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Babette Mangolte

Chantal Akerman with assistant director Marilyn Watelet after the US debut of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

I MET CHANTAL AKERMAN through the filmmaker Marcel Hanoun in New York in October 1971; she was twenty-one and I was twenty-nine. Akerman was looking for a cinematographer. When she was eighteen, she had shot her first film with film students, and now she wanted to work with somebody who was trained; she had had problems with the cameraman on her second film, L’enfant aimé ou je joue à être une femme mariée (The Beloved, or I Play at Being a Married Woman, 1971), and deemed it a failure. Akerman didn’t have to explain why that relationship had not worked out—I had my own stories of feeling excluded and ignored by men in the film industry. The two of us had a common goal to make films that would reflect the world in which we lived. We shared a sense of being ignored, and realized that if we worked together, we might communicate experiences that had not yet been told. We discussed what we could and should do, and articulated the need to invent our own language devoid of references to a world dominated by men—all while immersing ourselves in New York’s creative ebullience. The two years that Akerman spent in the city were important in shaping her tastes and aesthetics, and it was a place to which she always loved to return.

In Paris, two years later, we worked together briefly on a film organized and produced by a women’s group connected to Éditions des Femmes, a publishing house devoted to the writings of women, which also pioneered audio recordings of well-known texts. Akerman (as director) and I (as cinematographer) were confronted with an absolutism that was new to us: I was told by the leader of the women’s film collective producing the project that I couldn’t interact with men at the rental company to secure the camera equipment I needed. Ideology and lack of pragmatism doomed the project, and this failed initial attempt to work with an all-female crew solidified the bond we’d established in the making of her early New York films: La chambre and Hotel Monterey (both 1972). It also reinforced Akerman’s desire to communicate in her films what it is to be a woman. In the 1975 film that made Akerman famous, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Sylvain, the son of the lead character, tells his mother, “If I was a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with.” She replies, “How could you know? You’re not a woman.”

Akerman had met the actress Delphine Seyrig at a film festival in Nancy, France, in 1973. At the time, Seyrig was engaged in feminist video works and had been part of a New York avant-garde scene, starring in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s 1958 cult classic Pull My Daisy. The next summer, Akerman wrote a script inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), hoping to cast Seyrig and Bulle Ogier. I remember receiving the script—I didn’t like it. Perhaps Akerman had misgivings, too; she scrapped it and wrote a short story that became the premise for the script of Jeanne Dielman. Meanwhile, to make sure she had a feature film to her credit, she shot Je tu il elle in one week in 1974 so that she could apply for various grants in Paris and Brussels. Prior to 1975, she and a couple of friends composed the casts of her films. Those films describe emotions and situations that were daring (explicit sex scenes with a hand job and full-nudity lesbian lovemaking; a hotel in which elderly people live in tiny rooms with their doors open), but they didn’t include what scriptwriters called the construction of a character whose transformation led to drama. Je tu il elle was released only after the success of Jeanne Dielman, in 1976.

In every shot, the role of Jeanne Dielman is played with beautifully precise gestures by an actress who was the emblem of sophistication in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Seyrig as Dielman was an example of reverse casting, demonstrating a Brechtian aesthetic distance that raised the story above the anecdotal, to the archetypal—something more than realism. Formal innovation is rarely recognized immediately. But Jeanne Dielman’s success was cemented when its Cannes Film Festival audience was split between those who left the theater early and those who remained and raved about the film’s originality. On January 22, 1976, the day after Jeanne Dielman opened in Paris, the preeminent French newspaper, Le Monde, put the film and its director on the front page—the first time a woman director was thus featured. Even rarer, the film does not seem to age; it still resonates with all types of audiences despite its reputation as an experimental work.

As defined by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the contract between audience and screen is based on a certain predictability in storytelling, which Akerman eviscerated by keeping both the situation and the character at a distance and showing both in long takes, which grants her protagonists transformative experiences that are not in the original premise. Drama is there, but it simply arrives out of the blue. Her films are known for their use of real time, provoking the viewer’s sense of living out the same experience. We become Dielman, trapped in an apartment with only duties and chores, caught in a routine that stifles the possibility of pleasure; ultimately, resignation erupts into sudden violence. The total unpredictability of the final outcome is what is so shocking; as in life, you didn’t see it coming.

One of Akerman’s ways of testing out new cinematic forms was to write, and to do so, she often started by reading. Writing scripts became an important, creative part of her practice. After completing a film, she was always anxious until she had started to write a new idea. She thought of her stories in terms of situations and structures, not as dialogues or images. In many ways, the Conceptual art that she had seen while in New York was a dominant influence on her working process. But she had a clear understanding of dramaturgy, an element mostly absent from the experimental-film tradition emerging from Andy Warhol’s filmmaking. You see a dramatic arc in all her work, from Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968) all the way to No Home Movie (2015).

