was the only thing that was left of her mother. I’ve read it a dozen times. My mother wrote a couple lines in it, I did too, then my little sister as well. A whole female tradition. Thanks to it, my mother never believed that men were superior. Of course, she served my father, she gave him the best pieces at dinner … but not in her head. My father admired his mother greatly; he never said so, but I could tell. I only knew her when she was crazy. She held it together during the war, and cracked after.
One night, I was writing “A Couch in New York” to please my father – thinking that it would bring in money and that money would finally satisfy him. My uncle (by marriage) told me how devoted my father was to his mother (whom I’d only known after she became crazy), more than to their father. That gave me some space to breathe, let me feel somewhat relieved. But it meant I had to save myself. If I didn’t, as a daughter who’s always withdrawn, what would I become? In a clinic my whole life, like one of my aunts.
GODARD (JEAN-LUC), “PIERROT LE FOU” (1965)
NB: You’ve often talked about how “Pierrot le Fou” began your love for cinema.
CA: Yes, it was like nothing I’d seen before. I didn’t know that films could be like that. It gave me the force, the desire, this crazy desire to become a director. But watching it again, I don’t like it as much. Well, it depends. I love the part in the South and that song, ‘Ma ligne de chance’.
NB: And the explosion?
CA: Oh, of course, the explosion most of all. ‘Shit, shit, shit’.
HITCHCOCK (ALFRED), “VERTIGO” (1958)
CA: “Vertigo” is visually sublime, a film about fetishism – that is, on not seeing the other person, making them an extension of yourself, reducing and denying them to feed your own anxieties. There are so many other things to say about this movie.
NB: As Lacan put it, a man can never see a woman.
CA: It’s a nice phrase. But then, what are men and women? For the woman, it has to happen as a fantasy, it’s not sex that makes her orgasm; she can be more polymorphous, like a baby. Patriarchal teaching makes her think it has to take place in the orifices, when it really happens somewhere else, without her needing to fetishise her own sex like men do.
NB: You’re coming back from Cambodia, a country that’s gone through a sort of collective survival. For you, how was this trip through what they used to call the Third World?
CA: I had a great experience. If you don’t know the history there, you can’t imagine. You can sense that a generation is missing, but you won’t see any evidence in the individuals or, rather, they don’t let you notice. Everyone keeps smiling, happy, nice. You end up wondering how genocide was possible. The Jews feel the trauma. What really surprised me was the reaction of the little girl who plays the young Nina. She was six years old, she didn’t want me to leave; when I proposed her coming to New York with me, she asked the translator if I had a good heart. It’s the aftermath of genocide: the most important thing becomes kindness. Natalia [Shakhovskaïa], a cello teacher, would say it, too; she’d lived in a world of constant denunciations where they had to keep the water running so the sounds of their talking wouldn’t be heard. In that kind of world, it’s essential you know who’s got a good heart.
But Cambodia isn’t the only Third World. I never went to Africa, as a filmmaker I couldn’t have; you had to go as a doctor. In Judaism, in principle, images can’t be exhibited; it’s a religion that bans images. It’s got to be part of me: I could never show people dying. I’ve seen it in some films, in those of a young Austrian filmmaker, a dead baby in front of his camera, or even in Depardon’s “Faits divers” (1983) where he films a dead body right after its suicide, while someone asks him to stop. For me it’s murderous, a crime.
NB: Abbas Kiarostami also filmed a child dying in “ABC Africa” (2001). But in the face of catastrophe, what to do?
CA: I can point the way, show the places the bodies are buried. It’s better to evoke, it gets to you and the viewers more effectively. In the end, those literal-minded images aren’t effective, you have to find another path, so that people confronting it can remain themselves and absorb it, actually face-to-face with the images. It’s why I tend to film things frontally.
NB: But a face from the front, against a wall, is a Byzantine, formal schema and there’s nothing more idolatrous. It’s because of the close-up, as Jean Epstein put it, that cinema generates gods.
CA: But it’s material and it moves, even when it seems fixed. And when you avoid low angles and subjective shots, you avoid fetishism. When you film frontally, you put two souls face to face equally, you carve out a real place for the viewer. So, it’s not God-like. You contemplate something that’s fixed. Not an eyelid batting, not a beat skipping.
NB: So your conception of the image is a battle fought on two fronts: on the one front against literal-mindedness; and, on the other, against the production of idolatrous images.
