Neurotic New Yorkers, Queer Mavericks, Swedish close-ups and the art of putting a microphone on every person on set are but a few of the themes explored in PopMatters’ first group of ten essential directors, Chantal Akerman through Bernardo Bertolucci. Please note that any perceived omissions were likely on purpose…
Three Key Films: La Chambre (1970), News from Home (1971), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Underrated: Je Tu Il Elle (1972)
Unforgettable: Jeanne finds herself alone in her apartment with no chores to do, so she sits and sits and sits and stares and we sit and sit and sit and stare.
The Legend: If Laura Mulvey is the queen of feminist film theory, Chantal Akerman is its messiah figure: the one to make its theories compelling and cinematic and accessible and powerful and hot rather than cold and counter cinematic. The importance of Mulvey’s films is in their complete dismissal of a misogynist film form in an attempt to create a specifically female gaze, as in her unwatchable masterpiece Riddles of the Sphinx, but in the same year, Akerman took it a step further with Jeanne Dielman. In the film, made when she was just 25, Akerman co-opted the cinematic techniques of the Hollywood gaze and manipulated them to serve a female narrative, and ended up making one of the most important works in the European Cinema.
Jeanne Dielman is a widow who spends her days doing her chores, looking after her teenage son, and turning daily tricks, and halfway through the three days we spend watching her, everything falls apart methodically, building up unbearable suspense before its shocking climax. The film is about watching Jeanne as an object of the camera’s gaze, and also as an object of a patriarchal society, in which her every movement is made to serve the domestic space, her clients, or her son. In the film’s entirely fixed shots that meander on for as long as it takes for her to complete her tasks, we watch Jeanne as she moves throughout her tiny world. Akerman creates claustrophobic suspense along with boredom, and our unconsummated desire for visual action forces us to empathize with Jeanne as her madness and our frustrated detachment elevate side-by-side. It is an overwhelming work that goes beyond feminist film theory and emerges on the other side; that is, it creates a compulsively watchable film as visually thrilling as Hitchcock and as textually complex as Godard.
Though Akerman reached her peak with Jeanne Dielman, her other works from the 1970s lend us our understanding of her intentions. During her stay in New York, Akerman exposed herself to the Anthology Film Archives and its screenings of the structural films of Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, and Joyce Weiland, all of whom inspired her singular presentation of narratives in manipulated real time, best exemplified by her short La Chambre, which, like Snow’s best films, used real time, a fixed camera technique (here, the 360-degree pan) to present a detached viewership of a space and the actions of its inhabitants. And in her first feature, Je Tu Il Elle, Akerman adheres to a strict three-act Hollywood structure to present a young woman’s feminist dilemma. It is in her simplification of the familiar—in both subject and technique—that Akerman reaches the profound and unspoken. Austin Dale
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)