As a recent but devoted convert to her work, the news that filmmaker Chantal Akerman had died by her own hand hit me with an unexpected force, triggering a recognition that I tried, unsuccessfully, to disavow. Chantal’s suicide felt intuitively unsurprising—there was a clear precedent for this action in the emotional turbulence of her films—and yet the fact of her death triggered a kind of involuntary referendum upon the experience of watching her films. What had I been seeing? The pressurizing fact of this death potentially imposed a brutal oversimplification onto the complexity of these artworks and, by extension, the person who crafted them, re-defining creator and creation in tandem. Fraught with this new fact, the knotted cords of her life and work risked taking on the seemingly inevitable lineaments of tragedy, a genre quite at odds with her astringent, sometimes comic vision.
To be sure, a dynamic of submerged tension and violent release drives much of her work. A case in point is her early masterpiece “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” In this overpowering film, shot in 1975 by an all-female crew when its director was only 25, often hailed as a landmark of feminist avant-garde cinema, we are confronted by the sheer extent of labor and care involved in a Belgian housewife’s everyday routine, with Delphine Seyrig’s steely performance as Jeanne holding our gaze for 200 minutes. We witness the occasional entrances and exits of the customers for the part time sex work that supplements Jeanne’s full time house work punctuating her solitude with a rhythm of intrusion and departure. The camera stares implacably at the entirety of her life: for hours on end, we watch as beds are made, veal cutlets are cooked, water is boiled, customers are satisfied, the neighbor’s child is looked after, and Jeanne’s son is sent to school and sent to sleep. As these tasks unfold in an initially suffocating and finally revelatory real-time, Akerman refuses to cut away from the duration of care and refuses to soften its texture: crying babies and spoiled milk erupt like land mines in the path of an ongoing cycle of chores and obligations and small, guarded pleasures that define Jeanne’s existence. Eventually, the stability of this life traumatically breaks open with a violent, decisive action that passes retroactive judgment upon the three hours of domestic “calm” that precedes it, mirroring but also exposing the violence implicit in the sexed divisions of labor that created those routines in the first place.
Stunned by the raw emotional power and strict formal control of this film, I had to see more, and worked my way backwards and forwards from that central statement across her catalogue of films. I became a boorish evangelist, convinced roomfuls of friends to sit and watch her films with me, smiled in the dark as they went from initial boredom and resistance to a gradual, grudging admiration for the clarity of her vision and on to ultimate admissions that what they had seen was art-making of a high order. When the news of Akerman’s death on October 5th broke, puncturing my advocacy of the artwork with a stark reminder of the fragility of the artist, it wounded me in a manner that suddenly called into question the nature of what her work offers. Because they examine strong, even forbidden, emotional territory and frequently seem directly or obliquely autobiographical—as in the presentation of the filmmaker’s nude body (“Je Tu Il Elle,” 1974) or in the intimate revelation of her own family history (“News From Home,” 1977)—Akerman’s films inspire not just formal admiration but a protective strain of fandom-as-virtual-friendship which cathects upon the virtual self offered up through these intimate gambits of risk-taking and disclosure. That that self—but was that ever really Chantal?—had now killed itself felt like a rebuke to the very existence that the work had bathed in light. As French sources disseminated information about the circumstances of her death, I took to an online forum to vent and process my mourning and posted the following on the day I learned of her death:
The awful possibility (likelihood?) that Chantal Akerman killed herself is weighing upon me as I think about her work and her death, and wrestle with the human desire to force those into illustrative alignment so that the death somehow “fits” the work. There is a bad retroactive power that the fact of suicide relays onto the life it terminates and the work made within that space of potential before the cut-off point. Chantal measured her shots with the length of her own breathing, and the painful fact of the “cut” as that which ends the art and the life as a decisive choice might need some other way of looking and letting go.
The timing of the death of Chantal’s own mother having been followed so swiftly by her own death looks suspicious. It triggers speculation in me as a fan of her work, an ugly longing to align my own speculative thought-experiments and private interpretations of the art that she made with the imagined real life of an exemplary artist. Will the fact of this death mean that we collapse the humor and beauty in the work in favor of a retroactive judgment that what we were seeing all along was predictive, proleptic, a symptom of “depressive realism”, a symptomatic inching towards the very liberation-through-destruction that was already in place in her very first film “Saute Ma Ville”? Or is all of this terribly sudden, recent, and rooted in a tightly specific timing, an unreachable point of decision, an impulse to which was given momentary but permanent surrender?
Did Chantal kill herself out of a desire to remain connected to her mother? Did she feel that she was not permitted to survive her mother? Did she feel a tremendous relief at the death of her mother because now she could do something that her mother’s survival had barred: namely, take her own life? Or did she kill herself out of guilt as a way of punishing herself for the very relief that the death of a parent might have brought? What do we make of someone with her obvious gifts and celebrated artistic success, in short, someone with her genius, ultimately refusing the mandate of survival? Is there a way to de-pathologize the urge to die? Can we afford to do that? If we can’t, what are we afraid of within ourselves that we disavow through the abjection of the self-killing of others?
Driven by these questions, I watched many of her early films again, and tried to wrestle with this need to align her death with her work. I held a kind of vigil in which Chantal’s work became a space to reflect upon the contrary forces in play within her films: belonging and separation, approach and retreat, movement and stillness, and, ultimately, life and death. Given the timing of her mother’s death and Chantal’s own suicide, “News from Home” in particular took on an uncanny new force. As we hear Akerman read out loud the letters that her mother writes from Belgium, we are shown the human beings and built environment of New York City, and gradually intuit the framing scenario of Akerman’s abrupt departure from the very home that claims her in these epistolary assaults, and, by extension, the intractability of the mother/daughter bond. The little loops of imbrication between the mother’s affect and the daughter’s are immediately apparent in the language of the letters, whose almost unbearable intimacy finds a foil in the broad panoramas and busy spaces of urban 1970s New York.
