On October 5, 2015, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman passed away at the young age of sixty-five, only two days prior to the U.S. release of her latest and final film No Home Movie. A week prior to her untimely death, I sat down to watch her agreed-upon opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – the film that famously runs about as long as its title. At a whopping 201 minutes, Jeanne Dielman has always been on my list, but I’ve never found the time or adequate amount of patience for three and a half hours of one woman’s daily routine as it ever so subtly spirals out of control. As a cinephile I am, of course, glad to say that I have now seen it. And, though I still can’t say that I loved it, I must admit that it ranks amongst the most ambitious works in all of cinema. And for that it surely deserves all the praise critics and fans continually lavish upon it and its creator.
Call it a feminist document or a study in the breakdown of habitual domesticity, but Akerman’s film is first and foremost a triumph of capturing actual time and space on film. The titular homemaker’s monotonous days unfold in real-time, and Akerman offers her audience no reprieve from every minute detail of Jeanne’s routine as she moves about her flat, accomplishing each trivial task one at a time. Akerman captures her subject in a series of meticulously framed, long static shots. Jeanne comes to life in front of Akerman’s camera, but the effect is as if we’re uncovering this woman’s existence rather than watching a team of filmmakers create it. Of course, Jeanne Dielman is narrative cinema as in its story is fictional, but this documentary-like quality of the film lends an alarming universality to its character’s pathetically methodical life.
In cinematic art, we praise this quality of directors who compose slice-of-life narratives, who possess a keen eye for uncovering the unexpected beauty in the minutiae of the everyday. Most recently, American filmmaker Richard Linklater achieved just that with his masterpiece Boyhood that chronicled twelve years of a boy’s life, but wondrously focused on the moments in between the major events that make us who we are. Likewise, titans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yasujiro Ozu built their careers on this sort of elliptical storytelling. And yet, Akerman’s art takes this notion to new heights. Jeanne Dielman alone may very well be the most complete portrait of everyday life I’ve ever seen on film, but Akerman’s entire oeuvre is filled with this kind of reality-driven, mundane moment filmmaking. Following her most talked about feature, I have since seen both La chambre and News from Home – two of her other notable works from the ‘70s.
While there’s not much to say about La chambre – an 11-minute film that finds the camera circling a cluttered room three times, then swinging like a pendulum passing its subject lying in bed – it is an intriguing experiment in space and camera movement. New from Home, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise and a fitting complement to Jeanne Dielman’s rigorous formalism. The film plays out more like a video essay (akin to Chris Marker’s superior Sans Soleil) composed of carefully framed, largely static shots of New York life as Akerman reads actual letters from her mother written during her time living in the great American city in the early ‘70s. This mundane news from home accompanies these moving images of Akerman’s new home simultaneously painting a picture of vivid urban life while potentially hinting at the isolation this artist must feel separated from her family and country.
Akerman shows us the New York she sees – nothing sensational, nothing grand – simply snapshots of everyday life. And when the ferry pulls away from the harbor framing Manhattan’s hazy skyline in the film’s sobering ten-minute final shot, Akerman captures a portrait of New York imbued with an incredible depth Woody Allen might be jealous of. Thus, based on the mere three films I’ve seen of hers, I believe Akerman possessed an uncanny ability to mine tremendous meaning from images, camera placement, and the effects of time and space without relying upon the traditional signifiers of narrative cinema like no other filmmaker I’ve explored. I suppose, then, it would be appropriate to grant her the somewhat limiting title of an “experimental” filmmaker, but I hope this would never keep interested filmgoers from her work. She was an artist of immense talent, and her observational gaze will certainly be missed in the world of cinema.