Each year Sight & Sound updates their list of ‘The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time’. The huge jury of critics, programmers and academics came to the grand total of 846 while the number of films by female directors they chose was… 1.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE 1080 BRUXELLES (1975) by Chantal Akerman. The film is mesmerising, but surprisingly so; we watch the domestic chores of a middle-aged middle-class widow in Brussels in long real time takes never getting anywhere near a close up. Akerman talks about “a hierarchy of images” placing close-ups of kisses and explosive car accidents above washing up. It is the fact that we never see such ‘everyday’ actions in the cinema that makes the film so interesting. The subtle changes that happen to her routine foreshadow a full-scale breakdown. Akerman has refused to pigeonhole the film as feminist, but simply as an accurate portrayal of a woman, arguably her own mother who had many nervous behaviours from her time in a concentration camp.
Chantal Akerman was only 25 when she made this film (the same age that Welles made CITIZEN KANE in fact). Akerman had previously quit film school after the first term because she wanted to make films, ‘not sit in class and learn physics’. Although it didn’t help her academically, breaking the rules is what has cemented her in the history of cinema.
To try and avoid imitating JEANNE DIELMAN for the rest of her career, she determinately moved to other genres. She made a musical, or rather a film about an independent filmmaker trying to make a musical with no money THE EIGHTIES (1983); she made a romantic comedy about a Paris-New York apartment swap A COUCH IN NEW YORK (1996) which unfortunately got her chastised for ‘betraying’ her independent roots; and more recently she has moved into documentary looking at race tensions in America SOUTH (1999) and FROM THE OTHER SIDE (2002).
Echoing throughout her work is a strong, almost claustrophobic sense of space. NIGHT AND DAY (1991) follows a Parisien couple who live nocturnally while in DOWN THERE (2006) Akerman locked herself in an apartment in Tel Aviv and filmed the everyday life from her window.
Some have written Chantal Akerman off as another Orson Welles, peaking at a young age and never achieving the same level of artistry. But as recent interviews show, she has not lost any of her wits, she is still making films and there may well be another masterpiece coming in the future.
We like Chantal Akerman’s commitment to innovation and her ‘why not?’ attitude. Early in her career, she won an award at the Chicago International Film Festival that paved the way for her successful career and led to further wins and nominations at Cannes, Venice and many more. Follow Akerman’s lead and submit your film to ÉCU today. It might be your first step on the road to success.