Your Enemies Are Feeding You
Chantal Akerman died two weeks ago.
Her death was a shock to the film world, or at least that part of it that still considers cinema to be an art form and its geniuses worthy of commemoration; she was only 65 years old and in relatively good health, and she seemed healthy, active, and in good spirits as she promoted her latest film, No Home Movie, at Cannes. The French press has reported the death as a suicide; gunshy Americans have been less willing to do so, as the facts of the case have yet to be confirmed. Akerman’s sister has verified the loss and mentioned that since finishing the film — an account of her relationship with her mother, whose time at the Auschwitz concentration camp left her mentally unstable — she had been in a dark mood. But whatever the case, she is gone, and the world is left without one of the great moviemakers of our time.
Akerman’s best-known movie was the brilliant, relentless Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but she was far more prolific than casual observers realize, having directed twenty-five feature-length motion pictures and a number of short films since her debut. At least two of them, Jeanne Dielman and her stunning documentary/art piece D’Est from 1994, deserve to be ranked amongst the greatest achievements in cinema history. She made many other outstanding films, from the lowlife travelogue News from Home and the focused feminist revelation Je Tu Il Elle in the ’70s to the wryly observational Histoires d’Amérique and the dreamy consumerist musical Golden Eighties in the ’80s; she also produced quirky mainstream work like A Couch in New York in the 1990s and, more recently, the disturbing Proustian film The Captive as well as formalist art pieces like La-Bàs.
It is these pieces, many of them (like D’Est) made to be shown as gallery installations, that gave her the most pause as a filmmaker. Though she never achieved much mainstream success, she never let go of the idea that she, a product of a financially tumultuous background, was making movies for everyone, artistic statements that anyone should be able to see. Though her installation pieces, made possible by the generosity of wealthy patrons, guaranteed that she’d be able to survive as a creator, they also by their very nature restricted her audience to what she perceived as members of the bourgeoisie who were inherently hostile to the message of her work. “What I think is dreadful about art,” she told critic Sam Adams in 2010, “is the way it’s related to money afterward…5,000 rich people have access to it. A movie, even though it can be a bad movie or a good movie, is more democratic. That annoys me. The people who buy my films, it’s a foundation or a museum — it’s related to very, very rich people, who are your enemies! Your enemies are feeding you.”
Akerman was never afraid to make enemies, if it meant calling out behavior — political, aesthetic, ethical, critical, or sexual — that she found to be dangerous. Even her greatest influence, Jean-Luc Godard, fell out of her favor when he made remarks she found to be anti-Semitic. But neither was she comfortable with being placed into anyone else’s category; she was a relentless advocate of women who was never comfortable at being called a feminist or accepting strictly feminist interpretations of her work, and she was a lesbian who steadfastly refused to allow her movies to be shown at gay film festivals for fear of having them ghettoized. She was a Jew who never denied the influence of her religion on her writing, but thought it foolish to make movies solely about the Jewish experience, and a working-class filmmaker who took foundation money and never seemed comfortable discussing her own class background. For that matter, she never really even seemed at peace with being called a filmmaker; she originally wanted to be a writer, and although her work displays the masterful composition and precise eye for detail of a cinematographer or even a master painter, she still seemed to feel as if her true calling was storytelling, and film simply the vector by which her writing was delivered. The ultimate embodiment of identity politics as a person, she refused to be limited by it as an artist.
Quite aside from the mere fact of her loss as a creator who almost certainly would have had decades of great work left to her, Akerman’s death plays up one of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary criticism. Though much perfunctory lip service was paid to her passing, and a handful of media outlets actually featured thoughtful and interesting obituaries, her demise was largely ignored by many of the same people who are forever fulminating for the presence of more filmmakers who are women, who are queer, who are minorities, who are working-class. Many others simply noted her passing and mourned it in a general sense, as they could not have been bothered in all those years — is it possible that Jeanne Dielman, so tremendously confident, so powerfully assured, such a masterwork of feminist filmmaking, could have been made by a woman only 24 years old? — to see any of her work. This is the era of representation in media professions, but while so many critics online fulminate about the lack of gays and women in cinema, they are in so many cases asking for token jobs to be given out at the helm of dull-as-paint CGI blockbusters which contribute nothing of actual relevance to women and gays. There was a giant in their midst, and they missed her passing because they were looking too closely at the ground.
Chantal Akerman is gone, but she has left a legacy of work nearly unsurpassed by anyone of any sex. Few directors could equal her eye and mind, and perhaps none were as adept as her at switching between features and shorts, standard film work and experimentation, and perhaps most importantly, narratives and documentaries. Many of Akerman’s films are available to stream online, up to and including From the Other Side, her most recent film prior to No Home Movie. She is gone, but if we want to see her like again, we need to know where to look, and no one was as good as her at leading the eye where it needed to go.