CA: Yes, literal-mindedness closes you off so often. Or rather, it depends what you call literal-mindedness. There’s something for the Jews like ethical order, which concerns the relationship to the Other, something Levinas analysed so well. You’re face to face with the Other. It’s from this crucial face-to-face that your sense of responsibility begins. Levinas would say, ‘now that you understand, you can’t murder’. That’s my idea of ethics. It’s why I want equality, always, between the image and the spectator. Or the passage from one unconscious toward the other.
NB: The cinema creates prototypes for ways of living, ways to reside in the world. In your work, we can see how you constantly interweave two types of individuals: the sovereign individual, responsible for his/her acts, inventing his/her freedom; and the individual who’s a victim to him/herself, prey to moments of total anonymity.
CA: Yes, that’s probably true. It takes ten men to carry a corpse or sing the Kaddish. They can’t be done alone. Besides which, you have to be sure of yourself, without glorifying the individual too greatly. That’s why I’ve been in analysis for ten or twelve years, on and off. I take a breath, I step back. Am I conscious of being an individual? I know that I’m just myself, even though I don’t know what it means to be oneself. My analyst is like a friend of mine; I repeat the same things all the time, stories or situations taken from the Bible – in particular the Judgment of Solomon, in which the good mother is revealed. And of the forty years the Jews spent in the desert to lose all trace of slavery: something the blacks and concentration camp victims didn’t have. The idea is sublime: taking time to shed the traces. Traces of slavery. For the camps, it will take three generations, they say. My youngest niece is sick to her stomach, she’s 27, the third generation. As for my mother, she’s waiting to become a great-grandmother; she’s waiting for the fourth generation.
NB: Since 1995 and “D’Est: au bord de la fiction (From the East: Bordering on Fiction)”, you’ve done installations regularly across the world, for example “Woman Sitting after Killing” in 2001, “Une voix dans le desert (A Voice in the Desert)” in 2003, “Women from Antwerp” in November in 2008. Often, although not always, the material of these installations re-emerges in your films. How do you navigate between them?
CA: An installation piece is cinema without the hassles – that is, without all the humiliating terms of production. It’s free of all the burdens of cinema. I can work alone, at home, without waiting to find the money. It’s artisanal work – practically by hand – which I adore; there’s nothing like it.
NB: How do you ‘install’ yourself in all this material you gather?
CA: The process is much closer to documentary than fiction. For a documentary, I become an empty sponge: if you start off with a preconceived idea, you’ll obtain it – but you won’t see a thing. When I lock myself in with the material for an installation, it’s like shooting a documentary: you don’t know what will happen, you sculpt your material, it arranges itself on its own. And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s suddenly there, it’s self-evident. For fiction, there has to be a structure with a requisite beginning and ending; you can move the elements around, but you can’t change which way they face; you have to follow the thread between them. With installations, I don’t follow that thread, and it’s magical: multiple possibilities can arise while I work out the material, and that material pulls me on. I work on it, it becomes something else, and then I’m there. Creation comes from transformation; the process is liberating and riveting, a pure joy.
NB: What are the differences in your installations, as you see their evolution from 1995?
CA: The main ones are exploring alternate forms to a single-minded fiction, and leaving new spaces open for the viewer. The technical devices have changed, some are more complex. Not all the installations are tied to my films. I conceived the last one, “Maniac Summer” (2009), out of some original images, and some that were nearly random. I wanted the installation to be a series of abandoned films left in-progress, as if marked by persistent traces after a violent dispersion. The ghosts of Hiroshima gave it its underlying structure. Better if I read you the text written for the occasion:
Essentially: from one orphaned film to another, in progress.
Without subject or object.
Without start or end.
A film that implodes.
Between Eden and catastrophe.
In progress. In shards. Shards of catastrophes.
A film that reproduces itself at least four times, maybe five, as it’s taken toward catastrophe, as the speed of light seems to be surpassed.
Like at Hiroshima. And like at Hiroshima, it leaves its traces, but in progress.
A film that explodes and floats before dying.
Next to it, the phantoms still are swaying. They continue their danse macabre.
A film that replicates itself until it has lost its colours, like shadows, phantoms, traces.
A film that comes together in a landscape,
And drifts apart.
From black and white to white and black.
Often almost abstract forms.
That’s how it will become an orphaned film.
