Akerman in Je, tu, il, elle, 1975; image cribbed, with gratitude, from Only The Cinema
About 12 years ago I was at a modest cocktail party—bare office space and bottles—commemorating the hanging-up-the-towel of a veteran indie film publicist. I was in a conversation with a stranger, an older woman who had connections in some New York distribution circles, or something like that, and the name Chantal Akerman came up, and I was taken aback to see the woman sneer. “She’s not a director any more,” the woman continued. “She’s a gallery filmmaker. She makes installation films.” This took me even further aback. Although I had not been able to keep up with Akerman’s work in an entirely steady way over the years, I considered her an artistic and, yes, political hero, and beyond that, I actually actively enjoyed all the work by her that I’d been able to see. In other words, a fan. And no matter what the disposition of her career at that time, there was no reason to dismiss her. That idea held and continues to hold.
I found her latest movie, now her last, No Home Movie, a spectacular experience. Spectacularly trying, in a sense; it won’t do to describe it as a return to her “raw” filmmaking mode of the late sixties and early seventies, as the medium here is digital video rather than celluloid, and Akerman, as a master of cinema, is bracingly aware of the multivalent ways in which the medium is the message. There are a large number of static shots in No Home Movie, held for long periods of time, in which the main point of visual interest seems to be in the video apparatus trying to decide just what the white balance of the image ought to be. The film, a documentary of sorts, addresses the death of Akerman’s mother, or, rather, the presence of Akerman’s mother ultimately opposed to the absence of Akerman’s mother; the movie’s title, No Home Movie, could just as well be No-Home Movie. It hit me hard in part because of my own personal experience this year. But it’s also hard-hitting as an aesthetic and philosophical marker; far from being a film that’s under-directed, as one critic who didn’t care for the movie observed, it is a virtual treatise on filmmaking choices—especially filmmaking choices that are explicitly related to human mortality.
Human mortality: Chantal Akerman’s death, age 65, was announced this morning, as No Home Movie is about to be screened to the public at the New York Film Festival. As I write this, differing account of the cause of her death are circulating in French and British newspapers.
Obituaries will invariably cite her breakthrough feature Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made in 1975, absolutely one of the Great Films and a true experimental movie because it put theory into practice in melding the structuralist film with a more explicit narrative than had been applied to it up until that point; and the movie can still provoke fevered arguments. It’s hardly her only Great Film though. I’m still besotted by her 2000 La Captive, a modern-day Bad Romance extrapolated from an episode in Proust. I believe it remains the greatest of screen adaptations of Proust in part because if the liberties it takes with the source material, liberties that enable Akerman to more fully engage the psychological and philosophical uniqueness of Proust’s work and explore time through purely cinematic means. (And yes, I hold Ruiz’s Time Regained in high esteem, but its approach to Proust is entirely different in that it engages the whole idea of “Proust” as an object for the purposes of a not entirely unserious cinematic pastiche.) It’s also a very mordantly funny film; the sexual jealousy of its lead character is no less maniacal and toxic than that of Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, but its articulation is so restrained and refined as to evoke a different kind of mortification. I also often go back to her early autobiographical films, the “raw” stuff; her New York landscapes of 1976’s News From Home are indelible, haunting. One takeaway from 1975’s debut feature Je, tu, il, elle is the inability to ever watch Cannon the same way again. And that, my friends, is the only funny I can make in the face of this awful news that one of the most vital filmmakers of her or any other age (I think Lena Dunham owes as much to Akerman as she does to Nora Ephron) is gone far too soon.