9 October 2015

At the end of her very first short film, Saute ma ville (1968), made at the age of 18, the young protagonist played by Akerman herself commits suicide. The film is about a girl humming, smiling, and laughing in a weirdly joyous manner throughout much of the 13 minutes of the “récit” (“story” in French) – as the film qualifies itself – while doing increasingly disturbed and disturbing things in the closed space of the tiny kitchen of a working-class apartment, where the entire action takes place. She does not seem exactly destructive, just strange and uncanny, as she starts throwing things on the floor then cleaning up, smearing her legs with shoe polish then sitting silently, before a cut shows her dancing and smearing her face with some cream or cleaning product… The moments at the beginning when she seals the door with tape after entering, and later the window frame, easily slip our attention – until she opens the gas of the cooker and leans on it at the end. The screen then goes black as we hear sharp noises that sound like gunshots or thunder, or a series of explosions. Then cheerful humming again, but no more images.

It now seems deceptively easy to attribute a sinister meaning or even fatal significance to this first piece.[1] But one of the major characteristics of much of Akerman’s oeuvre is the deceptive simplicity of the surface layer, often bare and silent with endless seeming shots and long eventless sequences, empty spaces and no guidance as to what to make of them. We can construct narratives to fill the void, or try to sound the depth of the void. In any case, easy symbolism won’t do.

The remark in the British Film Institute’s introduction to Akerman’s work calling her “one of the most significant and enigmatic directors in world cinema“ is not an overstatement. It is the result of an idiosyncratic approach to the language of cinema and of a perception of the world in its bewildering senselessness, which Akerman was able to turn into structuralist masterpieces and bleak Beckettian comedy as well as into musical and mainstream comedy.

Born in Brussels to a Polish Jewish family, Akerman carried a sense of rootlessness in her entire life and passed it onto the screen. After Saute ma ville, whose suicidal rebellion evokes Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), the first major influence on her work, Akerman moved to New York to explore both experimental cinema and her own talents. Avant-garde and structuralist filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Jonas Mekas discovered at this time had a crucial influence on her language. She then returned to Europe and made her first feature film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in 1975, which has gone into film history not only as a structuralist masterpiece, but also as a strong feminist statement in a daringly innovative form. It shows the life of a single mother in its despairing repetitiveness as she boils the daily potatoes while having sex with regular customers to maintain herself and her son. Jeanne Dielman’s life also ends in revolt, however, when – according to one possible interpretation – an unexpected and inacceptable orgasm upsets the solid surface structure of her life and she kills the customer who caused it.

Silences – “silence bruyant” [noisy silence], as she called it – challenging lengths, often closed minimalist spaces, and always carefully designed frames and rhythm characterize this film as well as her other artistic and critical successes, including Je, tu, il, elle (1974), Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), Nuit et jour (1991), La Captive (2000) – a paradoxically faithful “free adaptation” of Proust’s La Prisonnière – and her major documentaries News from Home (1977), D’Est (1999), or Sud (2003), to mention but a few. The single label of art cinema does not do justice to her oeuvre, however, as she also adventured into mainstream comedy with The Golden Eighties (1986), Un divan à New York (1996), and Demain on déménage(2004). Her video installations exhibited from the US to Paris and the Venice Biennale, and a few published writings, such as her “autofiction possédée” [possessed autofiction], as a critic called Ma mère rit [My mother laughs] (2013), also show her diversity.

She recently presented her last work, No Home Movie, at the Locarno film festival. It is a documentary about her mother, who returned from Auschwitz after her parents died there, and the difficult relationship with whom runs through Akerman’s entire œuvre. And it was not very well received with its demanding lengths. Akerman had suffered from negative critical response and commercial failure before and she often struggled throughout her career to finance her work. Her recognition as a major figure of European cinema is nevertheless far beyond confirmed. Her work had a “more than essential” influence on Gus van Sant, though Claire Denis notes that “it was impossible to take her as an example because she was unique”. A two-year retrospective of her filmography in London was going to conclude with an exhibition of video installations and a masterclass by Akerman later this month. Sadly, only the exhibition can now happen. But we should perhaps remember the carefree humming that accompanies the black screen at the end of her first film.

[1] The sources are somewhat contradictory as to the cause of her death. Le Monde reported suicide, while The New York Times refers to the announcement by her sister saying that the cause is unknown.