Without author, without subject, nor object. Silent.
NB: Your work includes a number of self-portraits, and one majestic figure who totally innovated the relationship between portraiture and narrative: the figure of a mother, Jeanne Dielman.
CA: While I was writing it, I didn’t understand “Jeanne Dielman”. I didn’t understand it until many years later: it was also a film on lost Jewish rituals, not just about an obsessive woman. If she’s so obsessive, it’s to avoid leaving an hour open to anxiety. And when that extra hour arrives, all her anxiety surfaces.
I understood it after the mental crisis and analysis. I wanted my mother to keep the Sabbath, to light the candles; it came from the death of my father’s father (my mother’s father died in the camps), the man who had accepted me as a girl. At his death, I was still little; they took me out of Jewish school overnight, and it was a shock, since it broke off another connection to my grandfather. To keep the Sabbath, for me, meant reviving my ties with this man who had accepted me as a girl. It’s a really beautiful ritual, powerful and even philosophical when you grasp it. The idea of the ritual has to do with the passage from animal to human. According to the dietary rules, you have to know what’s a milk-product, or product of other foods, you have to think before eating. I like that idea. I don’t keep kosher, but at least I know the basics. I know why you can’t eat shellfish: because they never fully developed.
NB: You make me think of Ken Jacobs, who’s explained once that “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” (1969) is a film about a Jewish ritual of sexual initiation.
CA: A lot of sexual rites are made so that men might think a little before fucking women. In Judaism, the man is required to please his wife. If not, it’s grounds for divorce. One of my cousins got divorced for just that reason. Friday night, the man has to please his wife, so that he has to get to know her, for five minutes he has to forget about himself. You don’t have to be a believer to subscribe to that. Unfortunately, the ultra-orthodox have changed all this, and often for the worse.
NB: What was your experience like at the film’s release?
CA: At Cannes, after the screening, the first one up was Marguerite Duras. Right away she tried to dismiss the film. She said that she wouldn’t have filmed the murder, she would have made a ‘chronicle’. I don’t think she understood anything. She said, ‘that woman’s crazy’, so she could relate the character to her own world. I was furious. For me that woman was like all the women I’d known as a child. Were they crazy or was it a way to fight against craziness, anxiety?
Marguerite built up airs around herself that she would promote and flaunt non-stop. With Agnès [Varda], we were sometimes competitive, but Agnès is capable of moments of great generosity toward women, where Marguerite was only capable of generosity to men; she loved them madly. It would have been better if I hadn’t met her. We spent three months together, since “Jeanne Dielman” and “India Song” came out at the same time and were shown side-by-side at all the festivals. Marguerite was often on the bad side, first during the war, then with the Communist Party … but there are these flashes in her work; I went to see “Eden Cinema” (1977) on stage, and it was magnificent. And, deep down, I nevertheless liked her.
Really, it’s always better not to meet ‘the creators’. Whenever anyone tells me, I love your work, I’d like to meet you, I always say: it’s better not to. I’ll disappoint you.
NB: You followed Levinas’ seminars much more closely than Deleuze’s or Lacan’s.
CA: Yes, every Saturday I went to ENIO [École Normale Israélite Orientale] at Michel-Ange Auteuil [subway stop]. Lévinas would interpret the verse of the week. Throughout the whole year he’d interpret the Bible, make a student translate a verse and, then, sitting so small on his chair, surrounded by books, he’d start the exegesis: Rashi, Maimonides, etc … The way we learned was by questioning, negation, but mostly questioning. To go to a yeshiva [Jewish religion school] means learning the art of questioning and negation, and this after millennia, after the Hebrew Bible. The Talmud means learning to discuss, to call things into question, to develop your thoughts.
NB: To acquire a dialectical sense.
CA: I don’t think dialectics is the appropriate word. No. And, anyway, it’s a word that’s too associated with Marxism, even if Marx was Jewish and, one way or another, he would have been rooted in this sort of practice of reflection and still more reflection.
NB: Did you keep any traces from Levinas’ seminars?
CA: No, I didn’t take notes and I forgot everything after my first breakdown. Since then, my memory’s been worse. It was a real disaster, just before “Golden Eighties”, which hadn’t been made as I wanted.
NB: I remember just how out of place and explosive it seemed in the landscape of the time; nobody was expecting such a joyous, colourful musical. That kind of exhilaration ran completely against the dominant taste in auteur films of the ‘80s.
