Farewell to One of the Greatest Filmmakers of the 20th Century

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Chantal Akerman during a visit to Israel, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Every serious film buff remembers the first time they saw “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece from 1975 and one of the greatest movies of the second half of the 20th century. They will always remember the shock, the sense of transcendence, it gave them.

Clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, “Jeanne Dielman” follows a widowed housewife (the great French actress Delphine Seyrig) with a teenage son and a daily routine that does not change. Except, that is, on the days when after making lunch she works as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. The daily routine eventually comes to an explosive end.

Akerman died in Paris on October 5, at the age of 65. Le Monde reported her death as a suicide.

I had the honor of seeing “Jeanne Dielman” for the first time in the home of my teacher and friend, the Israeli filmmaker David Perlov, who appreciated the complexities of the movie. He showed it at the occasional “film club” he held for friends in his Tel Aviv home, so familiar from his “Diary” series, when I was a student of his in Tel Aviv University’s film program.

It was a fascinating, experience, almost a formative moment in my life, in part on account of the responses of other viewers. One of them, an important film critic, stood up each time David changed reels on his projector. She walked around the room, saying in a despondent tone that was almost touching: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand ...” Indeed, few movies are as demanding as “Jeanne Dielman”: Ostensibly, nothing happens besides the title character’s meetings with her clients and the movie’s blunt ending; nothing except the documentation of her daily work, which includes preparing schnitzel every day, a process Akerman shows in great detail.

When we were asked, in the 1960s and ‘70s, to name important women directors, there were few options: There was Agnès Varda and there was Chantal Akerman, and even though the number of women filmmakers has grown since then, I still think Akerman was the greatest female director of all time.

I will even say she was one of the greatest creative artists of the 20th century. Her work fell between fiction and documentary, between experimental and more traditional moviemaking — but to describe it in these terms diminishes it. Akerman’s movies, whether documentaries or romantic comedies, far exceeded such categorization. Her work operated in territory that I can only describe as “the filmmaking of Chantal Akerman: daring, complex, poetic, always surprising and always demanding that the audience go with her, give in to her, become one with it.

Akerman was influenced by modern cinema, as well as by the art of the 20th century, but even to describe her body of work as an alternative to film and to art in general would minimize its importance — even if, as she once declared, in a remark that is a particular favorite of mine, and that is especially relevant to “Jeanne Dielman” — that she includes in her movies what other directors leave on the cutting-room floor.

Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950, to religious Jews from Poland. Her mother, Natalia “Nelly,” was a survivor of Auschwitz; Nelly’s parents did not.

Akerman said in an interview that she decided to be a filmmaker the night she saw Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), when she was 15. She enrolled in a Brussels film school, where she made a short movie but dropped out and moved to New York, where she was exposed to the work of avant-garde directors of the time such as Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas — but above all, Michael Snow. In 1972 she returned to Brussels, where she directed the first full-length movies that brought her international recognition: “Jeanne Dielman,” “I, You, He, She” (1976), “News From Home” (1977) and “The Meetings of Anna” (1978). A few of her films were trailblazing in depicting lesbian relationships. To describe them here would be a mistake: They must be seen.

In 1986 she directed “Golden Eighties,” a musical. In 1989 she made “Histoires d’Amerique,” a portrait of 100 years in the history of American Jewry. “From the East” (1993) is a documentary about Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. In 1996 she made “A Couch in New York,” a romantic comedy with William Hurt and Juliette Binoche.

“Sud,” from 1999, showed the violent racism of the American South. “The Captive,” from 2000, addressed the deprivations of migrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico. In 2004 she made “Tomorrow We Move,” a comedy in which two of the main characters are Holocaust survivors. “Down There,” a documentary from 2006, was shot in Tel Aviv.

Akerman’s last movie, which I haven’t yet seen, was “No Home Movie.” It is a portrait of her mother, who died last year. It was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival in August, to lukewarm reviews.

This is just a drop in the ocean of her simultaneously raging and restrained body of work, into which Akerman folded autobiographical material.

My few meetings with Akerman during her visits to Israel — she had family here — were always very pleasant.

It may sound pretentious, but I believe I can say that with Akerman’s death I lost a friend I hoped to meet again. She was focused on her work, but nonetheless there was something quite direct about her, serious but also aware of the intellectual limits of this seriousness. Hers is a premature departure. Film has lost one of its greatest artists.

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