PRINT January 2016

Nicola Mazzanti

Chantal Akerman, Hotel Monterey, 1972, 16 mm, color, silent, 63 minutes.

CHANTAL AKERMAN sits in the row of seats in front of me. We are watching the restoration of her 1972 feature Hotel Monterey together for the first time. I’m all nerves. A few minutes into the film, she turns, a big smile on her face: “It is so nice,” she says, “the colors, the grain. It looks almost like 16 mm.” That was what we were striving for, I think, and I relax.

For several years now, my team at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique had been working with Akerman to restore all her films, to produce the best possible copies and make them available again, so that cinephiles around the world could take joy in her images once more. For some of her films, only a handful of copies existed. What few remained were scattered around the world and in mediocre or bad condition. Digital restoration had been the only viable option. Without need for further discussion, we knew we felt precisely the same way: While silently missing the tender fabric and soft breathing of 16-mm and 35-mm images, we accepted the fact that new restorations need to be digital if they are to be widely available for projection—and this was something we both wanted.

Another dark room, not a theater this time: Akerman is working with our colorist. I am standing in the back. I came to witness Michelangelo mixing his pigments. Marianne Marfoutine is a good colorist, very good. Using an original print from 1975 as her standard, she had done an initial basic color correction for Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I thought it was excellent. Akerman did, too. Then, in the darkness of the room, with a few quiet words spoken in that rough, deep voice of hers, she started guiding Marfoutine’s hand, just as Giotto might have guided an apprentice’s. The two women worked first on those unbelievably beautiful yet agonizing greens and browns, and on the dim blues. Then they worked on Delphine Seyrig’s flesh tone—gently, almost tenderly, passionately. Finally, they spent untold hours trying to preserve the nuances of the film’s overarching shadows, until these penumbra breathed the depths of anguish. In the back, I looked on in total silence, and in awe, as I watched what I’d thought already to be a series of exquisite images slowly turn, under Akerman’s direction, into a pure, unforgettable, timeless masterpiece of excruciating perfection. But that should have come as no surprise, for Akerman had been doing this for almost fifty years: creating images that have no equal, films that changed film history, in a way few others have done.

And change film history she did. To my mind, there is no doubt that there is a film history before Jeanne Dielman and one after. Akerman’s other films are no less fascinating—how could we live without Je tu il elle (1976), News from Home (1977), D’Est (From the East, 1993), La captive (2000), or No Home Movie (2015)?—they simply came after. With Jeanne Dielman, cinema was finally able to narrate the time in between, the internal time; ultimately, the nontime. Actually, it was able to make us feel and live the nontime. Nobody had done that before. The task was left to this young woman from Brussels who had dropped out of the local film school because, as she used to say, “they paid attention only to the young boys . . . not to a girl like me.” That’s why she hated being categorized as a “woman filmmaker,” and understandably so. Obviously, only a woman could have made the films Akerman made, but claiming, as many still do, that she was an important filmmaker because she was a “woman director” is simply a way of diminishing her work, of refusing to acknowledge that she stands among the very few directors—of any gender—who are not just part of film history but changed it forever.

“Sometimes I have the feeling of desperate gesticulation. One more film, then another, and another, and all this energy consumed, a way to be in the reality,” she once wrote about her unrelenting desire, her unstoppable need, to do, to shoot, to make the next movie.* For us, there was the perhaps analogous anxious, unabated anticipation of her next creation. A few years ago, we were astonished to watch La folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly, 2011), her rendition of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, a film so precise that all other adaptations of Conrad’s work disappeared from our memories like bad dreams. And just this fall, we were profoundly grateful to be allowed into the intimate spaces of No Home Movie (another apartment, another kitchen, like the ones in Jeanne Dielman and Saute ma ville [Blow Up My Town, 1968], where everything started—with a blast), and we considered this her latest gift to us, but it was in fact her last.

We had been working together on the restoration of her films at a somewhat leisurely pace—a couple per year, perhaps—and planned to do so for many years to come, until all of them were done, brought back to life. Not anymore. Now we are alone in our commitment to finish restoring the rest of her films. We will not stop. We stand more determined than ever. Our world is all the poorer for having been deprived of future films by Chantal Akerman, but we will make sure that it won’t be deprived of her past works as well.

Nicola Mazzanti is the Director of the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels and president of the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes. He is currently at work on the restoration of Chantal Akerman’s 1982 film Toute Une Nuit.

*Claudine Paquot, ed., Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cinéaste (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma/Centre Pompidou, 2004), 11.