CA: They kept wanting me to remake “Jeanne Dielman”, but I wanted to spurn everything – spurn my father’s name, not repeat myself. I did a number of trial runs for it, and “Les Années 80 (The ‘80s)” and the others are possibly more joyous than the final film, which suffered from a lack of resources, among other reasons. In any case, I was very happy to write the songs. [She sings]
NB: Why did you decide to live in this underprivileged district of Paris?
CA: I don’t consider it underprivileged – on the contrary. I love living in this hybrid neighborhood; I’ve lived here for 20 years, and before that at 107 rue de Ménilmontant. Like every town, there’s a local crazy guy, Gaspard, and the village takes care of him. The building across the way includes 89 different nationalities. I’ve seen children grow up, the building decay; nobody does anything. A young man was thrown through a window, they amputated his leg. Now he spends his life on a bench with a giant radio listening to rap. When I go past him, he always says ‘How’s it going, Chantal?’ Oh, it’s going well. Sometimes he says ‘Madame Chantal’.
MURNAU (F.W.), TABU (1931)
CA: Such simplicity, such economy, such beauty in how it treats its young characters. Such horror toward the persecutors. I love “Sunrise” (1927) too, but in “Tabu” things go worse, the couple doesn’t recover like in “Sunrise”. There’s no good and bad woman.
NB: In “Almayer’s Folly”, the shot of the boat with all the young people asleep seems like a cross between “Tabu” and “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
CA: It’s possible. I don’t have any visual memory, only emotional; I don’t remember exact shots, only what they evoked for me.
NB: Often, when someone asks you a question, your first impulse is to answer ‘No’. Like a lot of writers and artists, you’ve been given a powerful instinct for contradiction; you make me think of Faust’s line in Goethe: ‘the instinct that always says no’.
CA: But no! [Laughing] I answer no when the answers imprison me in a grid, a system of interpretation. And I don’t want to take it, to accept being simplified. But after saying no, I open up. When I know a topic really intimately, I want to take my time to explain it well and open up. I don’t want to hold just one thought; I want to have different thoughts that can play on different perspectives. So I say no when I find myself in the grips of some ‘agenda’ for example. One of the people I’ve really loved to have a dialogue with on art is Lynne Cooke, an Australian curator. She asks questions wonderfully, always in this open way. The first time we met, it was the day after the wrap party for “D’Est”; I’d drunk too much the whole night, I’d barely slept. Suddenly the bell rings, I open the door, and she’s there. I don’t remember anymore if I was even supposed to see her. I didn’t even know who she was. She’s pure in a way without being a purist. And she’s made me think a lot, one of the best thinkers when it comes to art these days, I think.
NB: What contemporary artists interest you?
CA: Richard Serra, always – for me he’s the greatest sculptor, the greatest visual artist. To enter into his sculptures is to forget time and space, to be immersed in a physical geometry, which I love. In music, Kurtag, Scelsi and Monteverdi. In ‘68, Stockhausen’s “Momente” came as a real shock, my first shock of contemporary music. Everything he’s done chorally is very beautiful.
In 1971-3, when I was in New York, I was plunged into the discovery and emergence of all these aesthetic ideas. I especially loved Charlemagne Palestine, Phil Glass ... but now Phil Glass, it’s turned into such a simple system, it doesn’t interest me anymore. The others are still looking.
NOVEL [ROMAN] AND FAMILY ROMANCE [ROMAN FAMILIAL] NB: In “Almayer”, Marc Barbé and Stanislas Merhar represent the two faces of the same father figure, the one an evil wheeler-dealer, the other a passive lover who lets himself get carried off in the dreams of adventure of the first; and both of them taking care of the girl, Nina, in the same ways. Otherwise, we don’t know why it’s Lingard (Marc Barbé) who pays for Nina’s board, rather than Almayer.
CA: I hadn’t thought of that. That comes from the book. But Barbé offers more of a paternal image than Stanislas. He’s the bad father – that’s why I put him in a tuxedo, we imagine he spends all his nights at the cabaret. He’s not an adolescent like Stanislas; he’s a man, with all the bullshit men will float, and the idiotic dreams of money with which he infects Almayer.
NB: In Conrad’s book, the character of the young man, Daïn, plays a much more central role. In the film, we see very little of him.
