I’m not going to write anything official about Chantal Akerman, whose films and whose being were in fierce opposition to grand pronouncements and self-advertisements and protective barriers of all kinds, whether they were concocted from images or words or a pretty combination of both. She had a horror of clichés and neat formulations, and it seems to me that she was always trying to wriggle out of the straitjacket of such size-ups and classifications as feminist, structuralist, leftist, or “essentially” Jewish, even when they were made in her favor.
I can only write about Chantal from ground level, which is as I remember her. I certainly won’t pretend that we were close. We saw one another infrequently over the years, corresponded now and then. But the first time we met, we connected. I’m sure that many others made similarly quick and intense connections with her.
Chantal was direct, tough, and emotionally extravagant. She was small in stature but she commanded a room with her fatigued stance, her grand and sometimes wicked smile, her wild rough-grained voice, and her eyes. The eyes had it. I’ve rarely looked into a pair of eyes so bewitching.
As a filmmaker, she didn’t have a commercial bone in her body. She gave it a try with Golden Eighties and A Couch in New York and, to a certain extent, Tomorrow We Move, all of which are fascinating films, the latter in particular, a dizzying, angular, breathless movie with an undercurrent of anxious sadness. There are some funny, lyrical passages in A Couch in New York (and in the resolutely deadpan black and white short J’ai faim, j’ai froid), but she didn’t really have the temperament for comedy or high spirits. She made films of extraordinary tonal control—for instance, Toute une nuit, the ferocious La Captive and, of course, Jeanne Dielman—but I would hesitate to call any of them elegant. Elegance wasn’t her thing. She was involved, deeply so, with the sounding of mysteries and enigmas drifting or hovering just beyond the everyday world, the shattering strangeness of people living through a hot summer night or trying out for a movie musical or walking the halls of the Hotel Monterey.
In a sense, all of her movies are ghost stories populated by future phantoms. For instance, her extraordinary 1993 film D’est. All of those variously shaped people, dutifully lining up for cars and buses and trams in the former Eastern bloc countries just after the fall of the wall, filmed so slowly and so closely, with neither compassion nor cold objectivity but with absolutely rapt attention—why are they so moving? Because they are seen from an imagined future vantage point, where all the fragile and unnamable currents of energy and motion that comprise the sense of life behind this minute of this hour of this day of this moment in what we call history are long gone. Or, to quote Chantal, “You sense that this is time that leads toward death.” One could say the same of all her films.
This hard and constant eye on time, this insistence on the reality of decay and obliteration, puts me in mind of Melville’s Bartleby. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Chantal making a movie called I would prefer not to—actually, No Home Movie is close enough. She had some beloved collaborators—Claire Atherton, Babette Mangolte, and Aurore Clément come to mind—but I think of her as an essentially private artist, perhaps more so than most filmmakers. No Home Movie is very much a film made alone, and as elemental as it gets. It is composed entirely out of images, shot by Chantal with a little camera, of her beloved mother in the last phase of her life and from the inside of a moving car looking out, passages of raw unfolding time exactingly positioned against one another, slowly acquiring centrifugal force and moving toward an inevitable conclusion. No home movie is right. All the tenderness, all the attention, all the care, all the phone calls and Skype conversations and prescriptions filled and meals made and linen washed will not ward off death.
I read in The New York Times obituary that this formidable film was booed in Locarno, and that the booing might have thrown Chantal into despair. Apart from the fact that No Home Movie was reportedly well-received on the whole at that festival, it all sounds pretty unlikely to me. But speculation about the circumstances of someone’s death amounts to so much wasted time. The woman I knew would have waved off such nonsense, cigarette in hand.
Chantal planned to come to New York to present No Home Movie. As of a couple of weeks ago, we were expecting her. Her messages are still in my inbox. Her film is playing as scheduled. The tributes have begun, as they should. And time will pass, and the shock will come to an end, and we’ll look at her movies again, and… then what?
We’ll be shocked again. Chantal’s films do not comfort. They jolt and they re-orient, they put you and me face to face with accumulating time, in whose shadow we live whether we know it or not. That’s the source of their terror and their great beauty—one in the same.