Chantal Akerman

Active - 1968 - 2015  |   Born - Jun 6, 1950 in Bruxelles, Belgique  |   Died - Oct 5, 2015   |   Genres - Drama, Avant-garde / Experimental, Comedy, Culture & Society, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Dubbed by the Village Voice as "arguably the most important European director of her generation," Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman was known for making innovative films that often earned comparison to those of Jean-Luc Godard or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Although she rejected the label of "feminist filmmaker," Akerman became a guiding light in making films about the real issues faced by women, employing an experimental, deeply personal approach to her subjects.

A disciple of Godard (who first inspired the then-15-year-old Akerman with his Pierre le fou), Akerman attended Brussels' INSAS film school and the Universite Internationale du Paris. She demonstrated her devotion to Godard with her first amateur short subject, 1968's Saute Ma Ville (Blow up My Town), which three years after its completion was entered in the Oberhausen Festival. Working on the fringes of show business in New York in the early '70s, Akerman became an enthusiastic participant in the avant garde film movement, putting her theories to good use in such European movie projects as Je Tu Il Elle (1974), Tout Une Nuit (1982), and Seven Women Seven Sins (1986).

In 1975, Akerman made her best-known and one of her most influential films, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film that was barely shown in the U.S., but which generated considerable response in Europe. Filmed largely in real time, it was an over three-hour-long chronicle of mundane episodes from the daily life of a 40-year old woman who snaps when faced with intense emotion and commits a horrifying crime. This focus on activities and occurrences over traditional narrative and continuity is a typical feature of Akerman's films (the 1972 short Hotel Monterey consists entirely of shots of people walking in and out of a rundown New York hotel). She is also known for utilizing experimental compositions of light and architectural design, with detached, non sequitur soundtracks to underscore the "action."

In 1996, Akerman made perhaps her most mainstream film to date, Un Divan a New York. A romantic comedy about an American psychoanalyst and a Parisian dancer who agree to switch apartments, it starred William Hurt and Juliette Binoche. Three years later, Akerman ventured to Jasper, Texas, where she made Sud, a documentary about the horrendous killing of James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man who was savagely murdered by three white men. The film was screened at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

Her final feature was 2011's La Folie Almayer (Almayer's Folly), and her final documentary, No Home Movie (2015), was making the rounds on the festival circut when Akerman passed away, at age 65.

Movie Highlights

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  • Elle est issue d'une famille juive polonaise. Ses grands-parents et sa mère ont été déportés à Auschwitz : seuls sa mère en est revenue.
  • Sa vocation est née après avoir vu Pierrot le Fou. Elle cite Godard comme sa plus grande influence, ainsi que Michael Snow.
  • Dans les années 1970, elle part pour New York où elle s'essaie au cinéma expérimental avec plusieurs courts-métrages.
  • En 1975, elle réalise Jeanne Dielman, son film majeur.
  • Elle a enseigné à l'Université de New York ainsi qu'à la European Graduate School de Saas-Fee, en Suisse.
  • En avril 2014, elle perd sa mère Natalia, et sombre dans la dépression. Soignée pour des troubles maniaco-dépressifs, elle se suicide le 5 octobre 2015, à Paris.