Her Brilliant Decade

Chantal Akerman on New York, mother-daughter bonds, and her '70s classics
by Melissa Anderson  posted January 19, 2010
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When the Criterion Collection released Chantal Akerman's 1975 masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, on DVD last August, it made one of the most influential films of the last 40 years available to the untold legions who'd never seen it. Now, thanks to "Chantal Akerman in the Seventies," the new three-disc set from Criterion division Eclipse, viewers can finally see the other vital, rarely screened films that the director made during that groundbreaking decade of her career.

Three works make up the first DVD, entitled "The New York Films," all fascinating chronicles of the city to which Akerman moved in 1971. In the short La Chambre (1972), 360-degree pans around a tenement apartment reveal the filmmaker on a bed, alternately lying down or vigorously eating an apple. The featurette Hotel Monterey (1972) hypnotically captures, through a series of long, silent shots (both static and tracking) the corridors and rooms of a rundown inn on the Upper West Side. One of the most unheralded portraits of the city, News From Home (1976) features Akerman reading letters from her mother over several exquisitely composed shots of New York, notably of the Times Square subway station and lower Manhattan.

The narrative works that precede and follow Jeanne DielmanJe tu il elle (1975) and Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978)—find their protagonists confined to rooms and engaging in detached sexual encounters. Je tu il elle's Julie, played by Akerman, spends the first third of the film writing and rewriting letters, rearranging furniture, and eating spoonfuls of sugar before finally leaving her room, hooking up with a truck driver and, later, an ex-girlfriend. In the autobiographical Les rendez-vous d'Anna, the titular filmmaker (played by Aurore Clément) travels to Germany to present her latest work, a post-screening fling unable to assuage the isolation she feels.

I met Akerman in late December in Soho, just a few blocks from where she filmed La Chambre, for a spirited, at times personal discussion about her remarkable films from the '70s and others from her four-decade career.

Why did you move to New York?

I moved because I had a strange but realistic feeling that things were happening here. I was 18 when I left Brussels; I went to Paris, then after Paris I spent six months in Jerusalem. My father wanted me to get married, married, married. I did one film, Saute ma ville (1968), that was really good but then I did a second film that was very bad. I thought I was lucky, like when you play cards for the first time, but since the second film was very bad, it meant I'd better do what my parents wanted me to do: get married. But it was like a denial of myself. I had known a man—he's since died of AIDS—ever since I was a child; he was in Jerusalem and we decided to get married. But after a few months in Jerusalem, I got very bored. I said, "Why don't we go to New York? I think it's there, something's in the air." I was 21, he was 22. We arrived here with 50 bucks in our pocket.

And you arrived in 1971?

Yes. I had the telephone number of Babette Mangolte [who would become the cinematographer for several of Akerman's films, including Jeanne Dielman], through a filmmaker that knew her. And I don't know why I called her, because I don't call so much. But I did, and there was a beautiful voice, answering me. I did not know this, but she was into the most revolutionary art world at the moment, that maybe only 500 were into. It was Richard Serra, Annette Michelson from NYU, Jonas Mekas, all the people from the Anthology Film Archives, Richard Foreman. All those people were totally revolutionary, and I was a little girl who didn't know anything. I showed to Jonas Saute ma ville, and he loved it. So I was immediately part of the family. And I discovered another way of looking at things. So, I was right to come here, but if I didn't know Babette, how would I have known that I should go to Anthology Film Archives or to look at [plays by] Richard Foreman? I had never heard those names, you know? Babette's still in my life now, so it's great.

How long did you live in New York?

I stayed from November '71 to...maybe April '73. But in the meantime, I went back [to Europe] for two to three months to edit Hotel Monterey and La Chambre. I did another film that I lost; almost all the footage was about kids who were in rehabilitation and prevention programs in Yonkers. We were shooting in reversal at the time, so we had no negative. I lost half, three quarters of it, but you know, I was like a vagabond with my film.

Where exactly was La Chambre filmed?

