A Letter to Chantal Akerman: Meditation and Farewell
In early October, the world community was shaken by the news of the death of a cinema pioneer. In lieu of an obituary, the following “purloined” letter, which will never be read by its recipient, recounts an imaginary (and, therefore, real) encounter and insists on the meaning of this absense.
5 November 2015
On the 3rd of October 2015, your milestone 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was screened in a tightly packed room in the Greek Film Archive in Athens. I was there; watching it for the first time on the big screen, enthralled. With the kind of tragic irony that only the randomness of reality can orchestrate, two days later, a month ago today, you committed suicide. Since then, I am trying to write an obituary and can’t do it. I finally chose to address you in person, as I should have done when you were still alive, given the admiration that I have felt for your work for so long.
Jeanne Dielman and your other films, fulfill the combined demands of feminism and avant-garde art; the former being encapsulated by the second-wave feminist slogan that “the personal is political” and the latter being the realization that no radical content can be expressed without radical form. The connection between feminist filmmaking and the choice of the avant-garde is not circumstantial. The avant-garde art position claims that you cannot question the dominant order by using its forms, visual and narrative, because it is inscribed in these very forms. Therefore, you can’t truly do feminist filmmaking without questioning the dominant ways of filmmaking. This realization is the hallmark of feminist avant-garde cinema, or rather its conceptual and structural definition. It was then, in the 1970s, that it became a conscious movement;i and your Jeanne Dielman was quite possibly its flagship.
Not without cause, you have called Jeanne Dielman a “reaching point”ii and you used to be worried that it put on you a standard which was difficult to surpass iii – you were only 25 years old at the time. It is true that sometimes it takes a lifetime to understand and complete a youthful breakthrough; and I must admit that Jeanne Dielman is my favorite of your films. You shouldn’t have worried though. Your more than forty films – long and short, fiction and documentary, different and yet similar to each other – don’t follow an evolutionary line but a repeated and expanding visitation of the same questions from different directions, which I think is much more interesting.
What you did, along with your feminist sisters, was to tell the world that our bodies and homes are fields of oppression and liberation struggle just as much as the streets and factories are. This realization demanded a change in the way we see and do things, a change of position, which in the case of cinema takes a very literal sense. It means to reveal women’s personal experience, in the way opened by Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), but it also means to draw attention to the hidden and mystified collective experience of housework, as did your Saute Ma Ville (1968) and Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Martha Rosler’s Kitchen Semiotics (1975). How many people looked at a woman washing the dishes and really saw her before Jeanne Dielman?
This turning of attention to different kind of subjects is more than a change of subject matter; it entails different forms, it is already a form choice. The question of how to film non-“heroic” acts, acts that are not viewed as culturally and narratively exceptional, starts being articulated already in Italian Neo-Realism and finds its culmination in Underground Cinema experiments with real time, such as Michael Snow’s, to whom you refer as the one to having awaken you to the fundamental significance of form.iv Another approach to lingering temporality as a means of re-positioning the point-of-view is proposed in Marguerite Duras’s India Song (1975), a film that appeared the same year with Jeanne Dielman and could be seen in a dialectic relation to it. The consciousness of the significance of form by no means entails a single form choice – as your own very diverse form approaches testify, be it the traveling camera as character in Hotel Montrey (1972) or the unmoving medium shot in Jeanne Dielman or the circular panoramic of La Chambre I, II (1972) or, even, the technicolor musical in Golden Eighties (1986) or the home movie in No Home Movie (2015).
