The alarm clock cries in my bedside table. 8am. Right, here we go. Grab clothes for yet another day, don’t forget the body soap, the moisturizer and the black mascara and off I go to start my daily ritual lively practiced inside my tiny toilet. Repetitive motions are evoked…teeth are washed, hair is brushed, boot laces are entwined around my unreliable feet, eggs are scrambled in the tormented pan, coffee is brewed, lights are shut, doors are locked, and a cigarette is delightedly lit—all as if I was skimming through the prologue of a novel I have lazily read too many times before. My feet move to the rhythm of the rain incessantly falling on the grey pavement and my bones fear the unpredictability of what may come in the following hours, but I never stop. I never do. (…) The ritual has somehow turned into tradition and tradition has unwittingly melted with spinelessness. Our reality has been willingly absorbed into a capitalist vortex of a robotic quality where the singular social act of communication is associated with weakness and in which the relief that comes from giving up the fight seems insanely unhealthy when materialized into a high-pitched scream in the middle of Trafalgar Square. What has come of identity? Of personality? Of having your own voice and not being afraid to publicly display it? And where have the unprecedented embraces, greetings, letters, crooked smiles gone to?
Saute ma ville (1968)
When Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman tried to answer such questions in her work, by addressing a higher authority than that audiences were used to in the early 1970s, she was both rallied against as well as admired by her own heroes. Now, following her death on October 5th at the age of sixty-five, which according to Isabelle Regnier of Le Monde came down to suicide even though the official cause is yet to be determined, many were the students/journalists/scholars who gave her tribute as a “feminist filmmaker,” a woman whose work needs to be celebrated for having been mainly directed towards the political liberation of the female gender. "…whose work combined experimental techniques with feminist ideology…", said The Telegraph in their obituary; "…attained a somewhat legendary status among cinephiles as a cinematic radical, a formal innovator and a pioneer of modern feminist cinema," highlighted The Guardian's Jonathan Romney; with New Yorker's film guru Richard Brody choosing to downsize the label to a more human level: Akerman "…transformed the visual styles and narrative forms, the dramatic syntax and artistic codes of the modern cinema, into a woman’s cinema." Film criticism, being the primary vehicle of catalogue and context but also of human connection, should not underline the 'f' word thus producing that same level of inequality. We should denote her as a woman who showed the world the bare female form while taking on today’s clichés of prostitution, freedom, and suicide, and thus transform a teary-eyed postscript into a eulogy directed towards the ones who have survived her and who will carry on augmenting her legacy.
Chantal Anne Akerman, born in 1950 in Brussels to a family of Auschwitz survivors, was not only one of the only women to dismantle our language into a theory of symbols within motion imagery, but she was also a symbol herself of its ensuing mordant wit. Yet her charm never resided in her inherent sarcasm, but rather in the elucidation of the subliminal beauty lying on top of imprinted memories. It is widely known that she found film to be her own little expressive medium following an epiphanic screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 cult classic Pierrot le fou, the natural genesis of the fuel that ignited a desire to pursue the self-conscious experiment her life came to be, easily allowing her to surpass her hero’s rebelliousness (I’ve yet to find a filmmaker/keen cinephile Paris-based Godard hasn’t inspired). From that day forward, at just twenty-years old she already had rejected film school’s theoretics and was taking a revolutionary part in the experimental dystopian world of proto-feminism where the alienating portrayal of the status quo was used as a deliberate subplot to reach an understanding. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1977) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) are elaborated character studies with women, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) and Anna (Aurore Clément), as frontrunners of a generation too afraid to speak of a liberation from of the human physical detachment from the world.
Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)
However, funnily enough, it was in Akerman’s yearning that I discovered myself and not in the female form’s glorification her work was infused with—even if one does tend to lend a hand to the other By giving women the power to free themselves from emotional attachment and consequently take their ugliness to a standard where such could subside, she could give herself the opportunity to autobiographically shed on screen. And so she did, in the many visual essays, travelogues and even installations where she spoke of the intense saudosismo that was drowning her, the irreversible ailment I thought only the Portuguese could ever inherently suffer from. Its consistency? A feeling of detachment, of longing for a place, a specific time in the past that has never been, a feeling I felt so widely influenced by in my teen years. But how can one uncover the wrapping that enfolds that, and through which explore such a jailing, corrosive feeling? In the cinema of the 1970s, many had to find breaks to breath in-between the polluted noise of wordy dialogues that were in fashion—yet Chantal had her sights set on the exercise of life’s visual stillness, the almost literal death of time cult Gods Jonas Mekas, Yvonne Rainer, Derek Jarman and Andy Warhol were building a reputation for at the time. She reasoned that by eradicating movement and therefore turning it into a ludicrously foreign act, one would finally bump into the emotional contextualization of going home again.
In News from Home (1977), she displays the popular sights of New York City and its strangers during the city’s gritty but culturally enriching period as her bittersweet slightly trembling voice reads the multiple letters her own mother, Natalia Nelly Akerman, had sent her while she was living in the city (Akerman lived in New York on/off for many years of her life). She’s homesick for a place she recognizes, for a closeness she had once taken for granted. We sense a ghostly presence in her work, particularly in her essays, like the kind of faded memory of a dream one attempts to reconstruct for hours afterward. She wants us to know just how much she knew of the world, and how tragically she lost a sense of belonging to the same after having lived vicariously through its very strangeness and lack of warmth, a loss uniquely senses by those alienated by their own permanent existence. Equally, in her César-nominated documentary Là-bas (2006), contemplation is almost politicized, as the notion that life is enclosed within the unbreathable image swerves from cause to effect to cause again. Embodying life’s asperity, the film tries to reach reason by pulling the rug out from under our feet, in the end. I remember how at only seventeen this filmmaker was allowing me to believe that it could be in the examination of everything I’ve been told to accept up till then that my three-dimensional layers existed. A reality within a reality. We’re deep inside ourselves, therefore never truly seeing. In effect, we can never stare at a mirror and expect to see within, can we? We're not allowed such a privilege. One develops the power of looking within stranger's souls through window frames, rear-view mirrors, glass table surfaces, half-closed doors, while searching for an emotional connection. But never our own reflection.
"I want the spectator to have a physical experience, for him or her to feel time. Films are generally made to literally and metaphorically pass the time. But I want you to experience the time of a character. I don’t want you to just go through an emotional experience, but also another kind of experience, like with music, that is unique because it is purely physical."
Chantal told Contour’s Chris Dercon back in the year of 2005, begging for a question to be answered.
Is the desperate longing for an identity we witness in her work a mode to address an audience? If we start from the beginning and look back at her first short film, the 13-minute Saute ma ville (1968), a film I gleefully felt hypnotized by in my first year as a film undergrad, we find an undertone of devastation whose roots lay in the failure of not being able to get hold of physical reality without infringing its pureness. It is Akerman herself portraying her very first character and performing a number of tasks that go from voraciously eating at the kitchen table to throwing her cat onto the street, singing the chaotic soundtrack of Truffaut’s 400 Blows and uncannily placing her face on the cranked up stove after lightning a piece of paper on fire. Thus what begins as a regular day of chores performed in an almost catastrophic unstandardized manner swiftly rotates into a self-destructive path of a character whose depopulated world never once hints at such tendencies beforehand. Is that what Akerman means by wanting to emanate a physical experience? Evoking the same unpredictability I feel blocked by? Is she, in some way, referring to her Jewish background? Is she reclaiming the undeniable fact that we’ll always be products of our time no matter how much our precociousness may lean towards its aversion? Or is she simply making a reference to her primal feelings?
Hotel Monterey (1972)
"When I cut -- I feel, I feel, I feel, and I say, 'Here.' For no reason. Just feeling. Just -- I feel that's how long the shot should be. For no rational reason at all -- I cannot explain why, but I know that it's right. Why it's right, I don't know."
