“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.
By that time, Ms. Akerman had completed four more features: the austere and now classic New York documentary “News From Home” (released in Europe in 1977); the quasi-autobiographical and almost conventional “Les Rendez-vous d’Anna” (1978); the frugal yet elaborate ensemble romance “A Whole Night” (1982); and “Golden Eighties” (1983), an enchantingly deconstructed musical.
“Jeanne Dielman” and its successors established Ms. Akerman as one of the great film artists of her generation and among the most influential. She was also, along with Maya Deren and Leni Riefenstahl, one of a handful of women whose films and example changed the course of cinema history.
Her subsequent work was stubbornly individual, uncompromising and not always successful. She created her own brand of romantic comedy, including “American Stories: Food, Family, Philosophy” (1988), a meditation on Jewish humor, and the musical “Window Shopping” (1986), set in a Paris mall.
So far as I know, Ms. Akerman was never offered a Hollywood contract. Nor did she realize her ambitious dream to film Isaac Bashevis Singer’s family chronicles “The Manor” and “The Estate.” Late in her career, however, she directed two extraordinary literary adaptations, “The Captive” (2000), from the fifth volume of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” and “Almayer’s Folly” (2011), fashioned from Conrad’s first novel and shot with great difficulty in Cambodia.
Ms. Akerman’s films were intensely personal. She was born in Brussels in 1950, the first child of Polish-Jewish parents who suffered during World War II and, in the case of her mother, survived Auschwitz. Ms. Akerman never directly addressed her parents’ wartime experiences, but her work was clearly informed by their lives.
Blunt and vigorous in person, Ms. Akerman gave an extraordinarily open and vulnerable interview to the French film theorist Nicole Brenez, published as a book in 2011. In it, she not only discussed her film work but spoke extensively about her family, her childhood and her emotional fragility. In her introduction, Ms. Brenez called Ms. Akerman “a person of uncommon force, capable of wresting a film from the well of the worst production problems.” Perhaps that should be extended to include the filmmaker’s struggle with her own psychological state.
Ms. Akerman’s last film, “No Home Movie” (a title that can be read two ways), is largely set in her mother’s Brussels apartment and documents their conversations in the months before the older woman’s death.
“No Home Movie,” which is to be screened Wednesday and Thursday at the New York Film Festival, ends with Ms. Akerman alone in the empty apartment. It was heartbreaking when I saw it last week and it is devastating now.