The conscious choice of the personal viewpoint, in cinematic terms, can also mean the unconcealment of the constructed nature of the film and the presence of the filmmaker in it, which are once again both form choices and political ones.v Unlike dominant cinema which claims objectivity, and thus conceals its ideology, avant-garde cinema reveals, advertises and celebrates its positionality, through which it may reach the universal.vi This structure of argument is particularly relevant to second-wave feminism, which reclaims the women’s standpoint as a privileged access to social reality, precisely because of its unprivileged position.vii In the case of Jeanne Dielman, for example, this focus on your point-of-view is realized by the literal position of the camera’s point-of-view at the level of you own line of vision and the conscious avoiding of the characters’ subjective viewpoints.viii Another possibility that you have often investigated is the form of personal addressing, as is the case in News From Home (1976), where we hear your mother’s letters to you, or the love letters of the central character in Je, tu, il, elle (1976), or the narrations in Dis-moi (1980) and Histoires d’Amérique (1989), or the meditations in Lettre d’une cinéaste (1984) and Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman (1997) and Là-bas (2006), or Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother in Letters Home (1986), or the intimate conversation with your own mother in No Home Movie. In a 2011 interview, you explain that your view of cinema as a one-to-one relation is a stance against what you term “idolatry”, and you link this stance to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.ix
Moreover, the personal viewpoint, in the sense of your own life experience, defines the thematic lines that connect your films. The most eminent among them is your mother. As you have put it: “my mother is the center of my oeuvre”x; from inspiring the character of Jeanne Dielman to her intimate portrait in your final No Home Movie, just before her death and your own suicide. One should notice that the mother-daughter relationship is significant not only as the circumstantial fact of its being meaningful and shaping to your particular personal story, but also as a central interrogation for feminist thought. Nevertheless, this particular mother is also the entrance to the other undercurrent thematic of your work: the Shoah trauma. Your own experiences of wandering and not belonging, your relation to parents and memory, are interwoven around it. From Dis-moi and Histoires d’Amérique to Là-bas and No Home Movie, your work engages with “large scale” politics, without ever abandoning the personal viewpoint.
I am arguing that your films articulate the human through the personal, through form. I want to salute this choice. I think that it sets a demand and a standard.
So, my inability to write a “proper” obituary for you, may be structurally appropriate. The form of my text – equally or more than its actual content – is a response to a demand, the one articulated by your own films. Embedding in a letter my different texts and genres – an obituary, an essay, my memories – is both a choice of form and of taking position, of engaging personally and of making apparent my position as enunciator. I won’t pretend to an disinterested approach; although I am still ready to defend its scientific value. You are meaningful to me through multiple identifications. On the one hand, my mother, Antoinetta Angelidi, is a second-wave feminist and an avant-garde filmmaker, just like you; you were actually born in the same year. On the other, I identify myself as a feminist and an avant-garde filmmaker too, while the relation to my mother is very central to both my theoretical and art work.
I first met your name as an adolescent, reading 1970s film journals, already more than a decade old at the time, in my mother’s library – and, in my mind, you became a part of her. A particular favourite of mine was the 1979 special issue of the Greek film journal Film, which was dedicated to “Women and Cinema / Cinema and Women.” An interviewxi of yours, a “conversation” as it is called in the egalitarian lingo of the time, is included in it, among presentations and auto-presentations, notes and manifestos of the women Greek filmmakers who constituted for me a universe both very familiar and semi-mythical. You were a figure interwoven in this beloved tapestry; your name, your words on experimental filmmaking and feminism, the description of your films and a few dark, black-and-white stills. You see, I read about your films before seeing them. As you know, this was a common occurrence before the youtube era, particularly for people living in the periphery. I later saw your films, mostly on small screens, in archives and museums; and was not disappointed. The recent Greek Film Archive screening was the first time I saw Jeanne Dielman on the big screen. I can’t stress enough the importance of size and scale in the perception of this film; it was a revelation. It was as if I saw it for the first time, I really saw it. I couldn’t stop repeating to myself: “a manifesto.” This was a feminist and avant-garde film manifesto. The experience was enhanced by the presence of a full room of a mixed-aged audience. They watched transfixed. Toward the end of the film, some started commenting sotto voce and, after it ended, they all exploded in a uproar of conversation. I couldn’t avoid noticing that they stayed engaged with the film for its entire almost three-and-a-half-hour length, despite its demanding form. Leaving the room after the end of the screening, I felt exited, exalted even; a feeling that lingered long afterwards. When I read of your death in the newspaper, a few days later, I felt it as a personal loss.
