Remembering Chantal Akerman and Her “Feminist Horror” Film

Chantal Akerman, an internationally renown filmmaker who made her first film in the late 1960s, has died in Paris at age 65. Le Monde reports that she committed suicide.

I first learned of Akerman in college in 1997. It was then that I watched one of her films—Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), that changed my life. I’m not exaggerating.

As a newly declared film student at UCSB, I was already watching quite a few films, although most of them were standard commercial, narrative films from a variety of countries and a range of time periods. This film, however, was different. It ran for about three-and-a-half hours, very little happened in terms of story, and most of the film seemed to be shot from the eyeline perspective an adult’s hip.

Jeanne Dielman endlessly preparing food at home

This film is very hard to watch, but that is exactly the point.

I was taking an interdisciplinary course that was equal parts women studies, film studies, and art history and was taught by film studies professor Constance Penley and Abigail Solomon-Godeau from the art history department. The class was a survey of women in art history, and it met twice a week on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for our lecture/discussion period. We also usually convened for two hours on Wednesday evenings for a film screening. One week, Professor Solomon-Godeau warned us that, on this particular Wednesday night, we would be staying late. We would be watching Jeanne Dielman, a film she described as a “feminist horror film.”

This may have been the first time I understood the relationship between content and form, and how a spectator can relate to an onscreen character. Jeanne Dielman is a single mother who spends almost the entire film cooking and cleaning. We watch her wash each dish, one by one, that is more boring to watch than the proverbial drying-of-paint. By showing each of these household chores in real time, or maybe even expanding the duration, we experience Jeanne’s ennui along with her. It is one thing to have a character explain how bleak her life seems as a domestic servant, but it’s quite another to have to endure the never-ending dreariness of household labor.

Akerman’s oeurve was a lot more eclectic than this one feminist film with avant-garde tendencies. She made documentaries, narrative shorts, as well as other narrative features throughout her life. But for a student getting his feet wet studying film, Jeanne Dielman was the first film I saw where it began to make sense.

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