Chantal Akerman, Saute ma ville
Still courtesy of Criterion

Chantal Akerman’s Evolutions and Revolutions

From kitchen epics to road odysseys, these nine Chantal Akerman films chart the evolutions and revolutions of one of modern cinema’s most important auteurs.

Chantal Akerman Masterpieces 1968-1978
Chantal Akerman
23 January 2024

Chantal Akerman has secured her place in the consciousness of international cinema after decades as a critics’ darling. The surprising proof is that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, her towering 1975 “kitchen epic”, was named the greatest film of all time in the 2022 incarnation of Sight and Sound magazine’s ten year poll of critics and professionals.

The algorithm unearthed this revelation because so many people have seen it and been impressed by it. This reality, in turn, can largely be traced to the fact that Criterion first issued the film on DVD in 2010 and then Blu-ray in 2017. A new Criterion Blu-ray set, Chantal Akerman Masterpieces 1968-1978, covers the late Belgian filmmaker’s first decade of work with nine films and a few extras.

True story: Back in the 1980s, a skinny goatee’d post-hippie named Curtis Sampson opened a kind of warehouse called Film Haus in a hip complex of galleries and lofts in San Antonio, Texas. He projected things on the wall. I was probably his most regular circulating gadfly, but I missed his showing of this Akerman epic, so he kindly lent me his homemade tape. This was how one learned about such a film back in the day, the kind of thing watched on a bootleg projected on a wall.

Of course, it was a revelation. Now, fast-forward to when I was writing my monthly arty video column for the San Antonio Express-News in the 1990s and 2000s, and I paid a weekend visit to Chicago’s Criterion offices for lunch with the PR guy. Among my bequests was a long “want list” of suggested releases. Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) was high on the list, and so was Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. At that time, it seemed like such a long shot.

As it happened, quite a few of my suggestions were adopted, as the record shows. I even suggested they start showing a series of regular box sets, and in a few years, they began the Eclipse series. Now, O Doubters, I’m not claiming responsibility for things that must have had plenty of other support, but according to the principal that success has many parents while failure is an orphan, I can’t disown having contributed my little part either. And you’re all welcome.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles | Still courtesy of Criterion

PopMatters has discussed this film here, so I won’t belabor it. The bare summary sounds like something many viewers wouldn’t (and don’t) want to see, and that’s their problem.

For three hours and 20 minutes, the camera observes the middle-class existence of Jeanne, a widow living with her son, over three days. Those days are all the same, not unlike yours: fixing breakfast and eating it, going shopping, etc., all shot mostly in real time from beginning to end by an unblinking camera. Amid this deadpan dullness, maddening claustrophobia, and repetition, which are all The Point, we get glimpses of mystery as it gradually dawns on us how Jeanne pays the rent. We may begin to dread that these non-events are building to a catharsis.

If you get into the groove, two elements of great beauty stand out in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: the luminous photography and the sheer elegance of Delphine Seyrig’s central performance, one of the iconic and enigmatic beauties of Francophone cinema. It’s a privilege to watch her peel a potato.

Of course, this highly structured exercise in passing time only presents Jeanne to us from the outside as an automaton in a materialist world. Is there a possibility of Bressonian transcendence? Could she have a rich inner world as she fries those eggs? Could she be practicing Buddhist meditations on non-being at the moment? The hard-hitting ending makes that doubtful, but the film provokes such thoughts.

It’s easy to understand why Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is influential. It’s long been read as a feminist statement and can just as easily be seen in Marxist or spiritual dimensions. Aspiring filmmakers might be encouraged (erroneously) to think, “Wow, you can make a movie out of anything,” and that’s why we now perceive Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece as a forerunner of Slow Cinema, where a camera usually planted in the middle distance records the minutiae of life in “real-time.”

As a work of structuralist cinema, Akerman’s film makes a crucial advance over Andy Warhol’s 1960s experiments in turning on the camera and walking away to document a newly perceived and created reality. Akerman’s shots are meticulously planned and beautiful in their artifice, so we may hope that’s the lesson absorbed by young cineastes. Warhol seemed to say that turning on a camera makes anything a movie, while Akerman says the camera makes things beautiful. In an extra, Agnès Varda states that Akerman “combines the interiority of Bresson with the exhibitionism of Andy Warhol.”