La Chambre is just nearby. It was on Spring Street between Thompson and Sullivan. I was like a vagabond, like I told you. I was going from one bed to another bed; people were nice enough to accept me in their salon. After a while they were tired of having someone there, even though I was working. I was working in a restaurant, I was working in a thrift shop, I was working a lot. I was also stealing money from the 55th Street Playhouse, a gay-porno theater where I worked as a cashier. That's how I [got the money for] La Chambre and Hotel Monterey. One day I was in a café, looking at the Village Voice, trying to find a place to rent. And a guy looked at me and asked, "Are you looking for a place to stay? I'm going to Europe tomorrow, and I have a rent-controlled place." My rent was $49 a month. At the time, New York was very dangerous, but Spring Street was [close to] Little Italy, so I was totally protected by the Mafia.

How long did you live in this apartment?

Six months.

And where was the Hotel Monterey?

It was on 96th Street and Broadway, I think. It's been destroyed.

What was your relationship to the hotel?

I met a Japanese guy who was living there. And sometimes when I didn't know where to sleep, I slept on the sofa in one of his two rooms. I was fascinated because it was a welfare hotel, with many old people living there.

Many of your films from the 1970s, with the exception of News From Home, are defined by rooms. What so fascinated you about these very small, intimate spaces?

Closed spaces. I think if you see the film I did in Tel Aviv, Là-bas (2006), you will understand that, in a way, the room is a protection, but it's also a jail. And as a child of the second generation, which means that my mom was in the camps, I perpetuate the jail thing. I would always put myself in a jail, but I always have a little doorway that I break, and then I make movies! But in a way, I'm in a kind of strange  [situation]: always liking my jail, loving my jail, and hating it, and fighting against it, but then, when it's getting too close to freedom, I'm afraid, [and go back] to my jail.

That's a kind of psychoanalytic explanation, but also in terms of movies, what I like is the walls, those lines. The way I shoot, I always put the camera at my height, and then I do it straightforward. It has the strength of an abstract image and of a concrete image. That's very much the case in Hotel Monterey. If you see those corridors, they are lines, but there is also a corridor, and suddenly you forget it's a corridor, it's only lines, and color, and material. That's why I'm also fascinated by shooting inside—doors, lights, corridors. You have immediately a frame.

After we see so many corridors in Hotel Monterey, there are moments when we see just a tiny bit of window, from which we can see a microscopic car below.

Yes, very minimal. And it's like a big event. It's more important than a car crash.

Another big event is the grand finale: the view of the Hudson River.

It gives an effect. When you see all those films with many big effects, they need to make more and more and more to give you any kind of impression. But me, with almost nothing, I can give you that impression.

News From Home, which you filmed in the summer of 1976, is one of the greatest portraits of New York. How did you decide which parts of the city you wanted to shoot?

Well, it's probably the places I knew the best. The film starts close to here, but a little more southwest. I knew that place very well. When I came in '71, I had no money, so I walked a lot. Up to the time when I found my place on Spring Street, I was always [staying] with people, and I did not want to annoy them. So I left the place all the time and walked and walked and walked. And I visited, I saw everything, and it was fascinating. And everybody was telling me, "Don't go there!" It was a very paranoid moment; there were a lot of junkies, a lot of crazy people talking in the streets, a lot of bag ladies. New York was bankrupt at the time, but that bankruptcy had so much charm, and so much strength. Now it's a city for rich people. But at the time, New York was very cheap; you could have a big breakfast for 49 cents. That was enough for me to survive the whole day. That's all you need. Then you walk. I was with my Pentax camera on Avenues A, B, C. I was not afraid, so nobody annoyed me. Things were striking for me.

You seem especially fascinated by the Times Square subway station in News From Home.

Yes, because it's like Dante, but organized! And also because when you are there and you have all those platforms, you have many layers, and trains arriving, emptying; you see the people. In one shot, you have the world. In the summer, people wear little clothing; they were there with their bodies, which was fascinating. It's also like a stage, the 42nd Street stop, even though it's reality. One thing empties and one person appears, behind a column; it's a scene. If I had to do that in a fiction film, I don't think I could do it so well. In a way it's a documentary, but staged, like a choreographed thing. And all that [graffiti] doesn't exist anymore. I think this film is like an archive of New York, and also of World Trade Center, which you see at the very end.

