Leading Belgian filmmaker and theorist Chantal Akerman has died, The New York Times reports. Akerman’s death was confirmed by her sister and Royal Belgian Film Archive director Nicola Mazzanti; though there is no official confirmation, the French newspaper Le Monde is reporting that the cause of death was suicide. She was 65.
Akerman was only 24 when her groundbreaking feature Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles premiered at Cannes. Over the decades that followed, she would establish herself as an important (and often outspoken) force in the avant-garde of film and as a monumental influence on generations of filmmakers and film theorists.
Born into a family of Holocaust survivors, Akerman was raised in an observant Jewish household in Brussels. After seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou at age 15, she set out to become a filmmaker, making her first short, Saute ma ville, while still in her teens. By her 20s, Akerman was already a prolific director. It was, however, the nearly 3 ½ hour Jeanne Dielman—a mesmerizing portrait of a Belgian woman, played by Delphine Seyrig, as she goes through her daily routines—that established her on the international film scene.
Frequently imitated and referenced, but never equaled, Akerman’s breakthrough remains the big screen’s definitive study of how the everyday mundane can mount into a sense of doom, and one of its most original exercises in space and time. Often characterized as a minimalist, Akerman was fascinated with long takes, sparse spaces (hotel rooms being a favorite), and meaningful repetition. That, however, doesn’t really encompass the scope of the filmmaker’s work, which ranged from documentaries to fiction features with stars and from adaptations of Joseph Conrad (Alamayer’s Folly) and Marcel Proust (The Captive) to a pastel-toned musical set in a shopping mall (Golden Eighties).
Akerman first came to New York in 1970, and the city would provide inspiration for both some of her best work (1977’s News From Home), and her most commercial (1996’s A Couch In New York, starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche). In addition to her filmmaking, Akerman also taught, including a lengthy stint at Harvard, where she was Andrew Bujalski’s thesis advisor. Most recently, Akerman took a position at the City College Of New York.
Often haunting, sometimes haunted, Akerman’s best films derive their power from how they clue the viewer into what is being left unexpressed or unsaid; she could turn a long take of a person going about their kitchen into a portrait of the world they inhabited. Her latest, No Home Movie, recently had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. Like News From Home, the film takes its inspiration from the filmmaker’s relationship to her late mother, who survived Auschwitz but was unable to talk about her experiences. While confirming Akerman’s death for The New York Times, Mazzanti indicated that the director “had been in a dark place of late.”
Those new to Akerman’s work are advised to watch the below interview, conducted by filmmaker Ricky D’Ambrose in 2013.