sat 20/07/2024

Chantal Akerman: NOW, Ambika P3 | reviews, news & interviews

Chantal Akerman: NOW, Ambika P3

Chantal Akerman: NOW, Ambika P3

The most important European director of her generation - but have you heard of her?

Still from 'NOW' (2015) by Chantal Akerman © Chantal Akerman, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman used her camera to record, with a sympathetic eye, the world around her – both in the immediate surroundings of her Paris flat and in the wider world. The news that she died last month, apparently by her own hand, sadly makes this retrospective of the installations she began creating in 1995 all the more timely.

Akerman (pictured below right) is best known for films such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce and 1080 Bruxelles (pictured below full column), a three-hour feature made in 1975 when she was just 24 that has since been showered with accolades. In 2012, for instance, it tied with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for 35th place in Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films.

Rather like a Vermeer painting, it records in beautifully constructed shots the humdrum life of a single mother as she performs mundane domestic tasks such as peeling potatoes, pouring milk and fixing her make-up. The emotional emptiness of her life is brought home by the loveless sex she has each day with a man who pays for it. Rather than making her pitiable, though, Akerman celebrates the unwavering love and support she gives her son with meticulous camerawork whose measured pace keeps faith with the ordinariness of the woman’s life – until, that is, she cracks and kills!

The timing is crucial. If the glacially slow unravelling of Jeanne Dielman... chills the bones, NOW (2015), a multi-screen installation that gives the exhibition its title, scorches with its manic tempo (main picture). Projected onto five screens, sepia-toned shots of desert landscapes taken from a speeding car race across one’s field of vision. An occasional road sign or pylon indicates human presence, otherwise all seems to be wilderness.

But the space is filled with sounds of conflict; explosions, rifle and machine-gun fire, shouts and screams, sirens and a horse whinnying with fear induce a growing sense of panic by painting a picture of all-enveloping chaos. This hideous cacophony must resemble the soundscape of war zones such as Syria and, sure enough, the footage is of contested territories in the Middle East.

This compelling evocation of violence has been achieved with incredibly simple means. Everything is left to the viewer’s imagination; rather than being a passive recipient of shocking (but titillating) images of war, we are invited to project ourselves into the melée, which makes the experience far more potent.

In her work, though, Akerman more often pays homage to people and things by witnessing them with sympathy and respect. Filmed in her Paris apartment, Maniac Summer (2009) consists of views through the window alongside shots of the interior. We see the artist eating breakfast and making phone calls, but watching is not always this benign. A series of projections shows shots of pedestrians in the street, children in the park and the flats opposite progressively degrading from full-bodied, full-colour images to stark, black-and-white silhouettes resembling shadows. Looking acquires sinister overtones as it seems to morph from harmless observation into predatory surveillance.

Four years after the end of the Cold War, the inhabitants of Eastern Europe appear to be waiting, wearily, for a rebirth. First made as a feature film, 1995's From the East: Bordering on Fiction (pictured right) is shown here on 24 monitors – split into segments that reinforce the message. It's winter and people bundled up against the cold wait patiently for buses or trains, or else drive along wide boulevards probably designed for tanks. No one speaks or smiles and no one, except for a young soldier and a woman (pictured), who seems amused by the camera, shows any sign of animation.

Shanghai, on the other hand, seems to be burgeoning with life. As night falls, the glass walls of the tower blocks become giant screens displaying adverts and films of the wildlife destroyed by the rapid development exemplified by the host buildings. Soon pictures of birds and animals will be all that’s left of the things displaced by hi-tech living. The irony is that both the images and Akerman’s film are extremely seductive. Is this the apocalyptic sublime?

Maniac Shadows (2013) is divided into two parts. In the first room, three screens juxtapose shots of an interior, in which Akerman and her mother potter about (the same flat in No Home Movie, 2015, pictured below) with views of a New York street party, the broadcast of Obama’s election party, glorious shots of the sky and the filmmaker walking on the beach or huddled behind the bedclothes. The window bars and fine mesh of the screens, the slats of the blinds and the balcony railings serve to emphasise the protective (or imprisoning) boundary between inside and out – the private and the public realms.

Meanwhile in the other space, Akerman reads My Mother Laughs, a script she wrote detailing her elderly mother’s recovery from a heart operation. This moving account of the limitations placed on people by failing health, which confines them to the domestic arena, is a tribute to the woman whose death the following year probably precipitated Akerman’s suicide.

Described in the Village Voice as “the most important European director of her generation”, Akerman created over 40 films. The installations on show provide a flavour of her subtle and uniquely thoughtful approach to the dispassionate art of witnessing.

Overleaf: watch an interview with Chantal Akerman




Timing is crucial. If the glacially slow unravelling of Jeanne Dielman chills the bones, NOW scorches with its manic tempo

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