The great film thinker André Bazin (1918-1958) famously appreciated a certain kind of realism that he identified in the cinema. Bazin’s use of the term “realism” has less to do with an emphasis on ordinary people and situations (as we might think today) than it does with the formal properties of the film image. In illustrating his ideas about realism, Bazin drew on a sequence from Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) in which the eponymous Inuit protagonist goes fishing beside a hole in the ice. Bazin thought that if Flaherty had cut between shots of Nanook and shots of the fish, he might be able to suggest the passage of time, but in allowing his camera to linger on Nanook without cutting, thereby creating an unbroken image, he maintains real time and real space. For Bazin, this propensity toward a kind of ontological integrity within the moving image was the most meaningful aspect of cinema. He tended to prefer those filmmakers, such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and William Wyler, who relied on long takes and the art of mise-en-scène over those who relied more on cutting or montage, such as Sergei Eisenstein.
I’d like to think that Bazin, had he lived longer, would have been a fan of the work of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman (1950-2015). Akerman’s cinema has always been difficult to categorize; though formally audacious, her work defies placement within an established tradition of the avant-garde, and she herself resisted the label of feminist filmmaker. One quality that does mark her work is its Bazinian emphasis on continuous film space: she was one of the most accomplished practitioners of the “long take” aesthetic in cinema, and many of her films marry this aesthetic with an interest in tightly enclosed settings. Often in her films, great durations of time unfold within the space of a single room or corridor. In her own special way, she’s one of the great filmmakers of isolation, a quality that has allowed her work to take on new meanings and resonances in this current age of quarantine.
Akerman’s great masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is being screened in IU Cinema’s virtual screening room from February 24 until March 3. In that film, Akerman uses spatial integrity and extended duration to create a kind of horror film of domestic space. My colleague here at the blog, Laura Ivins, has authored an informative piece about the politics and practices of that legendary work, aptly titled “Jeanne Folds the Meatloaf.” With the upcoming virtual event in mind, I wanted to use this space to call attention to two other works by Akerman, one of which was done before Jeanne Dielman and the other done much later, both of which similarly use both the set and the film image itself to conjure up what one might call “prisons of space.”
Je tu il elle (1974) was Akerman’s debut feature, though not her first film — in many ways, it expands on some of the formal ideas already present in her early short La Chambre (1972). The work follows a young woman (played by Akerman herself, only 24 at the time) into a period of self-imposed isolation after a separation from her former lover. As in Jeanne Dielman, the film invites us into the mundane actions and indoor rituals of its subject: we watch her rearrange the furniture in her spartan flat, write letters (always important in Akerman’s work — see also her powerful 1977 feature News from Home), and eat powdered sugar. In showing us these basic acts of personal sustenance, Akerman constructs a wholly new kind of cinema out of precisely the elements that most films and television series choose to elide. As in the brilliant film work of Andy Warhol, boredom and drift on the part of the viewer may in fact be natural, welcome responses to what Akerman is attempting to do here. In this regard, minute gestures and individual, domestic actions become quite thrilling within the context of the proceedings. The film eventually does leave the “socially distanced” space of the flat as Akerman’s protagonist hooks up with a truck driver and goes to pay someone a visit, but I don’t want to reveal too much, as Akerman’s movies are always great at delivering a thrilling climax! (And I don’t mean that ironically.)
Akerman’s 1986 musical Golden Eighties (also known as Window Shopping) couldn’t appear more different from Je tu il elle on the surface: it’s a garishly colored and stylishly choreographed film set around a glossy, modern shopping mall, with a melodramatic romantic plot that might seem more at home in a classic MGM picture. But in confining all the action to the mall set, this film also becomes a committed exploration of a singular space, much like her earlier work. Despite its handsomely decorated surfaces, this film is quite ugly: it deals with characters who (I must confess) I find shallow and morally reprehensible — but this is not altogether surprising given the consumerist trappings that Akerman has placed them into. The film is incredibly fun to look at and has its share of brilliantly hilarious moments. In many ways, it’s a key work in Akerman’s oeuvre.
I’m happy to say that, given the advent of well-curated streaming services like Criterion Channel and the increased efforts of programmers to show more films directed by women, Akerman’s work seems to have enjoyed at least a marginal surge in popular interest in recent years. If you haven’t become familiar with the works of this great and deeply idiosyncratic artist (which I’m still only getting acquainted with myself), these two films would function nicely as introductions.
Akerman’s landmark film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is being presented in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from February 24 until March 10 as part of the series 10 Years, 10 Films, 10 Perspectives. You will be able to stream the film for free to the device of your choosing via a link and passcode which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and passcode.
Je tu il elle, Golden Eighties, and several other Akerman titles are currently available for streaming through Criterion Channel.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.