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September 8 – October 22, 2017

Breathing Through Cinema - The Films of Chantal Akerman

“Nothing is simple, and whenever I say anything, I want to say the opposite as well.” That statement, spoken by Chantal Akerman in a 2011 interview with film theorist Nicole Brenez, functions neatly as an off-the-cuff summary of one particular, prevalent conception of an artist’s purpose, one that assumes dialectical thought—as opposed to Platonic conceptual purity—to be a precondition for dynamically and meaningfully engaging with the world. For Akerman to profess this was not for her to be intentionally provocative or evasive; if anything, the legendary filmmaker’s interviews, like her films, were always marked by a striving for the ideal means with which to express complicated ideas, as if oversharing were the only route to truth. Rather, it’s more likely that in this casual instance of self-analysis, she happened to stumble across her entire philosophy and practice as a filmmaker.

Akerman’s inclination toward scrutinizing her own impulses, ideas and expressions, which is evident everywhere from her crossing of seemingly incompatible modes (avant-garde minimalism and the musical, for instance) to the dissonances she often creates between sound and image, sprang from her upbringing. As a restlessly curious teenager in Paris in the late sixties, she attended classes at a Jewish learning center where, under the tutelage of philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, she “learn[ed] the art of questioning and negation,” a skill no doubt reinforced by her experiences eavesdropping on Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze lectures at the University of Paris. Together with her trips to Anthology Film Archives in early 1970s New York, where she persisted for several years on odd jobs and independent initiative, these miscellaneous educational whims substituted for a traditional college education, which Akerman ditched in her hometown of Brussels after less than a year of unfulfilling degree work.

These formative years may appear to paint Akerman as an inheritor of privilege, hopscotching around the world’s cultural capitols without much in the way of practical resistance, but in fact the opposite was true. The director’s parents were exiled Polish Jews who were forced to scrape together an impoverished existence in Brussels, and, as Akerman recalled, “I understood right away that my parents had nothing, that I couldn’t have anything or ask for anything.” Of particular significance was her mother’s years of hardship in concentration camps, a devastating fact that essentially provides one of the tectonic plates of Akerman’s entire oeuvre. As much as Akerman would go on to value the role of questioning, it was in the primordial history of her parents that she would be acclimatized to the absolute limits of questioning in the face of real trauma. Her heightened awareness of her mother’s trials—coupled with her inability to ever know the exact nature of them—produced an acute sense of identity crisis, so that even when Akerman was eventually traveling the world making films, covering such far-flung material as border relations in the southwestern United States or the goings-on in a cheap motel in Manhattan, the work always, implicitly or not, circled back homeward to questions of belonging.

The films produced in the first decade of Akerman’s career—many of which were self-financed, limited to a few locations, and made with only the slimmest of cast and crew—bear out the development of formal strategies analogous to her humble beginnings. Though it was Jean-Luc Godard’s madcap Pierrot le Fou that allegedly spurred Akerman’s cinematic bug, it was the structuralist and minimalist avant-gardes in vogue in New York in the seventies—which encompassed such filmmakers as Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol—that were really instrumental in empowering her sensibilities. To an individual already predisposed to thinking within her means, the stationary long take and the avoidance of overtly dramatic spectacle or music cues were natural and cost-effective inheritances, while a fast-evolving fixation on the routine and the mundane stood out quickly as her distinguishing feature. In films such as Je tu il elle, Hotel Monterey, and News From Home, the inexorable fact of time and space provided drama enough for Akerman, who happily dispensed with plot and characterization in favor of confronting the viewer with the physical world’s presence at supreme length.

Longest of all is Jeanne Dielman, an over-three-hour catalogue of crushingly banal domesticity featuring Akerman’s first star subject in Delphine Seyrig, and a film that now holds secure footing as a watershed moment in structuralist cinema and feminist expression alike. The film, which dedicates untold spans of time to recording Seyrig as she silently and fastidiously performs the round-the-clock labors of a stay-at-home mother in between covert prostitution gigs, became a cause célèbre in art-film circles in the decade after its completion and continues to be synonymous with Akerman’s legacy, for better and for worse. While the film represents the most ambitious and rewarding synthesis of the director’s touchstones as an artist (her real-time experimentation, her focus on the quotidian, her elevation of women’s underrepresented struggles), its centrality in her body of work also tends to attach her to the labels—“minimalist,” “feminist”—that she was always so vigilant in rejecting, and which the many obituaries produced in the wake of her recent death prove are still operative.

