I am watching Chantal Akerman talk about No Home Movie (2015) following the screening at Locarno in August. 1 She talks a lot, she doesn’t want to stop. It’s incredibly moving. Only two weeks ago I saw the film in the shadow of her death. I knew she had completed it after her mother passed away not long before she did. No Home Movie is filled with the tension of Akerman’s need to interrogate her mother about things that were taboo for her since childhood. From her first interviews, Akerman repeated over and over again that her mother was a survivor of the concentration camps and that she would never talk about it.

Akerman filmed her mother for the first time (for the public), and questioned her discreetly about her grandmother, a painter, as part of an inspiring and, I thought, hopeful video installation at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris (Chantal Akerman, Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide, 2004). In No Home Movie, Akerman asks her mother much more direct questions about a past that her mother does not want to talk about or maybe does not remember. As Akerman stated later, she never mentions Auschwitz or the Holocaust. She tries to engage her in a real dialogue, usually speaking from off-screen or only partially visible. Her mother does not respond in a way that can satisfy her, and Akerman becomes more insistent and frustrated. She told the audience at Locarno that she had assembled the film from a huge amount of footage. Every shot is stamped with her sureness of framing and, as in all her films, one has the feeling that everything is there (or occluded) for a reason, signs of the daughter’s cinematically formal sphere of control. No Home Movie presents itself as her last chance to engage her mother in what she might consider to be a true exchange, not an evasion, no matter how ostensibly lovingly put, built on lifelong defences. That proves impossible.

I have often felt the insistence of a two-way presence in Akerman’s films, as if an implied questioner were built into what transpires on the screen. I wrote about this in terms of enunciation, as attempted, unspecifiable communication, gender-determined, generation-determined and sometimes, as in the brilliantly executed video installation Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” (1995), explicitly about Jewish identity and the effects of the Holocaust. 2 Sometimes this two-way communication is represented in her films – a meta-representation – such as when Akerman, on-screen, sought out several women similar to her mother who invited her into their apartments and told her their family stories in Dis-moi (Tell Me, 1980), her wonderful contribution to the French documentary television series “Grandmothers”. Her own mother is built into it anonymously: her voice is heard telling the first story in response to her daughter’s question (both heard from off-screen), as we see Akerman approach her first on-screen grandmother:

– Tell me, mama, what do you remember about your mother?

–  Mother was a very, very beautiful woman. She was tall, well-built, very elegant. I remember a young woman. I could not say that she was a grandmother. For me, she was a very young woman. She was 35 years old when she was deported. We stayed with our grandmother. My grandmother made a home for me. I didn’t feel like an orphan because I had my grandmother’s home. She did everything to make a warm nest for us. And then when I came back from the camp, I came back to my grandmother’s. So I didn’t feel like the others who had lost everything. I had friends in that situation, who were horribly unhappy. But I didn’t feel that. Just the opposite, my grandmother did everything for me.

Chantal Akerman

Dis-moi

Two-way communication and the tension of its limitations are literalised in one of Akerman’s best films, News from Home (1976), when her voice is heard reading a series of letters (real ones, we learn from interviews) sent to a daughter, who is in New York trying to become a filmmaker, from her mother, back home in Belgium, trying to maintain contact, sending news about the family and hoping her daughter will write back. We never see either one of them.

Jeanne Dielman (1975) and the films she made before it were incomparably important to me and those around me who were feminists more or less the same age as Akerman because she had stated so clearly that the feminism running throughout her films was built into their very mise en scène and structure, not the subject matter alone. My first encounters with her and her films, in November 1976, were unforgettable and conflicted. Everyone around the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley knew that she was coming with Jeanne Dielman and the films made before it. 3 Professor Bertrand Augst had been circulating a whirlwind of interviews and articles he had translated, and he designed a program leaflet with informative, theory-oriented quotations that made it obvious that anyone interested in feminism and film, or in avant-garde narrative filmmaking, or in new European film, had to be there for several evenings of screenings in the presence of the director. Akerman had made headlines on the front page of the French daily paper Le Monde after Jeanne Dielman screened at Cannes in May 1975: “The first masterpiece in the feminine!” She described it to the press as a feminist film because of its form, not only because it was about a woman. Since so many around me were trying to define what a “woman’s voice” in film might be (some, like me, within the context of the newly formed film journal Camera Obscura), how thrilling to have a filmmaker our age come to us who seemed motivated by the same issues, not limited to attempting to substitute a positive image for a negative one without thinking much about the formal properties of filmmaking. We expected to be challenged by her films and we hoped to enter into dialogue with her.

