On Chantal Akerman
For over half a century, Belgian critic Dirk Lauwaert (1944-2013) published essays on film for magazines including Film & Televisie, Kunst & Cultuur, Versus, Andere Sinema and De Witte Raaf. In addition, Lauwaert wrote about fashion, photography, the city and visual art. For Lauwaert, such criticism was never a purely professional affair; it was, first and foremost, a way of documenting how a film or a piece of art personally impacted him as an amateur. As Rudi Laermans has insightfully argued, Lauwaert’s mode of writing is above all animated by the bodily experience of pleasure that comes with spectatorship, whether visual or auditive.1 “My story of critique is a personal one. It is, in essence, my biography, a series of confessions. Practicing critique is a mode of commitment, a life choice. It is also a solitary story, since it deals with one person only. It is also a rather ‘unpragmatic’ story. The generation that came after me and engaged in critique opted for a much more pragmatic approach. To them it is the ‘doing’ that matters, the preconditions for film are of lesser importance.”2 Lauwaert’s film criticism thrived on this problematic relationship between the work of the artist (or, what the work is) and what the work does (how I experience it as a spectator). “The crucial quandary of critique is as follows: how to do justice to the improbable and inconceivable existence of something.”3
Lauwaert opens his essay on Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) with a series of remarkable questions regarding his own status as a critic: “What am I writing about, really? About films? About their memories inside of me? Or about the processing of my memory?” The quest for the true motives of his authorship remained constant throughout his oeuvre. What drove him to writing in the first place? Why take up his pen and insist on the validity of his judgement? In the course of such a personal examination, the more general and paradoxical character of writing about film revealed itself. When film writing deviated from well-trodden paths – penning reviews on the one hand, academic analyses on the other – it thereby virtually announced its own superfluity. In any case, nothing irrefutable was transmitted in the process. So why did Lauwaert author so many essays on film? As he himself declared: “To report on experience.”4 He expected more of film criticism than “a local and momentary journalistic tactic”, underwritten by that safe and aloof standpoint from which a film could be anatomized as an object of study in accordance with a verifiable method, a tactic which “so often came at the cost of the experience of the film itself.”5 What film criticism had to give shape to, for Lauwaert, was “everything that took place in the film theatre itself – while people were watching the film or watching this film in particular. This implied moving from public to viewer, from the theatre visit to the film experience, from films (in general) to this specific film, every time again.”6 In short, he sought a mode of critique that could account for the experiences he underwent as a viewer, without giving into the craving for classification.
Lauwaert’s film criticism is not, as yet, internationally recognised. To provide a first corrective to this, Sabzian will be publishing a series of roughly ten English translations of Lauwaert’s most notable writings on film. This will provide our international audience with an occasion to become acquainted with his work and its singular writings. Lauwaert was an author for whom “watching film and loving film [was] a way to be with the world”. Remaining suspicious of “the power over the concrete, which is indispensable for life,” Lauwaert was someone for whom the act of watching films made up his “whole life.” In this sense, film for Lauwaert turned into the experience of that “essential, sublime distance.”7
What am I writing about, really? About films? About their memories inside of me? Or about the processing of my memory? If I make the effort, I remember how, exactly one week ago, during the screenings in the framework of Europalia-France, I was watching Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman. The film fascinated me (I was the object, the film the subject of the verb “to fascinate”). It was authoritarian, brutal and painful. If I make the effort, that is what I remember, as I now think of the film with a tender enthusiasm – because it is so curiously unlikely that it got made.
I have trouble writing this piece in Dutch. Paragraphs keep on beginning in French – because the maker is an important interlocutor of this piece of polyphony, in which I would like to make not one, not only my voice heard, but many voices, of others and of others inside of me. Then I catch myself pronouncing sentences in my mouth in German. Because I am reading Peter Handke, whose sparingly emotional sentences have been going through my mind all night. Because I think Peter Handke’s style is the only one in which men can write about themselves and their experiences, ever since women have made any sentimental pirouette impossible.