A more holistic survey of Akerman’s career reveals just how early and often she branched off from this foundation, and indeed how frequently her work complicated it. If Jeanne Dielman’s asceticism posed the possibility of a director with limited range, then disparate accomplishments such as Toute une Nuit (a hyper-eventful mosaic of romantic vignettes), Golden Eighties (an eccentric musical set inside a shopping mall), and La Captive (an elegant Hitchcockian adaptation of notoriously “unadaptable” Marcel Proust) refuted any such suspicions. And where Jeanne Dielman showed an artist with a near-obsessive interest in the mini-universe of a single apartment, later documentaries like D’Est (about the migration of Europeans after the fall of the Iron Curtain), Sud (about a hate crime committed in Texas), and La Bas (which evokes tensions between Israel and Palestine by observing the hum of street life beyond the windows of a Tel Aviv hotel room) revealed a human with a profoundly global consciousness and a sensitivity to injustices well outside her immediate purview. “After Stalin and the camps,” she said to Brenez, “you know for sure that an ideology leads to the worst.” Thus, in place of ideology, Akerman had empathy.

Much as her humanism and historical mindfulness marked her as an artist worthy of international acclaim, however, it is Akerman’s contributions to film style that have proved most unshakeable to cinema culture at large. Few directors have ever been as invested in the primacy and power of the image, as opposed to other tools such as montage or performance, as the real concentration of forces around which a film gathers meaning. Akerman’s frontal, horizontally arranged style of composition, which finds no use for exotic perspectives such as the low-angle or the bird’s-eye view, places the viewer in direct proximity to the material world and holds them there for long enough that a physical space’s more elusive or unseen dimensions—its quality of light, for instance, or perhaps traces of the past—elevate in a spectator’s hierarchy of attention from discarded background detail to foregrounded information pregnant with implications. When this same approach is applied to human subjects, as in the sustained studies of Aurore Clément in repose that pepper Les Rendez-vous d’Anna or the entrancing close-up of Stanislas Merhar that concludes Almayer’s Folly, it treats the audience to a degree of facial detail and psychological nuance that commercial narrative cinema rarely has the time for, in addition to illuminating Akerman’s remarkable faith in her actors.

This directorial ethic of imposing a fixed composition on an environment but also allowing a degree of spontaneity within that mediated space can be traced to a larger dialectic of disorder and order that often governs Akerman’s films, most famously in the shocking denouement of Jeanne Dielman, which exposes the anxiety and frustration lurking beneath quotidian ritual. This longstanding motif can, and has, been probed along a multitude of interpretive lines, from the analysis of labor as an internalization of Jewish trauma to the exploration of how Akerman’s films present a world in perpetual resistance to patriarchal norms. While such avenues are fruitful and no doubt substantiated in large part by the films themselves, the cumulative impact of Akerman’s cinema is thornier and more deeply felt than any master reading accounts for. Of her rigorously spare Hotel Monterey, she once remarked that “it was my breathing that decided the length of my shots.” Whether that’s true or just a case of Akerman’s youthful self-mythologization is a moot point. It may just be the best way to understand her films: despite their grace and poise, they’re more physiological compulsions than cerebral realizations. – Carson Lund

Friday September 8 at 7pm

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck
France/Belgium 1975, 35mm, color, 200 min. French with English subtitles

A chamber drama; a revenge film; a structuralist experiment; a feminist deflation of the male-dominated sphere of narrative cinema; a daring test of viewer patience and the limits of a 35mm film roll; a canny exercise in the most rudimentary tenets of filmic suspense; a catalogue of the patterns and textures of 1970s Brussels; a thorough spatial study of a single apartment within that city; a touching tribute to the domestic labors of a mother; and an incidental step-by-step instructional video on home-cooking essentials—the inexhaustibility of Akerman's Jeanne Dielman is such that no cursory categorization of it suffices. Belatedly released in the United States on the currents of growing countercultural hype, the film, which charts several days in the life of a stay-at-home matriarch played by Delphine Seyrig, was positioned by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman at the time as an artistic apex within the structuralist strand of the avant-garde. Now, it can be seen as even more monumental in its film-historical significance; its formal rigor, while deeply indebted to the artisanal filmmaking that preceded it, also sends ripples across the history of international arthouse cinema, having affected artists as disparate as Béla Tarr and Jiayin Liu. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday September 15 at 7pm