The first letter, which enters after several minutes of traffic noise and shots of cars and passers-by, makes the hailing force of the parental bond instantly legible:
Dearest child, I received your letter and hope you’ll write often. […] I think you’re happy in New York, so we’re happy too, even though we do miss you. When will you be back? Everything’s the same here, but Sylviane’s home with the flu, and I’m not very well. My blood pressure’s low, I’m on medication for it. Today’s my birthday, and I feel sad. It’s a quiet, boring Saturday at the shop. For my birthday we’re just having dinner with friends. Your birthday’s coming up. You know I wish you all the best. Write soon. I’m anxious to hear about your work, New York, everything. A big hug from the three of us. We think of you always. Your loving mother.
In a brilliant stroke of conceptual judo, “News from Home” overlays the sound of highly charged private emotions onto the vision of wide open public spaces, tilting Belgian words against American images. This contrast of sound and vision aligns the characters of the film with rival media: as we hear the Mother’s hopes that her “dearest child” will find a job, will become famous, “will have everything that you want come true”, the bleak, drab and abandoned spaces that Babette Mangolte’s camerawork shows us wryly registers the unlikelihood of these hopes, and their crushing weight as pressurizing imperatives that dog the frame. Chantal’s silence, her refusal to let us hear her responses, seems to be a kind of masochistic toll she pays for the cruelty implicit in her act of rendering her mother’s private letters accessible to the viewer. Those letters, rife with passive-aggressive accusations (“we are not angry that you left without saying a word”), are left to hang there in mid-air above New York, but these constant bulletins about sadness, exhaustion and sickness offer their own eloquent testimony as to why a twenty-year-old girl might feel that there was no way to ask for permission to leave her Holocaust survivor parents in the first place.
As the film progresses, the juxtapositions of image and letter come to figure the affective force-field between mother and daughter with increasing slyness. The twin imperatives of “I’m counting on you to write” and “Don’t work too hard” are paired with a shot of a woman sitting on the sidewalk in a chair, her arms folded, staring straight into the camera. Is this a case of contrast or correlation? Does she take on the solidity and judgmental gaze of the implied yet absent Mother? Or does she constitute a riposte and alternative to her? As the letters progress, the hectoring rhythmic pattern of endless love and endless criticism is foregrounded; the ceaseless patter of family occasions that are “without you” harps upon the damage inflicted by Chantal’s absence, a gesture amplified rather than undercut by her follow-up observation: “Sorry that I ramble, what matters is that you’re happy.” Read in a deadpan by Chantal, we can draw our own conclusion about the relationship between the happiness of the daughter and the void imposed upon the mother by that absence, indeed by that very happiness. The message is clear: your happiness hurts me. You have placed yourself before me. The more the letters say “I want you to be happy, I don’t want to be a selfish mother”, the more aware we become of the burden of that impossible demand. If Chantal goes away from home in order to be happy, then the mother is unhappy; if Chantal returns, the mother can finally be happy, but only if she believes that the return is precisely Chantal’s own innermost desire, a scenario that the sheer fact of the departure, compounded by all that time spaced between always-too-brief letters, already belies. The result is an endless duel, a zero sum game.
At the film’s arguable “climax,” we have the deliriously comic experience of the noise of the subway literally drowning out the voice of the letters, a surge of sound that creates a perceptual community of the viewer with Ackerman as we are forced to side with the present fact of New York and against the absent presence of the mother. This is followed by a hush of silence, as if the violence of the burial of the mother in the turbulent surge of noise triggers a kind of reflexive syntax of guilt, a reconsideration. Over time, the mother’s demands accumulate and complicate each other, in the process expanding her role from comic foil to something more open-ended. “You never write about how you’re really doing” is tethered awkwardly to the demand to write more, and we sense that for these two the truth will always hide behind what is said, what is written, what can be shown, and in both directions.
This brings me back to the question that haunts me since learning of her suicide: did we, as we watched Akerman’s films—some of us for hours, some of us for decades—ever intuit how she was “really doing”? Must the false aura of knowingness wrought by biographical closure color any such pleas for access now? Inescapably tied yet irrevocably distinct, the artist and the artwork overlap in a uniquely tense manner in Akerman’s oeuvre, as “News From Home” makes clear to devastating effect when viewed now in a doubly posthumous aftermath. At its elegiac close, the camera basks in a long shot off the Staten Island ferry as it pulls out into the harbor, scanning the downtown Manhattan perimeter and across until mist and clouds come to cover the tops of the World Trade Center. As the towers are drowned in white, the insistent cry of gulls and the crash of surf buries the continual sound of engines pressing on beneath the surface. A ten-minute single shot, it’s harshly beautiful, demanding, and poised. These towers, so imposing in their iconic doubling and in the spacing of their separation from each other, take on a certain totemic force as stand-ins for the mother and child whose dialectic of relation and non-relation has unfolded for the viewer and listener over the preceding hours. Seen in the wake of her mother’s death and Akerman’s own final decision, a primary loss is redoubled into present grief. Yet this also affords an opportunity in the present through which to refuse the retroactive capture of Akerman’s work as only ever the prolegomena to personal tragedy. Surrendering the virtual bond of connection through fandom to an artist we may never have known in the first place, we might affirm instead the delicate balancing act of Akerman’s enduring work.
Drew Daniel is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University and one half of the electronic group Matmos. He is the author of Twenty Jazz Funk Greats and The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance, and is currently writing a book about self-killing.