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Chantal Akerman, Pioneer of Feminist and Structuralist Film, Is Dead at 65

Chantal Akerman, Pioneer of Feminist and Structuralist Film, Is Dead at 65

Chantal Akerman, whose movies revolutionized both feminist and structuralist cinema, has died at the age of 65. Her death leaves a gap as incalculable as her impact on the history of cinema; that she died, according to Le Monde, by her own hand is almost unfathomable. News of her death reaches the U.S. just a day before “No Home Movie’s” first screenings at the New York Film Festival.

Working in fiction and documentary, narrative and personal essay, Akerman devoted much of her career to exploring the idea of home, and of being without one. “Well, I’m Jewish,” she told me when I raised the subject with her in a 2009 interview. “That’s all. So I am in exile all the time. Wherever we go, we are in exile. Even in Israel, we are in exile.” Her most influential film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” devoted the bulk of its three-plus hours to a single mother’s execution of household tasks: peeling potatoes, shining shoes, and turning a daily trick in her bedroom to make ends, the latter viewed with the same matter-of-fact gaze. The movie brought together the structuralist provocations of Michael Snow, whose “La région centrale” was a foundational influence, with the feminist project of recognizing domestic labor. It’s also one of vanishingly few films with the power to genuinely change the way you experience the world, investing an act as simple as the flipping of a light switch with a sense of sacred ritual. Depending on the day, Akerman would sometimes embrace “Jeanne Dielman” as a feminist film, sometimes reject the label. “I think I am speaking about people,” she told me. “Jeanne Dielman is not special. I can do that with a man, going to work and doing the same thing and being happy because he has the key and he opens the door and then his papers are there and his secretary. Imagine, and then something has changed and he can’t stand it. Because change is dangerous. Change is fear, change is opening the jail. That’s why it is so difficult for yourself to change deeply.”

It’s difficult to even think about “No Home Movie” in the context of Akerman’s death, let alone its circumstances. Largely shot with stationary DV cameras positioned around the apartment of her terminally ill mother, it records both Akerman’s presence and her absence, with long, static shots of empty rooms prefiguring the void to come. It takes in Akerman’s mother talking about her time in a Nazi concentration camp, a subject that Akerman said was taboo for most of her mother’s life, interspersed with shots of the Israeli countryside — although during the visit to Tel Aviv chronicled in Akerman’s “Là-bas,” she was, far from being comforted by her presence in the Jewish homeland, stricken with agoraphobia so severe that near all of the movie is shot from an apartment window. “I follow the policy of scorched earth,” she told me in 2009. Our lives are richer for the ground she burned.

“Jeanne Dielman,” along with Akerman’s “Je tu il elle,” “News From Home,” “Hotel Monterey” and “Les rendez-vous d’Anna,” is available on Hulu. Her 2000 feature, “La Captive,” is available via Fandor, Amazon Instant has “From the Other Side” and “One Day Pina Asked…,” and several of her short films, including “Saute ma ville” (“Blow Up My Town”), made when she was 18, can be found on YouTube.

Akerman’s loss is monumental, and Criticwire will keep compiling the tributes and appreciations as they appear. David Hudson at Keyframe is assembling an excellent dossier on her life and work.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

I found her latest movie, now her last, “No Home Movie,” a spectacular experience. Spectacularly trying, in a sense; it won’t do to describe it as a return to her “raw” filmmaking mode of the late sixties and early seventies, as the medium here is digital video rather than celluloid, and Akerman, as a master of cinema, is bracingly aware of the multivalent ways in which the medium is the message. There are a large number of static shots in “No Home Movie,” held for long periods of time, in which the main point of visual interest seems to be in the video apparatus trying to decide just what the white balance of the image ought to be. The film, a documentary of sorts, addresses the death of Akerman’s mother, or, rather, the presence of Akerman’s mother ultimately opposed to the absence of Akerman’s mother; the movie’s title, “No Home Movie,” could just as well be “No-Home Movie.” It hit me hard in part because of my own personal experience this year. But it’s also hard-hitting as an aesthetic and philosophical marker; far from being a film that’s under-directed, as one critic who didn’t care for the movie observed, it is a virtual treatise on filmmaking choices — especially filmmaking choices that are explicitly related to human mortality.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Akerman was younger than Orson Welles was when he made “Citizen Kane,” younger than Jean-Luc Godard was when he made “Breathless.” The three films deserve to be mentioned together. “Jeanne Dielman” is as influential and as important for generations of young filmmakers as Welles’s and Godard’s first films have been. Akerman presented monumentally composed, meticulously observed, raptly protracted images of a woman’s domestic routine — Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) preparing cutlets in her kitchen, for instance. These images prove cinematically that the domestic lives of women are the stuff of art; that women’s private lives are as ravaged by the forces of history as are lives lived on the public stage of politics; and that the pressures of women’s unquestioned, unchallenged, and unrelieved confinement in the domestic realm and in family roles is a societal folly that leads to ruin, a form of violence that begets violence.

