Chantal Akerman, the Master of Violence

When we talk about violence in filmmaking, certain names always get mentioned: Tarantino, Scorsese, Haneke. But no one has ever captured the sheer violence of time passing like Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

Akerman would have turned 70 this year. Her arthouse films, which drew tension and pathos from everyday life’s mundane activities, have become cult classics over the years. Akerman recorded the tasks that made up everyday life, and her style has divided audience reactions drastically since the start of her career.

At age 25, she made the film that The New York Times would call the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema”: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Over the course of 200 minutes, Akerman lingered on the everyday activities that make up the domestic landscape, revolutionizing neorealism and calling it a “love letter” to her own mother.

Jeanne Dielman might seem like an odd kind of love letter, given the film’s dour premise. We witness the titular widow go through three days of routine chores and impersonal sexual encounters, culminating in a sudden murder. But by turning her camera towards the aspects of a woman’s life that no one else had thought worthy of filming, Akerman made the kitchen a landscape of emotional upheaval to rival any battlefield. Her mother’s world became cinematic.

“It all came very easily, of course, because I’d seen it all around me… not prostitution and murder – the prostitution’s more of a metaphor anyway – but I knew all the rest firsthand,”

Akerman later said about her subject matter. “It was in my blood.” And while Akerman may have rejected the label of “feminist filmmaking”, she went out of her way to hire a majority female crew. In 1975, this was a difficult task — there were very few female cinematographers or lighting crews. “I wanted to show that it was entirely possible,” she commented. “So we did.”

Akerman’s Jewish identity was central to this style of filmmaking as well. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and her grandfather brought his traditional way of life to their house when she was a child. In Judaism, she explained, “practically every activity of the day is ritualised.” The audience is invited to share that outlook when we’re watching a woman prepare dinner in real-time. Even if religion isn’t explicitly addressed in the film, each action carries the weight of a holy ceremony.

Adrift in the hypnotic monotony, audience members are forced to look closer at actress Delphine Seyrig’s micro-expressions. We witness the slow unravelling of her mental state, especially on the third day. When Jeanne wakes up an hour too early, she has no way to fill that time. Her entire schedule is thrown off balance, so her anxiety builds. And this is the genius of Akerman’s painstaking attention to detail: one missed button on her shirt speaks to Jeanne’s state of mind as eloquently as any monologue could.

When the film was shown at Cannes, some baffled audience members walked out. Those who stayed to the end, however, were won over, and word spread quickly. Suddenly, the 25-year-old was being hailed as a great filmmaker. In 2009, Akerman admitted she found this critical acclaim “tough” at the time because she wondered how she would ever make a better film. “I don’t know that I have,” she mused.

It’s difficult to watch that 2009 interview, knowing that she would take her own life six years later. Her last film, No Home Movie (2015), was a series of conversations between Akerman and her mother, filmed just months before her mother’s death. They sit at a table at one point, eating potatoes, and it feels like a parallel to the memorably distressing potato-peeling scene from Jeanne Dielman. At the end of her life, Akerman returned to ritual.

Her impact on cinema has already outlived her — directors like Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant, and Kelly Reichardt have named her as an influence. Above all, Akerman is remembered for her unique approach to capturing time, which she explained in 2004:

“You know, when most people go to the movies, the ultimate compliment—for them—is to say, “We didn’t notice the time pass!” 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.”

Jeanne Dielman ends with a shocking murder. But the real violence happens during the three hours before that, when we feel time being taken away from not only the protagonist, but us. Akerman is our killer, and her weapon is an unflinching record of cinematic materiality.

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