Chantal Akerman

Je fais la politique de la terre brûlée,” says Chantal Akerman. “I follow the policy of scorched earth.” In an interview at the Dia Gallery’s Soho apartments to promote the DVD collection Chantal Akerman In The Seventies, Akerman wasted little breath qualifying her remarks on subjects like her formative influence Jean-Luc Godard, whom she now regards as an anti-Semite, and the wealthy donors who fund the gallery installations that have become a major part of her work in recent years. (She calls them simply “the enemy.”) Since her beginnings as a teenage filmmaker—see her short “Saute Ma Ville” on Criterion’s DVD of her landmark 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—Akerman has had a heedlessly individual voice, disregarding structural and sexual barriers with a combination of youthful energy and preternatural insight. Watching her direct Delphine Seyrig in the bonus materials on the Criterion disc, it’s astonishing how young Akerman looks, and how confidently she schools one of French cinema’s biggest stars in the precise mechanics of the domestic duties that occupy most of the film’s three-hour-plus run time. The works in the Seventies collection are no less adventurous, from Je, Tu, Il, Elle’s nakedly personal depiction of Akerman’s wanderlusting relationships with women and men to Les Rendez-vous D’Anna’s portrait of a rootless filmmaker. In person, Akerman is as restless as her vagabond characters, pacing the apartment’s cramped kitchenette and occasionally crossing to her nearby laptop to look up an elusive English word. 

The A.V. Club: I wanted to start at the very beginning, with you as a 15-year-old seeing Pierrot Le Fou

Chantal Akerman: Oh, I have said that a hundred times. Forget about it. You know all about that. I have told that story one million times. And I am so angry at Godard that I don’t even want to think about it. Because he is getting to be such an asshole now, and he’s anti-Semitic. He gave me the push, but that’s it.

AVC: Skipping over the anecdote, then, what was it that made you want to be a filmmaker?

CA: Well, yes yes. It’s Godard, it’s Pierrot Le Fou. But it’s very simple. I was not interested by cinema when I was young. And it’s also related to Brussels. Most of the films were forbidden. You needed to be 16 to see any interesting things. So all I saw before that was big American shit like, I don’t know what: warfare, Les Canons De Navarone, The Ten Commandments. We were just going to the movies to kiss and eat ice cream and eventually look at the movie. But I didn’t care. I was much more interested in literature; I wanted to be a writer. Then I saw Godard’s film, Pierrot Le Fou, and I had the feeling it was art, and that you could express yourself. It was in 1965, and you felt that the times were changing. He was really representing that, and freedom and poetry and another type of love and everything. So as a little girl, I went out of that place, the cinema, and I said, “I want to make films. That’s it.”

AVC: A lot of people make art to get out of the place where they grew up, but so many of your films have to do with travel and moving from place to place—

CA: You mean nomadisme. Well, I’m Jewish. That’s all. So I am in exile all the time. Wherever we go, we are in exile. Even in Israel, we are in exile.

AVC: And you had a sense of that even at 15?

CA: I never felt that I belonged. When I was at school… First I went to a Jewish school, when I was very little. But when I was 12, they put me in a school with a lot of traditions, and they were educated people and they were talking about Greece and the Parthenon and I don’t know what. All the kids, all the girls they had already seen that and knew that from their family, and I would say, “What are you talking about, what’s that?” It’s not my world. 

AVC: Were their families wealthier?

CA: My family was poor. When I was 12, we weren’t so poor anymore, we were middle-class. My grandparents were very well-educated people, but in the Jewish tradition. They knew everything about the Bible. And then they had to come to Brussels, to run away from Poland, because there was too much anti-Semitism. They lost everything they had. And my father had to start to work when he was 12. He was cutting cloth. The director of the school went to see my grandfather and he said, “You have a son and he is brilliant and he is going to be a worker?” And my grandfather said, “There is no other way. We have to survive.” So on my father’s side, wealthy, well-educated. All my aunts were learning piano; you know that type. My father was a worker. He was the fastest cutter of cloth in the whole city. At the age of 18, he had already his own factory, and he was paying for everyone. So he started to do piano and everything, because that’s how they were educated before. But he didn’t have time to learn anything. He could read, but you should have seen the way he was signing [his name]. It took him a while to sign; he was not used to writing. 

