What Chantal Akerman Left Behind for the Women of Cinema
By the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably read of the death of a filmmaker named Chantal Akerman in one feed or another. You’ve probably never seen one of her films, unless you’re a fan of weighty French movies like this author, nor have you probably heard of her until the recent news of her passing. This is a problem, and not for the obvious reasons. Akerman’s death provides a discussion point for one of the most distressing problems in the long history of cinema: the utter lack of credit and opportunity for women in the industry.
Akerman was born in Belgium in 1950, where she quickly established herself as a badass. After seeing Godard’s classic of the French New Wave, Pierrot le Fou, she decided to immediately begin making films. She stuck around film school for a semester before quitting to make her first movie, a production that she reportedly casually financed by selling shares of diamonds on the Antwerp stock exchange. Keep in mind, this was all done when she was eighteen years old.
She was but 25 when she completed her masterpiece, 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (or simply, Jeanne Dielman). This movie is widely regarded as being one of the greatest films of all time, and one that revolutionized the depiction of women in world cinema. Over the course of nearly three and a half hours, we follow the exploits of the title character. She runs simple errands like getting groceries, taking a bath, preparing dinner, but also includes things like secretly having sex for money in her apartment.
This particular movie is important for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most for the fact that it’s one of the first to show a woman from a woman’s gaze. As any of us who took a university level film class know, most movies are shot from what film theorist Laura Mulvey called ‘the male gaze.’ Simply put, the majority of cinema as we know it objectifies women through the lens of the camera, because almost all of the people operating this camera have been straight, white, cisgendered men. Jeanne Dielman was one of the first films that entered mainstream consciousness to shatter this model.
Jeanne does not become sexualized by a shadowy patriarchy behind the camera. Instead we see a hyper-realistic, objective portrayal of a woman in charge of the order of her life, all told from a woman’s point of view. It’s a film about a woman, told by a woman, that succeeds in celebrating the aspects of womanhood that are too often trivialized in every other form of media.
Jeanne Dielman was remarkably well-received as a film that both revolutionized filmic techniques and utilized the critiques of freshly-realized second wave feminism. It’s monumental stature has only grown over time; Sight and Sound, the revered British mag, considered the definitive holder of the list of the greatest films of all time, has ranked Jeanne Dielman as the highest entry by a female director on the list, coming in hot in the top 40 on the international critic’s poll.
Despite the high acclaim that Jeanne Dielman still carries in film circles, it is literally one of only a handful of films helmed by women directors that has been accepted into ‘the canon.’ Akerman was of course not the first woman to step behind the camera;for example, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren and French realist Agnes Varda are often featured in lists of iconic films. But there is a definite point in which women began to take hold of the camera for themselves, and that was decidedly after Akerman. Her work paved the way for international filmmakers like Claire Denis and Jane Campion, right on through Sofia Coppola and hell, even Nancy Myers.
But ‘wait a minute!’ you might be thinking. Surely there’s more female directors now more than ever?! What about Ava DuVernay and Selma? Didn’t Angelina Jolie make a film? Women directors have more visibility than ever, but according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling report by San Diego State University, the gender gap in the film industry is growing, to a state where we are currently at the lowest level of women behind the camera since 1998.
In other words, the film industry is still a rampant boy’s club, a fact that many of us too often forget. In the Celluloid Ceiling report, in the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2014, women accounted for a mere 17% of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers combined, the percentage of solely directors being frightfully small. When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, people freaked out for good reason. She was one of only four women to ever even be nominated out of the near century of the Academy’s existence.
We see women on nearly every screen all the time, but the fact of the matter is that we’re not seeing women the way that women want to be seen. It’s easy for us to cheer on our favorite actresses winning awards, but just how many of them were performing for a male-thought up, male-run, male-financed production? The sad answer is that it’s nearly every single one. The only way to illicit any kind of change is to keep celebrating and keep vocalizing the roles that women are playing, and need to keep playing, in the film industry.
Which brings us all back to Akerman. Her contributions to both cinema and the women in the industry who came after her is stunningly vast, enough to make one wonder how in the hell she managed to do what she did in the short time that she did it. But what is perhaps most important is to continue sharing her story, knowing that all it takes is one plucky eighteen year-old woman to completely alter the narrative of an entire art form.
‘Jeanne Dielman’ is streaming now via the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus
Images of the filmmaker via Getty, screenshots via the Criterion Collection