Waking first thing Tuesday morning to the terrible news Chantal Akerman had died in Paris was awful and distressing, a combination of sorrow, pain, and anxiety all at once. Finding out later that day her death was a suicide made it even harder. She was 65, young for a great director these days; her new film was playing at the New York Film Festival the next day. She made her first film when she was 18 years old, Saute ma ville (“Blow up my town”) in 1968, forty-seven years ago, and when I saw recent photographs of her or watched her in an interview she didn’t seem all that different from how she appeared in black-and-white as a teenager in a film she made almost fifty years ago. She was recognizably the same person with the same look and sound and attitude. She seemed as melancholy but as calmly defiant as ever, and I never imagined a world where she wouldn’t still be making films. Jean-Luc Godard and Michael Snow, the two filmmakers she named as her progenitors, are still working, after all, at 84 and 85.
Her place in cinema history is secure because of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the three-hour-and-twenty-minute study of a middle-aged Belgian widow, mother, and part-time prostitute improbably starring Delphine Seyrig that Akerman made when she was 25, after about half a dozen other films. Yet because her films do not conform to feature-film running times–some are shorts, some are features but under standard feature-film running time, and some, like Jeanne Dielman, are quite long–her work is more difficult to exhibit than films by other European auteurs. That is a trait she shares with Marguerite Duras and Agnès Varda, and not with most of the men, better known than her, who have made films in Europe in the same period.
Akerman defied marginalization but not by trying to make arthouse masterpieces in a recognizable way. In that respect, the times have caught up with her way of doing things. But since she’s not here anymore, it doesn’t matter whether the times caught up with her or not. Her last act was to defy a new, post-cinema world of total cinema marginalization by permanently opting out of it. If it makes you sad and anxious, as it does me, that she abandoned her life and her work, perhaps it’s because, as with Fassbinder, Truffaut, Tarkovsky, and Cassavetes in the 1980s, she left us when we needed her most.
About fifteen years ago I interviewed Chantal Akerman before a small audience at the French Library and Cultural Center (as it was called then) on Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay. She was teaching at Harvard at the time and living in Cambridge. I was a movie theater projectionist and a zine writer, living in the horrible neighborhood of Brighton, and the French Library’s media director, Federico Muchnik, hired me to conduct the interview even though there were well-known film critics or film scholars in Boston available. Federico knew I was a fan of her work and I’d mentioned to him how great it was that she was in Boston, how amazing it was, really, that this figure of world cinema was among us, in a town where there was little of cinematic interest going on. I don’t think anyone in Boston but a handful of cinephiles even knew she was there. I don’t recall the local press taking any interest in the fact that the director of Jeanne Dielman was skulking around Harvard Square unnoticed for the towering artist she was, possibly waiting in line for a bad coffee at Au Bon Pain. As far as I could tell, nobody cared.
At the French Library we showed a videotape of News from Home and I longed to be in New York and afterward I started the discussion by asking Chantal about what made her want to start making films when she was a teenager in Belgium. I’d read she had cited Godard’s Pierrot le fou as the film that inspired her to make a film herself, so I added that I’d heard that. She said that was boring to talk about because she had answered that question so many times before, everyone knew she’d said it was because of Pierrot le fou that she started making films.
Instead of making me nervous, or more nervous to be talking with her in public, her diffidence put me at ease. It was funny and it made her seem more like a kindred spirit and less like a remote figure of the cinema. Our discussion had begun and Chantal was introspective, calm, and self-deprecating. She did not care what the people there knew about her or didn’t know, and she treated the Q&A like something she had stumbled into, which was pretty much the case, so she could just talk about anything. Looking back on it, I wonder why she agreed to do it, and the main things I remember her saying were that she did not like to look at herself on screen in the films of hers she had appeared in because it made her too conscious of her physicality, and that when she worked in video she had to try to make the image look worse than it would otherwise because if she didn’t video looked too clear and boring, like everything it captured was understandable and normal, there wasn’t enough interference.
