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Chantal Akerman: The director who truly treasured time

The Belgian filmmaker believed all you ever really have in life is time and she took control of her own in the most definitive way she knew how.

Chantal Akerman at home in Paris in 1979. Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Chantal Akerman was just 25 years old in 1975 when she made her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Twenty five is an age when you feel you have all the time in the world and this is a film that has all the time in the world. Three hours and 21 minutes of it, at least, during which nothing happens while everything happens.

In a work that blurs the line between cinema and performance art Jeanne lives with her son in the apartment on Brussels’ Quai de Commerce. We watch her make his breakfast and see him off to school. We see her fold away the bed, wash up the breakfast dishes and put them away, and wipe down the kitchen surfaces. She puts on her coat and goes out to the shops. And that’s an hour of the film gone, an hour in which nothing traditionally cinematic has occurred. It’s unsettling for the viewer yet also mesmerising, these familiar everyday rhythms presented in a medium where we expect time to be speeded up to present the edited highlights with the mundanity of the everyday excised to maximise our entertainment. Jeanne Dielman seems to serve us the mundanity without the highlights.

We see three days of Jeanne’s life in this way, from peeling potatoes to the sex work she does in the afternoons. Even the camera remains fixed, still and at a distance, as if we’re looking at a painting inside which the figures move around. There are no close-ups or cutaways. The monotony stokes claustrophobia and builds tension to almost unbearable levels until a lid left off a tureen or dropped piece of cutlery becomes a shocking event. Those small fluctuations in routine are small nudges that make the film’s dénouement even more shocking when it arrives.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a remarkably assured piece of filmmaking for any director, let alone a 25-year-old making only her third full-length feature. It appears as if it’s been made in real time, as if Delphine Seyrig, the star of Last Year in Marienbad who plays Jeanne, is really going through the daily routine of a single mother in the Belgian capital.

Yet this is not real time. Every scene, every moment, every shot has been planned and timed meticulously. “When you read a text you’re on your own time. That is not the case in film,” Akerman said in 2004. “In film, you are dominated by my time. But time is different for everyone. Five minutes isn’t the same thing for you as it is for me. Five minutes sometimes seems long, sometimes short.

“Everyone thought, for example, that Jeanne Dielman was in real time, but the time was totally recomposed to give the impression of real time. I told Delphine, when you put down the Wiener schnitzel like that do it more slowly. When you take the sugar, move your arm forward more quickly. When she asked why, I’d say do it and you’ll see why later. I didn’t want to manipulate her. I showed her afterwards and said, you see, I don’t want it to look real, I don’t want it to look natural, but I want people to feel the time that it takes, which is not the time that it really takes.”

The sense of confinement fostered by this technique is a common theme of Akerman’s films, as well as her determination to harness time and make it hers to stretch and contract as she pleases. It’s not too much of a leap to ascribe these traits to her close relationship with her mother and their family connection to the Holocaust. Akerman’s mother Natalia, known as Nelly and by far the biggest influence on her life and career, was a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor who lost her parents at Auschwitz. She was also a strong advocate that Akerman should forge her own way in the world in response to their history.

Akerman’s first film, 1968’s Saute ma ville is a clear forerunner of Jeanne Dielman. Encouraged by her mother Akerman had entered a Brussels film school but dropped out in order to make her 13-minute debut feature, funding the project by trading shares in precious gems on the Antwerp stock exchange. She plays the only character herself, a young woman doing chores around the kitchen, pausing occasionally to seal the window with packing tape. Then we watch Akerman reflected in a mirror as she goes to the cooker, turns on the gas, lays her head down and strikes a match.

Her final film, 2014’s No Home Movie finally turned the camera directly onto her mother. News From Home , in 1977, had featured Akerman reading out letters from Nelly over lingering footage of decaying parts of New York, but No Home Movie was a long, intimate eavesdrop on conversations between the Akerman women, partly over Skype, mostly in Nelly’s apartment. Her mother’s lifelong unwillingness to discuss her experiences at Auschwitz underpins the film and made the experience a difficult one for Akerman. Then, while the film was in production, 86-year-old Nelly Akerman died.

Akerman said of her mother’s death: “Even if I have a home in Paris and sometimes in New York, whenever I was saying I have to go home, it was going to my mother. And there is no home any more. Because she isn’t there.”

She felt the loss deeply. No Home Movie was never intended as an elegy – Akerman said her mother could have gone on living for another decade – but it became a posthumous tribute to her mother, her testament and the testament of all survivors of the death camps carrying the horror buried deep within them. No Home Movie premiered at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Despite the festival being known for its openness to the avant-garde, at a press screening members of the audience booed.

It is a typically uncompromising Akerman film: the opening sequence is a four-minute locked off shot of a dusty Mediterranean landscape, Israel in fact, although this is never stated. For the first half hour there is no dialogue at all, the silence broken at last by her mother’s muttered comment about the best way to cook potatoes. Akerman was used to criticism, but in the circumstances the reaction must have been particularly hard. A year later she was found dead in her Paris apartment having apparently taken her own life.

Ten years before the release of No Home Movie Akerman had discussed her attitude to time in the cinema. “You know, when most people go to the movies, the ultimate compliment for them is to say, we didn’t notice the time pass,” she said in 2004. “With me, you see the time pass. And feel it pass. You also sense that this is the time that leads toward death. There’s some of that, I think. And that’s why there’s so much resistance: I took two hours of someone’s life.” Chantal Akerman believed that all you truly have in life is time. It’s finite, it’s malleable, it can be deceptive, but it’s yours. She fought it into her control in her challenging yet deeply human films but ultimately had to take control of it in the most definitive way she knew.

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