Was the final scene filmed on the Staten Island Ferry?

Yes. And you have the feeling that the city is sinking. Those birds are not speaking, but they know that the city is going to die, to sink in the sea. And they are going to take over, like they do in Hitchcock.

I'm fascinated by that segment in which you head north on Tenth Avenue, starting at 30th Street and ending at 49th Street. That area must have been nearly abandoned at the time.

Yes, Hell's Kitchen. What I love is that the view is flat, closed, and then suddenly, an opening. It's the way New York is built; lots of things are happening, like a choreography. I did it very silently. I didn't shoot sync sound. I did all the sounds later on and I rebuilt all the sounds totally. If you listen, for example, it's very clear in the beginning. For example, when the car is arriving, you don't need all the car noise to have the feeling that it's arriving. I put some car noise when I felt it was right rhythmically, and then you don't question it. The whole idea of sync sound is, in a way, subverted; I give the feeling of sync sound but it's not the way other filmmakers do it. I did the sound the way I wanted. What you hear is like waves of sound arriving. But they are not sync sounds. Even the subway doors, I didn't put all of the sounds. Every sound was a choice.

Was it more difficult to act in your films, as you do in Je tu il elle, than it was to have someone interpret aspects of your life, as Aurore Clément does in Les rendez-vous d'Anna?

It's a hard question. I think I should have acted myself.

In Les rendez-vous d'Anna?

Even in Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004), I should have acted myself, because I don't have to act, I just have to be. Even though I love what Aurore did. I think Aurore is great, we had a great relationship. I now want to act in—not the next film I'm going to do, from Joseph Conrad, but I have another idea for me and Isabelle Huppert. We've known each other since we were very young. I think it could be very strong, these two women, she and I.

Did you enjoy performing in your films—or, to use your term, was it more like "being"?

For me it's all the same. I'm shooting, I'm there. I don't have any narcissistic thing. I'm with the guy in the truck [in Je tu il elle]; I don't act, it's me, nothing else. I'm not doing it for the camera.

The image of you in Je tu il elle as you're taking the elevator up to your ex-girlfriend's apartment and you're looking down is quite beautiful.

I have a distorted face because the elevator is so close to me, so we used a very wide angle. I don't give a shit, but any other actress would be a bit insecure. Because she would know that her face is distorted.

The bond between mothers and daughters is present in many of your films.

Oh yes, too much. I've tried to get rid of it. I'm a second-generation child. I was born in 1950; my mother got out of the camps in 1945. And, as soon as I was born, I was already an old baby, because my mother needed all of the room for her grief. She went to Auschwitz, her parents died, she survived. I felt that [grief] as a kid, so I couldn't be angry. I had to protect her, I couldn't exist in a way, only in relation with her. I will be 60 in a few months, and I'm finally saying I. A year and a half ago, I finally realized that I was angry, like a 15-year-old kid who has a revolution. Otherwise, I constantly adored my mother; it was a way to escape and hide my anger, not be able to exist. Because she was a woman, I couldn't exist as a woman. She had grief, so I couldn't have grief. She was hurt, so I couldn't scream. As soon as I was born, I was already old, and I never changed, I'm still an old baby. You see what I mean? It's a problem with second-generation children, after the camps. In psychoanalysis, [they] speak about the dead mother that you swallow inside you. It's a bit complicated. It's still problematic.

It is a very complex relationship.

She was very beautiful when she was young. She still knows that, and projects that. She was trying to be elegant, because we were very poor when I was a child. And I totally internalized the fact that we were poor and that I should not ask anything of anybody, especially not of my parents. But my mother always wanted to be beautiful when going out with my father. When I was 2 or 3, she would ask me, "Chantal, should I wear this or that?" I had to say, "Have a nice night, have a nice evening," like an old person already, giving, especially to my mother, all the space. Movies were pure sublimation. If I hadn't done movies, I would have been dead. That's why I was never there to be elegant, or wear nice clothes. My mother was the woman. I didn't know if I was a man, a girl, a daughter, a baby, an animal....

The mother-daughter bond in Les rendez-vous d'Anna is almost erotic.

