For three hours and 21 minutes, a housewife performs one perfunctory domestic task after another in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Jeanne makes coffee, peels potatoes, washes dishes – wordlessly, diligently, no fuss, muss or evident emotion. Akerman’s camera is stoic, static, ample in distance and time, each scene forcing the viewer to soak up every minute detail of the no-nonsense, modestly furnished Belgian home. When the film does cut away, it is simply to another setting in which Jeanne executes yet another monotonous task that will likely be shown again and again and again to underscore the tediousness of basic, practical existence.
Jeanne Dielman will screen as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s deep dive into Akerman’s extraordinary oeuvre, which runs through Dec. 12. The film was a radical, singular statement, revolutionary at the time of its 1975 release – and remains so today. It challenges the viewer to stay present and engaged for an undue amount of time (these days, that is anything longer than a TikTok video) watching a housewife trudge through drudgery. Housework, Akerman wryly suggests, is deemed so unglamorous by society that it’s not considered real work nor suitable for cinematic rendering – so here’s 201 minutes of it. Enjoy!
Akerman was uncompromisingly revolutionary throughout her 44-year career as a filmmaker, artist and professor. Beginning in the early 1970s, when she spent a year in New York soaking up avant-garde influences that included Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow, until her death by suicide in 2015, her life’s work has influenced directors such as Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant and Kelly Reichardt. Akerman constructed her movies ruefully against mainstream convention and in doing so created her own film grammar: a minimalist formalism – an anti-cinema, in effect, with a nonchalance toward narrative, a proclivity for naturalist sound design and an insistence on long takes.
Her sometimes clinical execution deceptively disconnects the viewer emotionally yet forces them into an acute awareness of their voyeurism as they witness a deeply personal scenario arise onscreen. A needy male lover gently whines post-coitus about mixed messages from the silent, distant female protagonist in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). A young woman (Akerman herself) eats from a bag of sugar while sitting on a bare mattress in a fugue state, absentmindedly rearranges her room’s meagre furnishings and later makes awkward, animalistic love to her female friend in her debut feature Je tu il elle (1974). In News From Home (1977), dreary, languid shots of New York City streets, buildings and machinations swim by as an epistolary voiceover based on letters from Akerman’s mother reveals a painful longing for her overseas daughter with its comically passive-aggressive rhetoric.
And in Jeanne Dielmann, the film’s cold insistence that the viewer watch long stretches of housework is interrupted by Jeanne prostituting her body in her bedroom – portrayed as another form of housework, an act devoid of physical intimacy. Jeanne Dielman climaxes (no pun intended) with a single, shocking, momentous act that spells out in no uncertain terms the protagonist’s long-repressed feelings – one that any woman subjugated to unglorified, objectifying work will relate to.
Akerman would occasionally insert such moments of emotional puncture, but her aesthetic restraint often preferred the momentum of small gestures, with love spilling out unpredictably in minuscule, dreamy or fervent fashion. The piecemeal narrative of Toute une nuit (1982) follows the overnight escapades of several young insomniacs who find another sleepless, sensuality-starved peer to fall into step (or bed) with. Here, even sidelong glances of interest between strangers become unfathomably eventful in simmering tension.
The spectrum of a career as long as Akerman’s allowed for a variety of preoccupations, positions and outlets. She was a professor at the City College of New York. She exhibited video-art installations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, the Venice Biennale and others. In 2011, she adapted Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, focusing on the devastating effects of white patriarchy on its Malaysian female characters. Akerman even documented artists at work, as seen in TIFF’s programmed triptych, screening Nov. 13: One Day Pina Asked…, about renowned dance choreographer Pina Bausch; Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a loving tribute to her partner/collaborator, musician Sonia Wieder-Atherton; and Franz Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas, in which Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel discusses the works at length.
Her work contains contradictions or, arguably, refinements of the strident feminism she splayed against male-dominated experimental cinema in the 1970s, the subject of hot debate in film academia and criticism for decades. But she rejected classifications of her work as feminist, Jewish, queer or any other abstractifying reception. In A Couch in New York (1996), William Hurt plays a New York-based psychoanalyst who swaps apartments with Juliette Binoche’s Parisian heartbreaker – they fall in love from a distance. The silly premise and its romantic tone find Akerman uncharacteristically operating in the key of Nora Ephron, but in Akerman’s Belgian hands, the idealism of American 1990s romantic comedy becomes almost camp, if witnessed solely by Binoche’s overly rouged cheeks and Hurt exemplifying the definition of his last name with every tortured facial expression.
The 1990s introduced a hazy softness to Akerman’s work that nevertheless snuck in a cynicism about heteronormative love and made a point of the female protagonist maintaining full power. In Night and Day (1991), Julie (Guilaine Londez) seemingly has no purpose in life but to make love – to two men, one during the day, one at night – but she realizes the meaningless, unquenchable nature of heterosexual desire by film’s end and employs a powerful agency rarely seen in mainstream films, which often feature the female lead standing by her man, no matter what.
There is no subject Akerman gave more attention or love to in her work than her mother, a pivotal figure, whether portrayed as fictional or real, throughout Akerman’s oeuvre. Indeed, if Akerman identified with any label, it was that of daughter. The aloof filmmaker protagonist in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna is indifferent to the men she encounters and never feels at home in, well, her home; the camera fixates in signature Akermanian fashion on liminal spaces – hotel lobbies, train compartments, subway platforms – but the film’s sole moments of tenderness and hominess are felt deeply in the physically charged scene of the hotel bed she shares with her mother.
In real life, the filmmaker was very close with her mother, Nelly, a Holocaust survivor, whose silence about the historic trauma weighed heavily on their relationship. Nelly’s death devastated Akerman, who took her own life a year later. The timing of Nelly’s death hence tinges Akerman’s swan song, No Home Movie, a documentary profiling her ailing mother in her final months of life, with a certain agony that can be quietly felt throughout much of the director’s work. Released posthumously in 2016, No Home Movie finds daughter and mother trying to communicate, often in a kitchen – the room in which domestic labour begins – and later through Skype, that frustrating, often-faltering technology, with its illusion of intimacy. Akerman’s typical structural devices are missing for the most part, as if she were unsure how to reckon with her most beloved subject when faced with the reality of filming her at the end of her life and doing justice to the now-frail woman who meant so much to her. But it’s also a testament to the unabashed personal expression Akerman voiced throughout her cinema: No matter how deep, complex or vexing an emotion, the legendary filmmaker always found a way to convey it in perfect, cinematic pitch.
News from Home: The Films of Chantal Akerman runs through Dec. 12 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net)
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