CA: I shot more scenes with him, but they overloaded the film. In fact Daïn belongs to the dreams of the Chinese man, because he dreams of the best for Nina. I wanted a nice, sweet scene when Daïn meets Nina.
NB: In the book, Daïn leads an anti-colonialist revolt. In the film, you’re explicit that he could have been an insurgent who was trafficking in drugs or arms. The battles for liberation that form the backdrop of Conrad’s book aren’t even hinted at in the film. It wasn’t a loss, diminishing the character so much?
CA: It would have had to go into a history of the country. That would be another film.
NB: Where does the first scene of the film come from? It’s not in the book. Did you improvise it on location?
CA: No, it was written. For Nina’s song, I hesitated before taking Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum’ in Latin, a Christian song in a greasy nightclub – but it’s more amusing and totally out of place. It’s one of the few songs I learned in school.
NB: Why did you decide to play the voice of the Mother Superior, i.e., within the film, the source of harassment and the law?
CA: I didn’t decide to. At the moment of filming, someone said to me, ‘do it’. When I say, ‘he’s one of us’, it’s a phrase from my father.
NB: I thought it was a phrase from Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), that awful refrain: ‘one of us’.
CA: No, it’s a question that my father always asked, ‘is he one of us?’
NB: While you’re shooting, how do you set up a communal lifestyle?
CA: Each film is different, and finds its own life, its own grounds. The rules develop on their own, and are not spoken, even if that means they’re not rules. I don’t need to establish hierarchies. For “Jeanne Dielman”, I got into an argument with a sound mixer. She thought we were going to make the film collectively – it was the great era of Maoism. She would judge Delphine, since Delphine came from the haute-bourgeoisie. But it was Delphine who was taking the most risks for the film, not her. Rules prevent us from living. I go out in my pajamas, I’ve dispensed with fashion. I filmed all of my last film in pajamas. Today, I’m in my pajamas.
NB: You had a follower in Michael Jackson, who showed up one morning in pajamas for his trial.
CA: Michael Jackson was the master of transformations, nothing could stop him from remaking himself.
NB: In the end, nobody could assign Michael Jackson an identity anymore. He was the human being who transformed into a type of transformer.
NB: I remember how the example of Michael Jackson helped certain of my mixed-race students.
PASOLINI (PIER PAOLO), “MAMMA ROMA” (1962)
CA: I love this woman. Her generosity. I feel sad for her when she gives the money to the gigolo. Her son dies like another Christ – that’s a weakness of the film, for me, without a doubt because I have a sort of revulsion towards Catholicism. Unfairly, I’m sure. The film is great, not for its fiction, but its documentary dimension, with Anna Magnani as female character. When she’s walking with the other prostitutes during that uneven tracking shot, clearly taken from a car, and you follow along in her joy and that of the other women – for just this shot, the film is very great.
A PLACE ON EARTH
CA: I look at how determinedly my mother wants to live, even though everything in her is falling apart. She’s got a lively spirit, completely the opposite of me. Because, for 15 years, before being taken to the camps, she could believe in the world. While for me, I was born into trauma. My sister Sylviane and I, we’ve had to take care of her these past three months but, even on a stretcher, when my mother sees a handsome young man, she flirts. Me, I was born with anxieties. My mother never let me negotiate a real separation from her – or maybe I’m the one who couldn’t do it, as I have trouble even existing. When I was little, since I knew how much she’d suffered, I let her have her own space. I would never cry, never say no. Little by little, I’ve realised to what extent, when I was younger, I didn’t have the space to be a woman. My mother still calls me ‘mon amour’ all the time, I can’t stand it. In Judaism, you’re not required to love your parents, only respect them. Sometimes I don’t feel either love or respect and, sometimes, the very next day, there’s too much of it. My mother’s mother died in the camps, so she didn’t have to take care of her when she was old. The last time my mother broke something, she fell down in the night but, thanks to the adrenaline she didn’t feel anything for a little while. The next day, I had to take her to the clinic; I said to her, ‘Mama, you’re not 18 anymore, when you go in somewhere, turn on the lights’; she’s 84, but she was so upset that she refused to eat for five days. There was nothing to do, I told myself: ‘She’s letting herself die, it’s her choice, like the old dogs who’d rather not eat so they can die’. My sister came and, since my mother has a completely different relationship with my sister, she’s started eating again.