Chantal Akerman is not famous for being friendly to audiences, although I have seen that happen. But I have seen her openly hostile after screenings in different places over the years. In this case, she could not have had a warmer, more seriously interested or prepared reception than the PFA audience after Jeanne Dielman, but she replied with annoyance to pretty much one and all. Maybe it got better the next night, but by then I just wanted to see more of her films and whatever might happen afterwards. Probably thanks to Bertrand Augst, she agreed to an interview, and answered questions from at least seven women for a long time under the loose aegis of Camera Obscura. 4 Unlike the conflicted manner after her screenings, she responded in detail, trying to understand what the questioner wanted to know, often disagreeing or adding nuance to overgeneralisations. She took everyone seriously, maybe sensing how important these questions were to us. I published a little from that session with an essay on Jeanne Dielman in Camera Obscura, including our point of entry and part of our on-going debate in Berkeley and elsewhere, which is worth repeating: what was a feminist film? 5

CO: We were talking about all the comments that have been made: that Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film, that you are a feminist filmmaker; the quote from Le Monde “the first masterpiece ‘in the feminine'”… Do you consider it a feminist film?

CA: I do think it’s a feminist film because I give room to the things that were never, almost never, shown in that way. Like the daily gestures of a woman, which are the lowest in the hierarchy in movies… That’s one reason why I think it’s a feminist film. And because of the style. Not as much because of the content. But the fact that I wanted to show those gestures as precisely as I could… If you do that it is because you love them. In some way you recognize those gestures. They were always denied and ignored. I really think that the problem with women’s films, usually, has nothing to do with the content….

Later, she went to great lengths to differentiate herself from Michael Snow, when asked about the relationship between Hotel Monterey (1972) and his films, which had figured prominently in her description of entering the New York avant-garde film and art scene, and in getting her to think about, and to feel, something like a changed cinematic language. This led to the vexed problems of trying to talk about differences between women and men.

CA: I was impressed by him but I don’t think I was influenced. I was really impressed – he hit me, at the right point. But I don’t think I am a follower of Snow’s.

CO: You can sense a certain rhythm in common.

CA: But it is an opposite rhythm – he has a very violent rhythm. In Back and Forth (↔) (1969) it’s very violent.

CO: Maybe we’re trying to define too strictly what would be a feminine expression. That’s the problem: how do women express themselves? What differentiates a woman’s rhythm in an art form?

CA: It’s really a hard problem because a man can use these same forms of expression. I don’t know if we have the words, if they exist yet. I don’t think we know enough about women’s film even to… I can talk about myself, but I can’t speak in a general theoretical way at all. I just think that I’ve really reached the right point. That means I agree with what I do. It’s not like I feel one way and the way my work is something else – it’s together with me. But I can’t define it any more theoretically. We speak of “women’s rhythm” but all women’s rhythms aren’t necessarily the same. Some theorists say that it is because we experience sexual pleasure in another way than men do. But I don’t know how they experience it.

CO: You said that you found Snow’s films very sensual…

CA: Especially La Région Centrale (1971). There’s an exciting tension, and it’s lyrical. I can relate to it in men’s work – we are different but not so much.

CO: Do you think about other peoples’ films in terms of whether they are feminine or not, or whether they approximate your own sense of yourself or not? I’m wondering if we can generalize at all about a feminine style?

CA: I don’t think we should, yet.

CO: Are there other filmmakers who you feel are together with their work in the way that you talked about yourself?

CA: I think that Godard is, in his own way, together with himself. And together can also mean dialectically together.

Chantal Akerman

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Looking back on it now, this discussion reads like a sign of its times: we were all hoping that in the future, our future, more could be said about women’s rhythms or a woman’s perspective in the cinema or a feminist cinema, for that matter, but at that point, it was too soon.

The interview turned to sexual pleasure (or displeasure) again when someone asked about the scene when Jeanne Dielman speaks to her son before he goes to sleep, the only time she speaks to him at length.

CA: It’s very strange because really I didn’t know what I had written. I didn’t know that the dialogue with the son would do that [bring out the idea that his mother was thinking about sexuality at the end of the second day we watch her, and she is with second sexual client in her bedroom], because I had written that dialogue in two seconds.

CO: I was really surprised to hear you say that, because the son hardly says anything so I would think you would have been very deliberate about what he says.

