On Chantal Akerman

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 07/20/2017

Few films have had such a profound impact on me as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Based on a recommendation from one of my undergraduate professors, I picked up a DVD to watch at home, unable to convince any of my friends to endure a 201-minute feature film about a housewife. But the experience was transformative: never had a film portrayed the inner life of a woman so intimately, and I knew I had to seek out more of her work. (I now recommend this film to my students each semester, thankfully with at least one taking me up on it.) While the Criterion Collection has a box set of some of Akerman’s films, tracking down much of her work is frustratingly difficult; because of this, Akerman’s work is dramatically overlooked and underseen. It’s unfortunate that only until after her death did her films find a wider audience on streaming platforms.

Despite her relative obscurity outside of arthouse circles, her filmography spans six decades, moving seamlessly between fiction and documentary works. Her distinctive narrative approach is influenced by the structuralist cinema of the 1960s New York avant-garde (from the likes of Michael Snow and Andy Warhol). After moving to New York in 1970 from her native Belgium, Akerman began making films that reflected her experience moving to a new country, as well as her position as a woman within a male-dominated industry and art form. Her use of long takes and formal repetition entrenches viewers in her world in a way that’s meditative and disarming. Unabashedly exploring sexuality, gender, religion, and ethnicity, Akerman’s oeuvre is difficult to summarize due to its wide-ranging subject matter. After experiencing much of her work, I couldn’t help but feel I would be fascinated by anything she trained her camera on.

Akerman’s work also explores notions of dislocation, introspection, and familial relationships from deeply personal perspectives. Akerman doesn’t shy from personal experiences, even if she herself doesn’t appear in front of the camera. Her final film, No Home Movie, is a culmination of themes she’s explored over her vast career; she revisits her relationship with her mother as detailed in her 1977 film News From Home, but in a way that feels not like a sequel, but an extension of her exploration of their relationship. In a way, No Home Movie feels like a symbolic bookend to her prolific career, but perhaps that’s circumstantial. I look forward to sharing the experience of Akerman’s intensely personal portrait with our audience tonight.

We screen No Home Movie tonight at the Tigermen Den (3113 Royal Street) at 7:00PM. You can visit our screening page for more details. – AC

Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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