NB: You think that your mother denied you any right to existence?
CA: Oh, I don’t know, it’s all too complicated. Sometimes, I think so. Sometimes, I hope for her death – in the sense that she would have to die in me. Not the woman, of course. Just the mother. But, in the end, I know it won’t change anything.
NB: We can infer that your never asking for anything, of being content with so little, even depriving yourself – that this structures both your relationship to the world, and a style that’s characterised primarily by asceticism.
CA: I understood right away that my parents had nothing, that I couldn’t have anything or ask for anything. When I do have something, I have to toss it away, disperse it to the winds. I don’t have any great needs; when I was little, I was always put in the background so my mother could have her own life and room to herself, since she’d suffered so much in the camps. Well, that’s what I tell myself now. In any case, I never showed signs of anger; above all, I couldn’t make her suffer.
I wore my cousin’s clothes, which didn’t bother me. My father put me into Jewish school and, in 1956, there was already a class of parents who had remade their fortunes. Their children got their clothes from Dujardin’s, like today kids buy brand-names. When I was 13 or 14, for the first time, my mother directly gave me the money that my aunts had entrusted to her for my birthday. I went to Dujardin’s to buy a polo shirt, and immediately realised I was being foolish; it was the last time I did anything like that. Everyone was going to the beach at Knokke-le-Zoute, to the same place. The beach was divided up by windbreakers, and everyone would be at the same spot, ‘Viaene’. Everybody would change in the little cabins in the woods; sitting in the beach chairs, all the mothers had on these sublime clothes and sunglasses. But my mother was the most beautiful. All the kids had bicycles. My father rented one for me at five Belgian francs a half-hour. The kids played tennis, but I played ping-pong, because it was free. Their ice cream had three scoops, and mine had one. But I could see how much my father was working, and I didn’t want to ask him for anything, or to reveal anything on the surface. One of my aunts was even poorer, I kept 25 cent coins
The Belgian-born, Paris-based director Chantal Akerman died on October 5th, at the age of sixty-five. According to Isabelle Regnier, of Le Monde, she committed suicide. Neither Akerman’s name nor her work is as widely known as it should be. It is no overstatement to say that she made one of the most original and audacious films in the history of cinema, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” It premièred at the Cannes Film Festival, in May, 1975, the month before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Akerman was younger than Orson Welles was when he made “Citizen Kane,” younger than Jean-Luc Godard was when he made “Breathless.” The three films deserve to be mentioned together. “Jeanne Dielman” is as influential and as important for generations of young filmmakers as Welles’s and Godard’s first films have been. Akerman presented monumentally composed, meticulously observed, raptly protracted images of a woman’s domestic routine—Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) preparing cutlets in her kitchen, for instance. These images prove cinematically that the domestic lives of women are the stuff of art; that women’s private lives are as ravaged by the forces of history as are lives lived on the public stage of politics; and that the pressures of women’s unquestioned, unchallenged, and unrelieved confinement in the domestic realm and in family roles is a societal folly that leads to ruin, a form of violence that begets violence.
“Jeanne Dielman” is an intimate film of majestic choreography. It distills a cinephilic passion—for classic Hollywood melodramas, Godard’s long takes, Jacques Tati’s pointillistic comedy, and Jacques Rivette’s and Andy Warhol’s experiments in duration—into an utterly personal and distinctive form. It takes on the subjects and the clichés of melodrama, such as prostitution and murder—those, in particular, of so-called women’s movies—and extrudes them with a profoundly modern psychological resonance, as well as a political fury.
“Jeanne Dielman” is also a Holocaust film, with a protagonist torn by her memories, as were Akerman’s own parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Akerman’s last film, “No Home Movie,” screening at the New York Film Festival tomorrow and Thursday, is a film of her mother, Natalia, in her Brussels apartment, and among the subjects that they discuss are the events leading to her deportation to Auschwitz and the attempt to return to ordinary life in Belgium after the war.