So I was at school at the Jewish school… Very good, first in the class. But then my grandfather died, and he was the very religious one. My father said, “Okay, enough with the Jewish school.” He put me into a public school and he said, “If you are the first one in your class, that means the school is bad.” That was his humor. Then I was so good there, that for high school, the director of the school said to my mother, “She is very good, but she should be educated.” So they put me in that terrible school, where after one month they called my mother to say that I was unbearable. Because it was very strict. So I ejected totally. I ejected and I felt I didn’t belong, and that was a class thing. But not only, because you know when the Jews have money in Europe—or in Belgium, maybe not in France—they don’t belong to a class. The Jews who came from Poland and they made money in schmattes, in clothes, they are not classy people. They are just inventive, strong workers, and they made money, and they want their children to go to school. 

But my father, he was so busy working that he didn’t look at what I was doing. So I didn’t go to school. After a while, I hated that school so much, that class so much, that class thing. You know that first thing I wrote in school, un rédaction… I don’t know how you call it. Un essai. A little story you have to write. They said, “popular style,” which they despised. They didn’t like the way we are eating, to serve the soup. You have to take it from here, and I took it from there. I was called, I had to go to see the director of the school, and they say “You are badly educated.” That was the high school, and I hated it. They wanted my skin. At the age of 14, I was learning Latin and Greek and everything, but I didn’t give a shit. But I was obsessed by literature. It was at that moment that I discovered Godard. And they wanted me to repeat a grade, the school, because I had bad points in education, politeness and education. So I didn’t go to the school anymore.

AVC: You were graded on politeness?

CA: I had only 20 out of 80 on politeness and education. So I didn’t go to the school, and I was walking in the street. Going to cafés, or coming to pick up my girlfriend. Like in Portrait Of A Young Girl [At The End Of The 1960s In Brussels]; it was exactly that. So why am I saying all those things, because you were speaking about class?

AVC: About what drove you to make films in the first place.

CA: Because I wanted to write and then I saw [Pierrot] and I understand that I could express myself in a more… Also probably, I had an intuition that if I was going to only write, I will stay in one room all the time and never go out. I felt that if I was going to make movies, I would have to communicate with people and it would be good for me.

AVC: That fear of being a writer, being stuck in an enclosed space and unable to write your way out, is palpable in Tomorrow We Move and The Man With A Suitcase

CA: The jail thing is very, very present in all of my work… Sometimes not very frontally. La Captive, it’s the same, Jeanne Dielman, it’s the same. She is also in her own jail, and she needs her jail to survive. That’s why when she got an orgasm, it destroyed her jail and her existence, and so she killed the guy. And the jail is coming from the camps, because my mother was in the camps, and she internalized that and gave it to me. Thank you. [Laughs.]

AVC: Was that something she spoke about?

CA: No, never. Never, ever, ever. If she knew I was telling that, she would think I was crazy. She doesn’t want to say anything about that. I wanted her to talk about it, and she said, “Well, I can do a lot of things for you, except that. Otherwise I will get crazy.” Except that it’s the other way around. She is crazy, you know.

AVC: And that’s why you went to her diaries in the gallery installation Maniac Summer?

CA: Well, the diary, can you imagine, my grandmother, what strength, what she wrote at the age of 15 in the little village in Poland among religious people. You know that she can only write to the diary, because she is a woman in 1920.

AVC: That idea of the jail, that confined space—

CA: It’s the same thing as… I don’t know if you saw the film “Là-bas,” “Down There.” It is the same thing.

AVC: Sometimes it’s a place where someone lives, and often it’s a hotel room as well, someplace inherently transient.

CA: A room is a room is a room is a room is a room is a room. [Laughs.]

AVC: The flip side of that would be, perhaps, the tracking shots in From The East, where the camera effectively never stops moving.

CA: It’s also a jail, because what you feel is an implosion instead of an explosion. The whole film is an implosion. You feel as a viewer, when you face the film and you experience the film, you feel an implosion. “When is it going to be the next…” and it is unbearable, but you know for good reason. It’s not sadistic at all.