The film shows three days of the life of Jeanne Dielman, engaged in the everyday business of running her house. She is a petit-bourgeois housewife, widowed, with an adolescent son. We observe her while she cooks and washes dishes, makes dinners and beds, in a detached and obsessive choreography of mechanical precision that takes our breath away. The camera is static, with a limited alteration of points-of-view, medium shots. The filming allows us unusually long segments of real-time observation of what otherwise would have been considered uneventful everyday acts. What is totally mesmerising is the fact that we actually see them. We are made to see the extreme masterfulness with which these very common acts are accomplished, as well as their repetitive and invisible nature. The only unexpected element of Jeanne’s life is that she earns her living as a prostitute. Each afternoon, she receives a single client in her well-ordered house, with the same detached and accomplished precision with which she does everything else. Afterwards, she washes herself and goes on with the choreography of her chores. Toward the end of the second day, something happens and Jeanne misses a step in her programmed rhythm. A progressive derailing follows, as Jeanne loses little by little both her rhythm and her detachment. The film and the derailment culminate with her stabbing to death the client of the third day. Then, she sits at the table in the dark, at last doing nothing.
What was definitely clear to me since the first time I saw the film was that it constitutes a feminist comment on Marx, an application and criticism of Marxist theories. Jeanne is strikingly similar to a factory worker; a similarity accentuated by her wearing a kind of uniform. The precise and repetitive sequence of her household chores is uncannily close to a Fordian line of production, and its disruption has equally chaotic results as the disruption of the line of production in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Moreover, the detached manner with which she performs her moves unavoidably reminds us of the theory of alienation. Yet, by revealing the similarities, the film also compels us to see the meaningful differences. Equally demanding, tiring and alienating, her work is unpaid and invisible, and considered unproductive, because it leaves no other trace on this world than the sustaining of life. This was precisely the Marxist-inspired critique of Marxism as addressed by second-wave feminists, and particularly by the “Wages for Housework” movement.xii What I find amazing, and I think that makes this film exceptional, is how fully it embodies the theoretical argument in filmic form. Its point would never have been communicable without its particular form choices.
Spatiality plays an important role in the film, as is implied by its full title, which includes the main character’s address as part of her identity: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Jeanne’s placement reminds us of her identification with the house, as a housewife; the mystification of her social place as nature.xiii It testifies for her embedment in the patriarchal symbolic order, which goes on functioning even in the absence of the real husband. xiv Her immersion and disappearance in the house is connoted by the very colors of her clothes, which merge in the background, as Mary Jo Lakeland observes.xv Antoinetta Angelidi, in a private discussion, pointed out to me that even the name of the street “Quai du Commerce [of trade]” is meaningful, as it implies commercialization and objectification. The positioning of the camera at your own height, not to be identified with any character or to be mistaken as omnisciently objective, is an ethical unconcealment of your position as enunciator. xvi The choice of the unmoving medium shot which allows Jeanne her space, without fragmenting her body and actions, is a sign of respect.xvii
Temporal choices are even more important in this film. In front of the unmoving camera, Jeanne’s acts are allowed to unfold. Long real-time shots force us to see the hitherto unobserved performance of the housewife. What is amazing is not only that we see it but that it becomes positively interesting. The rhythm of her movements is mesmerizing. The spectators become so immersed in it in the first part of the film, that they experience its breaking down as aberration. In the Greek Film Archive screening, some people actually commented in shocked whispers at Jeanne’s every “missed” move. It is in the second half of the film, when it is broken, that the rhythm itself becomes unbearable. What begins as a dance, ends as torture.
In the discussions erupting after the end of the screening, I heard many people commenting on Jeanne’s obsessiveness. I felt that this approach was missing completely the film’s point. The crux of the film, or may I say its argument, lies precisely in the non-exceptionality of Jeanne ’s condition, its everydayness. While the acts themselves are indeed obsessive, this does not function as a comment on the psychology of the character; it is meant to reveal the nature of housework in general. One could object that most women don’t perform their housework in a well-tempered, endlessly repeated choreography; or do they? Is Jeanne Dielman sick, or is she the actualization of an ideal, which is by itself a malady? Apparently, I was right, at least in interpreting your intention, as I found out watching an interviewxviii in youtube, after I heard of your death. You recount the disagreement you had with Marguerite Duras on precisely this subject, after the film’s première in Cannes Festival. Jeanne’s housework is an achievement, as much as her prison. Her masterfulness cannot but command respect from the viewer, which extends to the millions of housewives who toil and have toiled in the world through history, without leaving a trace. Interesting as a case study of obsession-compulsion may be, in this film we are instead invited to study the oppressive character of normality.
