Chantal Akerman, Resolutely Upending the Ordinary


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The filmmaker Chantal Akerman, standing, with her ailing mother, Natalia, in her 2015 documentary “No Home Movie.”

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Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman, the Belgian-born filmmaker who died in Paris at age 65, was a prodigy. Almost before her career began, she wrote and directed one of the key artworks of the 20th century.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” the three-hour-plus movie she made when she was 25, is a work of monumental simplicity. Using a static, precisely positioned camera, Ms. Akerman dramatized three days in the life of a compulsively organized Belgian single mother played by Delphine Seyrig — a paradigm of efficiency who promptly scours the tub after bathing, fastidiously finishes every morsel of food on her plate, doesn’t even need a radio to keep her company and turns one trick each afternoon to support herself and her teenage son.

In “Jeanne Dielman,” Ms. Akerman created a unique spectacle as well as a strong statement on women’s assigned roles and designated space. The film took its narrative rhythm from Jeanne’s daily chores — cleaning, folding, tidying, cooking and shopping. Her activities are framed head-on and occur largely in real time. Unexpectedly, “Jeanne Dielman” is also an exercise in narrative suspense. The ordinary becomes supercharged, and the protagonist’s routine so familiar that the viewer senses something amiss when she forgets to place the cover on the soup tureen where she keeps her earnings.

Ms. Akerman became interested in movies after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) as a teenager and spent several formative years in New York in the early 1970s. With “Jeanne Dielman” she infused a strain of European art cinema typical of modernists like Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni with a strong concern for the lives of women, while applying the raw “dailiness,” extreme duration and repetitive structural principles she learned from the underground New York filmmakers Andy Warhol and Michael Snow.

A movie to be experienced as much as watched, “Jeanne Dielman” is a majestic synthesis of formalism and feminism, documentary recording and dramatic acting, precise visuals and orchestrated noise. Despite the excitement that it created in European and academic film circles, Ms. Akerman’s movie was ignored by the New York Film Festival and did not get a proper New York release until March 1983, when it was shown at Film Forum.

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