Film Theory

Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday by Ivone Margulies

In Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Ivone Margulies provides a comprehensive examination of the minimalist visual imagery, deliberate pacing, and recurrent themes of disconnection, wanderlust, isolation, and longing that define Akerman’s intensely personal cinema.

Citing Akerman’s penchant for filming the rhythm of everyday life, and her de-emphasis of unique and significant events, Margulies proposes that Akerman does not attempt to reflect the social realism of the human condition but rather, seeks to create a heightened sense of hyperreality and what Margulies describes as corporeal cinema. According to Margulies, “Akerman’s boldness as a filmmaker lies in her charging the mundane with significance.”

In the masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, Akerman’s preferential focus on the minutiae of Jeanne’s household chores over the conventionally more intriguing premise of capturing the protagonist’s seemingly incongruous dual life seems an odd choice. As Margulies comments, “In Jeanne Dielman, both long takes of everyday tasks (the kitchen scenes) and nontakes (the elided sex scenes) stand for a radical new visibility.” Furthermore, by visually ingraining Jeanne’s systematic performance of household rituals in the film, Akerman reflects the protagonist’s aberrant psychological dependency towards control and predictability, and the irrational chaos that results from a divergence from an innate sense of logical order.

Margulies also explores Akerman’s use of distended, monologuistic delivery of character speech and protracted silence in the chapter, Forms of Address. The failure of connection between Anna and the people whom she encounters in Les Rendezvous d’Anna, Akerman’s monotonic, inexpressive reading of her mother’s alternately affectionate and guilt-inducing letters from Belgium in the hybrid documentary News from Home, and the near silent episodes of profound human interaction in Toute une nuit manifest Akerman’s recurring themes of alienation and emotional detachment. Juxtaposed against the visual symmetry of Akerman’s rigorous framing, the dispassionate narrative, like the incongruous imagery of Jeanne Dielman, becomes a poignant and powerful statement on the place of the artist as a perpetual exile and outsider.

Observation:  The connected themes and repeated (or, at times, complementary) imagery of Akerman’s films further reflect a commonality within Akerman’s oeuvre: the methodical ritual of chores in Saute ma ville and Jeanne Dielman; the cyclical chronicle of dusk to dawn in Toute une nuit and Night and Day (also illustrated in the temporal progression of News from Home); the subversion of the musical genre in Window Shopping and The Eighties; and the nomadism and transience of News from Home and D’Est. In essence, the repetitive nature of the visual (and aural) motifs and ideological themes illustrated in Akerman’s earlier and later films seem to reflect Akerman’s instinctual need for internal symmetry within her own body of work, as if to attempt to contain the chaos and irrationality of human experience.

Acquarello, 2001 [reprinted]

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