Revisiting the filmmaker's rebellious female gaze, from 'Saute ma ville' to 'No Home Movie'
I never had a sense of nationalistic pride, but for Chantal Akerman I can make an exception. Akerman is one of Belgium’s greatest export products—a groundbreaking director in a country that, while a breeding ground for fine art throughout history, is not typically known for its cinema. Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950 to two Polish Holocaust survivors. After seeing Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou in 1965, she decided to become a filmmaker. She dropped out of film school during her first year and made her first short, Saute ma ville (1968), as a completely independent production. In 1971 Akerman moved to New York, where she became familiar with the work of experimental filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage at the Anthology Film Archives. Once back in Brussels, she made Je, Tu, Il, Elle (I, You, He, She), which is considered one of the first key works in queer cinema.
Akerman is a pioneer of the female gaze—as a woman in the men’s world of cinema, she had to tackle obstacles that her colleagues never did. She had an eye for subjects that were previously overlooked in movies, a certain feminine sensitivity, but Akerman shouldn’t be categorized as a ‘female director.’ As a Jewish queer woman who was used to people labeling her, she understandably chose to keep her distance from big, scary words like ‘feminism.’ Yet her cinema is undeniably feminist. The New York Times called Jeanne Dielman, her most famous movie, the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.” Since her work revolves around womanhood, locations are mostly domestic: the kitchen, the bedroom.
As a female filmmaker who moved from Brussels to New York myself, there’s no denying how influential Akerman has been. I had the privilege of seeing her perform a monologue about her mother, one of her favorite subjects, the year before she passed away in 2015. I first saw her work at her solo exhibition I visited in high school. All her movies were presented as installations, which completely influenced my shitty work at the time. Seeing D’Est (1993) on dozens of old monitors on the floor turned my world upside down. Her integrity and honesty towards her subjects is truly inspiring. Sofia Coppola, Kelly Reichardt, and Gus Van Sant are part of Akerman’s ever-growing fanbase. Her work has been screened at Documenta, the Venice Biennale, MoMA, and Centre Pompidou. Akerman will encourage generations of girls to go to film school, even though she didn’t finish it herself.
Saute ma ville (1968)
Akerman’s first short movie established her as a rebellious, upcoming filmmaker ready to change the film history books. Starring in your own film about suicide at the age of 18 sounds dark—but Akerman did it in an effortlessly catchy, Chaplinesque way. Saute ma ville has one foot in the nouvelle vague and the other in performance art. Akerman gave a big middle finger to the establishment by fucking up everything a girl was supposed to do in the ’50s: cooking and cleaning. The kitchen looks the same as the one in which she interviewed her mother in her final movie, No Home Movie; her career coming full circle. Saute ma ville ends with a bang, reminiscent of the grand finale of her beloved Pierrot Le Fou. Watching it today, the movie seems an eerie forecast of Akerman’s suicide 50 years later. But its playfulness and disobedient nature predicted the originality of all her future movies.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974)
Akerman stars herself again, playing a tormented soul coming of age, but this time there is love and lust involved. The first 30 minutes of Je, Tu, Il, Elle are spent with Akerman in a bare room, in near-total silence. This minimalistic setting is so intimate that it’s hard to not look away when she starts eating spoonfuls of sugar while lying naked on a mattress on the floor. She tells us in a voice-over that she hasn’t left the room in 28 days (how relatable during these corona times). After Akerman’s escapade with a truck driver, she visits her former lover. What follows is a bold exposé of two women making love; a scene that, 35 years later, remains a radical piece of queer cinema. You can see traces of the experimental New York scene that Akerman took home then made completely her own. Je, Tu, Il, Elle is a true avant-garde gem.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
You may have seen it already, but how could I not mention this masterpiece? At 25, my current age, Akerman did something unprecedented (and unfortunately still uncommon): she told the story of a single mother from a non-male, Hollywood outsider perspective. The film, over three hours long, is set almost entirely between the four walls of an apartment. Spread out over three days, we follow the life of Jeanne Dielman, a mother of one boy, who regularly receives male guests. One of my favorite scenes is Jeanne peeling potatoes in real time. I can’t help but think about it each time I peel potatoes myself (which, thank god, isn’t a daily burden). When Jeanne leaves the house to do her chores, you see an innocent Brussels that resembles a little town. I lived around the corner from Quai du Commerce, where I used to walk my dog every day. All the stores Jeanne visited are long gone, only the cobblestones and the houses prevail.
News from Home (1977)
I rewatched this movie at Metrograph during my first winter in New York. It was magical to share the experience of moving from such a small country to the capital of the western world. New York can open your eyes in so many ways and it was an endless inspiration for Akerman. Her footage exposes the brutal reality of the turbulent ‘70s, and needless to say, the Lower East Side outside Metrograph is quite different from the one she captured.
The excitement of being a stranger in a new city doesn’t come without homesickness. Akerman suffered strongly from it due to her intense bond with her mother. The movie’s audiotrack consists of Akerman reading letters she received from her mother. Her monotonous voice accompanies images of passing trains and cars, and people under a misty sky, setting the mood for a melancholic trip you’ll never forget. The movie’s last shot reminds me of the ending of Permanent Vacation, Jim Jarmusch’s first film. Both show Manhattan slowly disappearing in the mist, a view familiar to all those who have taken the Staten Island ferry. You know a movie is special when you realize the images are blending in with your own memories.
No Home Movie (2015)
This movie had its American premiere two days after Akerman committed suicide in Paris. No need to explain why it’s an emotional heavyweight. Not only does No Home Movie show the director saying goodbye to her beloved mother, who died shortly after it was filmed, it also silently captures the filmmaker’s own struggle with life. Akerman mentioned in an interview with The New York Times that if she knew she was going to make this movie, she wouldn’t have dared to do it.
With the same sense of time and reality that Akerman shows in her previous work, No Home Movie captures something so raw and honest that you can’t help but shed a tear. Or many. The complications of its mother-daughter-relationship are relatable to many of us. I remember sitting in the theatre, the image of the desert lighting up my face, entranced by the sound of wind blasting through a cheap microphone. This movie, in all its minimalism, grabs you by the throat. It even inspired Kim Gordon’s new album title.
Saute ma ville on Criterion Channel or YouTube
Je, Tu, Il, Elle on Criterion Channel
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on Criterion Channel
News from Home on Criterion Channel
No Home Movie for rent on Youtube, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and Google Play
Read Beyond ‘Breathless’: the beginner’s guide to Jean-Luc Godard