As critic B. Ruby Rich observes in a bonus essay, Chantal Akerman nods to the history of modernist cinema. One of Seyrig’s key roles was in Alain Resnais‘ Muriel (1963) as a widow living with her son. “Ring any bells?” asks Rich. She similarly points out that the casting of Lea Massari as Anne’s mother in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna seems to channel Massari’s role as Anna, the woman who vanishes in the first act of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s L’Avventura (1960), but we’re not there yet.

Saute ma ville (1968)

Saute ma ville | Still courtesy of Criterion

As an introduction by Chantal Akerman makes clear and the film itself makes clearer, her debut short Saute ma ville is almost already the story of Jeanne Dielman, only the opposite. In 13 black and white minutes, the heroine (Akerman) also lives in her kitchen, makes a meal, and cleans up. She does these things in disruptive, subversive ways inspired by her love of Charles Chaplin, whose films the 18-year-old filmmaker had been absorbing.

With random hums and sounds dubbed over the silence, she goes about her odd business. Why is she sealing the kitchen door with tape? Why is she putting her cat outside? If you understand that the title means “blow up my town”, you might begin to put it together – 1968 was a year full of violence and rebellious youth.

According to Beatrice Loayza‘s notes, one influence was the literally explosive ending of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), another film that convinces young cineastes they can do anything. Indeed, Godard’s film persuaded Akerman to make movies, and it seems likely that Akerman’s example has the same effect on later generations.

Although Chantal Akerman discusses Saute ma ville as playfulness, its anarchic impulse is soberly self-destructive, especially in retrospect. We know that Akerman struggled with depression, and we know she committed suicide in 2015 at age 65, several months after her mother’s death. We don’t know more than that, and it’s unwise to read films autobiographically, especially one made almost 50 years before the filmmaker’s death. This point underlines a paradox noted by Rich that Akerman’s films constantly suggest autobiography and also reject it.

L’enfant aimé ou Je joue à être une femme mariée (The beloved child, or I play at being a married woman) (1971)

L'enfant aimé ou Je joue à être une femme mariée | Still courtesy of Criterion

Mirrors are important in Chantal Akerman’s films (well, and everyone else’s), and the final shot of Saute ma ville is framed in one. In turn, many scenes in Akerman’s short show its heroine (Claire Wauthion) frequently examining herself in a mirror. The unfinished film has no plot, and we can’t guess where it might have headed, but the elements are the young woman, her house and kitchen, her young daughter (offspring and miniature self, and perhaps a form of spirit animal), and the friend (Akerman) who hangs around watching and listening.

As the two women lay on the bed, the wife says she used to be frustrated that her husband went to work instead of staying home and that he’s more like a child needing a mother. Now she’s happier, more satisfied, and more deeply in love with him than ever – and by the way, she has a lover on the side. This little hobby even makes her love her husband more. She feels life has achieved a perfect balance.

Since I take her statement at face value, I see a radical reconstruction of marital bliss in L’enfant aimé ou Je joue à être une femme mariée that breaks the rules. It’s as though the young wife is appropriating the male prerogative expressed by the husband in Agnès Varda‘s brilliantly ironic and gorgeous Happiness (Le bonheur, 1965). Loayza seems to read it differently by over-writing what she thinks the woman means, which (to me) is a form of patronizing her instead of accepting her self-narrative, but the film allows both readings.

The title implies that mother and daughter might be stand-ins for each other, each playing make-believe. Their little imprisoning world is certainly a privileged and comfortable one. The main sadness is the wife’s insistence on finding fault with her body as she stands topless before a mirror, as if this is critical self-examination is a woman’s natural state.

La Chambre (1972)

La Chambre | Still courtesy of Criterion

Chantal Akerman’s first color short, La Chambre, filmed in a single shot of 11 minutes, is a rigorous example of structuralist cinema. First, the camera performs three 360-degree pans around a small apartment. Three times, Babette Mangolte’s camera passes slowly and impassively by Akerman on a bed, aware of the camera. By the last pass, she displays an apple like Eve. As the camera decides to cut back to 180-degree pans, left and right like a metronome, she consumes the apple.

