Book review: Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit – Corinne Rondeau (2017)

A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.

In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.

There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.

The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là basD’EstNo Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.

Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.

While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.

“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.

Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

People’s Park – Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki (2012)

I’m not sure where to start with this film, which, even though very similar to Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in a single long-take, reminded me of so many things except for this particular film. People’s Park and Russian Ark have a lot in common, but there are certain aspects of People’s Park, which actually made me feel uncomfortable while watching it which had never been the case with Russian Ark.

People’s Park  is set in a park in Chengdu, China. Shot in a single long-take of around ninety minutes, the camera travels through the landscape and records people’s activities during their leisure time. This is one thing that sets off the film strongly from Sokurov’s counterpart. The directors Libbie Cohn and JP Sniadecki have set up a seemingly Tarr-esque camera, a camera which has its own life, its own objectives, its own trajectory. It reminded me of Daniel Frampton’s filmind, a concept I have found mind-blowing when I read Frampton’s book Filmosophy and which I still like, especially when it comes to Béla Tarr and his use of an “independent” camera, which appears to follow nothing but its own plan. But, in contrast to the uses of an independent camera by Tarr and Sokurov, Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera feels voyeuristic. While Sokurov’s camera is a playful tool to record a walk through a museum, for example, People’s Park feels like something one is invited to watch but which one shouldn’t watch perhaps.

The extremely smooth camera is on a level of height with that of a child. The people with whom we cross paths, look down on us. The only ones that look straight into our virtual eye are the children we meet. As for the adults, we look up to them from time to time. We cross a lot of people who don’t know why we look at them, why we seem to be interested in their having a tea, in their enjoying themselves on a free day. Some people even look as if they have never seen a camera before. Indeed, why are the directors filming this and why do they force us to watch this? This could be said with other slow films, too. But there is no film I’m aware of in my repertoire which nagged me so strongly with those two questions; for one specific reason.

One thing that immediately came to my mind, after only a couple of minutes, was the ethnographic studies done with the help of film in colonised countries. I couldn’t help but think of those early films colonisers have made in far away worlds to record natives and show those portraits to their (colonising) people at home. The Chinese you see in People’s Park had very similar looks in their faces, if not the exact same look we know from early colonial film. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I wonder what the actual aim of the film was. Of course, the historical context today is different. And yet, and yet… I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis of the relationship between colonial film and People’s Park.

Two more things which came to mind while watching the film. There are definite links to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which is a superb film and was a journey through memories for me, having been born into a communist system which then fell apart shortly afterwards. And then there is this eerie feeling, just like in Akerman’s film, that there is a ghost taking us on a journey. For some reason I felt a ghostly presence throughout the film. I think it was the incredibly smooth camera, the floating movements, which had me believe that there is an otherworldly presence.

Maybe this is the reason for the questioning looks on the protagonists?

D’Est – Chantal Akerman (1993)

Chantal Akerman’s D’est is a great example of Slow Cinema, and for those who do not feel prepared to start with eight hours Lav Diaz, then this may be a film for you. The film is engrossing, but minimalist. It is slow, yet full of movement. It is, in some ways, a contradictory piece, as you can imagine. This is precisely what made me think of Béla Tarr when I watched it, but more of that in a little while.

D’est is set somewhere in the former Eastern bloc. Unless you read about the film, you cannot determine where exactly the film is set. At the beginning, I felt transported to my childhood. Born in 1988 in the former GDR, then growing up in the east of the unified Germanys, I can say that the initial images of Akerman’s film represent my memories of how people and towns looked like when I was little. I went to school in 1994 and even then things still looked like they used to under Soviet occupation. It took quite a while before life gradually changed. Akerman’s film is universal for a lot of people in that respect. It is not important where exactly the film is set. The political context is much more interesting and perhaps triggers memories in some viewers, just as it did with me.

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Akerman’s observation of people in the Eastern bloc is often considered as one of her documentaries. I wonder whether this is correct. What are documentaries? What are their aims and how are these aims approached? D’Est perhaps contains elements of this, but I would much rather describe the film as pure observation. Documentaries often come with the aim of teaching attached to it. But is this really the case with Akerman’s film? Does she really want to teach, or does she merely want to observe, to record, to leave it up to the viewer what s/he makes out of it?

I would even go as far as describing it a poetic observational film instead of merely “documentary”. The term doesn’t convey what Akerman is doing and how she is doing it. The poetics, for me, come from her slow, long and moving takes. They are like part of a symphony and reminded me of Béla Tarr’s films, of almost all of them. Most strongly, though, Tarr’s Prologue (2004) comes to mind and I still wonder whether Tarr rendered hommage to Akerman in his short film. His one-take film is no more than the camera moving to the left, slowly, lingering, past a line of people. It’s fascinating and suspenseful. You wait for something to happen, and if it’s only at the end. Now, in Akerman’s film, I didn’t feel the same suspense. Maybe it is the dark atmosphere in Tarr’s films that conjured the suspense. In any case, there is an almost identical shot in her film. And that wasn’t the only one. I have written down Sátántangó during the screening and then wondered who influenced who. Maybe there was no influence at all, and both had similar ideas at the same time. I do believe in those circumstances. But the similarities between Akerman and Tarr are intriguing, made me think a lot. And smile a lot whenever I saw something familiar.

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D’Est has a kind of hypnotic feeling to it. Perhaps it is the long-takes of people at a train (?) station, looking at the camera, looking at us. Why do we look at them? What is it we are after? In Akerman’s film we have to ask ourselves those questions. I don’t think we can simply be observers. We need to engage, we need to pose questions, and respond to questions that the images pose. It is, in effect, a great slow film: it isn’t innocent. We cannot just sit back and look at the images. We have to engage with it.