By Kate Rennebohm
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023)
The Fondation Chantal Akerman and Cinematek, the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, have made available a remarkable find: four early shorts by the Belgian-born filmmaker, produced in 1967 when she was only 17 years old, which are now being exhibited under the program title Chantal Akerman: Her First Look Behind the Camera. Silent, shot on 8mm, and each about four minutes long, these films were made by Akerman as part of her application to the filmmaking program at Brussels’ Institut Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle, or INSAS, where she was accepted but left after a few months, pronouncing the program stifling. What a strange gift to learn only now of these films, whose existence has been entirely unknown even within the large body of critical work on Akerman. Made a year prior to Akerman’s first distributed short film, Saute ma ville (1968), they predate by only eight short years the production of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Akerman’s much-heralded masterpiece and the film that would become, 48 years after its release, the undisputed world champion of all cinema—a fact no one would dare argue about, ever.
I also doubt (with a little more seriousness) that anyone would argue with the claim that this find calls up questions of how to place such works in relation to Akerman’s larger oeuvre. One can quickly and rather banally acknowledge that these films are the work of a very young person, very new to her art, and thus have certain limitations, like occasional difficulties with focus, the odd bit of rough editing, and a tendency to wear the influence of previous artists (here, most overtly, the focus on youth and youth culture so associated with the French Nouvelle Vague) on their sleeves. Yet such a description wholly fails to capture the experience of watching these works. As these fleeting shorts unfold, one is inevitably and acutely aware of a relation between these early outings and the incredibly rich career that would follow, a relation that is no doubt tied, if not reducible to, the historiographical reality that the past is always seen from the vantage of the present.
As a mature artist and maker, Akerman had her own spin on that dynamic: for her, the past—whether at the large scale of historical trauma, or the smaller scale of personal and familial histories—lived in the present. Her work showed the past as alive in the environments and formations of people her documentaries explored, and in the gestures, speech, and interiorities her fictions mapped. This sense of the past enduring in what comes after is what finally characterizes the experience of watching these four short films; in other words, it’s hard to watch them and not feel them projecting themselves forward, not feel them haunting her later works.
When viewing the second of these films, for example, one needn’t claim that a teenage Akerman was consciously working toward Jeanne Dielman, yet the echoes with the later film’s famed focus on the ordinary gestures of women in domestic spaces are fascinating. The short opens in a courtyard (oddly enough, that of the Hôtel de Clèves-Ravenstein, where the Fondation Chantal Akerman now operates, entirely by coincidence), as Akerman films with a somewhat steady hand and clipped editing her childhood friend (and eventual co-founder, with Akerman, of the production company Paradise Films) Marilyn Watelet and her sister Claudine as they arrive by car. Then we are in a domestic interior, as the girls flat-iron Marilyn’s hair before heading out to wander the streets of Brussels, shopping for magazines and other gendered consumer products. Back at home, domestic chores take over: Marilyn shakes and folds a blanket outside, and the young women then wash and dry dishes while Akerman’s camera alternates between close-ups of their hands and medium shots of them at the sink. At one point, these latter shots seem to purposefully fade out of focus for an extended beat—an early instance, one can wager, of what would later be understood as Akerman’s concern with cinema’s capacities for abstraction and the painterly. Close-ups of the two girls’ faces as they joke around and a shot of Marilyn on a bed conclude the film.
If the formal modes that would later become synonymous with Akerman (long takes, fixed camera, etc.) are not yet in the director’s repertoire in this early essai, her awareness of the absence of certain images from cinema’s then-pantheon—namely, those detailing the ordinary and quotidian actions of women—certainly was. The short’s suggestion of household labour as a pretext for female play rhymes somewhat with Saute ma ville, in which Akerman, as the film’s sole character, diligently performs household chores, her efforts at cleaning producing only an ever-greater mess and revealing the potential for a kind of joyful chaos in such quotidian tasks. That the young woman’s actions finally culminate in suicide-by-gas-oven-explosion speaks to some of the darker themes that would increasingly preoccupy Akerman in the later decades of her career, as she worked to come to terms with the historical trauma in her family’s history and her own struggles with mental health; these themes are effectively, and rather poignantly, absent from the four early shorts.
“Joyful chaos” also aptly describes aspects of the first of these rediscovered shorts, which was shot at night at the Foire du Midi, a giant fair that takes place in Brussels each year over July and August. Opening with dazzling shots of an electrified fairground ride spinning against the night sky (think a more kinetic version of Edwin Porter’s 1901 Promenade at Esplanade by Night), this film speaks to Akerman’s burgeoning interest in documentary, which she would develop across her career—in the ’70s structural films Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977); the non-extant documentary-slash-in-house-training-film Hanging Out Yonkers (about a drug treatment and prevention program for teenagers); the loose quadrilogy of films about exile and migration, D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De l’autre côté (2002), and La-bàs (2006); and, finally, in her last feature film, No Home Movie (2015). In scenes that predict News from Home’s shots of preoccupied New Yorkers, the Foire du Midi film shows a somewhat disgruntled middle-aged woman watching a fairground cook frying some unseen treat, a pair of elderly men unwrapping food and conversing on a bench, and a group of scantily clad musclemen posing on a stage. These scenes punctuate the film’s more frequent shots of adults and children partaking gleefully in bumper cars, roller coasters, and fun house rides, as when Akerman shoots various folk trying to navigate a rotating walkway, cutting more and more quickly between the shots to participate in the revelers’ destabilization.