AVC: That’s very much the feeling of watching Jeanne Dielman, where the repetitive ritual of her daily chores forges a connection with the viewer that’s practically physical, to the extent that you feel a jolt when she drops the shoe that she’s shining, or lets the potatoes boil over. It’s an effect you can really only achieve with a film of that length.

CA: It is physical, but you know, when I started to shoot Jeanne Dielman, at the beginning, I was not aware of what was going to be the film. Everything was written in the script already, but still. After three or four days, when I saw the first dailies, I realized and I said, “My God, the film is going to be three hours and 20 or 40 minutes long, and it’s going to be developing little by little.” For example, when after she sleeps with the guy for the second time, and you feel something happens, even though the length of the shots is more or less the same as before, certainly there is an acceleration inside the viewer, just because, “Oh, she forgot to put the money there, and then suddenly she doesn’t know what to do.” It’s like the end of her life. She doesn’t leave any room for anxiety. It’s like the workaholic, they do the same. When they stop, they die, because then they have to face something inside of them that they don’t want to face. When she has that, that’s the anxiety.

I think I am speaking about people. Jeanne Dielman is not special. I can do that with a man, going to work and doing the same thing and being happy because he has the key and he opens the door and then his papers are there and his secretary. Imagine, and then something has changed and he can’t stand it. Because change is dangerous. Change is fear, change is opening the jail. That’s why it is so difficult for yourself to change deeply.

AVC: The making-of documentary by Sami Frey on the new DVD is fascinating, especially the extreme precision with which you coach Delphine Seyrig. Have you worked with an actor that way before or since, or did that just come from the particular film?

CA: It’s really related to that film. That film was about gesture. And choreography, in order to give you the feeling that it’s real time. It’s not. It’s totally choreographed. It’s a very specific film in those terms. 

AVC: It’s fascinating, because the way Seyrig moves, you would swear she’d done these same things the same way thousands of times.

CA: She never made coffee in her life. I had to teach her to do this, and when we talk about how to make the veal and things like that. It was what I saw when I was a kid. My aunts and the aunts of my mother. The gestures of the women around when you are a child. What else are you looking at? What they do, the women. Usually, the man isn’t there. The man is working. And you have the woman, if it was a mother, or maid, or aunt, someone taking care of you as a child, 99 percent of the time it’s a woman. And you do things all the time. As a child, it is something you look at. So it’s really a film that was inscribed in me from my childhood.

AVC: Did you know that at the time?

CA: No, I didn’t. Well yes, because some time in Sami’s film, we are fighting about how to do the veal or the meatloaf, I don’t remember, and I said, “Okay, I will call my aunt.” Delphine is a very proper woman, from high society. She’s from the [Ferdinand] de Saussure family, the structuralist. Old money. Swiss. Protestant. I was a little girl, third generation in Belgium, who was making all the time mistakes when she was talking in French. So she was high-class and I was like that. She never did those things. At one point, I am laughing when she says “Jeanne Dielman will never wear that!” I’m laughing, because I realize that the experiences of life were at that moment so different. But she had the courage to go do it and to go to the end, even though it wasn’t easy for her. She trusted me, but she needed all of her trust to be fed.

AVC: No one had made a movie like that before. 

CA: Yes, but you know Delphine was here in New York in the ’50s. She was part of that group. She did Pull My Daisy with…

AVC: Robert Frank.

CA: And [Alain] Resnais also was a bit, not experimental, but… She did daring movies. As soon as she started to work, she did daring things. Even though she did not come from that world, she came from a world… Her father was a friend of Picasso; he had many Picassos. They were that type of well-educated people who could recognize a good artist before others, and she was like that. Even if it was against something inside her. Tell me one actress in 1972 in France, except Delphine, at her level, who would love Hôtel Monterey. No one. No one. 

AVC: It’s interesting you mention Jeanne Dielman coming from the perspective of a child. But when a child watches her mother or her aunts making dinner, that usually provides a sense of security and a structured environment. But in the few movies of yours where the characters actually do stay in one place—Jeanne Dielman; Tomorrow We Move; The Man With A Suitcase; Je, Tu, Il, Elle—the home is a source of anxiety. It’s not a place where people go to rest. 

