BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 FEB 16
Featured in
Issue 177

Screen Presence

Encounters with the late Chantal Akerman's films

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 13 FEB 16

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Courtesy Paradise Films, Brussels, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

New York City, 1977: A private screening of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) drew filmmakers, critics, feminist film theorists and writers. Jeanne Dielman … began. Three and a half hours later, it ended, but something else had begun: the emphatic influence of a young, brilliant director: Chantal Akerman.

Akerman’s suicide, on 5 October 2015, felt personal to many; her movies like friends who never disappointed. In the auteur tradition, Akerman’s unique cinematic sensibility impressed itself on each of her films. 

I looked in my files for an essay I’d started in 1981 and never finished. I wanted to return to my first responses to Jeanne Dielman … Nothing had prepared me, or I believe anyone, for it, and its lasting influence.

Jeanne Dielman … takes place over three days. Akerman’s meticulous direction, her use of real time, attention to detail and emphasis on repeated gestures, built her protagonist’s character. Delphine Seyrig played Jeanne, her beautiful, placid face an enigmatic screen within a screen. 

Jeanne is a middle-class woman, mother, housewife, widow, prostitute. Each day, she follows a routine: cleaning up, washing dishes, turning on and off lights; she has one client a day. Akerman makes the viewer notice every gesture. By the second day, her fastidious routine is off, she and it have shifted, and by the third, everything has changed, dramatically.

The film was eerily quiet, not silent. Where were the words? Scant dialogue occurred, and it was between Jeanne and her adolescent son. Their conversations, striking as Akerman’s direction, commented upon and augmented the visual narrative. At dinner the first night, the son asks Jeanne: ‘How did you meet my father? Why did you marry him?’ She implies that she didn’t love his father, but it was the thing to do. The son says, ‘If I were a woman, I couldn’t make love with someone I didn’t love.’ Jeanne answers, ‘But you are not a woman.’

On the second day, when Jeanne shows her day’s client to the door, her hair is mussed. Maybe she’s had an unwanted orgasm. That night, she puts her teenaged son to bed. He asks her about real women and orgasms. The son appears to have noticed, like the viewer, her unusual appearance. (In my 1981 notes, he mentions her mussed hair, her housecoat’s top button undone.) He tells her that, as a child, he worried his father hurt her when the two made love. She cuts him off, saying that making love is just a detail.

On the third day, in bed with a client – Akerman now lets the viewer into the bedroom – Jeanne grabs a pair of scissors off the dressing table and plunges it into him, killing him. A long, last shot of Jeanne sitting at her dining room table, staring at the camera, ends the film.

From 1968 on, Akerman approached narrative boldly. Her work engaged female subversion in film, writing, art. It participated in debates about film theory and feminism, from subjectivity, classic cinema, the gaze, to new readings of the canon, etc. News from Home (1977) pitched the sound of her voice, reading her mother’s letters, over scenes, or the visual news, of New York. In Les rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978), Akerman depicted an intimate mother/daughter relationship, one inseparable from the devastation of the Holocaust. The daughter, a filmmaker on tour, listens to survivors’ testimonies wherever she travels. 

No Home Movie (2015) was screened at the New York Film Festival, days after her death. No Home Movie is a punning title for Akerman’s film of her mother’s last year – no home anywhere, anymore, a movie about no home. It’s a love story, narrated not only in images, private views, but also by conversations at the kitchen table and on Skype. 

Her mother’s kitchen reminded me of Jeanne Dielman’s. I recognized it, with sombre surprise. A special effect of Akerman’s work is the production of shocks of recognition. Another scene startled me: her mother is very close to death. In long shot, Akerman shows her lying on a lounger, her face obscured by distance, an inert shape that could have been any sick, dying mother’s body. That could be my mother, I thought. Akerman’s cinematic genius allowed for an emotional identification and, also, simultaneously, represented death’s ubiquitous process, dying’s indifference to person.

Akerman appears in No Home Movie, but mostly keeps herself out of the frame, sometimes running away, avoiding the camera. I could speculate: she opened a space for a viewer to impose herself. But, more, Akerman’s determination not to be present on screen signalled her wish to be absent from it forever.

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.