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Chantal Akerman (6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015)

Chantal Akerman


We mourn the loss of filmmaker Chantal Akerman. As a tribute to her lasting influence, we offer this excerpt from Muriel Andrin’s text on filmic miniatures. Read the full article here.

Back to the core. […] kitchens have been at the core of women’s everyday lives for decades (if not for centuries) and somehow encapsulated their pre-feminist destiny of insignificant routines. Yet, not many (male) directors have represented these enclosed miniature worlds with their repetitive chores and repressive impact. Women artists and filmmakers have, as historian of art researcher Veronique Danneels has brilliantly demonstrated in her PhD thesis. In 1975, Martha Rosler filmed Semiotics of the Kitchen, a ground-breaking performance: ironizing Julia Child’s famous TV cooking show, she stood in an anonymous kitchen, facing the camera and presenting one by one the threatening tools of a housewife’s day, from A to Z. The same year appeared one of the first and most striking filmic examples of a ‘miniature world’ shaped by a woman director – Chantal Akerman’s famous Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Many film critics and theoreticians have commented on Akerman’s three days in the life of a single mother (Delphine Seyrig) living with her son. But maybe we have not yet rightfully measured its long-lasting impact on contemporary female directors.

Many of its essential elements relate to the art of miniature. As the latter, Jeanne’s (bourgeois) domestic interior is a closed, self-sufficient world in which Akerman films the systematic and almost unbearable repetitions of Jeanne’s day routine (sign of her alienation) through a succession of fixed-frame shots creating a closed spatial cartography (with a few exceptions) inside the walls of her apartment. The second element relates to the body. As in Stewart’s definition of miniatures, Akerman brings in Jeanne Dielman a powerful argument — everything is a question of scale: “The body is our mode of perceiving scale and, conventions of symmetry and balance on the one hand, and the grotesque and disproportionate on the other.” The scale is set by the body (in this case, Jeanne’s body), which triggers questions about many dualities: inside/outside, visible/invisible, transcendence and partiality of perspective. Jeanne’s miniature world is measured both by her systematically trapped body (inside the camera frames but also door frames) and her repetitive gestures.

Jeanne’s obsessive behavior and gestures allow her to survive her double life — as an interior mother and as a part-time prostitute. Everyday gestures (peeling potatoes, cooking schnitzels, dusting, closing lights, doors, reading a letter or receiving one of her clients) mostly filmed in real-time and transformed in self-imposed rituals, for Jeanne and the spectator, clearly settle something different about time and narration in cinema, leading to a long string of non-events. Real-time is of course an essential element to Akerman’s film. Yet, contrary to any obvious interpretation, it does not only relate to reality. Once again, it can be linked to miniature time: “The miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time. Unlike the metonymic world of realism, which attempts to erase the break between the time of everyday life and the time of narrative by mapping one perfectly upon the other, the metaphoric world of the miniature makes everyday life absolutely anterior and exterior to itself. The reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday life-world, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its “use value” transformed into the infinite time of reverie.” In other terms, Akerman’s film echoes the “capacity of the miniature to create an ‘other’ time, a type of transcendent time which negates change and the flux of lived reality.” If this hypothesis is undoubtedly shaped by the routine in the first part of the film, it is completed by the final shot of the film: Jeanne, sitting still in her living room chair, unable to move, literally petrified in her interiors.

Akerman’s film sets many characteristic features of the filmic miniature that will be later invested and reshaped by more contemporary women filmmakers. The refusal of conventional narration by the representation of ‘small’ or apparently insignificant gestures; the repetition of these gestures, showing the implacable routine of the character’s life; restriction to enclosed locations or limited environments (kitchen, houses, town or a specific landscape); real-time representation (or very long shots) of these gestures (duration) that imposes a new temporal relation to the gestures. If all are not systematically staged in every film, many still appear as recurring and essential elements. What basically remains at the surface as a classical, linear narration is nevertheless reshaped by different imperatives and by moments of counter currents that impose a renewed rhythm to the progression of the narration. Even though one absolutely needs to take into account the national specificities and sometimes the auteur touch of each film in order to fully grasp their meaning, some common trends or recurrent concerns and patterns seemed to structure the films and link one to another, allowing an echoing and interweaving reading. But what is also striking is their aesthetic diversity — how they invest the miniature in many filmic ways.