CA: When I started to write the dialogue, I knew I wanted to say something about her frigidity. I just wanted to bring in some information. I started to write and these other things came too, without my really controlling it. I didn’t say the things about the penis and the orgasm the second day because of what was coming later on. Well, probably I did, but it was completely unconscious on my part. When Babette [Mangolte] read the script she said, “Oh, right. It’s there in the dialogue with the son.” I said, “Oh yeah?” Unconsciously I had written that for that reason, but I really didn’t know. Which I think is nice because I don’t want to control everything. I think when you have a base and then you write something and you see that it’s much richer than you thought, it’s really fantastic. It’s because you say to yourself that that you were able to let your unconscious speak too. Because that’s really the problem when you write: if you control everything, it’s not good. You have to control certain things, but it has to be wider than what you intended.

CO: Did you rewrite a lot?

CA: The first script didn’t have anything to do with the final one. I rewrote the whole thing. When I write, I write two or three pages a day, no more. I write from about 6:30 in the morning to 8:30, or even from 6:30 to 7:00, I might write three pages. And after that, I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite them. If I don’t like one word, I rewrite the whole page. That’s why it takes a long time.

We knew that the fact that Jeanne Dielman ends up murdering a man caused arguments: some in the avant-garde world saw it as a cheap gesture to win popularity despite the film’s austere formal rigour. Others wondered if it was supposed to be some kind of feminist statement. We didn’t see it as an easy ending, but we wanted to know what she thought.

CO: Last night you were disturbed by the fact that so many people are really upset about the stabbing and want to talk about the film mostly in terms of the death of the man, to find out what that means.

CA: Yes. But for me it doesn’t mean anything. People are always looking for symbols, because we were educated that way. And you can always find symbols everywhere. That’s why someone can say, oh it’s because she [Akerman] hates men that she kills one at the end, or that it’s a revolutionary act, or it can be some other symbol, I don’t know what.

CO: If you didn’t have a stabbing at the end, these kinds of questions wouldn’t be generated.

CA: For me it was the logical end because the film is conceived almost like an ancient tragedy. I didn’t think about that at the time but it probably is. And there’s also… When I showed Liliane [de Kermadec] the script before it was shot, she said “I’m not familiar with the feeling of killing.” And I said, “I am.” I have experienced that very violently toward the end of the day, that desire to kill someone. Not anyone in particular, but in a situation like – if you get up, and there is no coffee, and you are late and you miss your bus and then you get the next one and there are too many people on it…You suppress all that and then you go to school and somebody screams at you. Sometimes at the end of a day, I really feel that I could kill someone who says a word too loudly or something. I’ve experienced that feeling very strongly. That’s probably why I wrote that. A lot of people have said, “It’s a pity to have that murder because the film would have been so much more novel without it.” I don’t think so at all. If there had not been that murder, there would have been sentimentality about the ending. That’s what I didn’t want. When the end is the same as the beginning, it’s boring. It’s clichéd to have no ending. And I also think that, with reference to the hierarchy of images, you can match images that are supposed to be very low in the hierarchy with images that are high in it.

For me, despite conflicts Akerman expressed or internalised, she was a beacon of light shining toward the future. Potential turning points in her style and enunciation emerged in Toute une nuit (1982), Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (1993), La Captive (2000) and the documentary De l’autre côté (2002). Akerman’s entire body of work revolved around impossible attempts to break the pattern of a mother-daughter relationship set in childhood with so many historically charged determinants. On the other hand, her legacy transcends those specific bonds and allows us to see her work in other lights, toward other horizons.

Endnotes

  1. See the video at http://www.pardolive.ch/pardo/pardo-live/today-at-festival/2015/day-13/Au-revoir-Chantal.html.
  2. “Chantal Akerman: Splitting,” chapter in Janet Bergstrom, ed., Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 273-290. See also Janet Bergstrom, “Keeping A Distance (The Innovators 1970-1980: Chantal Akerman),” Sight & Sound (November 1999) 26-28.
  3. L’enfant aimé ou je joue à être une femme mariée (The Beloved Child or I Play at Being a Married Woman, 1971) was not shown; Akerman considered it a failure and never released it.
  4. Participants in the interview were Linda Artel, Janet Bergstrom, Christina Creveling, Cha Hak Kyung, Elisabeth Lyon, Jacqueline Suter and Susan Wolf.
  5. I published some parts of the following statements in Camera Obscura no. 2 (fall 1977), pp. 118-121. Even for those fragments, however, there are differences in wording and ellipses. I returned to the original interview (carried out in English) for the selections reproduced here.

About The Author

Janet Bergstrom is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA who has followed Chantal Akerman’s work closely since 1976. She is working on an archivally-based study of F. W. Murnau’s career and a visual essay for the DVD of Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (Edition filmmuseum 2016).