In other words, we not only have mythical temptation but a sumptuous sensory style in which the pleasure of the moving camera (our consumption of image) is equated with the pleasure of a woman lounging in bed and tasting fruit. Is she in bed because she’s resting or can’t move, perhaps from illness? Is she stuck there in bed in a small room? Or does she like this little comfortable nest? In an interview, Akerman says she liked that SoHo apartment, while B. Ruby Rich links the short to Marcel Proust‘s famous preference not to leave his bed.

In her introduction to Saute ma ville, Akerman observed that Jeanne Dielman, to some extent, depends on the ritual and repetition of her life to keep from going mad. It’s not just that she’s imprisoned; she also needs it, and that’s a hell of an idea. Perhaps La Chambre is also revealing the importance of ritual and aesthetics.

La Chambre was influenced by the structuralist cinema of Canada’s Michael Snow, whose work Akerman discovered at Anthology Film Archives. Chantal Akerman re-purposes such intellectual formal ideas to reveal herself in a personal space, a mode both intimate and confrontational.

Hotel Monterey (1972)

Hotel Monterey | Still courtesy of Criterion

At just over an hour, Hotel Monterey was shot in color and without sound in a Manhattan hotel awash in the tatty splendor of its genteel decline. It could be a hotel of ghosts who haven’t died yet.

Mangolte’s camera presents the lobby and its denizens from several angles. We see empty hallways and glimpse open doorways of rooms and their inhabitants. Although most shots are technically static in the sense that the camera doesn’t move, a lengthy sequence inside the elevator captures the vertiginous claustrophobia of going up and down while doors slide open and shut. This sequence reveals a large cast of bewildered or amused residents who realize they’ll have to share the cramped space with a big camera. Some of them back away and wait.

At Hotel Monterey‘s three-quarter mark, the camera embarks on the radical decision to dolly forward slowly down a corridor to a window. After glancing outside, the movement reverses back to square one. This happens four times, night and day, and perhaps spurs the camera to emerge on the roof. At the end, we look across the canyons of New York, having ascended as high as possible and left the gloomy interiors behind. Is this a happy ending?

The last footage of Chantal Akerman’s brief New York sojourn can be seen in the bonus material of Disc One. Hanging Out in Yonkers (1973) is an unfinished documentary about the members of a youth rehab program who play pool and have a therapy session. The project was abandoned when the soundtrack was lost. Earlier bonus material is the four brief home-movie type things Akerman shot in 1967, in 8mm silent black and white, for entry to a film school that she dropped out of right away to follow her own muse. She was always independent and determined.

News from Home (1976)

New from Home | Still courtesy of Criterion

Jumping forward a little, News from Home is a direct product of Chantal Akerman’s stay in New York in the early ’70s. The 90-minute film consists of documentary shots of New York during a brief return in the summer of 1976. The camera is planted in the middle of streets, sidewalks, subway cars and platforms. We stare at streets, cars, people, storefronts. Now and then, the camera pans or drifts down a street in a vehicle. One jump cut from a gliding street to a noisy subway car is as good a “jump scare” as any horror film.

The lovely result is a bit like the street photography of Garry Winogrand, Vivian Maier, or Saul Leiter, with the added element of motion and sound. The subway shots are reminiscent of the elevator shots in Hotel Monterey. The final ten-minute shot of drifting away from a foggy skyline into the seagull-dotted ocean provides another transcendent ending in which Akerman explores the majestic impact of movement and image. Fog equals memory.

Meanwhile, Akerman periodically reads aloud the letters she received from her mother in Belgium during her first stay; we have the choice of hearing them in French or English. She reads them rapidly and without emotion. The letters are banal, chiding (“Why haven’t you written?”) or expressing worry (“Did you get the check?”). Their inconsequence and far-away-ness are underlined by the fact that not only are they low in the sound mix, but they’re often drowned out by traffic. Some are as incomprehensible as static.

To repeat: these aren’t letters from 1976 but from an earlier visit, so News from Home combines a nostalgic removal (the letters) with the immediacy of the images. It also combines what seem to be impersonal images (though they may have meaning for Akerman as her regular haunts) with the personal element of mom’s words repeated by the daughter. So, one curious effect is that the daughter is, in a way, becoming the mother or a medium for her mother’s voice.

Werner Herzog famously asserted that he makes no distinction between his fiction and nonfiction films, and Chantal Akerman is perhaps a stronger case for erasing the difference. Ultimately, calling News from Home a documentary is an arbitrary convenience to say it somewhat resembles other things we call documentaries.

