Remembering Chantal Akerman, the pioneering female filmmaker
On Tuesday, Chantal Akerman — groundbreaking feminist filmmaker, video installation artist, and beloved City College of New York lecturer — died of apparent suicide in Paris. She was 65.
Akerman’s films were anything but ordinary; and often pushed the boundaries of visual storytelling in ways previously unexplored. Her work is equal parts dark and profound; each of her films essential for its voice and vision. In particular, Akerman paved the way for female-focused films that tell women’s stories with honesty and complexity — and our world is so much the better for her art.
Her most commercially successful film, 1996’s A Couch in New York, follows the story of a New York psychiatrist and a Parisian woman, who swap apartments after the former feels himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s delightfully odd, and an absolute must-see; but no film proves Akerman’s place in cinematic history quite like 1983’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The movie follows the daily, repetitive life of a widowed mother, and her experience as a part-time sex worker to help make ends meet. (We won’t spoil the ending.)
“‘Jeanne Dielman’ is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,” Nicola Mazzanti, director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, told the New York Times. “There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.”
Akerman was first inspired to start making films after she saw Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic Pierrot le Fou (starring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo) as a teenager. The influence is obvious in her work, which hits similar notes both thematically and visually — but it would be a disservice to call Akerman’s style anything but her own. Her work transcends time, and touches on the human experience in tender, unexpected ways.
Her most recent film, No Home Movie, was a visual essay of conversations Akerman had with her mother, Natalia, about her experience as an Auschwitz survivor. Both of Akerman’s parents survived the Holocaust, and a lot of her work explored themes of trauma and identity. No Home Movie is currently playing at this year’s New York Film Festival, featuring a tribute before the film in her honor.
In Akerman, we have lost a tremendous voice with so much left to say. Her memory lives on through her family, friends, and art; and all the many people she touched with it.
(Image via Wikipedia, No Home Movie, Jeanne Dielman.)