Chantal Akerman made 40 films over a period of 47 years. She dropped out of film school at age 18 and then made her first short Saute Ma Vie (1968, 13 minutes). Another six films followed, including one that was never finished, before she made Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, 201 minutes) a film of legendary status and one of those that most people remember where and when they first saw it with remarkable clarity. It was to turn out to be a, perhaps the, peak of a career, and the film on which many of her obituarists have concentrated to the near exclusion of all others. But Jeanne Dielman was just the first film in a close to a decade long streak of much critical warmth and support for her work.
In his obituary in the New York Times Jim Hoberman mentions that after Jeanne Dielman (she) completed four more features: the austere and now classic New York documentary “News From Home” (released in Europe in 1977); the quasi-autobiographical and almost conventional “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna” (1978); the frugal yet elaborate ensemble romance “A Whole Night” (1982); and “Golden Eighties” (1983), an enchantingly deconstructed musical. “ After this little streak of success, Akerman struggled for recognition notwithstanding that over the course of her career, indeed up to recent days, another thirty+ films were made.
You can hardly be too critical here for Akerman’s career and her life after Jeanne Dielman involved a critical search for audiences and probably for funding and production support. It caused me to reflect on just how hard it is, both for the film-maker and their audience to keep working and to keep seeing the films as they come out. None of Akerman’s films ever made any money for anybody. I’m assuming that given she was not lacking in ego she would have felt doubly let down by any lack of enthusiasm from producers and others called upon to support her work. That’s one side of the coin and it’s a credit that she got to make forty films even though I suspect that there were a lot of major projects, especially adaptations, that fell over. In the last decade or so her adaptations of Proust and of Conrad did get made.
She was a perennial outsider, followed intensely by what can still be seen as only a coterie of those dazzled by the fierce intelligence and the dedication to ways of making films followed by no others. She was aware of this and seems to have been quite sensitive about her status. If you read Richard Brody’s piece published on the New Yorker’s website you get a feel for the extreme sensitivity she must have felt about her place.
On the other side of the coin I asked Adrian Martin, sure to have made the considerable effort to keep track of Akerman’s work despite living in the southern reaches of the antipodes and he came back with a quick summation of just what a Melbourne cinephile needed to do. For starters it should be mentioned that a dozen or so of her key films were screened at both the MFF and at MIFF. You can check these out via the MIFF Archive on its website. (I don’t know what Sydney Film Festival screened, its archive page on its website comes up blank of all information not just any info on Akerman!) Others were tracked down but still he says that Melbourne was a great place to follow her work, ....”I was a big fan from the start. Of course some more obscure films could only be seen by travelling to fests or getting VHS from friends off Euro TV. But I saw her early work including Je tu il elle at NFT (her New York films), and MIFF showed at least Jeanne Dielman (in 79 it was me who talked Erwin Rado into screening it, she was already a cult in the university/art gallery scene and Rado was shocked by the full house early Sunday morning), Man with a suitcase, The 80s (pre Golden Eighties), Night and Day (also screened on SBS a lot), The Captive, Almayer's Folly, plus others. Golden Eighties had a theatrical release thanks to MIFF projectionist David Thomas, & Les Rendez-vous d’Anna was in every uni film course. The National Library, thanks to Bruce Hodsdon, had various things by her. Michael Koller & co definitely did show whatever they could at the Melbourne Cinematheque. There was a lot of local writing on her too by me, Laleen Jayamanne, Lesley Stern etc – Chantal was a Filmnews heroine. A Couch in New York came out on video in 1996 or 1997 and I reviewed it in Cinema Papers. D'est was screened in art galleries. BIFF showed her docos. I do remember, thought, by the early ‘80s, in terms of personal appearances, her fee was already prohibitive (she virtually lived off such stuff) when galleries and festivals wanted her here (I think maybe she never visited Australia).
For which, many thanks.
Adrian has also mentioned that the obituaries have clearly had the media scrambling. I wont repeat the adjectives he has used to described this work. I can imagine however, any number of editors of everything from the trade papers to the city dailies going “Who?” when someone hit with the news of her demise. I will add that Adrian has linked to a most interesting piece by Marion Schmid about Akerman’s near unknown dual activity as a writer and film-maker. You can find it here .
Needless to say, from the start she polarised opinion. That aspect of her work never seemed to go away. (Margot Nash has just reported on her Facebook page that her last film was booed at its premiere at Locarno a month or so ago.) From early in her career she generated quite intense dislike, even hatred, from many among the old critical establishment especially in the English newspapers. It was almost as if they resented her coming along at all not just her way of telling her stories, frequently slowly, always tinged with her own autobiography. I still remember way, way back one of their number telling me how he had to give the prize at a festival to something near worthless in order to prevent her 1978 film Les Rendez-vous d’Anna getting the gong.
The outpouring of dismay over her untimely death has been very genuine and heartfelt. What that intense love and devotion never managed to do was assist in finding more deserving audiences. Like many she remained that coterie taste whose work will probably be appreciated more after her death than it was during her lifetime.