News From Home

Directed by Chantal Akerman
France/Belgium/West Germany 1976, DCP, color, 89 min. French with English subtitles

The vast gulf posed between public spaces and private emotions, long a thematic preoccupation for Akerman, received its most potent, distilled form with News From Home, a nakedly simple, remarkably affecting diary film made during Akerman’s first tenure in New York. Juxtaposing documentary images of Manhattan streets with narrated letters addressed to Akerman by her mother overseas, the film creates an immediate dissonance between sound and image that goes unabated from beginning to end. The scenes captured at length by Akerman’s 16mm camera describe a long-lost Big Apple of roads where trash blows like tumbleweed, of depopulated convenience stores and laundromats, and of imposing concrete slabs untainted by modern branding, forging an impression of both enveloping gloominess and endearing urban character. Akerman's complex relationship to the city is one of fascination and repulsion—further complicated by her evident nostalgia for home, which shows through even as the missives she impassively recites turn gradually from loving to hectoring. It’s all capped by one of the director’s greatest parting shots, a farewell to the city skyline that is simultaneously relieving and ominous. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

Preceded by

La chambre

Directed by Chantal Akerman
Belgium/US 1972, DCP, color, 11 min

DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday September 15 at 9:30pm

I… You… He… She… (Je tu il elle)

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Chantal Akerman, Niels Arestrup, Claire Wauthion
France/Belgium 1974, DCP, b/w, 90 min. French with English subtitles

Akerman's debut feature, undertaken at the precocious age of twenty-three, casually and confidently subverts a number of cinematic conventions, from the three-act structure and the idea of confessional storytelling to even the most basic relationships between sound and image. The film's first act stays confined to a nondescript studio apartment where Akerman herself, playing a character presumably representing the titular "Je," lopes around in fixed long takes, her heart broken from the recent fallout of a relationship. The action is limited to her writing and rewriting of letters to her female lover (which Akerman reads in voiceover), her grief-binging on powdered sugar and her obsessive repositioning of the few pieces of furniture in her hovel, all of which poses an immediate challenge to any viewers with a low tolerance for visual and dramatic monotony. Finally, in step with the character's impatience, the film takes to the streets of Brussels, where she first hitchhikes with an unpleasant, sexually deprived trucker and subsequently finds her way to her ex-lover's apartment, where she then persists in coaxing a lovemaking session that's shown in lengthy real-time. The journey suggests an erotic picaresque, but one shorn by Akerman's compositional distance and chiaroscuro lighting of any vicarious pleasure in the heroine's escapades. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday September 17 at 5pm

Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman

Directed by Chantal Akerman
France 1996, digital video, color, 64 min. French with English subtitles

The tradition of André Labarthe and Janine Bazin’s television series Cinéastes de notres temps was always to employ one renowned filmmaker to document and appraise the working life of another. When asked to contribute to this tradition, Akerman facetiously offered herself as a subject and was surprised to find her proprietors obliging. The resulting program does not flow like a standard educational rundown of an artist’s accomplishments and working methods; rather, it offers a window into Akerman’s particular mindset in 1996, which is elucidated in the lengthy monologue from the director herself that opens the film. Speaking candidly from her apartment, Akerman elaborates on her life and work, saving few kind words for the bureaucratic processes inherent in producing motion pictures, and generally avoiding any in-depth explication of the meaning of her films. Eventually, the hour-long program segues to an associative montage of moments from Akerman’s ouevre, in the process teasing out echoes and dissonances across her body of shorts, features and documentaries. Functioning as both a primer for the uninitiated and a possible skeleton key for the devoted auteurist, Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman gives rare access to its maker’s headspace.

