Chantal Akerman: Walking Woman
(Notes from an unfinished essay, 1998) by Adrian Martin
Godard: "The drama is thus no longer psychological, but plastic ..."
Antonioni: "It's the same thing."
(Cahiers du Cinéma, 1964)
There is a film history, as yet unwritten, of walking. Several releases of the late ‘90s have contained some impressive strides – Chow Yun-Fat silently entering a room, shot from behind at a low angle and in slow-motion, about to do his efficient killing work in The Replacement Killers; or Pam Grier as the heroine of Jackie Brown, whose every determined step takes her closer, pushes her deeper into the space of a murky intrigue. Hollywood's neo-romantic comedies still make use of the crowning walk that, after a flash of mental revelation, transforms itself into the handy, frantic, last-minute dash to retrieve a departing beloved.
Further back, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made the purposeful walk of their heroine a major motif of I Know Where I'm Going! (1945). Today, directors as different as Nanni Moretti (Caro Diario) and Sandrine Veysset (Will it Snow for Christmas?) regularly make a small-scale, poignant spectacle of those moments when people encounter each other in the street while out for a stroll, or huddle under a piece of plastic while scrambling through the rain.
But perhaps the cinema's greatest poet of the act of walking is Belgian-born Chantal Akerman. Her characters cover the gamut of all possible variations on this gesture. They march in straight lines and wander in circles. Their humble two-steps, in the right, artificial context, can become performance art, or song-and-dance. Sometimes they are like the celebrated flaneurs who found the hidden wonders tucked away in the coves and corners of the everyday; at other times they drudge along like automatons, at the bidding of their daily grind; occasionally they are accompanied by tension, even menace.
Akerman's integral, non-fragmented way of filming these walking figures – whether leading the way in front, following along on a lateral path (her signature shot), or standing stock still as they disappear into the distance or darkness – always stresses the steps made, one by one, and always registers the cityscape that lays down a path for these characters and the world of varied sounds that envelops them. Akerman's distinctive walking shots also emphasise the time it takes to traverse even a small distance. It's a curious, very modernist form of suspense – one that Jean Rouch immortalised in the long-take experiment of his contribution to Paris vu par ... (1964), on which Godard commented: "Seconds reinforce seconds; when they really pile up, they begin to be impressive".
Why this attention to walking? For Akerman, the act provides a precious physical continuum, an unhurried bridging between realms: her characters literally cross the space that separates the factuality of everyday life from the fantasy and intrigue of fiction. As for Wenders, Godard or Philippe Garrel, a story is often synonymous with a catastrophe in Akerman's cinematic universe – cued by an unforeseen glitch in routine, a high heel that slips on the pavement, some excess or dissymmetry in the known patterns of life. So walking can also provide a safe way back for her characters, an Ariadne's thread back to some precarious state of stability. By means of this stepping in and out, Akerman provides a mirror for own activity as spectators, as we negotiate the illusions and lures of narrative.
Such walking is also emblematic of the tone and tenor of Akerman's filmic universe: time and again she stresses that she aims to place everything – the mundane and the dramatic – onto the same, non-hierarchical level, producing the effect that Ivone Margulies calls a 'hyperrealist everyday'. This matter-of-factness – this flatness, even – finds its indelible image in the sudden ceasura of the otherwise musical Golden Eighties (1985) when, in the final shot, Mado (Lio) steps for the first time outside of the stylised shopping mall set into a Brussels street, and receives dry advice from her parents about getting on in the world rather than the crowning verse of the anthemic song left hanging from the previous scene, "When Love Comes Along".
Walking, too, becomes integral to Akerman's take on modern sexual relationships in films including The Meetings of Anna (1978), All Night Long (1982) and Night and Day (1991). So many of her films interrupt the blessed solitude of a stroll with the joy or terror of a rencontre. Sudden and unexpected liaisons with strangers can sometimes lead to withdrawn, hyper-defensive, near-catatonic states in her work: the heroine of The Man with the Suitcase (1983), played by the director herself, retreats to a small room for weeks and makes it her home, her sanctuary and her increasingly cramped surveillance-base. The sexual politics of these bad encounters, first sketched in her minimalist, experimental narrative Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974), can seem familiar and depressing enough: bruised sensitive women crave a room of their own, while the men they run into are scary, brutish, mysterious, driven creatures.
For all that, Akerman is also a romantic – of a peculiarly cool, modern, unsentimental sort – and the walk-by encounters in her cinema are also full of the music and magic of chance, hope, yearning. However, trying to pinpoint the emotions in Akerman's cinema – where they come from and how they work – is a risky business, full of traps. Some exegetes of Akerman have taken a Brechtian approach to this aesthetic problem raised by her work: for Australian critic-artist Laleen Jayamanne, for instance – taking the measure of the curiously cool, decentred acting in Akerman's oeuvre by way of Bresson, Michael Kirby's theatre theories and Barthes on “The Dolls of Bunraku” – it is self-evident that "the concentration is on the gesture/action. Any emotions take care of themselves".