That children are so present in this film—one blatantly funny bit has Akerman reframing away from the bodybuilders to reveal their audience as seemingly composed of rather skeptical-looking kids—does mark it as something of an oddity in Akerman’s corpus. Following 1971’s L’enfant aimé ou je joue être une femme mariée—a mid-length film that Akerman later disowned, in which the filmmaker and Claire Wauthion play at domesticity with a young girl—children only really make an appearance as weighted absences or as representatives from another, unchosen world: see, for example, Akerman playing an unseen neighbour in Jeanne Dielman who drops off a screaming baby for Jeanne to babysit, or listen to her beautiful monologue at the open of News from Home, where she links herself to a long line of Jewish memory and tradition while simultaneously charging herself with betraying that line in her failure to produce children. (The exception that proves the rule arrives in 1982’s Toute une nuit, where, amidst the nighttime lovers populating the film, a few small girls pack up their suitcases and defiantly march alone into the summer night.)
Even in the Foire du Midi short, in fact, one feels that the children populating the fairground hold no more attraction for Akerman than anything else—an impression that is felt especially as the film moves toward its conclusion, in which shots of rides are framed in such a way that their repetitive motions (swings swinging, cars racing by, bobsleds whipping around a Bayern Kurve) tend toward graphic disintegration, producing an escape from visual identification and coherence. However, unlike the similar refrains in the much later La-bàs, which interject shaking and zooming shots of a threatening sky into the oppressive stasis of a film comprised almost entirely of shots of the interior of Akerman’s borrowed Tel Aviv apartment, the escape from identification and order here tends only toward joy.
However, while children have never been common to Akerman’s filmmaking, she has long displayed an interest in adolescence, one which is already present in the two-parter that concludes this recently rediscovered set—though here, of course, Akerman is looking at adolescence from within rather than without. In these films Akerman again follows the teenage Marilyn Watelet, this time as she wanders the Belgian seaside tourist town of Knokke. In the first of the films, Watelet looks at shoes, cars (somehow getting into both a chauffeured vehicle and a speedster), clothes, hats, etc., while Akerman somewhat jerkily reframes and pans to follow her around the city. It’s only on a repeat viewing, and with the ending of the next film in mind, that more depth reveals itself. In the second film, Watelet continues her wandering, but soon ends up in a bright, glass-walled shoe store, where an older woman (played by Akerman’s mother Natalia) peruses and tries on shoes. In a move that would be rare in the filmmaker’s later work, Akerman breaks up the space via analytical editing: we suddenly see a close-up of the woman’s open purse, with a few bills poking out, followed by medium shots of the salesgirls showing their failure to notice Watelet, as she first tries on shoes and then as she circles closer and closer to the protruding cash. When she finally swipes it, just before the film ends, her eyes flit up, meeting what is presumably Akerman’s gaze in a flash of extradiegetic conspiracy.
This conclusion layers various qualities into the two films, the jump cuts that Akerman used earlier to create breaks, hesitations, and repetitions in Watelet’s movement through the streets now falling into place. Watelet no longer seems so simply a consumer, or even a flaneuse; rather, she seems like a figure hovering outside of something, unsure of how to be or how to get in—perhaps suspicious, perhaps lonely. In this, she becomes a particular figuration of adolescence that will reappear throughout Akerman’s work, in which a young woman turns away from the space of family and the accepted institutions of adulthood to move towards who-knows-what. While these liminal figures feature in films that range from Saute ma ville and Akerman’s 1974 feature debut Je tu il elle to the 1984 short J’ai faim, j’ai froid and the 2011 adaptation of Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, Akerman’s deepest engagement with this trope is in her wonderful Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (1994), which was produced for the French TV series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge. In this film, Circe Lethem plays Michèle, an avatar for the teenage Akerman, who cuts school to wander Brussels one day, passing the time with a young man who has deserted from the French military and the war in Algeria (a nod to Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 ). Yet Michèle’s real focus is on her friend Danielle (Joelle Marlier), whose lack of awareness of this fact and movement into the world of heterosexual coupling precipitate the terribly bittersweet conclusion to the film.
It’s hard not to feel that the Knokke films offer up a more direct and somehow furtive view on the interpersonal dynamic Akerman mines in Portrait, as Watelet’s character is both Michèle, wandering and breaking rules, and Danielle, the object of desire of the one behind the camera (Marlier’s casting evokes Watelet’s in the earlier shorts). Here, the inarticulable but palpable relation between these young women reshapes the later film, enriching it but also crystallizing the ache and tenderness felt in Portrait before, in turn, echoing back on the earlier films. And isn’t that enrichment and ache what haunting is? Cinema’s magic tricks have long been able to make appear what cannot elsewise appear, but the joy at such apparitions is tinged with that very lack. Early in the second Knokke film, after a series of shots of cars from which Watelet is uncharacteristically absent, a 17-year-old Akerman suddenly appears in the image: smiling, speaking unheard words, and miming the act of displaying the car for an audience. If Akerman’s mature investigations into the past’s presence were painful, finding largely the harshness of history, this revelation of the past’s presence—a reminder of the possibility of visitation from one no longer present—is pure joy.