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By Kate Rennebohm
“I was overcome by an emotion I can’t quite define…but it was very, very strong, and had something to do with happiness. [And after seeing more of her work,] there really have been moments during which I felt I had to defend myself against what was being expressed, moments in the performance when I had to close my eyes. And at the same time, I can’t understand why.”
Toward the end of Un jour Pina m’a demandé (1983), her made-for-television film about Pina Bausch, Chantal Akerman sits on the floor underneath a window and recounts her reactions upon first encountering Bausch’s choreography. That her description above could apply just as well to her own films indicates an affinity between these two women that goes beyond shared themes or sensibilities. Granted of course that sharing is there, and far from secret: a rigorous presentism that nonetheless speaks to a traumatic history, one inscribed in faces, bodies, and landscapes; gender as a line to be probed rather than a division to be drawn; repetition—of movements, gestures, words—as a phenomenological tool for showing the very impossibility of repetition, the ineffaceable singularity of every action or moment.
But in Un jour Pina m’a demandé we see more than just likeness. Just as Bausch’s choreographies rivet the spectator to an ever-expanding collection of mundane movements on stage, movements that blur the traditional division between “dance” and “not-dance,” so Akerman extends that idea via her camera, cutting from the performance onstage to tightly framed shots of the action backstage, where dancers and crew carry on a separate but intrinsically related choreography: arms and hands removing clothing, patting faces, caressing skin. If they ever were, dance and the not-dance of ordinary life are no longer discrete realms, and “ordinary life” is indeed not ordinary at all; and in the action of her camera, Akerman does not record or mimic, she extends the implications of Bausch’s practice, and her own at the same time.
This brings us to the cardinal point, and one in which the past tense can sadly no longer be avoided. Rather than the “or” or the “is,” Akerman was (tragically, was) a filmmaker of the “and.” Un jour Pina m’a demandé is not Akerman on Bausch, it is Akerman and Bausch, cinema and dance (or dance-theatre, in Bausch’s naming). And these “ands” are everywhere in Akerman’s work. As with her use of the serial and the additional in her formal structures, her avowed linkages with other artists—whether choreographers (Bausch, Yvonne Rainer), filmmakers (Godard, Snow), or the canonical authors whose works she adapted (Proust, Conrad)—were a way out of essentializing categories. The difficulty in explaining what “kind” of filmmaker Akerman was, of finding a single descriptor for her, is crucial to her work: she made a career-long habit of rejecting labels, whether they be “documentary” or “fiction,” “feminist” or “queer” filmmaker. Rather than the label, Akerman was an artist of the list—the very home of the “and,” capable not only of containing contradictory terms without issue, but containing them absent any necessary hierarchies. So Akerman was, simultaneously, a documentarian and a narrative filmmaker; a maker of comedies and films of existential horror; a dry, minimalist filmmaker and one who made films full of song, laughter, and joy.
The “and” is, implicitly and unavoidably, a term of continuation. It is the linguistic equivalent of Akerman’s long takes, which remind us that the cut is something essentially arbitrary: a momentary disruption in time’s fragile but ceaseless flow, its palimpsestic accumulation and inevitable losing of words, actions, faces, bodies, lives. And so, even beyond the standard compressions, distortions, and fictionalizations involved in describing a life and a body of work in a few thousand words, the idea of now needing to end Akerman’s list—and of potentially subsuming that life and work within whichever term happens to be last—is anathema. So if we must try and define Akerman, let’s use a definition that she applied to herself. In Autoportrait en cineaste, a 2004 text she wrote to accompany the Centre Pompidou’s retrospective of her work, Akerman writes
Je suis une ressasseuse…. Ma vie est long, un long ressassement.
In naming herself a ressasseuse, Akerman defines herself as one who repeats without ceasing; she is always returning, but also always turning over, finding something new. It is a single term, yet one which refuses containment, refuses stasis, refuses to let go of the “and.” There is already so much death, too much death, for us to allow Akerman’s death to end that long ressassement that was her work.
And so, we focus on the “and.”