Then again, as Dominique Noguez exclaims: “Not every woman receives a different lover each day of the week. Not every woman murders her lover with a pair of scissors.”xix Even without taking issue with his calling the clients of a prostitute her lovers, I will beg to differ with Noguez. The introduction of prostitution in Jeanne Dielman’s uneventful everyday life is far from a meaningless narrative peculiarity. It has a structural reason of existence, which actually strengthens the normality argument instead of refuting it. On the one hand, by visually stressing the financial transaction between Jeanne and her clients, it makes more apparent the fact that she isn’t paid for all the other work she does. On the other, one would be blind not to observe that had her husband been alive, the practical difference in her life would have been that she would be sleeping with him, while he would be bringing the money in the family. Would this condition be so much different from her present one? Wouldn’t she essentially perform the same job? Jeanne’s peculiar job arrangement is in fact a literalisation of one of the oldest feminist-before-feminism arguments, which compares the institution of marriage to “legal prostitution.” xx What one hopes that would be different in a functioning marriage is – at least – desire; and if something is glaringly lacking in all aspects of Jeanne’s life is precisely this. She performs all her acts, including the sexual one, in a manner completely devoid of desire. Yet, is this such an exceptional situation? Lack of desire is not an uncommon occurrence in marriages. Most importantly, though, what the film reminds us is that sexual desire is culturally used in order to mask and naturalize a social condition. By emptying the social condition of all its affective investments, the film reveals its underlying structure. What is more, this lack of investment on Jeanne’s part can also be interpreted as a defense, if not resistance; an unconscious distanciation against a condition of alienation.
The act of murder has a completely different narrative function. It is not a structural necessity. It is action, in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. a conscious choice. As you put it, “she had only two solutions: either to kill herself or kill someone else. Of course there is some part of me in the film and I would have killed someone else”xxi – but then, in the end, you did kill yourself, didn’t you? If the film was comprised solely by its first part, it would have been the description of a condition. The murder, as an alternative to suicide, is the culminating act of a process which is experienced as derailment but in fact constitutes an awakening. The final act changes the film from description to proposition. It implies that after the process of self-awareness has been initiated, the only thing impossible to do is nothing. Murder or suicide are both acts of protest; but as suicide is self-destructive, murder is a far more positive and dangerous choice. What neither choice is, of course, is a change of the oppressing condition itself; but this would need a whole other film – or more. What is equally important with the film’s finale is the trigger that initiates the breaking down of Jeanne’s rhythm. Was it a random incident or a threshold moment? What makes a person awaken to her condition? What makes a person, after repeating the same acts a million times, suddenly not be able to go on? I think it is a good thing that the answer to this question is left undecided.
On the 5th of October 2015, you committed suicide. Does this change the meaning of your work, as Adrian Searle xxii has recently asked? I would like to answer a simple “no,” yet life and work are never air-tightly separated, as feminism and avant-garde theories – among others – have taught us. To make myself clear: I don’t think that the value of your films changes; or the ability to watch, understand and appreciate them without knowledge of your extra-filmic biography, and particularly its closing act. After all, the fact of the enunciator’s real death is the only one that can’t be inscribed in her texts, in spite of what Jacques Derrida would say about her death as a structural function. Thankfully. As defining as the effect of biography is on our work, our work remains the only hope of transcending our defining conditions. In our work, we can conceive and do things that we are not and have not, and make a gift of them to the world. Yet, I did think of this end of yours in relation to your work. How could I forget that in your first ever film, Saute Ma Ville, the character – which you yourself played – commits suicide? Or how could I not reconsider your interest in Sylvia Plath or your words about the alternative endings of Jeanne Dielman? It seems that the thought of suicide has been a constant companion in your life. In a particularly dark moment, an art critic had told my mother: “Why don’t you commit suicide? This way, your work will gain retrospective value” – she has later included the phrase in her film The Hours (1995). I have long been angry with this phrase, which I interpret as the obscene demand of romanticism on artists, and women, to aestheticize their death. Which is an excellent way of annihilating the threat that constitutes a living artist, a living woman, a living artist who is woman.