In effect, Akerman transformed the visual styles and narrative forms, the dramatic syntax and artistic codes of the modern cinema, into a woman’s cinema. Subjecting the art to a kind of free aesthetic psychoanalysis, she worked in a vast array of genres and forms. She made her personal life—and her body—the subject of her 1976 film, “Je, Tu, Il, Elle” (I, You, He, She), in which she plays the lead role, as a lesbian who travels to visit her ex-lover (Claire Wauthion). That year, in New York, she filmed one of the most resonantly painterly and personal city pictures, “News from Home,” the soundtrack of which features letters written to her by her mother. Her 1982 film, “Toute Une Nuit” (One Whole Night), is one of the most delicately choreographed of all love films, a fusion of observational documentary and the bittersweet theatrical precision of Max Ophüls’s exquisitely scathing romances. Her choreographic inventiveness fused with Pina Bausch’s in the 1983 documentary “One Day Pina Asked …,” as well as in the 1986 musical “Golden Eighties,” set in a Brussels shopping mall where the antic and seductive comings and goings are marked by the legacy and memory of the Second World War. (There, Seyrig plays yet another Holocaust survivor named Jeanne.)
She made one of the great cinematic coming-of-age dramas, “Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the Nineteen-Sixties in Brussels,” one of the great documentary self-portraits, “Là-Bas,” and, in 2011, an ecstatic, hallucinatory yet trenchantly political adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Almayer’s Folly.” She anticipated that movies would burst the bounds of theatres to take up residence in museums and art galleries, creating installations based on several of her documentaries, and, in 2008, an original gallery installation, “Women from Antwerp in November,” a fusion of cinephilic consciousness and female identity that seemed like the seedwork for a new decade of dramatic features.
Akerman also made a wildly rapturous, sinuously erotic Proust adaptation, “The Captive,” which came out in 2000. With its fusion of Hitchcock and Mozart, of frozen poses and burning desires, it’s nearly as radical a refraction of melodramatic forms and moods as was “Jeanne Dielman.” It’s also how I met Chantal Akerman.
In June, 2000, after the première of “The Captive,” at the Cannes Film Festival, it had its première screening in Paris. I was in Paris to do research for a Profile of Jean-Luc Godard, and I wanted to talk to Akerman about his work, because, famously, she was inspired, at the age of fifteen, to make films when she saw “Pierrot le Fou.” The listing for the screening of “The Captive” mentioned that Akerman would be on hand for a Q. & A., so I went in the hope of meeting her afterward.
And that’s what in fact happened—but first I saw the film with astonished delight, and then witnessed the Q. & A, which was unlike any that I’ve ever seen, before or since. The audience was composed mainly of young people, of the age of college students or recent graduates, and, after the screening, they were eager to engage Akerman in discussion about the film. A young woman sitting behind me raised her hand; Akerman called on her, and the viewer asked a fairly complex question filled with academic language. Akerman responded sharply, “Is that how you talk to your friends?” The woman stayed silent; Akerman persisted, asking whether the question represented the way that the young woman talks in real life and wondering why that’s the way she chose to talk to Akerman.
It was a hard lesson for the young woman; it was a lesson for me, too. I would have hated to be on the receiving end of Akerman’s tirade—as, if I had asked a question first, I might well have been. If there’s one thing that Akerman achieved in her films, it’s the elevation of private life, of what’s extraordinary about what’s seemingly ordinary, into the apt matter of art. Her work is recklessly, freely personal, and she came before the audience that day in order to have a personal discussion in public. In a few harsh phrases, Akerman changed forever the way I think of—and approach—events onstage. She made me think about what I say and, with her emphasis on the intimate, the sincere, and the spontaneous, made me not overthink what I say.
When I spoke with Akerman in the hallway after the screening, she gave me her phone number and address. When I called her soon thereafter, she invited me to visit and interview her at her apartment, in the Twentieth Arrondissement. There, she offered me chocolates from Belgium. While we talked, her phone rang. It was her mother, and they talked for a little while. She spoke with love about Godard’s films, but she also spoke about the sense that she got from one of his recent films, “JLG/JLG,” a cinematic self-portrait: “You watch it and say to yourself, ‘Oh, my, things aren’t going well for him at the moment.’ He must be really sad to make this film. I’ve rarely seen a film of his that gives me such an impression of sadness.”
It’s inevitable that, in the wake of Akerman’s death, her last film, “No Home Movie”—a title that twists doubly around itself to suggest a movie about no home, about the feeling of having no home—will give a terrifying impression of sadness. Its empty rooms and still foyers, blank doorways and yearning distances, the looming threat of death will inevitably, for now, seem to dominate the passionate and vital energies, the drive for creation and for life that inspire it as well.
THE NEW YORKER, Richard Brody, October 16, 2015