Blog Post

Chantal Akerman

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

I have spent the last few days thinking about Chantal Akerman who died, apparently by her own hand, on Monday (October 5). I spent a week with her in 2001, just post September 11; we really hit it off and I always hoped to see her again and imagined I would (because who would have thought I'd ever meet her anyhow?). I arranged for the U.S. premiere of La Captive, and she came to discuss it, and to talk about Jeanne Dielman in my film class. (I wrote about the movie a little bit here, in this post.) Leslie Camhi and Stanley Cavell joined Chantal (as it seems more faithful to my memory of that week that I should call her) for a discussion after the screening of La Captive.

Chantal insisted in class and in conversation (which always took place through a cloud of Gitane smoke) that Jeanne Dielman was not a particularly feminist movie—she hated hearing it described that way; she hated seeing it analyzed that way. Stanley talked about it a little bit after the screening of La Captive: he saw it as being about skepticism, about being part of the line of theatrical and cinematic treatments of the desire to be a skeptic, to abolish other minds, to secure oneself from the world, that he has traced from Shakespeare to screwball comedies and melodramas. Jeanne's murderous response to having an orgasm was for Cavell a response to losing control (of course) because of her relation to another, followed then by the abolition of the other. Although he didn't say this, Jeanne's relation to her son would be part of that skeptical dynamic, that skeptical recital which Jeanne's whole life constitutes. Cavell sees the creation of a world for another, so that skepticism can't be the point or the shield, as the reason that Shakespeare's women don't hide within skepticism. They transcend it, but that's something that Jeanne manages to dodge.

Unskeptical myself, at least among the truly great, I worried about how Chantal would respond to Stanley. I needn't have. She was ecstatic. This was one of those rare moments where I felt perfectly happy to embrace the intentional fallacy. Well, that's what was thematized, wasn't it? Chantal's sense of Delphine Seyrig's sense of Jeanne—all of them other minds.

This was partly the case because Chantal had a very intense relation to her actors, and there was some continuity between actor and role (as when she played in her own movies). I liked how much she loved and mourned Seyrig. I was fascinated by her dislike for Juliette Binoche, who starred in A Couch in New York (she liked William Hurt well enough). I liked her arms-length professional-peer memories of Godard, who let her observe him making movies in the late sixties.

After that week, she was off to Douglas, Arizona, to make her documentary on Mexican immigrants, De l'autre coté. I'd been to Douglas, and to Agua Prieta, on the Mexican side. Douglas was a dirt-poor town, Agua Prieta a ridiculously energetic place. It seemed great that we both knew those obscure towns.  We had fun talking about it, and about everything else. I am so sorry that will never happen again.

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).