While Akerman rejected labels, however, that doesn’t mean she didn’t think that they were sometimes right—it’s just that, as she said in an interview with Dennis Lim, they are never right enough. The question of feminism has always been particularly fraught when it comes to Akerman, as her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) became a central text for that historical moment’s newly minted meeting of feminist thought and film theory. While Akerman conceded that what Jeanne Dielman showed (the domestic space, a housewife’s tasks, the isolation, the repetition, the desperate ordering of time) and how it showed it (static camera, medium and long shots only, no reverse shots, overtly composed and frontal framing) did indeed make it a feminist film, it was arguably just as important for its demonstration of the rich potential of Akerman’s conjunctive approach. This is most evident in the film’s consummate mixing of the concerns of two seemingly divergent avant-gardes: the North American fascination with stripping film down to the material essence of the medium, and the continental interest in cinema’s role in social and representational codes and norms.
Several commentators have linked the obsessive, regimented movements of Delphine Seyrig’s Dielman to the work of dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer (which Akerman first encountered upon moving to New York in the early ’70s) and her concept of choreographing via “task-oriented” movements. This concern with the body and its disposition in space was intrinsic to Akerman’s work from the outset. Her first feature, Je tu il elle (1974), traverses the poles of Jeanne Dielman’s regimentation and Un jour Pina m’a demandé’s ecstatic release as it follows a young woman (performed by Akerman herself) who departs from a space of repetitive actions and opaque investigations—how many different positions can a body and a mattress occupy in a room?—for a space of uncontainable dynamism (a percussive pas de deux between two women’s bodies) before moving on to yet more spaces. (This latter sequence, with its series of passionate interconnections, already gives evidence of what Akerman would respond to in Bausch’s choreography. Toute une nuit , made shortly after her introduction to Bausch, offers fragmented scenes of lovers coming together and apart, with the characters hurling themselves at each other as Pina’s dancers do, as if they could break through the skin separating them could they but gather enough velocity.)
The long-take/fixed-camera strategy Akerman employed so memorably in Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman is almost certainly her most influential contribution to the stylistic vocabulary of art cinema, though her use of it has a philosophical weight rarely found in those of its latter-day practitioners. (Moreso than the oft-cited Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, Julia Loktev is one of the most provocative present-day heirs of not only the style but the structures and concerns of Akerman’s ’70s work.) In Nothing Happens, her seminal book on Akerman’s work, Ivone Margulies dubs Akerman’s cinema “hyperrealist,” a term that houses a complex set of meanings. One iteration aligns Akerman with Andy Warhol and the mid-century purveyors of the nouveau roman: an attitude that approaches the image and the word not as representations or mirrors of reality, but as equivalent to that reality. To echo the title of an essay in which Stanley Cavell discusses her work, for Akerman the world is a collection of things, within which the image (moving and not) is also a thing in itself.
Margulies also discusses how the images in Akerman’s films, by virtue of their length and flirtation with stasis, waver between the registers of abstraction and figuration. As the shots stretch on, often with little change or variation, we shift between immersion in the image’s illusion—a self-contained fictional world composed of bodies, movements, and voices—and awareness of the image’s presence: a block of light and shadow on a wall, hovering in front of us, a potent reminder of (our) time, passing. In this, Margulies connects Akerman to the move towards minimalism in the art world, aligning her work with those artists’ efforts to activate the spectator’s experience of the piece as part of the piece itself.
Margulies’ astute analysis of the artist’s intensely engaged materialism cuts to the ethical heart of Akerman’s cinema. While many have been apprehensive about, if not downright hostile towards, the presumed denuding of truth and responsibility in the poststructuralist/postmodern contention that reality is “just” words and images, in Akerman’s films the image shares all of the same ethical problems and existential possibilities of the world outside the theatre. In Sud (1999), Akerman’s camera travels through nondescript landscapes in the American South to eventually arrive at the town of Jasper, Texas, where an African-American man named James Byrd, Jr. was recently murdered by white supremacists. As is characteristic of Akerman’s “documentary” films, Sud gives very little information about any of its subjects, apart from the brutal details of how Byrd died. Landscapes and towns go unnamed and unspecified; interviews with locals contribute only a sense of the partiality of the views involved, never an authoritative explanation; a lengthy sequence of Byrd’s funeral gives images and sounds of his community, but few details of his life. And then, the final shot of the film: a seven-minute take, the camera secured to the back of a moving vehicle as it rumbles along the three-mile stretch of road where Byrd was dragged to death.
