Few directors can truly be described as both artist and film-maker, but the Belgian-born Chantal Akerman – who has died at the age of 65 – is one: someone whose creative vision really does straddle both worlds. Perhaps Jean-Luc Godard, who first inspired Akerman, is a rare example of someone who does the same thing, his work effectively and possibly unwillingly now occupying his own middle ground between cinema and video art.
Akerman’s masterpiece is the deeply mysterious and transgressive interior epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – a subversive feminist work that lets her stand alongside Godard, Luis Buñuel and Agnès Varda.
Across more than three hours and 20 minutes, Akerman shows three days in the apparently mundane life of a lonely and stressed widow, Jeanne Dielman, played by Delphine Seyrig, known from her performance In Last Year at Marienbad. She in fact brings a ghost of Alain Resnais’s own masterpiece with her.
Dielman lives on a humdrum street whose name hints at the oppressive world of money in which she has to live, and feed and clothe her young son. She does dull chores, she cooks, and every afternoon she entertains a gentleman caller in her bedroom in exchange for the presents of money that allow her to exist. Finally, something startling and even shocking happens.
What we see is a static portrait – and yet it is not. Akerman shows us a gradual psychological breakdown that is not slow-motion, nor does it exactly aspire to the edits and cuts that are the habitual prerogative of the movies, the convention that allows a film to jump ahead to what’s important. Akerman tries to give some sense of real time: there are long uninterrupted shots, mostly from the middle distance. We see Jeanne drop a potato, and Akerman allows it to dawn on us that this is a glimpse of something on its way – a crackle and spark of the lit fuse as the flame moves inexorably towards the explosive.
The image of subjection and imprisonment in this film is a vital part of Akerman’s feminist perspective. It is intriguing to put it alongside The Captive (2000), her adaptation – equally enigmatic – of volume five of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which Marcel makes a prisoner-guest of the young woman with whom he is jealously obsessed. Akerman brings out the sense that he, too, is a captive.
Akerman’s rigour and brilliance survives in her fascinating body of work.
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