Chantal Akerman was one of Europe's most acclaimed and prolific contemporary directors, who came to prominence with Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, and 1080 Bruxelles. Her family history is intimately bound up with the horrors of the Holocaust. Akerman was born in Brussels on 6 June 1950, the first child of Jewish Polish immigrants who settled in Belgium in the late 1930s. Filmmaking, for her, was an imaginative and creative engagement with the silence that weighed heavily on her childhood. Behind the multiple guises of Akerman, this book seeks to present a cinema that crystallises questions that are at the heart of our post-war, post-Holocaust, post-feminist sensibility. It identifies the characteristics of her avant-garde work of the 1970s, the period most closely influenced by American structuralist film and performance art. The book surveys her work in the following decade in the context of post-modernism, the new aesthetic of kitsch and the emergence of a new hedonism in Western critical discourses. It is dedicated to her documentary work of the 1990s and 2000s, which sheds light on the central ethical and aesthetic concerns behind her work. The book discusses her attempts to penetrate into the mainstream, her renewed engagement with the themes of love and desire, and her further exploration of the permeable boundaries between autobiography and fiction. What emerges forcefully in Akerman's cinema, is a persistent engagement with the forms and conditions of human existence.
One of Europe's most acclaimed and prolific contemporary directors, Chantal Akerman is one director notoriously difficult to classify. Akerman came to prominence with Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Her films of the 1970s most strongly epitomise minority position, although the themes of exile and alterity are present in virtually all of her output and resurface strongly in the 1990s, especially in her documentary work. This chapter pays close attention to her evolving film style, and pays tribute to the social, ideological and ethical ramifications of her prolific oeuvre. Her intransigent avant-garde style, manifest even in her more mainstream works, in its problematisation of questions of perception, representation and spectatorship, is a direct correlate of as well as an instrument for the profound questions raised by her work. Whilst greatest attention is given to works that are readily accessible, the chapter also discusses lesser-known films from archives.
The late 1960s and 1970s, during which Chantal Akerman established herself as a leading independent director, can be treated as a discrete period in her oeuvre. It bore thematic focus on various forms of minority culture and its crystallisation of an aesthetic indebted to experimental film practices. This chapter discusses her rich output in this period in the artistic and cultural contexts in which it emerged and against which it was subsequently assessed, most importantly experimental film, performance art and feminism. Each of her films in this period can be considered as an example of a 'critical cinema'. The chapter discusses Saute ma ville, Hotel Monterey, La Chambre, and Je tu il elle, among several other films. The combination of a greater emphasis on narrative and a style still indebted to avant-garde film practices paves the way for the exuberant experiments of the 1980s.
Chantal Akerman, on a suggestion by a Hollywood producer, commenced to do a 'little comedy', instead of her epic historical fresco. It is indeed the comic mode that dominates her feature-length output in the 1980s, from Toute une nuit, an effervescent study of urban love, to the musical comedy Golden Eighties. The fictional work of the 1980s, whilst signalling an important change of mood, also marks a crucial shift in Akerman's cinematic language. Jeanne Dielman and Les Années 80 are parodies and draw on the conventions of the romantic musical. The elegant Aurore Clément in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna and the deliberately clumsy female character in L'Homme à la valise appear as two versions of the director, one idealised, the other comically distorted Akerman. She not only draws attention to the constructed nature of gender identities, but also figuring a self in crisis on the verge of mental implosion.
A radical innovator in fiction film, Akerman also has a distinguished career in the genre of the documentary which forms an integral and important, though relatively neglected, part of her filmic oeuvre. Each of the four films: D'Est, Sud, De l'autre côté, and Là-bas portrays a region caught in political and social instability and torn between the traumas of a not-so-distant past and the uncertainties of an explosive present. Side-stepping language as the main vector of communication, the film thus once again shifts the focus of attention to the body, whose posture and gestures are examined in minute detail in Akerman's customary long takes, and to the human face, which the camera scrutinises like an expressive landscape. In Là-bas, the focus has shifted from the Other to the self, from the silent, sympathetic restraint and listening that made human encounters possible to a noisy refusal to see and let speak.
Chantal Akerman is not a director commonly associated with the depiction of love and romance. In the work of the 1970s, mutual, fulfilled love is largely presented as an absence or an impossible aspiration in the life of protagonists condemned to a life of solitude or errant desire by their nomadism or psychological difficulties. In the lighter output of the 1980s, love and romance emerge as the main driving forces of Akerman's burlesque dramas. Finally, in the narrative work of the 1990s and 2000s, love relationships are once again scrutinised and probed in a variety of combinations, from heterosexual love triangles to adolescent bisexual attraction and transatlantic romance across class and national boundaries. A tension between commercial and experimental forms of film-making informs Akerman's work from an early point in her career. Arguably Akerman's most Jewish film, Demain on déménage is also one of her most explicitly autofictional works.
Chantai Akerman's last short film to date, a contribution to the omnibus L'Etat du monde, is a thoughtful meditation on the state of our world, ends on a typically Akermanian long-take. Though a tireless experimenter with cinematic form and genre, Akerman never pursues formal experimentation for its own sake, but always puts her film style in the service of a uniquely personal and empathetic vision of humanity. Akerman forces upon her spectators a new regime of vision, a critical and independent gaze. The demands she makes , her insistence on the viewing process as an active and embodied act and the various anti-naturalist strategies in her cinema are instrumental in her quest for authenticity . Radically modern, yet haunted by the memories of a past that is no more, her cinema, with its hypnotic rhythms, chant-like dialogues and raw intensity, is animated by a desire for understanding and truth.