The horror of this and other “empty” images resonates across Akerman’s films. She had a longstanding concern with the imagining (and the imaging) of suffering—those traumas whose magnitude challenges the very notion of representation. Akerman’s status as an Ashkenazi Jew—and as the daughter of a woman who lost her entire family in Auschwitz—were vitally important to her work, and she spoke regularly of the bilderverbot, the Jewish ban on making graven images. Denying herself the act of representation, Akerman instead sought to create what she called “distilled images,” evoking the presence of a traumatic history through its seeming absence. In D’Est (1993), Akerman traverses the former East Germany, Poland, and Russia shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, her images of unnamed people standing around or engaging in mundane, everyday activities reverberating with echoes of the supposedly vanished past, postwar and wartime (and Soviet and Nazi) both. Akerman’s “emptied-out” formalism speaks to greater, sometimes monstrous emptyings: in these idling, obscurely waiting crowds, we see not only the endless lines that waited outside the perpetually understocked government shops, but the lines for the trains bound for deportation and death.
From the ’80s through to her final film, Akerman began to engage more overtly with questions of Jewish identity and experience. Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy (1988) consists of a series of monologues, delivered straight to the camera by actors dressed in period clothing but obviously standing in contemporary Brooklyn, that relate stories of Jewish persecution and migration to America in the early 20th century. While the stories are fictional (Akerman wrote them, drawing from actual testimonials and diary entries) and their recounting patently artificial, Akerman’s foregrounding of theatricality ultimately serves to heighten the film’s haunting evocation of a traumatic history. Là-bas (2006) documents a trip to Tel Aviv by Akerman, a visit in which her literal immobilization (resulting from depression and fear of recent bombings) mirrors her figurative paralysis; largely comprised of static shots of covered windows, the film unfolds through her verbose (and acousmatic) recounting of the impossibility of saying anything at all about the “Israel question.” In her final film, No Home Movie (which Andréa Picard discussed in Cinema Scope 64), Akerman chronicles the last year of her mother Nelly’s life, the elderly woman’s imminent passing threatening another loss as well: a loss of history, of an entire generation’s cataclysmic experience with the Shoah.
Many of Akerman’s films revolve around the filmmaker’s efforts, and perceived failure, to connect with her mother: in News From Home (1976), Akerman reads her mother’s letters over images of New York City, highlighting Nelly’s presence in her thoughts but also the radical separation between mother and daughter due to the distance between them and the profound differences in their daily lives. (In a far lighter vein, Akerman further reflected on her relationship with Nelly—and on the horrors of history that drive a wedge between those generations that experienced them and those that did not—in her underrated 2004 comedy Demain on déménage.)
That sense of failure is not just personal for Akerman, but is intrinsic to both her ethics and her aesthetics. “I’d rather touch on the faces I wish to film,” Akerman said at the time of D’Est, and her films are shot through with the painful sense of only being able to touch on—of not being able to be on the other side of these images, within these images. The distance between viewer and image mirrors the distance that exists all too often between people; no less than our proximity to images, our proximity to others carries with it no guarantee of real understanding or connection. In a striking early sequence from Akerman’s Proust adaptation La captive (2000), Simon (Stanislas Merhar), deeply and jealously in love with Ariane (Sylvie Testud), projects her image onto a wall. Unable to stay away, Simon moves into the projector’s light, altering Ariane’s image even as he seeks to merge with it; he traces Ariane’s light-skin with his hand, but, as in his actual physical encounters with her, contact only makes him more aware of the barrier between them. Akerman always reminds us that we are sharing our time and space with her images; whether they be of an empty road where a man died, a crowd of obscurely waiting East Germans, or a woman sitting at a dining-room table after committing a murder, she compels us to think both about the distance between us and them, and about whether we can or should connect to them. Time spent in the company of an image, or a person, may be no guarantee that we will understand them, but sometimes it is all we can do.
It would be an injustice, however, to interpret Akerman’s cinema as only a cinema of loneliness, of the impossibility of connection. In No Home Movie, Akerman reworks the image from La captive in a sequence depicting a Skype conversation between Akerman and Nelly, who are at that moment separated by an ocean. As the women exchange words of endearment and chit-chat, Akerman’s camera slowly zooms in on the computer screen. As Nelly’s face starts to blur, the image begins to slip between layers: Nelly’s face transforms from skin to a vacillating moiré pattern of beiges, blacks, and reds and back again, while Akerman’s own face, reflected on the computer screen and merging with her mother’s, floats in and out of view, each appearance somehow more shocking and wonderful than the last. A solution through dissolution, this image is rapturous—a shimmering giggle of a stolen moment.
So here, then, is a last “and.” Never one to prescribe or dictate, Akerman instead leaves us with a feeling: sometimes, this world of concrete things, bodies, and images is enough, and there is joy to be found there. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, there is not.