Le 15/8 (1973)

Le 15/8 | Still courtesy of Criterion

At under 45 minutes, Le 15/8 (August 15) is a beautiful black-and-white experiment whose audio and image track operate independently. The star is Chris Myllykoski, a young woman who comes across as a kind of Finnish Pre-Raphaelite. The shots look like screen tests or a model’s portfolio. She eats food in real time, gazes into the camera, smiling or crying, poses at the window, and makes work by packing a case or taking stuff out of her purse.

Juxtaposed with these images, which are co-directed and co-shot by Chantal Akerman and Belgian colleague Samy Szlingerbaum, we hear Myllykoski free-associating in response to unheard questions, as though we’re eavesdropping on half of a phone call. She speaks in a kind of sleepy monotone, pleasantly accented, about eating in the kitchen, her fear of dogs, an unpleasant encounter on the street, her love of thunderstorms, her reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. That last comment cements the literary influence of stream-of-consciousness.

One transcendent moment in Le 15/8 is breathtaking. Our heroine is framed at the window in a medium closeup, with distant pigeons on a roof over her shoulder. As her monologue waxes philosophical, she slowly raises her arms in a theatrical shrug and beams beatifically into the camera. The film’s final shot has her standing at the door, holding flowers, and looking outside with hope or ecstasy.

Je Tu Il Elle (1975)

Je tu il elle | Still courtesy of Criterion

Shot gorgeously in black and white and running almost 90 minutes, Je Tu Il Elle (“I you he she”) is officially Chantal Akerman’s debut feature. It is a road trip of minimalist and structuralist concepts. Akerman plays Julie, who hitches a ride with a truck driver (Niels Arestrup) and finishes her quest by staying with a friend (Claire Wauthion) in a scene of emotional impact that reframes everything we’ve seen along the way.

The first half hour presents Julie sealed in her tiny apartment – where else? She seems to be going bonkers as she restlessly shifts the furniture and finally gets rid of it all except the mattress, paring her life to essentials. She sits furiously scribbling page after page while eating spoonfuls of sugar. Akerman has no trouble showing her nude body. During all this, her narrating voice recalls all this in the past tense, giving us simple, clipped, descriptive sentences of what she’s doing.

I sense the influence of Marguerite Duras, already established as a filmmaker at this time. This is the same year Duras made India Song, and I believe the heroine of Nathalie Granger (1972) is a spiritual big sister to Jeanne Dielman. Duras’ literary style is associated with the hard, shiny surfaces of the nouveau roman and its ambiance of the eternal present, and she crosses its impersonal style with highly personal narration in a manner that surely appealed to Akerman.

Je Tu Il Elle‘s second act involves the truck driver. Julie’s narration says she likes his shoulders and imagines kissing him. They eat in a diner while the ’70s detective series Cannon is heard from an offscreen TV. He flicks among radio channels; oddly, all these things are in English – a sign of American domination of media?

Julie and the trucker perform an impersonal sex act, which he narrates aloud, describing how it feels for him as though he’s taken over the narration via soliloquy. They do this, as the French say, comme ca (just like that), with no resonance beyond itself. He’s directing her, more or less exactly like a film director; she gives no sense of resentment, but this is the only scene in this section where she’s offscreen. Then, he launches into a marathon soliloquy about his life, family, and job. Imagine a novelist giving a precis of this character, and now the character utters all this aloud himself.

During these and all the silent shots of the trucker’s behavior, Julie is always visible, attentive, friendly, and observant, as though she’s his therapist or anthropologist. She even stands there in a public bathroom while he shaves (more mirrors), she on one side and the viewer on the other, both of us giving the process rapt attention. She smiles indulgently when he goes to relieve himself. Having been wrapped in herself in her room, she’s now out and about and bemused by these earthlings.

Julie’s silent sympathy in these scenes recalls exactly the same posture by Akerman’s character in L’enfant aimé, just as some of the shots of Julie in bed recall Akerman in bed in La chambre. Claire Wauthion, the star of L’enfant aimé, shows up in the third and final part of Je Tu Il Elle as Julie’s apparently estranged girlfriend, whom we now presume she may have been writing to in the first part.

