PRINT January 2016

Amy Taubin

Chantal Akerman, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 13 minutes. Chantal Akerman.

CHANTAL AKERMAN’S astonishing body of work begins and ends with explosions—deafening but unseen. In Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), the 1968 short film of which she was director and star, she concludes a manic series of household chores by turning on the gas, lighting a match, and blowing herself up along with her apartment—and, if you take the title literally, Brussels, where she was born and where she lived with her parents at the time. We see a freeze frame of a mirror reflection of eighteen-year-old Akerman, her head bent over the stove, waiting, as we wait, for the inevitable. The image goes black, followed seconds later by a series of booms, each louder than the one before. When the explosions stop, we hear Akerman humming the tune she had sung to herself during her absurdly energetic domestic routine, followed by her voice reciting the movie’s credits. Is the film a satire of female adolescent rebellion or a suicidal/homicidal cry of rage and despair? Inspired by Jean-Paul Belmondo’s flamboyantly romanticized suicide with its last-moment regret at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (the 1965 film that triggered Akerman’s desire to become a director), Saute ma ville can be read as comedic or tragic. In either case, the determination on Akerman’s face, seen in profile immediately after she lights the match, speaks to her agency in creating this apocalyptic fantasy. And in the film’s final, frozen moment, our anxiety, for a split second, fuses with hers.

It was a remarkable debut. And in an even more remarkable finale, Akerman completed two works—a film and an installation—in the eighteen months between her mother’s death in April 2014 and October 2015, when she took her own life. No Home Movie (2015), made with small, off-the-shelf digital cameras, is the last chapter in the story behind the stories Akerman told in almost all her films, prose narratives, and installations: the story of her mother, Natalia—who survived Auschwitz as her own mother did not—and her daughter Chantal, and the ties of love given and denied between them that could only be broken in death. Intimate, but as rigorous in its structuring of time as her career-defining masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), it is one of the rare works of art that is both insistently personal and universal. I have not yet seen NOW, the seven-channel video installation that was commissioned for the 2015 Venice Biennale, but some of the images of Middle Eastern deserts, shot from the side window of a rapidly moving car that sometimes slows down only to accelerate again—changes making us feel the passage of time in our own bodies—were included in No Home Movie. There, they represent the world that the daughter sees and the mother does not, but which nevertheless troubles the dying woman because each day it becomes clearer that the phrase “Never again” is now meaningless. I read that the sound which accompanies these bleak, empty desert images is a thunderous mix of explosions, gunfire, birdcalls, and human cries. When I now read about bombs exploding in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Paris, I think about Akerman, who often traveled the route the terrorists took between Brussels and Paris. She had a flat in Paris, but all her life, home to her was her mother’s apartment. Which is no more.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.