This personal introduction just as a framework, so that my next technical-aesthetic speculations would not be considered taking flight. I would like to point out that my dialogue with the aesthetic politics of the film is a way of loving the film.
The film takes time. A passage of 3 hours and 20 minutes. Now and then, you hit the wristwatch on your arm as if it is a telemeter. (Are you allowed to look at your watch? Isn’t that rude? Are you allowed to be impatient and scared? Are you allowed to become aggressive?)
Film has always had troubles with time. Griffith’s career is given rhythm by his ever-expanding projects. Is it a coincidence that his longest films were also his most didactic-moralizing films, films in which he wanted to deliver a message, in which he wanted to teach something to his audience, in which he defended a thesis? The long duration of a film is not just a material property (a chronometering), not just an element of the experience as a spectator, but also a sign of something, a signal. A sign that will only make sense if it proves to be functional, or has a function.
There is an air of study about this film. Not that it wants to be studied because it is so complex and intricate, no, the film welcomes intense reflective attention. There’s no intricate plot, no specific information you cannot miss under penalty of losing the entire thread. And yet (as Eric de Kuyper puts it): “The audience around me distracted me. I was not paying attention for just a second and lost track.” In any case, you are not linked to a process of meaning, you are not held by an informative chain, a novelistic structure, a didactic explanation, but by intensity.
The adventure is not that of content, but that of form. The lesson is not that of argument, but that of process and the power with which it is conducted.
During the endless projection, I was constantly reminded of Boltanski’s museum experiments. His display of someone’s household furniture, his archaeological exploration of his own world, his documentary and museum translation of everyday intimacy, his ethnography of our world, his aestheticization of a scientific procedure – for me, this contributed on the fringes of this film. Akerman did not make a documentary of a woman’s everyday life – while others would have done exactly that. She had that everyday life played by a famous actress (Delphine Seyrig). That performance is the aesthetic key applied to the banal, obvious documentary interest. But I should not utter the word “documentary” too often; there is nothing more unlike this film than documentary parasitism.
In his endless demonstrations, Griffith temporalized the space and history he gargantuanly wanted to unite through an intricate montage. Akerman spatializes time through her long, immobile shots, in which she always frames the elements of the interior in the same way. No poetic, lyrical camera dynamics. The apartment in which Delphine Seyrig is playing does not become a cosy, liveable space. The camera does not move; it’s as if it feels (instead of us) at home there. Each shot is hanging, like a piece of cloth nailed between two doorposts, or from the ceiling, or leaning on a tabletop. The film is projected on a screen, but the projected image itself is stretched as tightly as a membrane, a skin, a retina. An eye without eyelashes or eye muscles. This is not a house, but a space. This is not a life, but a routine. No subjectivity is put to the test here, but a social convention is observed. No character is staged here, but an intimacy is shown that is played like a public ritual. Socialized intimacy. (Here I start doubting my words. Let me start from a new point.)
Maybe I have given the impression that we are dealing with an experiment in repetition, an argumentation on the dullness of a woman’s life by means of a loop – the constant rewinding of the same footage along the projector lens. There is repetition, of course, but it is subtly changed at every turn. 48 hours in the life of a woman – from 5pm on Tuesday until 6 pm on Thursday. And then, if you inexorably start a new day, a new meal, a new night, you think the repetition will seem unbearable, senseless, until you notice how subtly the maker has nuanced everything, has applied variations.
Against the massive background of the uniformly banal, the minuscule variant sounds and shines. Almost nothing happens, but in this context it starts to sing (the radio that is switched on), to speak (Baudelaire’s poem read in Flemish-Brussels dialect, the letter from Canada), to shine (the play with the earthen bowl in which the money is kept), to vibrate (the neon sign across the street, never shown directly, but mysteriously-simply reflected in the glass of the display cabinet). Things even get dramatic (getting up too early on the third day). This third day is the film’s strongest moment: you know the liveability of routine, you see its unliveability if it gets disturbed.