Farewell, sister in arms.
i See the Camera Obscura Collective (1979), “Chronology,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, 3-4, pp. 5-13.
ii Chantal Akerman in Mattias Grenling and Alexandra Zawia, “A Conversation with Chantal Akerman”, Venice, October 9, 2011 [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUStWsegZ0k. Accessed November 16, 2015.
iii “It was pleasant but painful because I was wondering how to do better – I don’t know if I have done better”: “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman,” 2009 interview for the Criterion Collection [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pSNOEYSIlg . Accessed October 6, 2015.
iv “The Underground opened my eyes, it made me smash my own conventions […] It is the cinema by Michael Snow that interested me”; “It is not enough to want to speak of the common, everyday things; you should not forget the form.” Akerman, C. (1979), “Chantal Akerman: A Conversation with Andreas Pagoulatos and Ivan Aranta,” Film 17: Women and Cinema / Cinema and Women (special issue), pp. 90-100
v See: Oudart, J.P. (1969), “La suture,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 211, pp. 36-39.
vi “The dominant cinema functions because of the fact that the spectators are lured against their will. On the contrary in the cinema I do, I think, that if the spectators participate, they do it because they want it, they have a choice.” Akerman, C “Chantal Akerman: A Conversation with Andreas Pagoulatos and Ivan Aranta” (op. cit. p. 91); “They are making idols. And I am fighting against idolatry. That’s one of my main concerns. That’s why I shoot like that,” Akerman in Grenling and Zawia, op. cit.
vii See: Tanesini, A. (1999), “The Importance of Standpoint in Feminism,” An Introduction to Feminist Epistemologies, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 138-159.
viii “You know who is looking; you always know what the point of view is, all the time. […] ‘Why do you use such a low angle?’ I said, ‘That’s my size’ […] It was never shot from the point of view of the son or anyone else. It was always me. Because the other way is manipulation.”, Akerman (1976), “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman – Excerpts from an interview with Camera Obscura, November 1976,”Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, 2, pp. 118-121; see also: Bergstrom J. (1976), “ Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory 2, 1976, pp. 114-118.
ix Akerman in Grenling and Zawia, “A Conversation with Chantal Akerman.”
x Akerman in Marianne Lambert, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: Le cinéma de Chantal Akerman (2015), as cited in Peter Debruge, “Film Review: No Home Movie”, Variety, August 10, 2015.
xi “Chantal Akerman: A Conversation with Andreas Pagoulatos and Ivan Aranta”, op. cit.
xii The “Wages for Housework” international feminist movement was founded in 1972 in Padua, Italy, by Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici; see Federici S. (1975), “Wages Against Housework,” Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press.
xiii “The difference [with other kinds of work] lies in the fact that not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute,” Federici, “Wages Against Housework,” op. cit.
xiv “There is no obligatory need of a man for her to play her role. The symbolic order is that strong.” Akerman in “Chantal Akerman: Je fais de l'art avec une femme qui fait la vaisselle,” Archive INA, TV show of January 17, 1976, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8ohlkEDOyw. Accessed October 6, 2015.
xv Lakeland, M.J. (1979), “The Color of Jeanne Dielman,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, 3-4, pp. 216-218.
xvi See footnote 8.
xvii “I let her live her life in the middle of the frame. I didn’t go in too close, but I was not very far away. I let her be in her space. […] to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and be respectful,” Akerman, “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman – Excerpts from an interview with Camera Obscura, November 1976” (op. cit., p.119).
xviii “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman,” 2009 interview for the Criterion Collection
xix Noguez D. (1978), Éloge du Cinéma Expérimental, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, p. 288.
xx Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
xxi “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman – Excerpts from an interview with Camera Obscura, November 1976” (op. cit. p. 120).
xxii Searle A. (2015), “The Last Picture Show: How Chantal Akerman's Suicide Alters Her Final Artwork,” The Guardian (November 4, 2015).