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.

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.