We won’t discuss what happens next aside from observing that Je Tu Il Elle becomes a landmark in lesbian cinema. The film acquires a circularity because, in the final words spoken aloud (20 minutes before the film’s end), Julie is told that she must leave in the morning. This echoes the opening line of her narration at the beginning: “And so I left.” It ends with a children’s song telling us to join the dance and kiss whom we like, and perhaps that’s the only moral the film needs.

In retrospect, it’s clear how all this material led to the monumental Jeanne Dielman, completed when Akerman was 24. Loayza’s essay also makes clear how Dielman’s strategies were haunted by the ghost memory of something she never saw: the large paintings of her maternal grandmother, who died in the Holocaust. Akerman described them as portraits of women’s faces gazing outward, “and that’s all.”

Akerman’s mother, who survived, never discussed her experience but was clearly affected, and Akerman perceived that she and other women took refuge in obsessive housework to channel and displace their emotional demons. One of the best extras is an interview Chantal Akerman conducted with her mother (in the kitchen, of course), in which the mother says it was a relief to be picked for outside work because terrible things would happen while they were gone.

Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)

 Les Rendez-vous d'Anna | Still courtesy of Criterion

The haunting weight of history and the intersection of Europe’s history with personal histories is one of the subjects explored in Chantal Akerman’s follow-up to Jeanne Dielman. Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (basically “Meetings with Anna”) is a sedate yet gripping road movie with an all-star cast and a film not of realism but expressionism tinged with surrealism. For example, the opening shot of a train platform merges eerie Kubrickian balance with Belgian painter René Magritte as a pack of commuters reveals only their backs descending the stairs. The painters George Tooker and Edward Hopper are also relevant comparisons.

Trains, of course, are a historically loaded trope in European cinema, as we see in everything from films of Lars Von Trier to roaring melodramas like George Cosmatos’ The Cassandra Crossing (1979). Akerman handles the many train scenes in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna with an awareness of discomfort, foreboding, and malaise. One sequence in which the heroine tries to pass from her first class compartment into more crowded cars almost becomes a nightmare. Life will always be boxed into tiny rooms and corridors.

The protagonist is Anne Silver (Aurore Clement), a famous young Belgian filmmaker traveling on professional and personal errands in Germany, France, and Belgium. Hmm. Have we mentioned that Akerman’s middle name is Anne? I assume “Silver” refers to films – silver nitrate and the silver screen.

While staying in hotels and waiting for trains, Anne makes phone calls in usually thwarted attempts at human contact via the illusory promise of technology to bring us together. She often acts as a sympathetic sounding board for people who launch into novelistic monologues of their lives, hopes, and disappointments. In other words, she functions as Akerman’s characters in L’enfant aimé and Je Tu Il Elle, the visiting anthropologist to whom people can spill their secrets.

The other people usually want something from Anne. A lonely German man (Helmut Griem), abandoned by his wife for a Turk, wants her to stay and take over for the wife. A friend of Anne’s mother (Magali Noel) hopes Anne will marry her son, and she makes the ominous prediction that if you have no children, you’ll be left with no one when your parents die. Two other men (Hanns Zischler and Jean-Pierre Cassel) reveal their existential ennui and frustration.

The most remarkable and charged encounter is with Anne’s mother (Lea Massari), and this is the sequence where roles are reversed, and the mother becomes a sounding board as Anne divulges an intimate confession.

Earlier, we mentioned Akerman’s awareness of her actors’ links to major works of cinema. Prior to Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Zischler starred in two Wim Wenders films. Griem had major roles in Lucchino Visconti‘s The Damned (1969) and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972). Noel, primarily a singer, had an important role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Cassel was as famous and busy as possible for such directors as Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Melville, and also in Harry Kümel’s Belgian fantasy, Malpertuis (1971).

Clement was known for Louis Malle‘s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), but Akerman wanted her after spotting a nude photo in a magazine. Wenders must have paid attention to Akerman’s borrowing of Zischler, for he returned the gesture by casting Clement as a different Anne in Paris, Texas (1982).

All this indicates that while Chantal Akerman had been struggling at the margins of the film industry, essentially making films privately, Jeanne Dielman’s success dropped her smack into the mainstream of European art cinema, where she maintained an uneasy, idiosyncratic relationship for the rest of her career. We hope the rest of that career will receive the attention lavished on her first decade in this essential Criterion set.