Approaching Akerman's films through what her characters do, say and feel is the first trap her work sets – more so than with most filmmakers, even those gentle maverick-independents like Werner Schroeter or Jacques Rivette with whom Godard fondly groups Akerman in his videotape Scénario du film Passion (1982). There is a playfully 'impersonal' aspect to her films, a kind of postmodern update on the merry-go-round of life ethos immortalised by Ophuls and Demy – witness the first shot of Golden Eighties, which shows a woman turning from a kissing one lover to kissing another, hidden just off-screen; or the alliterative trio of Night and Day, with Julie drifting in a sleepy haze back and forth between the beds of Jack and Joseph, and Akerman's mise en scène repeatedly filming the bodies of the different men in exactly the same poses and from the same angles, as if in the thrall of a Neitzschean Eternal Return.
Such indifference to or subversion of the strict boundaries of personal identity recalls the light philosophic credo of Gilles Deleuze, when he speaks of the need to grasp the power of percepts and affects and incorporate them into our conceptual thinking: "Percepts aren't perceptions, they're packets of sensations and relations that live on independently of whoever experiences them". In this sense, Akerman continues the tradition of exploration inaugurated in cinema by Michelangelo Antonioni – for whom, in Roland Barthes' tribute, "dramas are equally psychological or plastic". Antonioni's description of his pictorial style in The Red Desert (1964) anticipates the look and feel of Akerman's universe: "The abstract white line that enters the picture at the beginning of the sequence of the little grey street interests me much more than the car that arrives: it's a way of approaching the character in terms of things rather than by means of her life". In Akerman, such 'things' become the conductors for delicate emotions.
The stylistic correspondence between Akerman and Antonioni is not exact.
Yes, there are – abundantly in, for instance, The Meetings of Anna – the architectural vistas, the sites that linger for the camera before and after the intrusion of human beings, the geometric arrangements of point and line, the painterly fields of colour (the light browns and blues of Anna’s hotel room bisected by her red jacket). But there is not the same labyrinthine, baroque penetration of a cinematic, scenic space as in Antonioni. Akerman’s aesthetic began as, and remains, a hard edge construction. From an amalgam of Warhol, Snow, Godard, the painter Edward Hopper and other influences, she developed a style based on “the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film, time and energy”. (This quote is from the splendid book Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, eds. Kathy Halbreich & Bruce Jenkins, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1995.) Akerman's cinematic manifesto, in this regard, is of course Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the closest thing to a modern classic she has signed.
In Akerman, the tenacious sense of duration, of ‘time taking place’, is married to a penchant (rigorously adhered to for virtually her entire career) for pictorial frontality – not only in static frames but in her famous signature lateral tracking shots (usually accompanying those beloved walking figures). The ‘over the shoulder’ shot-reverse shot system is alien to an Akerman film; mise en scène is created by the movement of a character out of an initial two-shot, into a completely new and unseen portion of space (interior or exterior). And naturally, the pictorial disruption to eyeline matches and so on that results (in 70’s film theory-speak, the definitive refusal to suture) reinforces the prevailing sense of (as Meg Morely once put it) a “circulation... cut short”, an “impossibility of dialogue, both between the characters on screen, and between the spectators and the film”.
Akerman’s style is typically called minimalist, but that description is a little dry, because it can miss the special, minute kinds of narrative and pictorial tension in her images; and above all the crisp, tangy, priceless sensuality of her style. Bodily sensations, the rhythms and expansions and contractions of time, energies of all sorts, human or non-human – these are all so palpable in her cinema.
But the careful research of plastic forms, and the giddy, free-floating emotions they can trigger, is not merely a theory-driven abstraction or a structuralist materialism for Akerman. The shotgun combination of modern cool and nostalgic, romantic longing is a crucial feature of her artistic sensibility. Akerman internalizes and projects in her art, as if it were her destiny, a vision of the 20th century world citizen: displaced, nomadic, rootless, “people as blurred (indéfinis) as myself”, as she said when recalling for Camera Obscura magazine her experience as a runaway young Belgian landing in the Soho of the ‘70s. Time and again Akerman’s art returns to this primal, core moment of personal indefinition: at the start of Histoires d’Amérique (American Stories, 1988) she narrates the parable of successive generations who progressively forget the location of a specific tree in a particular forest where they must go to say the words of a long lost prayer ...
Akerman does not entirely reject traditional characterisation, or conventional paths of character development in her films, just as she does not reject traditional narrative or storytelling (Histories d'Amérique, for instance, is purely a film of oral storytelling). What Akerman likes to show are characters who are in the process of becoming themselves, who are not quite all there yet, who are somewhat unformed. Her most directly autobiographical film, Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the 60s (1994), captures very beautifully such a quality of being unformed and potential when one is young. And there is something both terse and deeply poignant on the final mode of self-portraiture that this filmmaker settles on as the only kind acceptable in the last seconds of her made-for-TV collage Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman (1996): "My name is Chantal Akerman, I live in Brussels – that's true. That's true".
© Adrian Martin 1998/2008
- Published in Spanish in Chile in the book "¿Qué es el cine moderno?" (2008) with other articles by Adrian Martin
- Spanish version online at La lectora provisoria