To this day, women face lots of barriers in the film business: while being frequently objectified in front the camera, they are hardly in charge behind the scenes. It comes as no surprise that so far, there has only been one female filmmaker to win the Oscar for “Best Director”: Kathryn Bigelow.
Nonetheless women like Sofia and Gia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Miranda July or Lena Dunham remind us that the future of film has lots of #girlpower to offer. And today’s “Woman We Love” is to reminisce about one of their undisputed pioneers: Belgian film director, screenwriter and effortless cool cat Chantal Akerman.
Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950 to Polish parents who were also Holocaust survivors. She broke off her studies at a Belgian film academy after only a few months, then took courses in theatre studies until she became exclusively devoted to film making. At the tender age of 18, she made her first movie, Saute ma Ville, which was not for the faint-hearted. Numerous short and feature films followed, a total oeuvre of 40 works that has influenced generations of filmmakers. Last year (2015) Chantal Akerman committed suicide at the age of 65.
Throughout her entire career Chantal Akerman dealt with the cinematic representation of women, which is why she had such a lasting effect on female empowerment in the European film scene of the 1960s and 70s, along with directors like Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras. Akerman fought against the one-dimensional, often unjustly labelled image of women, who had been mostly depicted as helpless ninnies, self-sacrificing mothers or femmes fatales, until then. Besides, female main characters were rare, at best they were found in second-rate melodramas. As a convinced feminist Akerman advocated for emancipation, and her work was highly polarising. When showcasing Je Tu Il Elle in 1974, she caused a scandal for showing a sex scene between two lesbian women, long before Blue Is the Warmest Color. In Jeanne Dielman she documented the everyday monotony of a housewife on the brink of breaking down, thereby giving a voice to the marginalised and the forgotten. Instead of considering films by women as individual works of art, they were often perceived as a species with a collective objective. About herself she said, “I do not make women’s cinema, I make Chantal Akerman movies.”
The exhibition “Les Approches”, which is currently on view at the Espace Louis Vuitton in Munich, takes a closer look at the works of striking visual artists, presenteing works that revolve around the realm of female intimacy. A video installation by Akerman, entitled Femme d’Anvers en Novembre (2008) and a tribute to the woman smoking, forms the centre of the show. On five screens five women are shown, enjoying a cigarette in a variety of situations: weeping, waiting or tidying their room – all women are connected through their lustful draws off of their cigarettes. A generally banal activity is captured in an intimate documentary style.
Of course this evokes images of the classic film noir and his female icons like Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall. But for Akerman smoking is not merely an erotic act, but also a personal need that must be demystified and thus normalised. This is particularly important at a time when smokers are increasingly banned from public places but also because for a woman smoking always represented something emancipatory. Yet again, it’s the combination of Akerman’s feminist drive and her subtle aesthetic that comes to light, through subtle hints at our assumed certainties.
In imagery and aesthetics Akerman films differ from the popular entertainment cinema. Her plots are mostly minimalist and dialogues barely exist: a typical art film, one might think. Yet, appearances are deceiving. This slow way of storytelling is not boring, quite the contrary, it creates tension and makes the audience pay close attention to every detail. Behind the camera, Babette Mangolte set tone as the director of cinematography. Her fixed camera work makes for a casual, but privy setting, so that the film image figuratively turns into a keyhole, which we look through as silent observers. We see: careful glances, loving gestures and significant everyday actions which often make the spoken word unnecessary. The sound switches between background music and atmosphere: in Toute une Nuit for example, a window is opened and the road noise echoes in the room and we hear nostalgic melodies coming from the radio. Jean-Luc Godard called Akerman a “fighter against the cinema of favors” and proved to be right.
This is an edited version of an article, that first appeared on hey-woman.com in March 2016 under the title “Women We Love: Chantal Akerman”.