Film

‘We Wanted to Invent’: Babette Mangolte on Chantal Akerman

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Though they worked on just five films together, the last way back in 1983, the association between Chantal Akerman and French cinematographer Babette Mangolte remains strong, largely thanks to two masterpieces: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) and News From Home (1977). Over tea in New York — her adoptive home of 46 years — Mangolte talked about her collaborations with and affinities for the formidable Akerman.

Though you came from Paris and she from Brussels, you actually met Chantal Akerman in New York?

I arrived in New York a year before Chantal, so we discovered it at about the same time. I wanted to see Wavelength [the experimental film by Michael Snow] — that is the reason I came here. You couldn’t see it in Europe. I met her when she arrived, which was late September or early October of 1971.

Together you made three films in New York — La Chambre, Hotel Monterey, and News From Home, an exquisitely melancholy, alone-in-the-city self-portrait. For that film, how did you and Chantal devise shots that could suggest such depth of feeling?

Night was very important — night is where the lonely people are. We used only natural light, and so we shot at dawn. There was no strong black — there was this pastel-y kind of color. I produced the film, so I managed the money so we could shoot in the subway legally — we never would have been able to shoot in the subway if we did not have a permit. The majority was shot at 42nd Street, because it’s a huge station that has many tracks. There was a sense of displacement, of abstraction. There were a couple of shots that were handheld, but otherwise everything was shot with the tripod. Then there’s the last one, going to Staten Island.

It’s a static tripod shot, yet the frame changes because you’re on a moving boat. I grew up on Staten Island, and that shot perfectly captures the sadness I always felt heading home.

That sense of being pulled away, of leaving the city. If you analyze all of her films in terms of script, Chantal has a sense of drama that’s quite extraordinary. Not the norm of an experimental filmmaker.

She also had a strong sense of emotion.

Emotion was definitely something that was coming from the historical context of feminism. We were saying, “We’re not going to make films like a father, or like a brother or lover. We’re going to make films differently, because we are going to tap into things that they don’t see because they don’t have the experience of living as a woman.” That was the whole point of feminism in the 1970s. We wanted to invent.

You can see that play out throughout Akerman’s career. She’s not only developing her own overall language, each individual film insists on its own vocabulary.

She did not repeat.

In her scripts, did she lay out the shots as she envisioned them?

No, in general she wrote the scripts as a short story. For instance in Jeanne Dielman, the story was really a novella. It’s describing gestures and the order in which you see them. I arrived two weeks before we started, and we prepared the shot list. Not only was there no disagreement — we had learned to do movies together and we had the same taste. So we shot the film in order of the camera position — we did not shoot the film in continuity. That would have taken forever to shoot. So we shot everything that was the kitchen at this angle, and then at that angle. We actually started with the dining room table, which had many angles. [She air-diagrams them with her hands on the table.] One, two, three, four, and five.

What was your strategy in terms of duration?

It was only on the first day of the shoot that we realized the length of certain shots. At that time, ninety minutes was the norm for a film to be commercial, but Chantal did not want to excerpt things or do ellipses on the gesture. This was fundamental to the aesthetic of feminism. You don’t do what men do. It’s not an action picture. It’s a picture that is about giving nobility to something that has never been represented: somebody cooking, somebody waiting. The consequences of the utopia that we were working from implied that the film was going to be the way it was.

That’s such a strong place you and Chantal were coming from, in terms of the purposes of duration, and it was very different from Snow and other structuralists.

They had no emotional underpinning. Though Wavelength had some.

Though it might test the bounds of our expectations for how long a shot should be, in Jeanne Dielman there’s a reason the action needs to play out, and it’s right in front of us.

And that’s absolutely what was verbalized to Delphine [Seyrig]. And she was totally for it. She was very sophisticated in terms of aesthetics — she was in Pull My Daisy; she lived in New York in the experimental film and art scene. And by the early Seventies she worked only with women directors. She was very much a feminist.

Did you wind up using a high percentage of what you shot?

The film was done very quickly — we started the third week of February and it was finished at the end of March, and it was edited in less than a month. There was not much to take out. A lot of what complicates filmmaking is that people impose things on themselves. That it has to be only ninety minutes. In many ways, the current circumstances of independent film, people like Xavier Dolan who are very young and gifted, who start on their own, they work exactly like we were working. It was more difficult to do when Chantal started to make films in the early Seventies, but it was possible.

Do the films still feel present for you?

Those films feel very alive. I don’t think Jeanne Dielman has taken one wrinkle. The intensity of loneliness is always of today.

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