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Friday September 22 at 9pm

All Night Long (Toute une nuit)

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Aurore Clément, Tchéky Karyo, Jan Decorte
France/Belgium/Netherlands/Canada 1982, 35mm, color, 90 min. French & English with English subtitles

Time is a trudging inevitability in Akerman’s early films, but in Toute Une Nuit, time will not move slow enough. The would-be lovers that comprise the film’s dramatic personae—a cast of dozens, each receiving no more than a few minutes of screen time—are constantly coming up short of their moments of bliss within the compressed dusk-to-dawn structure, which takes inventory, in a series of short vignettes, of an evening of dalliances in summertime Brussels. Radically unhinged from any overarching dramatic through line, the film becomes an austere, nearly dialogue-free collage of romantic courtship and companionship in which yearning and frustration are the default emotions. Ecstasy, if and when it’s attained, is impulsive and fleeting, and staged by Akerman via melodramatic MGM-like embraces that are stripped of surrounding audiovisual bombast. Lovers grip each other as if for the last time in darkened alleyways, stark apartment lobbies or seedy diners, but the camera offers no kinetic embellishments, only a stoical gaze from afar. The severe, flavorless surfaces of Brussels are the subject of Toute Une Nuit; the characters are just the tragicomic figurines passing by. 

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Saturday September 23 at 9pm

Golden Eighties

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Myriam Boyer, John Berry, Delphine Seyrig
France/Belgium/Switzerland 1986, DCP, color, 96 min. French with English subtitles

If the musical genre held latent sway on previous Akerman films like Toute une Nuit and One Day Pina Asked…, it is fully embraced in Golden Eighties, the director’s first truly commercially viable feature. Starring Delphine Seyrig alongside a handful of female co-stars as shopkeepers and retail workers in the Toison D’Or mall, the film offers a burst of collective girlish energy almost as buoyant and unrestrained as in a Jacques Demy picture, though Akerman is sure to pepper her ensemble narrative with intimations of past trauma (the Holocaust lingers in characters’ backstories) and contemporary economic anxieties. The men in the story are either remote or, in the case of Jeanne’s past lover who materializes in the mall after a decade of postwar estrangement, filled with empty promises—all the better to focus attention on the jubilantly choreographed song-and-dance bits, which play like budget versions of Busby Berkeley numbers recorded by an especially exacting camera. Meanwhile, the transparently chintzy shopping mall itself, initially a space of glittering promise, gradually becomes as impersonal as a train station in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna. DCP courtesy Cinematek Royale Belgique.

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Friday September 29 at 9pm

From the East (D’Est)

Directed by Chantal Akerman
France/Belgium/Portugal 1993, 16mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles

One of Akerman’s most formidable documentaries, D’Est charts the filmmaker’s personal odyssey across Western Europe shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a travelogue conducted without commentary, it is one of Akerman’s most visually arresting films, communicating conflicting, ambivalent ideas about the collision between tradition and modernity entirely through layered tableaux. There’s an aleatory choreography of people, vehicles and environments in these shots—some static, some moving—that could almost be mistaken for Jacques Tati’s were it not for the sobering tone. Over the course of her trip, which passes from East Germany all the way to the heart of Moscow, Akerman photographs sleepy rural scenes, overcrowded urban spaces, sedate domestic interiors and a seemingly endless procession of train station and bus queues where uprooted civilians, draped in heavy winter attire and luggage, await whatever comes next. Beginning in sunny quietude and ending in fierce snow squalls, the film seems to anticipate hardship for the future, but is nonetheless possessed of an unstoppable life force—one written on the weathered faces of the subjects and in the restless lateral movement of Akerman’s dollying camera. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Sunday October 1 at 7pm

Almayer's Folly (La Folie Almayer)

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Stanislas Merhar, Marc Barbé, Aurora Marion
Belgium/France 2011, 35mm, color, 127 min. French, English and Khmer with English subtitles

Akerman’s penultimate film was her final brush with narrative and only her second literary adaptation. After taking on the elasticity of Proust with The Captive, the director turned to the trenchant political prose of Joseph Conrad for Almayer’s Folly, finding in the author’s eponymous antihero a man acutely and tragically cognizant of the passing of time and the long-term effects of his own misjudged actions. Never one to limit her focus, however, Akerman pays equal attention to the white colonialist’s mixed-race daughter, who finally attempts to escape her loving but controlling patriarch in one of the film’s several sublime examples of long-take choreography. In migrating the tale from Conrad’s 19th century French Indochina to 1950s Malaysia, Akerman is able to tie one man’s gradual recognition of his own greed to the larger collapse of European empire, while also gaining richly atmospheric environments in which to film, from the clammy, neon-lit underbelly of riverfront port city Phnom Penh to the overgrown jungle where Almayer holes up in anticipation of riches. Dean Martin songs and Mozart movements waft through this thick, humid atmosphere, providing a fitting sense of cultural displacement to this dark, pitiless meditation on the existential dead end of imperialism. Print courtesy Icarus Films.

