The playfulness of Chantal Akerman is, throughout her work, always nebulous. A smile, a laugh, a tall-standing stride: these do not signify transparent gestures, so much as the ephemera that coat the quotidian and make it beautiful, elusive, and singular. In her films and writing, Akerman is a self-professed wanderer; in her loneliness one finds the thundering silence of thoughts that torment the self. Now, some years after her passing, Akerman has undoubtedly become a giant in the history of cinema, likely thanks, in large part, to these invasive sentiments of guilt and impermanence that her films render so consistently full-bodied and bare. From structuralist ruminations on the relationship between modern landscapes and the corporeal (as in Hotel Monterey or the closing minutes of her making-of documentary The Eighties) to the pithily irresolute romances that bask in the subversive qualities of the jovial (from the absurd romp of a rom-com like A Couch in New York to the loud, queer witticisms on display in Golden Eighties) and everything in-between, what remains steadfast through her oeuvre is the body itself, consciousness awakening to its isolation and perpetual estrangement. Her elevated position, however, also places her experiences and the experiences of her films in a state of uneasy refuge, idealized by thinkers, makers, and lovers — myself included.
No longer do these films exist in the spaces they were made, and certainly that presents the viewer with a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, it is only appropriate that work so deserving should become praised as it is institutionalized. On the other, this process also risks dissociating the core of these films, and presents the problem of reading the authorship of these films, made by an artist who worked in the margins, but has now become positioned as the leading voice of their generation. Even with the success of Jeanne Dielman, Akerman’s films remained insular, parsing human relations within an intimate psychology of hushed body language. And canons, almost by definition, tend to alienate us from the often crude realities that these artists spend their entire lives working through. It is all a process, to grow and live as an artist, and Akerman is in this sense no different from the many whose names we do not know. Still, we contend with the fact that we know hers. Chantal Akerman: a Jew contending with the generational trauma of the Holocaust; a Jew who simply felt and lived the echoes of tradition, who wandered and never could stop wandering, as if impelled by ringing in her ears.
So we come to Night and Day, released in 1991, following up Histoires d’Amérique. Through it, we follow Julie, as she oscillates between romantic engagements: her partner Jack, with whom she lives in a flat that seems to signal transience more than anything else; and Joseph, a friend of Jack’s whose own nomad-like presence attracts her. At night, while Jack drives his cab, she and Joseph occupy the same Parisian spaces, refracted through different lenses. The two bounce between hotels, but always traverse the same streets, the same monuments, the same cafes. The expanse of this city is the same few blocks that never change — a familiar comfort to our characters. During the day, she makes love to Jack, though the film’s increasingly pressurized environment threatens to break the whimsy of sex, as each of them tries to solidify their own place and future existence. The idea of settling down, getting married, and having children stifles Julie.
“Fear is a thing that lasts,” Julie mirthfully says, quite out of nowhere, in one of the film’s many tête-à-têtes. Incessantly are the couples engaging in these brusque, laconic, sentimental parleys: this is a film made up of the end of sentences, sentences that started as tangents and failed to ever come back around — pure, immediate, uncontested emotionality. Our characters live in that, always feeling something so intimately, but never quite figuring out where these feelings might lead to, or where they might have come from. This is the vitality that allows each day to pass by unscrutinized, allowing for the proximity of happiness and pleasure. But of course the situation cannot last, and doleful attitudes, which are at first only spoken of, begin to envelop them.
While the odd expression of such cynicism, as in Julie’s above-quoted line, offers a levity that Akerman never extinguishes, we also get a sense of the characters’ perpetual disengagement from any firm reality, and Akerman’s formalism mainly develops this dramatic irony. The film opens with the cast speaking to us, followed closely by a small musical number coupled with Julie humming along to the non-diegetic score. Our entrance into this world is accompanied by a heightened awareness of the viewer, of the artifice, a positioning that imperceptibly blurs over time, culminating in an act of explicit spectatorial intervention. As her affairs draw to a close, Julie decides to leave both men and, in our final shot, walks in tandem with a camera that follows in front. Yet, she steps off the sidewalk and into the middle of the road, whilst pedestrians, unsure of what they’re seeing, look on from the periphery, going about their day. The film and our characters had all forgotten about us, but such willful ignorance is never complete. Throughout, Akerman places the camera in ways that reveal this Parisian labyrinth — made of a flat that looks ripped from a stage, and locations that are never framed differently, regardless of who is centered in the composition — is also a playground for frolicking. Akerman allows her characters a measure of positional freedom, and gives us ample space to extrapolate from this. What the film demonstrates is how agency and self-sovereignty are unstable, that depending on how one feels on a particular day, they may look like mirages. In her memoir My Mother Laughs, Akerman writes:
“But someone once told me that when you make films you put your whole self in. I don’t know, I don’t know myself, certainly not all of myself. As for the finished films, it’s as if I’ve done nothing but blow hot air. I needed to blow hot air. I really needed to, but my fabric was still fucked.”
As viewers, do we put our whole selves in, during the act of watching? Often cinema exists within a dialectic of passivity and activity; it is situated at the complex intersection of industrialization, marginalized production, and the ever-blurring lines between the arcane professionalism and contemporary consumerism. As I confront Akerman’s work, I would like to believe I put my full self into her discursive, durational fantasies. I like to think that in the fuckery that is me, there is, possibly, the fuckery that she writes of here, and expresses everywhere, even in the winding takes down a desert road that, perhaps, will never end.
The mainstream as agent of capital has, for a century, co-opted marginal aesthetics and diluted the languages of rebellion within cinema. Popularization very briskly becomes bad for those who remain under the blinds of Hollywoodism and its neocolonial project. And then there is the canon. What do we do with it as its face changes and the radical becomes popular? Akerman’s work presents a central case study. Night and Day and its hotly subversive charm shows us that messes, that the need for “hot air,” as she puts it, can show us how to move forward, that her expressions of liberation can be ours as well. There’s a certain beauty in the periphrastic relationship between her film form and screen-writings, narratives that do not fit in the confines of her frames, and which the act of canonization alone cannot convey. We must resist the impulse to abstract Akerman’s films beyond their material reality, and allow ourselves a certain openness when approaching them. Only then, perhaps, can we come close to the fervor of Akerman’s ontological disruptions. Hot air cannot be contained, certainly not under a flame.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.