After the Q&A I took her to a cheap Vietnamese restaurant on Brighton Avenue in Allston. I drove her there in my junky car and we ate pho and spring rolls. It was winter, as I remember, and Brighton Avenue was a nowhere strip back then; it had a certain classic Northeastern American urban nothingness to it, but sucked nonetheless, a dirty street in a crappy neighborhood in a boring town. She deserved better. All the restaurants in Boston back then were bad in my opinion, Pho Pasteur was the only one I liked, and sometimes I ate there twice a day. Chantal did not seem to mind that she was eating in a place with photo menus and plastic tablecloths. She told me a story about working with a celebrated actress who was hard to deal with because her head had gotten big since she’d become famous, and she mentioned how much she liked the Samuel Fuller film Shock Corridor and how if that had been the only film he’d ever made it would have been enough. While we spoke I could not look directly into her very pale blue eyes. She treated me like somebody she would talk to anyway, but I was dazed. Chantal Akerman was eating with me in the only restaurant I could stand.
Sitting in the window of that restaurant with her had a real Edward Hopper feel, I can see that now. It really was like something in Chantal’s film Toute une nuit. I didn’t realize it at the time. When we left the restaurant, Brighton Avenue was deserted, as it usually was at night, lit by dim streetlights, and cold. I drove Chantal back to Harvard Square and dropped her off, and I never saw her or communicated with her again. She had given me her address in Paris but I didn’t feel like I had a good reason to write her. I thanked her through the French Library and went back to life as I lived it then, trying to make enough money to pay my rent and find a way out of Brighton, Massachusetts. (“Why do they call it Brighton?” an old Frenchman with a heavy accent I’d often see on the Green Line B train used to ask no one in particular. “They should call it Darkton. It is never bright.”)
It is fitting to remember that Pierrot le fou, Chantal’s touchstone that she did not want to discuss, ends with the lead character’s suicide. Belmondo blows himself up with dynamite at the film’s end, but not before trying to put out the fuse in a last life-affirming moment of doubt. In Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, the three-hour landscape film Chantal also cited as central to her work, there are no people, just nature and electronic sounds Snow added to accompany the camera movements. News from Home is something like that, but Chantal added the people of New York to it, riding the subway and walking the streets, along with her own voice and words from her mother’s letters to her. The film ends with the city seen from the Staten Island ferry receding into the background as she goes away unseen, present but not present.
There’s an interview with her conducted by Nicole Brenez that appears, in David Phelps’s translation, in the online film journal LOLA. Brenez calls this piece “The Pajama Interview” because Akerman talks about how she spends so much time asleep in bed, how periods of depression confined her to it. Brenez points out that Akerman would sometimes direct her films in her pajamas. Maybe the Akerman film most like her life, then, is The Man with the Suitcase, in which she plays a character so irked by her ordinary-seeming male roommate that she confines herself in her room and ends up monitoring the outside world with video cameras. This short feature is hard to see today. If one thing comes out of Chantal’s death I hope it’s that films like that one, along with the amazing Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brussels, Night and Day, I’m Hungry, I’m Cold, Les Années 80, and Golden Eighties (two different films) become more widely seen and better known. To me these 1980s and ‘90s films represent a neglected period in her work between her essential ‘70s films and her more recent work, which she also showed in various forms in art galleries and museums.
In Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Crary, without mentioning or probably even knowing about her hypersomnia, describes her 1993 film From the East as one poised between two worlds, one that is ending and one that more and more we all have to live in whether we want to or not. This landscape-with-people film tracks groups waiting in long queues in the former Eastern bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Crary writes that the film, in its “extended portrayal of certain textures of everyday life,” cinematically preserved a world of collective public spaces and sheltered domesticity where actual encounters can occur, a world disappearing into an all-encompassing, inescapable system dedicated to destroying time and community. The “suspended, unproductive time” (in Crary’s phrase) of ordinary people was Chantal’s subject. She has ended up a Simone Weil of the cinema, as her film je, tu, il, elle seems in retrospect to predict she would, an artist hyperaware and sensitive to the world around her, one she apparently couldn’t take anymore.
In remembering Chantal I combine the wistfully happy, emotionally confused long twilight strolls through Paris the protagonist (Guilaine Londez) takes in Night and Day with Chantal’s own manic sugar-eating in je, tu, il, elle. To me, these are the unforgettable extremes of Akerman’s cinema more than the repressed, unhappy violence of Jeanne Dielman. A few years ago a couple I know, a translator and a painter who did not know who Chantal Akerman was and had never seen one of her films, gave me a poster for News from Home they had found because they thought it seemed like something I would like. It’s hanging in a frame on the wall over my kitchen table as I finish writing this.