By C.S. Leigh
I came late to Chantal Akerman’s work. I watched Golden Eighties when it opened in Paris in 1986, and then nothing else until the early nineties. I blame it on the limited availability of her work on VHS at the time and the fact that Golden Eighties is atypical. It didn’t move me despite the presence of the always enigmatic Delphine Seyrig.
But by the time I watched her short film Le déménagement with Sami Frey on a double bill with Atom Egoyan’s Calendar at the New York Film Festival in 1993 I was a devotee. By then I had been as bowled over by Jeanne Dielman as most cinephiles are and even more so by D’Est which blew my mind. I’m not somebody who often wonders how films are made. I just watch the film. But D’Est is an exception. I can not stop myself trying to figure out where the camera was and how the actors avoided being struck by it or where the tracks were hidden. And where oh where were the lights? It’s a totally unique film with more audacity than most directors manage in a lifetime.
But that was one of her gifts. The ability to amaze whether by stillness or motion. If you like her films or not and believe me a lot of people don’t you just have to be impressed by the commitment of Akerman. She didn’t do things by half measures. She was all in.
Most of all I admire her indifference to the standard expectations of cinema. Her films for the most part defy narrative. They have their own rhythm. Like with Godard, you are living on Akerman time when you watch one of her films. Most filmmakers either can’t figure out how or don’t dare to work this way. There is no apparent logic at play though Akerman herself had a certain logic in life. I got to know her casually when we both worked at the same editing facility in Paris in 1998. She offered words of encouragement without ever playing the famous director. A lot of her humour was actually very self-deprecating. At the time, she was trying to raise the money to make her beloved Isaac Bashevis Singer film which was never to be. She met calculated assault and indifference by financiers with the Singer Estate holding back approval. They could not understand her vision.
Of her more narrative films I like Tomorrow We Move best. It’s like a slapstick comedy without the comedy. It certainly works better than A Couch in New York, her stab at a bigger commercial film starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche. Made in the wake of her father’s death it’s deep down a very sad film about missing home.
When an artist is under praised in life he or she is often over praised in death. I found myself a little embarrassed by some of the grandiose quotes I read about Akerman upon her death this month. She was surely a great filmmaker. Her most recent film No Home Movie which features chilling conversations with her mother who recently died is one of her most moving. It’s actually devastating. In this day and age of everybody with a smartphone being a supposed auteur Akerman manages to show that even a Skype call can be great cinema in the right hands.
Although Akerman seemed to have turned her considerable energy to video installation in recent years it is still her wilfully obstinate cinema that she will be best remembered for. I will miss her presence but I will savour her work and example for a very long time