CA: That’s because it’s me. I’m speaking about me all the time. I’m my main interest—I’m joking. I’m joking. You have to understand that I’m a child of the second generation, which means my mother was in Auschwitz, and the aunt of my mother was in Auschwitz with her; my grandmother and grandfather died there. So yes. All of those gestures they work for you, or for them, to fill their time or not feel their anxiety. But the child feels everything. It doesn’t make the child secure. You put the child in a jail. 

AVC: Children do feel everything. Even the things that you don’t say or express, they pick up on.

CA: They pick up and they don’t know exactly what to make of it, and so they endure it.

AVC: What’s interesting about Tomorrow We Move is, it takes the form of a farce, but it’s taken past the point where it would be funny, and the anxiety becomes real. You have, for example, the real-estate agent who makes a joke about the gas chambers, which is a moment of genuine horror in the midst of this absurdity. 

CA: It’s all my obsession. It’s to try to take a little bit of distance, and to mix many elements. That’s why the film probably didn’t work, because people want either/or. They don’t want hybridization. There’s a lot of hybridization in that film. When he recognizes the smell of Auschwitz, I love it. I had an awful joke about Auschwitz during the whole shoot; I drove everybody crazy with that joke. But that joke makes me feel good. You know what “cuit” means? When something is cooked. It’s a joke like that: “What are the birds doing when they fly over Auschwitz? ‘Cuit! Cuit!’” It’s awful, but it’s desacralizing. For me, it’s good.

AVC: It removes the tension. It’s an escape valve. 

CA: But without denial. With the existence of it.

AVC: It’s been said that that’s the source of a lot of Jewish humor. 

CA: Have you seen the film Histoires D’Amérique? It’s also a mixture of humor and monologue, and it shows how the Jewish humor comes from drama and tragedy.

AVC: Annie Hall is also about that.

CA: Of course, yes. I remember those animals, the lobsters. And of course, as a Jew, you don’t eat that. 

AVC: And it runs through the whole film. It starts with that Groucho Marx joke about how you wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have you as a member. People take that as just generic inferiority, but that joke is specifically about country clubs in Hollywood that wouldn’t admit Jews.

CA: I know, I know. And not only in Hollywood, all over America. And it’s still the case in Maine, in some clubs. It’s unsaid, you know? But it’s the reality. 

AVC: Your films are so often concerned with enclosed and circumscribed spaces. Was it natural to go from that to the gallery installations you’ve done in recent years?

CA: It was not natural. It happened because Kathy Halbreich from MOMA asked me to do something for the museum. I said yes, but at the time, I didn’t know even what an installation was. I had never seen one. So when she came in 1990… It was during one of my shoots. I said, “Yes, I don’t mind doing something, if I do a movie. And then from the movie I can do an installation.” She said, “I’m interested in history. I’m interested in languages.” And I said to her, “It’s been a long time I’ve wanted to make a film about Eastern Europe, and it’s now opening.” 

So she said, “Great.” And I thought I would use all those Slavic languages like music, changing little by little, in all the countries. I didn’t use any of it. I made almost a silent movie. Then she didn’t find the money, so I found the money myself to do a film about Eastern Europe: From The East. Two years later, they called me and said, “We have the money to make the installation.” I said “Great. What can I do now?” And I started to play around with the material. I did From The East, and I thought it was so interesting and playful and so light. Compare that to making a film. And that you could do it yourself and in your home, and not depend on production, and do it with almost nothing. And I loved that lightness. It was like finding again my debut, like I was doing with Babette [Mangolte], with one or two reels, little things here and there. And I loved it. 

So I did more and more and more. I had, just now, a show in Paris. And I shot myself a year and a half ago, in my place, in my window, in my street. I heard something about Hiroshima and the speed of the light and the fact that the shadow of the people, who were already dead and on the ground, were still kind of there, by the radiation. I did something related to that. It’s can be inventive. You don’t have to tell a story, and you don’t have to please a TV or an audience. What I think is dreadful about art is the way it’s related to the money afterward. Not when you do it… Because when you do it, you do, it in a way, like in your kitchen, you know? But after that, it’s like 5,000 rich people have access to it. A movie, even though it can be a bad movie or a good movie, it is more democratic. That annoys me. The people who buy my films, for example, the people who buy my installations, well, it’s sometimes a foundation or a museum. When it’s a foundation, it’s related to very, very, very rich people—who are your enemies! Your enemies are feeding you. But you’re not meeting them. So it’s a very strange thing.