Jesse Doris, Slate

In Akerman’s work, everyday life, especially for women, and particularly for women in economic crises, is something to be borne. There’s more than meets the eye to a woman scrubbing and dusting — if only because for whom, after all, is she doing these chores? Part of the genius of “Jeanne” is to put a camera on her and basically not let it leave until the secrets come out; another part is that those secrets aren’t scandalous plot points, but the grief and tedium and reality of life itself. And it wasn’t just the feminist art-film world that responded to “Jeanne Dielman”: Filmmakers as varied as Todd Haynes, Gus van Sant, Sally Potter, and Michael Haneke found the kind of formal constraints she pioneered useful for their own explorations of sex, brutality, power, and sorrow.

Rachel Donadio and Cara Buckley, New York Times

Her death was confirmed by her sister, Sylviane Akerman, and by Nicola Mazzanti, the director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, which had worked closely with Ms. Akerman over the years and restored her films. “‘Jeanne Dielman’ is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,” Mr. Mazzanti said. “There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.”

Alison Willmore, BuzzFeed

She rarely tried to make conventional work, aside from her 1996 Juliette Binoche and William Hurt rom-com “A Couch in New York.” Her movies were challenging not just to watch but to contend with. Like all great filmmakers, she seemed to be inventing a new language of cinema as she went along, and it was one that was intrinsically and sometimes contentiously feminine.

Matt Brennan, Thompson on Hollywood

Though her legacy is inextricably linked to “Jeanne Dielman,” perhaps one of the three or four most important feminist texts ever produced in the medium, it was Akerman’s versatility that seems most impressive in retrospect. Who but a chameleonic, endlessly curious artist would be cited as an influence by the likes of Todd Haynes, Sally Potter, Michael Haneke, Gus Van Sant, and Tsai Ming-liang? Who but an eclectic, flexible auteur could direct a loose trilogy of documentaries in the 1990s and early 2000s (“From the East,” “South,” “From the Other Side”), only to pause in the midst of it to adapt Proust (“The Captive”)?

David Jenkins, Guardian

Maybe it is disingenuous to celebrate these solitary moments and not the tremendous body of work at large? But Akerman understood that an unflagging dedication to minutiae – finding a focus, then focusing some more – fuelled her profound postulations about life, love, people, relationships, the whole bit. She was, absolutely no question, one of the greatest film-makers who ever lived. And the light that shines outside of Jeanne’s window is a symbol of Akerman’s work, a reminder that someone looked at the world – and also saw it.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

Frequently imitated and referenced, but never equaled, Akerman’s breakthrough remains the big screen’s definitive study of how the everyday mundane can mount into a sense of doom, and one of its most original exercises in space and time. Often characterized as a minimalist, Akerman was fascinated with long takes, sparse spaces (hotel rooms being a favorite), and meaningful repetition. That, however, doesn’t really encompass the scope of the filmmaker’s work, which ranged from documentaries to fiction features with stars and from adaptations of Joseph Conrad (“Alamayer’s Folly”) and Marcel Proust (“The Captive”) to a pastel-toned musical set in a shopping mall (“Golden Eighties”).

Howard Rodman (via Facebook)

Before I got paid by studios to write ‘real’ films, Chantal hired me to work with her on an idea she had, about a Russian émigré cab driver in Brighton Beach. We worked together in Paris, and then in a borrowed anonymous apartment on New York’s upper east side. Chantal was complex, driven, generous, impish, demanding, brilliant. I’ve never learned so much in so short a time.

I was aware that something was happening that was one of life’s rare gifts: as a very new screenwriter I was apprenticing to a master. I have never forgotten how fortunate I was. And how much of everything I’ve done since, and lived since, I owe to Chantal. I hope she has found rest and peace. And I hope the world understands what many of us do, that her films are among the most poised, beautiful, disturbing, important works of our time.

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