The thing that has struck me most about Chantal Akerman’s cinema is how personal it is. Not just in their plots or characters, but in the filmmaking style itself. The Belgian-born avant-garde director is known today for her exceptionally slow-moving features and detailed study of characters. What I find particularly amusing about the best of her films is how she ultimately makes them all about herself. It’s a strange sort of autobiographical feel one gets when they are subjected to her filmography. There’s something about them that’s so intimate, so sad, and so very realistic.
You begin to form a picture of Akerman as a person in your head as and when you go about her pictures: this lonely, philosophical rebel, a thinker, someone who liked to challenge the system, break rules, express her at her most private, and someone who studied the people around her a great deal. Her movies are often cold, and it’s funny the way they set a distance between the characters and the audience, because that actually allows the two to get a lot closer than they would’ve gotten otherwise. I think it is quite necessary that we look into, study, and understand (or at least try to) what we can about one of the greatest filmmakers to ever have lived, if only for the purpose of getting a better idea of the power of film, or maybe just a stronger exploration of Akerman and her thoughts.
News from Home (1977)
News from Home is probably the best place to start when discussing Akerman’s oeuvre. All it really is is a series of shots that show a listless New York City, devoid of personality, energy, and events. There is no background score to help aid in providing emotion to these long, static scenes, and there aren’t any characters either. We see New York in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night, and we see people we do not care about. The closest we get to a protagonist is this narrator, voiced by Akerman, who reads out the many (real) letters she received from her mother while she was in America, away from home. The narration is timely and minimal, and is quite contrary to the rest of the picture, having character, events, emotions, secrets, and zeal. Her mother writes about the family, their neighbors back home, and the weather, among other things. In the majority of her letters, she worries about her daughter living all by herself, but composes before departing, saying that despite everything, she believes in her child. The letter ends, the narration is over, and that old, dreary silence is back.
There are periods of complete inactivity and lack of distinct sounds that I so wished to listen to another one of those letters again, just to feel something, anything. Akerman doesn’t give us much to latch on to, and without those moments of narration, we’re left staring at people going about their lives, captured with fixed, straight-on angles. News from Home, with its extremely minimalistic style, becomes a film about boredom, loneliness, observation, and love. Most of all, it helps us sink so well into the shoes of a character we do not see, an expatriate living miles away from home, that it also becomes a film about Chantal Akerman, detailing how she reacts to things emotionally and defining her style as a filmmaker.
Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ’60s in Brussels (1994)