by MATTHEW LUCAS
A young woman enters her apartment and joyfully demolishes it, sets it on fire, turns on the gas range and lays her head down. This is the plot of Chantal Akerman’s twelve-and-a-half minute first film, “Saute ma ville,” a self-funded project made in 1968—a date reminding us that Belgium’s greatest filmmaker surfaced at a crucial point in French-language cinema: The decade-old New Wave was sinking under the cultural malaise engulfing France after the demonstrations of May ’68. By the time Akerman reworked “Saute ma ville”’s premise as the three-and-a-half hour “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” in 1975, the cinematic landscape was very different, and she was at its forefront.
“Jeanne Dielman” will not be screened during the Northwest Film Center’s brief summer survey of Akerman’s career, Looking, Really Looking! The Films of Chantal Akerman 1968-2015 (“Saute ma ville” will screen in a shorts program, and the series itself will resume in September and run through May 2017.). And it’s just as well because, with Akerman’s passing late last year, it is an opportune time for audiences to become acquainted with the more intimate side of her oeuvre. Beyond the shadow of her masterwork and occasional fictions, the majority of Akerman’s film work took the form of essays, letters, diaries, or documents of personal landscapes.
The program comprises four screenings over June and July, and includes Marianne Lambert’s documentary on the filmmaker, “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman” (2015), which premiered weeks before Akerman’s death. Intended as a survey of Akerman’s career, it includes a strikingly frank interview with the filmmaker discussing her art and her life, an appreciation by Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant, and interviews with Akerman’s longtime editor Claire Atherton and actress Aurore Clement. The inescapable fact of Akerman’s death, and the manner in which it happened—she took her own life—necessarily lends immense weight and insight into all of Akerman’s often gloomily portentous words. Beyond that, however, the film is an excellent primer to her long career and her theoretical approach to cinema.
The most substantial of the selected films is “Là-bas” (2006), which will be shown along with the short television documentary “Dis-Moi” (1980). Both films tackle the complicated subject of Akerman’s Jewish identity, and the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust (Akerman’s mother returned from Auschwitz, but her grandparents did not). Shot almost entirely in long, still shots looking out of a Tel-Aviv apartment, “Là-bas” is essential Akerman—a film where time is felt with painful acuity, and where human scars and rattling anxieties emerge on the surface of ordinary, simple observations. Occasionally the long shots, often obscured by blinds, are punctuated with phone calls and narration by Akerman. “I don’t feel like I belong,” she says at one point. “I’m just disconnected from practically everything.” Like many of her films, it is not easy to watch and was not meant to be; but the totality of its simple method is devastating.
Another Akerman documentary-essay, “Un jour Pina M’a Demande,” is of smaller consequence. It follows Pina Bausch’s dance troupe through rehearsals and performances. Akerman’s deep admiration for Bausch as an artist who “provokes… immense attraction, but also rejection,” parallels her own struggle as an artist, and for that matter a woman, who often suffered severe critical rejection.
The contradiction of Akerman is that few directors invested so much of themselves into their work—her anxieties, her intellect, her trauma. And yet in every film one feels like at any moment, like her hero Jeanne Dielman, Akerman may slip away. Until one day she did slip away. This series brings her voice back. It’s excruciating, harrowing, hard. But that’s the cinema of Chantal Akerman.
(Looking, Really Looking! The Films of Chantal Akerman 1968-2015 begins on Friday, June 17 at the Northwest Film Center, and runs through July 29 before resuming in September. For a full schedule of the summer programs, go here.)