Chantal Akerman, Whose Films Examined Women’s Inner Lives, Dies at 65

October 7, 2015

By RACHEL DONADIO and CARA BUCKLEY
October 7, 2015

Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director whose ruminative, meticulous observation of women’s inner lives, often using long takes, made her a pioneer in feminist and experimental filmmaking, died here on Monday. She was 65.

Sylviane Akerman, her sister and only immediate survivor, confirmed her death, saying the cause was not immediately known.

Friends said that Ms. Akerman had been in a dark emotional state after the death of her mother last year, and that she had had breakdowns. She had recently been hospitalized for depression, returning home to Paris 10 days ago, her sister said.

Ms. Akerman’s latest film, “No Home Movie,” iscurrently showing at the New York Film Festival, which she had been expected to attend. Her most commercial film, “A Couch in New York,”about an apartment swap between a New York psychologist and a young Parisian woman, starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche, was released in 1996.

Born in Brussels on June 6, 1950, to Holocaust survivors from Poland, Ms. Akerman was inspired to begin making films as a teenager after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), a genre-crossing depiction of alienation and romantic abandon.

She was 25 when she made her groundbreaking “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975). That film, which runs more than three hours, follows a widowed housewife as she prepares food, does chores and receives a gentleman who pays her for sex. The minimalist repetition builds quietly to a traumatic climax.

“ ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,” said Nicola Mazzanti, the director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive. “There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.”

Directors like Todd Haynes, Sally Potter and Michael Haneke have credited Ms. Akerman as a major influence. J. Hoberman, a former film critic for The Village Voice, likened her to Mr. Godard and to the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, calling her “arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

From the outset, Ms. Akerman was captivated by the violence that can erupt from the quotidian. Her first film, “Saute Ma Ville” (“Blow Up My City”), was a 13-minute black-and-white short that she made at 18 after dropping out of film school in Belgium. With a voice-over of cheerful humming and singing, the film shows her dancing about her kitchen, then leaning her head on gaslit burners before the screen goes dark and the room explodes.

Angst and alienation permeate Ms. Akerman’s films, which numbered more than 40. She sought to break free of linear narratives and direct explication in both her cinematic essays and her documentary work, preferring instead to leave essential things unsaid. The generational trauma of the Holocaust was a continuing theme, though below the surface.

In recent decades she explored her own Jewish identity.

“No Home Movie” captures long conversations between Ms. Akerman and her ailing mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor who died in 2014.

Making the film, which circles around her mother’s inability to talk about her experience at the death camp, took a heavy emotional toll on Ms. Akerman. “I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have dared to do it,” she told The New York Times in a recent interview.

“No Home Movie” was booed at a press screening at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, although it was well received at a public screening.

“Many people never understood her cinema,” Mr. Mazzanti said. He likened some critical comments to the way some people look at a drip painting by Jackson Pollock “and say, ‘I could do that.’ ”

Her most recent feature film was “Almayer’s Folly” (2011), an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, which she shot in Cambodia. She also directed “The Captive” (2000), an adaptation from Proust, whose work, she said,had always been important to her.

Her other films include “News From Home” (1977), a cinematic version of letters home from her time in New York; “A Whole Night” (1982), about the tug of war between lovers; and a number of travelogues, which took her to post-Communist Eastern Europe in “From the East” (1993), the American South in “South” (1999) and Israel in “Over There” (2006).

Ms. Akerman also worked in video. Her 2007 video installation, “Women From Antwerp in November,” which depicts moody women smoking in that Belgian city, was shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York as well as in London.

Ms. Akerman joined City College in New York as a visiting lecturer in 2011 but was not teaching this semester.

Mr. Mazzanti recalled asking Ms. Akerman how she had edited “Hotel Monterey,” her 1972 silent film about a Lower Manhattan hotel.

“She said: ‘I was breathing, and then at one point I understood it was the time to cut. It was my breathing that decided the length of my shots,’ ” he said. “That’s Chantal Akerman. She breathed through the films. She was cinema.”

Originally published by The New York Times