Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker who introduced a previously unseen female perspective on domesticity to cinema, and whose video installations dealt with personal histories, died sometime during the past few days. She was 65. Her cause of death has not yet been announced.
Akerman’s most important work is widely considered to be Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which she made when she was just 25 years old. Indulging a neorealist impulse, the film depicts a real-life story in which very little happens—Akerman shows the daily activities of a titular middle-class Belgian housewife, who also works as a prostitute, over the course of three and a half hours. As played by Delphine Seyrig, Jeanne peels potatoes, sits in chairs, and wanders around her home as the film builds toward a more dramatic climax. The camera, mounted on a tripod at a low height, remains trained on Seyrig at all times.
Akerman loosely based Jeanne Dielman on a short, experimental film that she had made in 1968 called Saute Ma Ville, in which the filmmaker is shown blowing up her kitchen. Jeanne Dielman is a lengthier metaphor for this, turning the confined space of the household into a prison, out of which Jeanne wants to break. Taking cues from Andy Warhol’s durational experiments and structuralist filmmaking, Akerman lets everything play out in what feels like real time, and places the camera so that we often see Jeanne’s entire body. Akerman once said she didn’t want to cut “this woman in pieces.”
The film came out in the same year as Laura Mulvey’s feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which first introduced the idea that most films took the perspective of the male gaze. Akerman’s gaze was decidedly female, and she continued to use similar techniques to explore women who live in metaphorical prisons in such films as La Captive (2000), an adaptation of the Marcel Proust novel of the same name. Her interest in women in claustrophobic spaces may have come from her mother, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and told Akerman about her experiences living in a concentration camp. (Akerman’s grandmother was also sent to the camps but did not survive.)
Born in 1950 to a poor Jewish family in Brussels, Akerman, though intelligent and driven, didn’t do well in school. By the time she was a teenager, she was learning Latin and Greek, yet received low grades due to a perceived lack of politeness in class. She was more interested in reading and writing—experiencing literature other than what was required for class, that is—than studying for school.
Akerman started making films because she saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) when she was a teenager living in Brussels. This film, she said, was different from other mainstream works because it didn’t have a clear narrative, and she knew instantly that it was art. She promptly gave up her dreams of becoming a writer, deciding she wanted to direct films instead. (In 2010, Akerman, known for being opinionated, said in response to a question about Pierrot le Fou, “And I am so angry with Godard that I don’t even want to think about it. Because he is getting to be such an asshole now, and he is anti-Semitic.”)
Much of Akerman’s oeuvre could be considered experimental, though she also made movies that had mainstream appeal. A Couch in New York (1996) starred William Hurt as a psychiatrist living in New York who finds his practice taken over by French woman played by Juliette Binoche. Though less avant-garde than Jeanne Dielman, the film still retains the feminist subtext of many of Akerman’s experimental works and, like many of Akerman’s films, was critically panned. (In interviews, Akerman brushed off her films’ negative reception.)
Akerman’s films still tend to confuse viewers and critics alike. No Home Movie (2014), an autobiographical documentary about Akerman’s mother, Nelly, premiered earlier this year at the Locarno International Film Festival to boos from the audience. (The film premieres in the United States tomorrow night at the New York Film Festival.) Nevertheless, Akerman’s extensive filmography has earned many defenders, most notably the film critic J. Hoberman, who said she is “arguably the most important European director of her generation.” Akerman recently received a two-year retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art London, which wraps up this month with a screening of No Home Movie.
With its embrace of new filmmaking techniques such as the use of a Blackberry camera, and its emphasis on travel and personal histories, No Home Movie comes closer to Akerman’s video installations than any other film she made. In a 2010 interview, Akerman said that she hadn’t thought of making a video installation until Kathy Halbreich, a curator at MoMA, approached her with the idea in 1990. Akerman said yes without really knowing what she wanted to do at first, then ultimately traveling to Eastern Europe to make D’Est (“From the East”) in 1992. The installation toured the world in 1995, stopping at such museums as Paris’s Jeu de Paume and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
That year, D’Est also came to New York, where it was shown at the Jewish Museum over the course of three floors. Akerman’s two-hour film was played on loop, while, on the floor above it, D’Est was broken into fragments and shown on 24 monitors. Then, on the floor above that, Akerman projected a night scene of a city while a soundtrack featuring Akerman reading from the Bible in Hebrew was played in tandem.
Eighteen years later, in 2013, Akerman brought another major video work to New York—Maniac Shadows, which she showed at the Kitchen. Like D’Est, Maniac Shadows made use of multiple screens and featured a wide array of images, among them shots of Akerman placing boxes in shopping bags, an image of a hamper in front of a toilet, and appropriated footage of President Obama shaking hands on election night. At the opening of the installation, Akerman read from her long text My Mother Laughs, which later became the soundtrack for the installation.
Akerman also brought two video installations to the Venice Biennale—one in 2001, the other in 2015. Currently featured in Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures,” which focuses on politicized art, NOW (2015) is another multi-screen work that was filmed in foreign locales. Footage of the desert is played with deafening sounds of engines, shouts, and pops. The installation is slated to travel to Ambika P3 Gallery, in London, later this month. Other video installations by Akerman showed at Marian Goodman Gallery, which represents her in London, Paris, and New York, and at Frith Street Gallery, which represents her in London.
If installations like NOW seem plain or boring, Akerman has achieved her goal—she always sought to use the everyday to make viewers realize ideas inherent in the world around them. As she said in 1982, “In general, people go to the movies precisely to escape the everyday. If I have a reputation for being difficult, it’s because I love the everyday and want to present it.” Later, in 2005, she would add, “Anyway, I don’t really believe in the difference between documentary and fiction.”