“What I want is to make people feel the passing of time,” Chantal Akerman was fond of saying about her rigorously observed films. Whether in narratives or documentaries, she redefined spectatorship and what it means to watch with long, static, precisely composed takes — of potatoes being peeled, say, or of two naked women (one of whom was the director herself) locked in combative sex, or the bizarre choreography of the Times Square subway station, or a tree being buffeted by harsh desert winds. Appetite, desire, exile, home, ritual, and imprisonment are her most prominent themes, though even this lofty list seems to minimize Akerman’s expansive oeuvre. That we now have to speak of this monumental filmmaker in the past tense — Akerman committed suicide last October, at the age of 65 — still seems unthinkable, a brutal fact that forces us to confront the passing not just of time but an era.
To commemorate this incomparable auteur, rep houses throughout the city are screening her work for the next month, with BAMcinématek’s “Chantal Akerman: Images Between the Images” the centerpiece of an interborough tribute (Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of the Moving Image are also taking part). The near-complete, 29-title retrospective in Brooklyn opens with a two-week run of her last film, No Home Movie (2015), both a project about death now devastatingly yoked to the director’s own and a summa of her most abiding subjects. This rare joint salute reflects the special relationship that Akerman, Brussels-born and largely Paris-based — yet often a nomad — had with New York. (On March 19, City College, which appointed her a visiting professor in 2011, co-hosted with the Film Society of Lincoln Center the homage “Chantal Akerman: New York Remembers.”) Penniless, she moved here in 1971, guided solely — as she told me when I interviewed her in late 2009 — by this conviction: “I had a strange but realistic feeling that things were happening here.” During her eighteen-month stay, she made two exquisite silent portraits, both from 1972, of the metropolis: La Chambre, featuring the director herself in a cramped Spring Street crash pad, and Hotel Monterey, a chronicle of a run-down welfare hotel on the Upper West Side.
These films — the first of several collaborations with cinematographer Babette Mangolte (see Eric Hynes’s interview) — highlight Akerman’s career-long fascination with interior spaces, anticipating the confining, estranging rooms of the epoch-defining 1975 anti-melodrama Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, screening for a week at Film Forum in a new restoration. (Film Forum hosted the first U.S. theatrical run of Akerman’s masterwork in 1983, eight years after Jeanne Dielman‘s premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes; the belated release was celebrated in two rapturous — and highly influential — Voice cover stories by B. Ruby Rich and J. Hoberman, the twin pieces flanking a photo of the filmmaker, only 24 when her domestic epic was shot.) Tellingly, after the seismic shift created by Jeanne Dielman, a work partially inspired by Akerman’s mother, the director returned to New York in the summer of 1976 to make News From Home (1977), a majestic, doleful contemplation of Gotham that ends with a foreboding shot of the World Trade Center enshrouded in mist and fog.
That melancholic city symphony is punctuated by the filmmaker’s offscreen voice reading aloud from the increasingly needy missives sent to her by her mother in Brussels during the director’s ’71–’73 New York stopover. Four decades later, maman is the star attraction of No Home Movie, Akerman’s tender, at times deliberately agonizing portrait of the final years of a supremely endearing, increasingly fragile matriarch (Natalia Akerman died in 2014 at age 86). Much of No Home Movie takes place in Natalia’s sun-filled apartment in the Belgian capital as Chantal, the elder of her two daughters, flits in and out of the frame. The two women spend a great deal of time in the immaculate kitchen — the room that proves so pivotal in Jeanne Dielman and the site of the domesticity-detonating mayhem in Akerman’s first film, the 1968 short Saute Ma Ville (Blow Up My Town), starring the still-teenage director.
Over plates of potatoes and pickles, Natalia and Chantal convey profound affection for each other: “You were the most beautiful mother. The most beautiful woman,” Chantal coos at dinner one night, recalling her schoolgirl pride in Mom; Natalia returns the flirtatious flattery during their Skype conversations. Yet this charged intimacy — a dynamic central to the mother-daughter bond in the partly autobiographical narrative feature The Meetings of Anna (1978) — is also marked by evasions. Gently pressed by Chantal, Natalia, a Jew born in Poland in the late 1920s, will politely acknowledge some of the privations she endured during the war but say nothing of the horrors she escaped. (Natalia was sent to Auschwitz, where her parents perished; Chantal’s father was also a Holocaust survivor.)
“I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” Chantal, video-chatting with Natalia from Oklahoma, says early on in No Home Movie. The statement hints at the claustrophobic complexities that characterized the filmmaker’s lifelong filial devotion; “no distance” doesn’t just refer to collapsed miles and time zones. Akerman’s avowal is also obliquely echoed in the title of Marianne Lambert’s 2015 documentary on the director, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which Film Forum is presenting free of charge in a week-long run. Though slender, Lambert’s study, shot after Natalia’s death, makes a touching companion piece to No Home Movie, segments from which Akerman is shown scrutinizing on a monitor with longtime editor Claire Atherton. (Lambert also seems wisely to have taken her cue from 1996’s Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman, a self-portrait told primarily through clips of the filmmaker’s work.) “I always did what I liked and what interested me,” the diminutive auteur, her eyes ablaze, says in her unmistakable husky, tobacco-deepened voice. How painful — how inconceivable — that we can never know where her boundless curiosity would have led her next.
‘Chantal Akerman: Images Between the Images’
BAMcinématek, April 1–May 1
No Home Movie
Directed by Chantal Akerman
BAMcinématek, April 1–14
I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman
Directed by Marianne Lambert
Film Forum, March 30–April 5
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Written and directed by Chantal Akerman
Film Forum, April 1–7
More:Film and TV