Chantal Akerman: 10 Films to Explore a Staggering Career

Best known for her three hour portrait of a woman slowly devolving, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman would have turned seventy today. While her canonized lengthy epic is a point of much discussion, it is a colossal affair that may be intimidating for many. Though it in itself is an astounding achievement, especially one made so young, Akerman’s rich filmography, including nearly thirty feature films, is a varied exercise in identity, motherhood, naturalism, and intimacy, and these ten featured are a great starting point for the highlights of her filmography, whether you’ve seen Jeanne Dielman or not. Chantal Akerman’s first short film, Saute Ma Ville, is also an essential within her body of work.

10. Tomorrow We Move

The most narratively accessible of many films exploring the complexities of the mother-daughter dynamic, Tomorrow We Move is a near farcical comedy at times. Of course, it is melancholy at others, imagining a life more idealized, child in arms, playing a piano, as if bestowed with all the happiness in the world. Like in Jeanne Dielman, so-called women’s work of household chores is filmed dramatically, billowing vacuum smoke like a bonfire, and mop water becoming a flood in time. There is a tension in these mundanities, our young writer’s life clearly starts to spiral when her mother moves in even just watching her chores. It’s as if another filmmaker had been asked to distill Akerman’s body of work into a comedy, except her distinctive intergenerational loneliness allows her touch to shine through.

Now Available on YouTube

9. Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60’s in Brussels

Maybe a scene set in a CD store in a film set in the 60s is an anachronism, but the film is as much a product of the time it was made as the time it was set. It is also a portrait of a young girl in the 90s by this logic, the two timelines and stories become one, and we see this coming of age through two generational eyes. Same-sex teenage curiousity is just as much a normal part of the young girl we follow’s day as a movie with a male friend or a walk in the park, as woven into the fabric of teenagehood as any experience. Young couples sway in each others’ arms as the music reminds us it’s a man’s world, and our young protagonist exits into the night in hope to find companionship following her. There is more loneliness present in these crowded groups for this young girl, less connection though surrounded by others. In a way, this young girl in 1960s Brussels could be any time, any place without that specification in the film’s title. Stating it so early is like a diary entry marked at the top, labelling a time and place so these intimate moments of a day free from school aren’t forgotten.

Now Available on YouTube

8. No Home Movie

Nearly five years since its release, shortly followed by Akerman’s suicide, No Home Movie is a sendoff to the mother-daughter relationship at the core of her films. Communication changes over time, technology allowing us to look someone in the eyes while speaking from far away. These tools didn’t exist when this family first came to film, and the dynamic shifts as contact is so consistently accessible. It’s hard to understand the tragedies that our loved ones face, her mother never speaks of her time in concentration camps though it will always longer, and Chantal struggles to express how the values of the world have hurt us. No matter how much closeness we create with those we love, that distance will always be there, that boundary we think we can close with constant contact will always stay firm. The opening frame is barren, a single tree blows in the wind, yet it’s persistence is strange. It carries on through the elements, juxtaposed with the mother on her last days, in an apartment just as lonely with two in it as one.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

7. The Captive

Adapted from Proust, The Captive is a tale of obsession bound by the woman’s own assertion. A man pries into every detail of his girlfriend’s life, and with it comes realizations he refuses to accept. Even when she is able to come and go as she pleases, to love the women she wants away from him, her freedom is still less so than that of a captive man. Obsessive desire holds him captive, and though he has the physical freedom, he will never distance from her no matter how far she leaves. The two almost seem to come from different times, he is dredged in the past, always reading back to history, while she almost feels like one of us at the point of the film’s 2000 release, yet the two are bound by his obsession. He struggles to cope that she may be fulfilled outside of him, and this ego is as much his downfall as his fixation.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

6. Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy

Encompassing Jewish tradition through a wide variety of subjects, Histoires d’Amerique us a departure from the usual real-time slow-burn trademark. Instead of each speaker being given their own time, they’re intercut, a comment or a story followed by someone else’s to stitch together the Jewish community shown. Jewish culture and history has long been an important element in Akerman’s work, most overtly in Dis-moi, which interviews Jewish grandmothers who had survived the Holocaust, and in this documentary a casual history is created. Gone are the textbook traditions and landmark events, here the history is built upon the Brooklyn streets, jokes and sketches interspersed to immerse us in Jewish culture. Culture creates the history, not the battles fought by many, and understanding comes through knowing these small parts of daily life, the family legends, the musings, and the favorite foods.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