I would like to remove another possible impression (my sentences need to be corrected all the time because of parasitizing connotations and associations). Jeanne Dielman is not a programmatic thesis film – although I thought the settlement with the afternoon customer looked too much like an imprimatur of the feminist movement. I use the word “settlement” in order to leave aside whether it is a financial or a vindictive transaction, as factually more precise words would be misleading, would evoke associations radically rejected by the very mise en scène.
It’s no thesis film, as they usually begin with an exposition of what no longer works, but immediately follow it up with explanations and therapies. After watching Akerman’s film, you notice that explanations and remedies generally function as nuancing, as filters putting things in perspective for the all too sober and sobering observations. In all reforms and revolutions you see how the solution that is offered, the explanation that is given, really renders any intense observation work redundant. The therapy checkmates the diagnosis here. Through thesis films we rarely figure out the exact taste of discontentment, the depth of frustrations. The succession of observation, explanation and programme of action has almost become a psychological necessity and a cultural-political duty. Those who want to withdraw from this logical imperative will have to put in a tremendous effort.
To watch without giving explanations, that above all soften what is shown. To thematize the latent, but to bring it to self-consciousness through a dialectical leap. That is the untenable position taken up here: it is a miracle of balance, self-control and self-criticism. Without any liberating gesture, any emotional movement, it betrays its purpose. The entire work of desire people usually invest in explanations and therapies is reversed here, as it were, its direction changed. The work is produced, but it does not take the shape of a work of desire about solutions and liberations: it is solely invested in the observation. The result is a tangible tension, which does not manifest itself in movement, in displacement, but in the fixing of a point. An acrobatic exercise in intellectual and aesthetic immobility, but then on top of a scaffolding of sticks, balls and plateaus! Extreme effort and concentration manifest themselves in the form of immobility. Frozen energy and effort. I have already described such an effect when it comes to Akerman’s use of the camera. It is the mechanism that supports her entire film.
It is not a complicated or difficult film, rather a very simple and clean one. But it is not a natural, spontaneous film. The clarity and legibility of Jeanne Dielman is the result of self-discipline. In our culture clarity needs to be pragmatic-efficient, an argument needs to have the form of a road, including road signs. Force and energy need to be channelled into activist trajectories time and again, need to be labelled with a name and an address. Akerman slipped by and through all of that. She has escaped satire (the trope of exaggeration), but also the naturalness of the document. She has escaped the symbolic (the trope of metaphor) and pragmatism (to let the image flow into a dubious sea of manipulation). It cannot yet (with good reason) be described very clearly where she and her film find themselves. Something so new is essentially unlikely. The question the film attests to: what it is to be according to the modality of the unlikely.
P.S. Jeanne Dielman is a film that has been financially supported by the Belgian ministry of French culture, that has been shot in Brussels, that has been directed by a young woman of Belgian nationality. Not to let misunderstandings overwhelm my reasoning, I have ostentatiously kept this information for the last part. It is the first Belgian film that uses Belgicisms without any complexes and is capable of not getting used by them.
- 1. Rudi Laermans, “Dirk Lauwaert als criticus. Fragmenten voor een intellectuele biografie,” De Witte Raaf 192, maart-april 2018.
- 2. Dirk Lauwaert, “De juiste afstand,” De Witte Raaf 192, maart-april 2018.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Dirk Lauwaert, “Dromen van een expeditie,” Kunst & Cultuur, nr. 1, 1995, 32-34.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Dirk Lauwaert, “Van publiek naar toeschouwer: duitse films in belgiese zalen,” Versus, nr. 2, 1985, 119-134.
- 7. Dirk Lauwaert, “Dromen van een expeditie,” Kunst & Cultuur, nr. 1, 1995.
This text first appeared as “Handelskaai 23, Brussels. Over Chantal Akerman” in Kunst en Cultuur, vol 8, no 20, 1975. The original text is also available on Sabzian.
This translation was published by courtesy of Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman. The introduction was translated by Anton Jäger.
Set photo Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)