Chantal Akerman’s suicide on 5 October, 2015, did not only leave a void. It burnt a hole in the texture of time, and those of us who were nearby (in body or in spirit) were charred. She consumed her life to the point of exhaustion, and we were the ones scorched, as she returned to ashes. Her suicide burnt a hole in the texture of cinema, so profoundly, so irretrievably redefined by her oeuvre, and so cinema will never be the same again. There will not be another film by Chantal Akerman, and our loss is immense. As fate would have it, this homage designed for her in the feverish weeks following her death coincides with a tribute organised by Senses of Cinema to Pier Paolo Pasolini for the 40th anniversary of his death, based on a conference held at Yale University earlier this year. Both filmmakers experienced a demise that corresponded to a lifetime of aesthetic and non-aesthetic choices. PPP had sought to extract political/poetic meaning from the ragazzi haunting the outskirts of Italy’s capitalism, and one of them killed him. Chantal was drawing a paradoxical source of inspiration from the manic-depression that had plagued her life since she was 34 (and probably, undiagnosed, before), between the moments of hyper-activity and the moments of “laziness” she has described so well, these to and fro themselves haunted by the return of a lethal repressed, the memories of the camps that had shaped the history of her family. And this killed her as well.
PPP was not courting death, his murder was an accident. And hers was not the romantic suicide of an artiste maudit. She was too level-headed for this. Young men dream of Rimbaud, not young girls, she says in a long interview conducted by Nicole Brenez in 2011, from which we are reproducing a few fragments. And she didn’t think of herself as “an artist”, even less as an “artist maudit”. “I am a Jewish girl, born in Brussels, that much is true”, she said on several occasions. An ordinary, funny, ebullient girl who made extraordinary films. The malediction came from somewhere else, from a history that Europe conveniently tried to bury, conceal, misrepresent or silence. She was, said Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur in her beautiful eulogy, a child who, from a young age, suffered from nightmares. The child born after the catastrophe that we call the Shoah, A dark moment for humanity that she carried within her, everywhere she went. She simply had to stop living to stop the pain. No bravado here. The right to die.
As fate would have it, as brought to light in her interview with Brenez, she loved Mamma Roma; she loved the director, and she loved the woman. Through Anna Magnani’s character, what spoke to her was both a certain idea of cinema, and a certain image of the mother. Behind the generous curves and the colourful street lingo of La Magnani, one can decipher a more frail, “better behaved” figure, Delphine Seyrig peeling potatoes in Jeanne Dielman (where she also turns tricks, let’s not forget) or selling clothes while fighting a retroactive struggle for lost happiness in The Golden Eighties, and behind Seyrig’s figure, that of Natalia (Nelly) Leibel-Akerman, mother of the filmmaker, post-mortem subject of her last film, No Home Movie, who had survived the Auschwitz Death March as a mere girl of 16 – and kept a stifling silence about it. It was “Cousin Ethy”, the writer Esther Orner, whose mother was also in Auschwitz, who told Chantal about it, as she explains in her “Last Conversation” also reproduced here.
It is no grand stretch of the imagination to say that, while they belong to different generations and different cultures, were the (atheist) children of two distinct monotheist religions, Catholicism and Judaism (that had shaped their relationship to the image), and had widely divergent cinematic styles, Akerman and Pasolini, each in their own way, indelibly marked European cinema, and even world cinema, of their times. Serge Daney used to say that Pasolini had been the “conscience” of Italian cinema – as Fassbinder had played the same role for Germany – and that both cinemas weren’t doing so well since their passing. I am wavering between a similar, dryly pessimist assessment, and a creeping form of hope, which I’ll explain below. In all three cases, we were orphaned. This is a hard fact.
We agreed to call the part of Nicole Brenez’s contribution that contains parts of her interview “Chantal Akerman, Ciné-Fille”, an allusion to the title of a book by Daney in which he called himself a “Ciné-Fils” – a pun on “cinephile” and “son of cinema” (“fils” meaning “son”), alluding to the fact that, orphaned before his birth (his father having disappeared during the Shoah), he found his real “family” in Cahiers du cinéma, specially through reading Rivette’s text “On Abjection” that condemns the use of a certain tracking shot to aestheticise death in Nazi hands. 1
The next link in this tradition, Akerman was to condemn a non-ethical use of the image herself, and design, instead, her well-known signature of frontal shots, impeccably outlined frames and carefully orchestrated off-screen space. Through her own relationship to the history of cinema and the filmmakers she loved, Chantal was a daughter (“fille”) of cinema, but also was able to reinvent, realign and sublimate her own history as daughter in a family of Polish Jews resettled in Brussels. No family, no cinema. But without cinema, maybe there was no way left to “think” the family. Maybe this is why we are all feeling orphaned now.