5. Golden Eighties

Knowing what we know of Akerman’s filmmaking tendencies, the last we’d expect is an 80s set mall musical shot entirely on a sound starge (then again, perfectly ordinary Juliette Binoche romcom A Couch in New York exists). Pastel primary colors, women crossing legs in heels in sync, and artificial floors so cold they hurt to look at make this materialistic world whole, and the intrinsic criticism of it is clear. The only sign of her typical poetic longing is when the lights in the shops go out, and then it is clear this musical delight is a pastiche to show how the world has grown so surface level. There’s that swooning romance, that dizzying choreography, and the claustrophobic closeness, but there’s also that sinking feeling that something isn’t quite right in this shining capitalistic place.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

4. Toute Une Nuit

While not structuralist in the way of La Chamber and Hotel Monterey‘s one room stillness experiments, Toute Une Nuit is what would happen if Akerman had allowed her camera to wander between neighbors when shooting those early films. Passed between threads of narrative, the doorways are key to understanding this journey between the many forms love takes around a small Brussels town at night. Every door passed is another boundary crossed emotionally as well, we watch through windows, doors, around street corners and from the next room over, peering into the lives of others only for a brief while, and the position of the camera makes it clear that we are watching, not part of it. Between love there is loneliness, and for every moment of romance there is a missed connection, or worse, the loss of a previous one. Waiting at bartops, everything exists in the shadow of night, an intimacy established that’s hard to replicate in the comfort of daylight.

Now Available on YouTube

3. Les Rendez-vous d’Anna

Our narrator Anna is perhaps an Akerman stand-in once again, with similarities painted on the surface as well as emotionally. She’s a film director travelling Europe for work, and each place is a new experience though she can never quite connect. Always told what she should want from the world, those around her tell her happiness comes with stability, with married life and children, or with a job that keeps her in the same bed every night. Anna doesn’t know what this happiness she struggles to find is either, she only finds brief ways to part the loneliness. In the desperation for intimacy there is just as much reluctance, and in the desperation that makes her wait hours for her mother’s voicemail there is also a lack of interest in its contents. Life is about passing to the next moment, setting events to reach in order to mark the passage of time, but never relishing the event itself. Rare moments of clarity come, whether it is recounting a night spent with a woman to her mother, or a late night conversation spent so close to a realization of a possible way out of all the loneliness, but never quite reached. Maybe someday Anna will realize why so many encounters leave her disappointed, but for now she clings to her mother’s voice over the phone, a last remnant of a world she was fully part of.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

2. Je, Tu, Il, Elle

“I” is the narrator, “he” is one partner and “she” another, and in between that, “you”, the audience, is addressed. We are just as much a part of this drifting as the lonely souls onscreen, real time making us wait in the delirium with the protagonist played by Chantal Akerman. The film is most noted for its real-time lesbian sex scene, in which the camera is steady on the two women rolling in bed with a quick physicality that’s surprising given the slow movements that open. Just as important as that scene is the narrator alone in a room, stricken by grief from a broken heart, pushing her mattress across the apartment and eating sugar from a paper bag. She is delirious in the boredom, and purposeless, and this slow start makes us feel that way too. The slowness erupts into a passion with desperation, a hunger to bring back feeling with no worry of consequence. 

Now Available on the Criterion Channel

1. News From Home

A city filled with traffic, people seated on each street corner, yet the closest comfort is through letters to a mother far away inthe New York City characterized here. Some say the film would improve with artifice, wanting Akerman to edit the real letters from her mother she receives for the sake of narrative tension, but this gentleness is what makes the reality so hard-hitting. Knowing every word between mother and daughter is real feels like a personal intrusion, “sweetheart, at first you wrote so often” the mother says as her daughter writes less and less as she finds home in New York, and we feel the distance growing between the two. New York was where Chantal Akerman kick-started her career and found her style through the structuralist avant-garde movements in the city, with connections to filmmakers like Jonas Mekas showing her what to combine with her narrative skills. News From Home is purely diaristic, nearly found-footage in its assembly of shots of New York, with trains and empty shop windows painting a far more important picture of the city than of people. We don’t see the people she sees, because her mother’s letters fill that role. Instead we are to fall in love with a place, one that is primarily identified by the loneliness filling it, but also the familiarity of getting to know a sidewalk in a new city.

Now Available on the Criterion Channel


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