Yes, my mother always wanted me to sleep with her.


No, but it's the same. She used to caress me when I would lie down in front of the TV at night, up until the age I left home, at 18. She would caress me like a lover; she thought it was just normal to do that. But it's not. You need some separation. When I wrote the book A Family in Brussels (2003)—at one point, and I did not do it on purpose, I switched: you don't know who is the mother and who is the daughter anymore, who's talking.

Could you tell me about your collaboration with two of the greatest European actresses, Delphine Seyrig and Sylvie Testud?

What can I say? In the Criterion DVD of Jeanne Dielman, you can see what the collaboration with Delphine was about. First of all, she went to America and followed Strasberg, so she always needed an explanation of why and why and why. And she was also very rational, Protestant, very proud of herself. She wouldn't accept to do something just like that. She wanted me to explain why. Sylvie is more loose. When we did La Captive (2000), Stanislas [Merhar] and Sylvie came to my place for three weeks, every day almost, in the afternoon. They just read the text, internalized the dialogues; I said very little. And the first day [of shooting], when they started, they were ready, inside; I had nothing to tell them.

With Delphine, in the script of Jeanne Dielman, everything is written. It's not like a script, it's like a novel, like un nouveau roman. She said to me, "Usually it's not like that. A script is very elliptical, and all that you have written, I have to find myself." So she felt frustrated. I was saying, "Get up, sit down"; she was getting more and more frustrated. I asked Sami [Frey] to shoot and then I asked her to come and look. Then I made her intellectually and physically understand that it was not real time but a recomposition of the time to give you a certain type of expression. But I couldn't explain; she had to do it. She wanted to be integrated into my thinking; she just didn't want to be like a puppet. She was very feminist. She wanted to know why she was doing things. But you know, when they were doing silent films, Charlie Chaplin and all the other directors, would say, "Go there, do that" while they were shooting. There was no psychology; just do it. They didn't ask why. With Delphine, it was always, why, why, why?

Were there similar struggles when you made Golden Eighties (1986) with Seyrig?

She was already prepared. When I would say, "I prepared the shot," she would say, "You won't prepare the shot without me." I was totally infatuated with Delphine. She was a seductress. Then when you got to close to her, she walked away.

I was only 24 [when we made Jeanne Dielman], she was a woman in her forties, with a beautiful boyfriend [Frey]. She was seducing me, playing games. Then, when I fell in love, she pushed me away, of course, the last week of shooting. She asked me to sleep in her bed. I thought, If I touch her, I'm sure that she's going to hurt me, so I didn't touch her in the bed, in the apartment we rented for her. Then she got frightened and she called Sami. That's Delphine. Sami was like my brother; he was the Jew with the beautiful aristocrat. And she was again with a Jew, me. Before Delphine died, she wanted to play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. And she asked me to do Phèdre, from Racine, in a theater, but I said, "I can't do it in a theater." I didn't know she was going to die—otherwise I would have said yes, of course.

Both Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the '60s in Brussels, from 1994, and La Captive are extraordinary films about jealousy and desire.

I love Portrait of a Young Girl, but they didn't appreciate it in France. They were angry at me because I didn't represent the '60s physically. I didn't care—I thought it was more about the feeling.

Of all the volumes in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, what was it about La Prisonnière—which you adapted as La Captive—that interested you the most?

I read Proust when I was very young, maybe 15 or 16. Then I re-read it when I was 26 and I realized: Albertine in La Prisonnière—it's for me! There was an interior—everything was for me. I had the feeling that the neurosis—you know, you go after someone who will feed your specific neurosis. Albertine is very free, so of course she will escape [the Narrator] all the time; that's what he needs to feed his neurosis. That's what we do all of our lives. I choose, or I'm chosen, we choose each other. 


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Eclipse from the Criterion Collection
Chantal Akerman in her film Je, tu, il, elle
Photo Gallery: Her Brilliant Decade


interview  |  Chantal Akerman  |  New York  |  Holocaust  |  Delphine Seyrig


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Melissa Anderson, a regular contributor to The Village Voice and Artforum.com, is currently writing a monograph on Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort for BFI Film Classics.

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