Yet maybe this is also why there is hope. Fassbinder and Pasolini had no children (neither did Akerman) but they had no heirs either. And what was extraordinary, after Chantal’s death, was the outpouring of emails, testimonies, letters even, from women from all over the world, some of them very young, saying, “I never knew Chantal Akerman, but her work speaks to me, so profoundly, so intimately.” A feeling powerfully captured in Elisabeth Lebovici’s text: Chantal Akerman’s cinema in within me… She gives me back a place within the world. She does not exclude anybody, she includes me.
Lebovici is quick to add that men too, were equally touched by her work, but it is true that it spoke to women in a particular way. It gave us hope. Jeanne Dielman was the only film by a woman to be listed in the “50 Best Films in the World” by the BFI poll that recently replaced Citizen Kane with Vertigo as Number One. Jeanne was not on the podium of the Medal Winners, but she was cited, and it was good enough for us as a sign that our fight, far from being over, had nevertheless not been in vain. More importantly, Chantal Akerman’s films have expressed our feelings, aspects of our lives that nobody had represented before – the clumsiness, gravity, desires and jouissance of our bodies, the disorder and epiphany of our passions, the awkwardness and quiet beauty of our daily routines, our parapraxes, missteps, linguistic and gestural slips, the ever-present hiccup between our selves and our being-in-the-world – the secret paths that, for a fille, relationship to History, world politics, oppression and the fight against it, the desolation that roams over the planet and explodes every day on the front page news, take to enter her consciousness, her dreams, her nightmares, her image-making, her écriture. So, Passion de l’Intime/Intimate Passion. Chantal Akerman spoke to each of us, intimately, as if we were the only one in the room when she was talking to us, the only one in front of the projected image when we are in the theatre or the museum/gallery space where her installations are exhibited. So, and this is where my timid hope lies, this is a cinema that burns in us, that lives in us, a cinema that we have inherited, a cinema that will continue through us. We are her orphans, but also her heirs.
So to pay this homage to Chantal Akerman, it was decided early on to ask some (brave) women how her work and her presence had touched them. The Rabbi who spoke at her burial ceremony. Her cousin Esther Orner, the first in her family to view Jeanne Dielman. Some close collaborators: childhood friend Marilyn Watelet, with whom she co-founded Paradise Film, the small company in Belgium that produced the majority of her films; film editor Claire Atherton, who collaborated with her on all her films and installations after 1986 and allowed us to reproduce the moving homage she read at the Cinémathèque française; UCSD professor Babette Mangolte, who shot several of her early work and writes at length about the use of sound in her films. We also contacted avant-garde filmmaker/choreographer Yvonne Rainer, whom she met in New York in the 1970s; as well as experimental filmmaker/curator Vivian Ostrovsky, who, in 1974, invited her to show Je tu il elle in femme/film, an international festival she was co-organising in Paris, and brought her a number of times to the Jerusalem Film Festival (where I met her); and Nicole Fernandez Ferrer, who heads the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir in Paris and analyses her first film, Saute ma ville. Also included are some more scholarly texts, all written, though, by women who had closely interacted with Chantal Akerman at different moments of her life: UCLA Professor Janet Bergstrom, who met her during her trip to Berkeley in 1976, and wrote the first English-language theoretical essay on Jeanne Dielman in the second issue of the film journal Camera Obscura (Fall 1977) she had co-founded; film scholar Giuliana Bruno, who had invited her to teach at Harvard, where she is a faculty member, and discusses her work as challeng[ing] the canonical separation between different genres and forms of visual art, for it not only moves back and forth between different kinds of cinema and moving-image installation but interchanges these modes; this approach is also shared, at various levels, by film scholar and curator Nicole Brenez and art historian Elisabeth Lebovici, mentioned above, who both knew her and had interviewed her at length.
What mattered, for each of these writers, was the personal connection they entertained with Chantal Akerman and her work. Reading these texts is somewhat the equivalent of the “project” of the missing novel outlined by Borges’s “The Approach to Al-Mu’Tasim”: the insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others… 2 Chantal was a reader of Proust, Conrad, Levinas. I am not sure if we ever discussed Borges together. It does not matter. She opened a space for me in which I can read the traces she left through a writer I love.
– Bérénice Reynaud, December 2015.