In tribute to the late Chantal Akerman, the Walker presents the three-film series Chantal Akerman: 1950–2015, March 31 through April 3 in the Walker Cinema. Here, University of Minnesota English Professor Paula Rabinowitz reflects on Akerman’s art.
A woman alone sits, sits alone repeatedly spooning white sugar from a bowl into her mouth. She stares into space, a window frames her. A woman alone sits, sits alone methodically peeling potatoes onto old newspapers and placing them in a pot of water. She stares vacantly into space; her kitchen encloses her. A woman alone sits. She sits alone slowly slicing salami on a plate. She concentrates but is strangely absent from her monotone surroundings. A woman alone. Sits. In Paris. In Brussels. In Moscow. She is alone at her table with food she despises, but it is food she cannot stop handling—swallowing, paring, cutting. She uses the utensils of everyday life as if they were a hangman’s noose. This is deadly business, this business of filmmaking; this business of domesticity.
Films chronicling a death foretold. Her own; that of her mother? A woman alone sits. Where? She is a displaced person, this woman alone at a table, still as life. A still life, lived quietly, with rage. The anger so studied, so precise, so abstract and absolute, it can only turn in on itself, on herself. A self-direction aimed at what is there before her. What is it—this food that shames and consumes, cannot be consumed because it provokes such shame, such resignation? A woman alone. Sits. Awaiting what? What it is that we all sit awaiting as we slice and spoon and peel and stare from the table.
Chantal Akerman, may her name be praised, died of suicide on the eve of the screening of her fortieth-plus film, No Home Movie, at the New York Film Festival on October 5, 2015, a woman alone, in a Paris hotel room. She made movies of rooms, traveling among them with her paper bags full of letters from home. Who can know what she imagined would be seen when the final film she made of her beloved mother, Natalia, screened? Not just a woman sitting at a table? But surely just this: a woman in the thrall of an inexpressible love. She speaks to her daughter; she speaks through her daughter; she speaks of her daughter; she speaks in her daughter. Her daughter speaks of her and did so for almost half a century—beginning in her childhood kitchen “blowing up the world” in the 1968 Saute ma ville, which Chantal puns as saute ma vie, and finishing in her mother’s kitchen in No Home Movie.
“It gets dislocated.” These are the first words spoken in Akerman’s close observation of her mother, the woman she found to be at the “center” of her films. She feared there might no longer be a subject without her. Her mother’s words come many long minutes into the film. First there is a fierce wind blowing the scraggly leaves of a tree in the foreground of a bleak but seductive desert landscape; it roars and the terrain expands as a dull beige, a beautiful consuming emptiness. Next a Brussels park: a man suns his bare back; behind his bench a bright greensward stretches and there are people and dogs doing what they do on a sunny day in a park. Then an interior garden surrounded by tall purplish bushes, a turquoise folding chair sits abandoned. Finally, we see her move elegantly through rooms we already know—the quiet bourgeois domestic space familiar from 23 Quai du Commerce—and she speaks: “It gets dislocated.” She’s speaking of her shoulder but these three words tell the story of Akerman’s work. This is no home movie: not a home movie in the usual sense of the genre; instead a no-home movie, a film about dis-placement, distance, and time. It gets dislocated.
Early on, Chantal and Natalia eat a meal together at the kitchen table; the holy ark that holds a woman, her food, her utensils, her submerged and unspoken stories—“Ma, mommy, mama, tell us a story,” pleads Chantal’s sister Sylviane late in the film—of what cannot be represented, like God, a past of horrors. They sit, eating meat and potatoes Chantal has cooked in their skins. Natalia has never made potatoes without first peeling them. She says they are delicious. Even before I saw this film, I knew that a potato peeler would be at its heart. Years ago, while visiting Washington, DC with my mother, we went at her insistence to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. My mother’s Parkinson’s Disease meant she moved awkwardly, and somehow in the dark crevices of the building, we lost each other. I ran through the hallways looking for her, passing through the railway car, running by the pictures, but even in my panic was arrested by one vitrine full of potato peelers—some beautifully forged, most mundane objects—each essential. Of course, every mother used one every day, and she would stash it into a pocket for the long train ride. It is not coincidence that Jeanne Dielman brutalizes the potatoes she peels sitting silently at her kitchen table. As Akerman remarks, echoing Theodore Adorno, at the end of Marianne Lambert’s documentary, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, after the camps, after the end of European civilization that was the Shoah, “There are things that cannot be shown.” But this does not mean that they are unrepresentable, rather, “through evocation, through time” these things can be made known, can be felt.