Akerman’s films often place us in the position of observer. They do not offer any definitive interpretation that tells us what to think or how to look. We are left guessing. But what we see connects with what we suspect must be autobiographical references. Akerman, I feel, masked those references as much as she could, except in the early films in which she herself appears as a protagonist (most memorably in Saute ma ville and Je tu il elle). She had a desire to comprehend where she was coming from. It was how she explained her compulsion to live through the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in the 1993 film D’Est (From the East). The disenfranchised population captured in D’Est represented the twentieth-century diaspora of her Jewish ancestors. She engaged this past in reverse, traveling back to the place from where her parents had departed long before. Her references engaged Israel, where she had family; Europe, where she lived; and the United States, from which she drew energy.

One of Akerman’s tragedies was that she felt that her success at twenty-five meant she would never be able to top her first released feature. And yet, as a cineaste, Akerman had interests ranging from literary adaptions to comedy to autobiography reworked as fiction. She developed her own brand of essay film that reflects the human condition and social injustice in documentaries about subjects far from her life in Paris—illuminated by titles that were organized by place: cardinal directions, locations, spatial markers. Even though her imagination and creative process were driven by observation and reflection, she would also spring quickly into action, especially if she felt outraged by something happening in the world. This was a key element in her desire to make the film Sud (South, 1999), about a modern lynching with a pickup truck. Akerman had read about James Byrd Jr.’s death in Jasper, Texas, and rushed to visit the family for the one-year memorial announced in the newspaper. She was motivated to address and fight racial prejudice. For De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002), she spent six months at the Mexican border in Arizona in order to understand the arguments on both sides and to listen to the undocumented immigrants who illegally cross the divide in search of a better future. In Là-bas (Down There, 2006), she reflected on Tel Aviv as a city under siege, and in her final installation, NOW, for the 2015 Venice Biennale, she addressed the death and destruction of the Middle East’s unending conflict.

Working on different types of films sustained her—some films were completed in a couple of weeks, others were feature films made for theatrical release that took up to a year to write and another year to produce. Akerman shot films inspired by American screwball comedies from the 1930s, like A Couch in New York (1996) and Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004). She also shot musicals inspired by Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, such as Les années 80 (The Eighties, 1983) and Golden Eighties (1986). She could work with both minimal and massive crews, or work all alone with the tiny video camera she always carried with her. Akerman knew how a small gesture could make a large impact. She was a pioneer both in her films and in her foray into media installations, now a standard part of funding experimental films. She was one of the first filmmakers to transform one of their films into a gallery installation, with “Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est,” which toured museums from 1995 to 1997.

As a way of coming to terms with Akerman’s death, I’ve been trying to piece together what friends around her knew about her final months. One cannot help but wonder whether her untimely death could have been averted. Her struggle with bipolar disorder dominated her creative life. First diagnosed in the early ’80s, she was fine as long as her medications were working. Sometimes—because she did not like feeling chemically dependent—she stopped taking them, and then her behavior had the potential to become erratic and self-destructive. When I saw her in August, she told me of her stay in a psychiatric clinic after a violent manic episode. Although she had lost weight, I felt she was improving. She was very happy to see me, but a mutual friend, who visited Akerman often in the weeks before her death, said that she continued to experience anxiety attacks beyond her control.

Olivier Steiner, a writer who met Akerman at the La Maison de Santé d’Épinay, the psychiatric clinic where they both were patients in the spring of 2015, posted an interesting testimony on Facebook (originally in French) immediately after her death was announced. Steiner wrote of bonding over Dostoyevsky. Apparently, Akerman was planning an adaptation of The Idiot for her next project, and she kept on crossing out pages from the book:

We were reading Dostoyevsky and we spoke of the many phrases that could be cut out . . . and we crossed out whole paragraphs and sentences and we were laughing. . . . “Do you want to keep that? Hop in the garbage can,” Chantal was telling me: “To make a good book . . . you have to take out, you have to cut.”

Taking away rather than adding: This explains the simplicity and efficiency of Akerman’s films. Success had imprisoned Chantal, as later her depression would, but it seemed that she could fight back through laughter and action.

How do you recover from the death of a friend whom you have known all your life? You think about what she gave to others as well as to yourself. You remember that her films are there for all of us to see.

Babette Mangolte is an experimental filmmaker, cinematographer, and photographer.