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Friday October 6 at 7pm

Meetings with Anna
(Les Rendez-vous d'Anna)

Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Aurore Clément, Helmut Griem, Magali Noël
France/Belgium/West Germany 1978, DCP, color, 127 min. French with English subtitles

Set largely in train stations, hotels and taxicabs, Les Rendez-vous d'Anna is a film locked in a spatiotemporal limbo, a pointed departure from the fixed domesticity of Jeanne Dielman. The story's rootlessness is inspired by Akerman's own as a filmmaker enjoying relative international renown in the mid seventies, and her titular heroine—a taciturn director on a border-crossing trip to Cologne to attend a screening of her work— functions transparently as self-portraiture. That Anna's most emotionally charged rendez-vous, among a handful of less fulfilling interactions dramatized over the course of the film, occurs with her mother during a brief stopover in her hometown of Brussels, makes the connection especially palpable and lends the film its harrowing interplay between Anna's inchoate longing for independence and her equally persuasive need for familial comforts. At once a damning exploration of collective European existential malaise post-WWII, a quietly wrenching coming-out drama, and a haunting purgatorial tour of anonymous metropolitan spaces (each photographed with breathtaking formal precision by Jean Penzer), Les Rendez-vous d'Anna is Akerman's confident first step into more conventional narrative territory. DCP courtesy Cinematek Royal de Belgique.

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Saturday October 7 at 9pm

One Day Pina Asked…
(Un jour Pina a demandé)

Directed by Chantal Akerman
France/Belgium 1983, digital video, color, 57 min. French with English subtitles

Early on in One Day Pina Asked…, one of the performers in experimental German choreographer Pina Bausch’s troupe has a candid moment with the camera in which he demonstrates his knowledge of sign language by translating a George Gershwin ballad in real time, a skill that so moved his instructor, she later integrated it into an act. Akerman’s fiercely unconventional “documentary” on Bausch’s work, which only fleetingly records the maverick herself, illustrates her essence through such instances when her unseen guidance unlocks the potential of her disciples. In long, transfixing episodes uninterrupted by cuts, Akerman documents the rehearsals and performances conducted under Bausch’s tutelage, which suggest expressionistic burlesques of everyday behavior that transform ritual into carnal outbursts or surreal repetitions. If Bausch’s work represents a concerted effort to find roiling undercurrents of human passion beneath numbing quotidian horror (like Akerman’s mother, she was a child of the war years), it’s a mission aligned with that of the filmmaker influenced by her, who at one point appears onscreen to note, with an appreciative ambiguity, the “moments in which I felt I had to defend myself from what was being expressed.”

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Sunday October 22 at 5pm

Hotel Monterey

Directed by Chantal Akerman
Belgium/US 1972, DCP, color, silent, 63 min

In her first substantial experiment in duration, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte set about gradually ascending the floors of a fleabag motel in Manhattan over the course of a single day, pausing throughout to scrutinize the building’s nether regions in intense, uninterrupted takes. The result, a silent visual poem running a fleet but dense 65 minutes, excavates a looming current of sadness and dread in musty lobbies, creaky elevators and poorly lit hallways, the frozen camera only incidentally happening upon patrons, many of whom appear to be literally stuck in place. As it rises toward an eventual release from the interior space, Akerman breaks the stasis for a ghostly slow-motion slide down a top-floor hallway toward a window and back—a dolly move that's then reprised multiple times in a row under various lighting conditions. Such a maneuver invokes Akerman's affinity with structuralist practitioners like Ernie Gehr and Michael Snow (artists whose work she was encountering for the first time while living in New York), and yet Hotel Monterey belies any sense of intellectualized calculation, maintaining instead an eerie, precarious balance between trance and sheer mundanity. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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