Crossing the Line: Chantal Akerman and Her Pioneering Female Eye

Belgian film director Chantal Akerman passed away on Tuesday at the age of 65.

Akerman had a major influence on European cinema and was regarded as one a pioneers of feminist film. Her 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, engraved her name into cinema history at the young age of 25 for its groundbreaking depiction of women in film.

Jeanne Dielman runs for over three hours and redefines the notion of time in a movie. It follows a widowed housewife (played by Delphine Seyrig) who lives in a small flat in Brussels with her son and works part time as a prostitute. With impeccable choreography, the camera invites the audience into her home to watch her perform domestic tasks, such as cleaning and cooking, in real time. The long takes are as frustrating to the viewers as the mundane chores are to the housewife, a ritualistic, hypnotic routine that speaks of physical and mental angst. With a climactic ending, the film flips classic melodrama of Hollywood cinema upside down. It was a new way to tell a story, and Akerman’s was a new voice for legions of women previously unrepresented on the big screen.

Few filmmakers explored the depths of cinema’s various forms quite like Akerman, a fearless formal experimenter. While many of her 40-plus titles remain obscure, she penetrated the mainstream with films like A Couch in New York (1996) and The Captive (2000). She constructed self-portraits like News From Home (1977), an intriguing visual rendition of her letters to home from the time she lived in New York. In addition to linear narratives, she directed brilliant cinematic essays, video installations such as Women from Antwerp in November (2007), travelogues, adaptations of Conrad and Proust, silent films and documentaries. Prevalent themes, beyond her consistent examination of the feminine, consisted of psychoanalysis, trauma and Jewish identity. Her last film, No Home Movie, composed of conversations with her elderly mother, an Auschwitz survivor who herself passed away in 2014, played at various stops on the festival circuit this year.

Moviemakers such as Sally Potter, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and Michael Haneke have cited Akerman as an influence. Her films may not be as widely screened as they should be, but her legacy is and will continue to be inherent in modern filmmaking. MM

Top image, from Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, courtesy of Criterion.

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