Not a home movie, a no-home movie—an extension of the many previous no-home movies Akerman shot, of the weight carried by an everyday object, used or left unused, at a kitchen table. Waiting at home, for whom? The vacant son; the beautiful daughter; the anonymous john. Or merely waiting—in line for the bus in the cold dawn hours outside the block of Stalinist housing projects, or sitting dully on the hard benches of a Russian train station. The slow track capturing those who wait suggests they wait for more than bus or train. The interior enclosures extend beyond walls; even outdoors women are encased, in huge hats and heavy coats against the frozen dawn, surrounded by bundles on their way to work or to shop, waiting for the crowded and overheated bus to encase them, the windows steamed up with their hot breath. We see only that they wait. They line up or sit motionless as if the crematoria are their destination. We watch their waiting. And the time we must spend to see this long wait is a glimpse at our own deaths found in the long waiting that is life. It’s in the silent peeling, in the rigorous frontal camera work. Nothing is said of the violence palpable, yet unseen, unspoken, but there, close, closing in. Even when Jeanne Dielman ventures out, traversing Brussels, it is to shop at the butcher or green grocer. The outside exists merely to replenish the hated food that must be prepared within. Or when Chantal herself takes to the road in Je, tu, il, elle, where is she? Sitting in the cab of a truck, listening to the driver, stuck. Or when she reads her mother’s letters in Letters from Home, where is she? Her voice drowned out by the graffiti-covered subway screeching through the station. Displacement and movement become a kind of claustrophobia.
Akerman’s rigorous structural apparatus of the full-frontal camera fixing walls, doors and windows or the long slow tracking shots made across landscapes and through interiors are means to design order. But they too, in their address to our physical bodies as much as our emotions, are forms of chaos. The head-on stationary camera, which captures whatever passes before it, allows for aleatory and chance movements of bodies entering, leaving or partially present within still rooms. Stasis encloses chaos, an impossible attempt to keep it at bay.
“That’s why my mother’s like this,” because she ran away from Poland and was captured by the SS, because of Auschwitz, Akerman tells her mother’s caretaker; like so many Holocaust survivors, she left it unspoken. She ran away but not far enough, not to America or Argentina, remaining in Belgium and waiting, caught and sent back, to the camp. The past cannot be retrieved; yet it is never to be escaped. It hangs in the drapery and sheets drying on the balcony; it resides in the gagged inability to swallow food. Natalia chastises Chantal for subsisting only on one banana a day as a child. Chantal explains this was sufficient, that she was petrified of her grandmother and could never swallow again after choking on a meatball in her chicken soup. Later Natalia sits eating with Sylviane and begins to cough and choke; her younger daughter admonishes her to sit up and be more alert: “Eat. Breathe.” It’s unbearable, this carrying on, this living, this loving.
Chantal Akerman has been sending us clues all along—the preface to the 40-volume suicide note was written as a series of fragments when she was still a teenager, a child whose mother kept her indoors for fear of what might happen to her beautiful Jewish daughter who excelled in Hebrew school. But her father yanked her from that world of God and thus she spent her days staring out windows at the street life of Brussels. Those windows recur throughout No Home Movie—behind the chair where her mother naps, on the computer where the two speak words of love over Skype, between the camera and the kitchen, the panes reflecting Chantal and refracting Natalia, in the final gesture of Chantal closing the blinds in her room after she ties her shoes. Ties her shoes, even after her mother remembers her coming home from school disheveled from playground fights, with shoelaces undone.
Many critics, including Adrian Searle in The Guardian , have remarked that Akerman’s suicide has changed their perception of this film, and of her earlier work as well. But I see it differently; she’s been contemplating death and the body from the beginning, scattering the breadcrumbs for us to follow. Her work, like life lived in the shadow of violence, is an art of endurance. And this time, this time spent, is love.