So that’s all I can say. I love to do it, because it’s a process you can do without money. I did this one in Paris, and now I want to do one about three cities. I want to do it about Detroit; Gary, Indiana; and Little Haiti in Miami, about the foreclosures. But I can do it in such an inventive way, because I don’t think it is right to show and make people enjoy looking at poverty. But in a true installation, you can find a way to do it in a different way. And I have an idea. I was supposed to shoot already in Miami last week, but I couldn’t do it. And it cost nothing, and I can afford it, you know? And that’s great. I do it myself with my own little camera. I don’t use a DP. I do it myself. Because what I hate in movies is all those people you need. And then I realize I do better when I shoot by myself.

AVC: You’ve made a lot of documentaries in the U.S., from the short films in the new collection to more recent works like South and From The Other Side. What brings you back?

CA: Well, the U.S. is so iconic, you know? And also, you see more things when they are far away. When I’m in my neighborhood, I don’t see anything anymore, because I’m so used to it. When I go somewhere else, suddenly, I’m alive. I’m on alert, and I can be fresh. I was in my neighborhood last week and I needed a cigarette, because I couldn’t sleep. So I went at 4:30 in the morning to a café 500 meters from my place. And it was another city… Totally different than where I go every day. And I said, “God, I will do that again.” That’s another subject I want to do. It’s my street, suddenly different at 5:00 in the morning. I can shoot for one week. That’s enough to make a movie.

AVC: That goes back to the idea of jails. You circumscribe your own world without realizing it, until you go a few blocks in a different direction and you’re in a completely different environment. 

CA: That’s more in New York, because Paris is not so square. I’m not good at the geography of the city in Paris, so I’m always lost. Here, you can never be lost. In Paris, even when I walk to my gallery or whatever, I always take another route, because Paris is not built that way.

AVC: Your films are full of director surrogates, like Aurore Clément’s character in Les Rendez-vous D’Anna, whose first name is your middle name. But physically, they’re very different from each other, and from you.

CA: Well, you know, nobody looks like me, so I better have someone totally different. It’s like in La Captive. The way Proust describes Albertine is, she’s tall with curly black hair and with matte skin. So I said, “Of course I have to change her name, I have to really not have someone look like Albertine, because it will never be like Albertine. So just have the best actor possible for it, and that’s it.” For Aurore, yes… She’s blonde, pale, skinny, and elegant and everything. I loved her. At the beginning, I have to say, I was trying to find more like me, because I was unaware of it, that it would be a mistake. So I thought Maria Schneider. I met Maria Schneider, and God, she was at that period on so much drugs. She was so crazy. And then I said to myself, “Why should I go and look for someone who looks more like…” Well, she doesn’t look like me, but she’s a brunette. It’s better to have someone different so I can, in a way, not try to force her to be like me, because it’s silly. Otherwise, I had better act the part myself. I love Aurore, and I think she did a great job. But I didn’t know that if I have to do something, I will probably do it again myself. For a while, I didn’t want to act. I don’t know why. Well… “act.” I don’t act, I just am there.

AVC: A lot of good acting is along those lines. 

CA: But that’s not what the people are thinking. Look at Charlotte Gainsbourg, in the Lars von Trier film [Antichrist]. She’s unbelievable. She doesn’t act; she’s there. She’s great. I think, God, she’s great. And you love her for that, because it’s so daring, what she has to do. And she does it as if it is nothing. I don’t know how she does it. I think she’s brave, brave, brave. Really, I fell in love with her when I saw that film. She is a revelation. Total revelation.

AVC: Speaking of people who don’t look like the filmmaker, she is, in a way, playing Lars von Trier in that movie. She’s going through a severe depression a lot like the one that inspired the story.

CA: Well, you know he’s very, very, very clever about women. He gives the woman a space that I don’t know any filmmaker does. Because in Breaking The Waves, [protagonist Emily Watson] is the Christ. Which man is doing that? I don’t know any man giving that space to a woman. No one. And in Dogville, it’s great what he does with Nicole Kidman. It’s fantastic.