Akerman creates her own time conducted by her heightened intuition. Not that which film demands, not that which the human structure begs us to believe—but one only devised by her. Nothing is a documentary, nothing is fiction. There is just her, reflected onto the screen rolling in front of us, a variety of self-portraits too daunting for an audience of incognitos to be frightened by. It is a world unto itself, a proof of existence, her own headstone epitaphs written beforehand. In Hotel Monterey (1972), the camera she holds in her arms is the character of an architectural meditation occurring inside a cheap Manhattan hotel where the air is crisp, reeking of a Hitchcockian psychosis, and its magnetic colour palette is as iconic and troubling as Edward Hopper's New York portrayals of human disconnection caused by wartime anxiety. Dim, warm lights are reflected onto the characters indoors, the backdrop is at all times originated in some pastel-toned queasy hue, and the saturated magenta elements present in the frame violently contrast with the narrative's oxymoronic sentiment we end up succumbing to. There it is, the still life Americana Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas enchanted the world with a decade later. And much like Paris, Texas or even Kubrick's The Shining, which creeps up her narrative aesthetic, Hotel Monterey is a road trip, with Chantal leading us through the fragments of her work's inaudible hyperrealism along the hotel's tight oppressive hallways. A tension is built gradually in its foreground, which later climaxes once we are told to witness the glowing blueish outdoors with its rising run in the background.
"Yes, claustrophobia, that's what her work is truly about," I remember thinking as I left the small underground theatre I used to visit every day after school in Porto. She brings you to an inescapable, dizzy state by transporting you to a reality we all recognize. Your brain is foggy, nothing tastes the same, the world looks fatigued by a temperament you no longer want to abide by. You become your own creation. Your own self, with no involvement of the social infrastructure looming over. Maybe that's why her evocative world expanded throughout the years with her exploration of European Communism with her 1993's masterwork D'est. And while she was never as political as many would claim, she searched for a place to fit into in every shadow, every trace of life. She was a pioneer in that which storytelling is concerned. And as a woman who was always happy to affirm her disinterest in cinema as a greater egotistical taste, she longed for other's stories to be reflected as her own.
And it is this earnestness many were able to grasp in the recent Ambika P3's tribute of the filmmaker in London, inevitability entitled NOW, with her active role in installation art being glorified. As with watching some of her films, the exhibition places her in the limelight of the projected pieces as she gazes at us from the beyond via the amplified noise of the work, the hypnotizing, diverse thematic of the issues around the border of Mexico, Hiroshima and Shanghai's awe-inspiring placidity, and her eagerness to breathe through her symmetrical framing. "I didn't recognize the outside world when I left the building. I had to push myself to learn how to walk again to the tube and tune into its noise and hurried depression. I was too in love with her then, to wonder about myself," a friend of mine confessed after I advised him to go. She spoke to him not with her absence, but with her omniscient presence, which ironically was one of her major conflicts as an artist. Her latest film, No Home Movie (one of the year's best), which now, in the wake of her fatal death, might attract even the most disinterested layman, delves deep into the character of her mother, Natalia, whose deportation to Auschwitz and attempt to exorcise herself when encountering everyday life in Belgium after the war, stained Akerman's identity from birth. And from there, at the table at which she is sitting with her mother in her apartment in Brussels, she says farewell and performs her last anthropological act, that of death. The trail of self-destruction she had been suggesting from a tender age reaches its conclusion, and now an older wrinkly-faced Chantal comes full circle and once again carefully places her head on the warm stove, still looking, still searching.
"Last attempt at self-portrait. My name is Chantal Akerman. I was born in Brussels. And that's the truth."1
News from Home (1977)
(…) I walk towards a coffee shop before heading off to work and in its reflecting glass windows I see...as if by osmosis, I recognise where my home lays. In me. 'It is getting easier now', I think to myself before coming in. After all, just like the late Nicholas Ray professed, “we can’t go home again.”
Thank you, Ms. Akerman.