From my Room to Yours: An (Open) Birthday Letter to Chantal Akerman

From my Room to Yours: An (Open) Birthday Letter to Chantal Akerman

Reflecting on a lifetime of searching and belonging, one writer finds a world of care in the work and mind of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. From Je Tu Il Elle to Jeanne Dielman and News From Home, the director gave so much of herself. On what would have been her 70th birthday, Ariel Klinghoffer gives back. 

“I don’t feel that I belong… at all.” 

It’s 2011 and Chantal Akerman is at the 68th Annual Venice Film Festival for her newest creation at the time: an onscreen adaptation of Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad. This was definitely not her first time, but it was in fact her last. When she says these words, she does not sound lost. She declares it with confidence, even with a joyful air.

“Sometimes it’s hard because ‘belonging’ can give you a kind of peacefulness. But I don’t...I don’t belong. I’m like an outcast.”

She motions her hand in the air as she delivers the word ‘outcast,’ and she smiles again with her big blue eyes, and then plays with the ashtray in front of her.

For as long as I can remember, I have existed in what I think of as a ‘grey space.’ It is a milieu of uncertainty; I have felt that I am perpetually running. I have spent times grappling with my own various identities, playing with labels to figure out my sexuality, spending Friday night Shabbats at the Jewish University Center to explore my distant community, and never staying in the same place for too long. I moved away for university, spent summers abroad, visited friends across borders or on opposite coasts, and have crossed seas to commence adulthood. When waking up in the morning I sometimes have to remind myself where I am and at night, my sleep talking ranges from French to English to Franglais, as confirmed by my sister. These supercuts remind me that I too have never felt that I belong. This is, undoubtedly, how I found solace in Chantal Akerman’s cinema - a body of art that gave me a sense of belonging. 

Naturally, having spent so much time traveling from one place to the next, I have incessantly wondered what Chantal’s final moments with her family were like before she took off from Brussels to New York for the first time, alone, in 1971, not knowing when she would see them again. We were only a year apart at the age that we both exchanged continents; maybe we saw the same microscopic terrains, peering out of our airplane windows, just going in opposite directions. 


My final moments of being in the United States in 2019 are not happy ones. 

My main suitcase’s zipper has just broken and my belongings have spilled out of their 28-inch encasement in a calamitous fashion. My entire life was stowed away in that piece of baggage, and then before my eyes, my entire life is splayed all over the Terminal A check-in lobby at the Philadelphia International Airport. Through tears, I am battling with polyester to fit my uncontained clothing, books, and medication into my other smaller bags. My stress level has hit a fever pitch and the amount of cortisol coursing through my veins destroyed any possibility of a heartfelt ‘goodbye’ with my family. I am ashamed, I am exhausted. My voice is strained from the wrong words jettisoned at the wrong people. I forgot to apply deodorant that morning. 

In bidding my farewells, I save my mother for last. I cannot look her in the eyes after the frantic hug that was cut too short. She slips an envelope in the opening of my shoulder bag and I bolt towards security, praying to some higher power that I make it to the plane before boarding ends. I spend the next eight hours wondering what it would be like if that had been the last time that I would ever see my family. 


With the aesthetic of lingering wide shots of New York City, Chantal gave us News from Home. It is an extended meditation with precious detail of the ties between a mother and a daughter, over distance, over time. From one of the first letters she had received from her mother, layered on moving images of 1970s multicoloured streetcars, Chantal reads, “We’re not angry that you left without a word.” In listening to her voice, steady and declarative, revealing a moment that was doubtlessly crushing for both Chantal and her mother, I felt heartbroken and then, I felt relief. 

Her voice layered over cuts of 1970s multicoloured streetcars in Manhattan, Chantal reads a letter from her mother: “I think you’re happy in New York, so we’re happy too, even though we miss you.”


I open the envelope in Charles de Gaulle that my mother slipped into my bag, and read: “I am going to miss you. But I know this is your dream and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”


This year, I spent confinement alone in France, with little to interact with outside of films and books. It was my own confinement that deepened my relationship with Chantal’s work, because the simplicity of her elongated shots of one setting reminded me of my static reality. Although, in making this discovery, I soon realised that her filmmaking is so far from minimalist. That is to say, my confined life, in and of itself, was not empty. 


I get news that we will be in total confinement for probably at least 45 days here. The borders have closed and I am tempted to go stay with my family for the summer but the health warnings advise against it for those even with a passport. My anger blows through the windows and I am surprised to find no shattered glass when I regain my breath. And as it would appear, I fill up the space of 45 days, in motion. 


Chantal’s first film, a 14-minute short called Blow Up My Town (1969) that she wrote, directed, and starred in at the age of 19, takes place primarily in a kitchen where she wreaks havoc with reckless abandon - discarding pots and pans, singing chaotic tunes, stuffing her mouth with pasta, and ultimately laying her head on the gas range until the camera cuts to black and we hear an explosion.  

In 1974, after returning from America, Chantal released Je tu il elle, which is a portrait of a young woman in the wake of a failed relationship. Chantal, playing the protagonist, alternates lying motionless with writing letters, lying motionless with eating sugar. Contained within her four walls, she finds movement in the manoeuvre of her mattress from one side of the room to another. 

Six years of movement and filmmaking later, Chantal appeared in Cannes for the first time for the premiere of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. In her three-hour magnum opus, Delphine Seyrig plays a woman of many responsibilities - single parenting, cooking, cleaning, babysitting and prostitution - manoeuvring these tasks in an immaculate routine from day to day until she endures an internal collapse and disorder ensues. She finds herself sat at the dining room table in the end, nonetheless. 

I am writing to honour Chantal because as a Jewish lesbian, I never expected to see a story like mine on screen once I came to the realisation of my own identity. I did not need to see myself in order to like films. I realise now though, that in witnessing a way to convey identity, I now have the tools to tell my own stories. But what exactly was Chantal doing in order to achieve this?

When Chantal creates a film, her story is not driven by action - it’s moulded by space and time. Chantal democratises the intimacy of moments in order to tell her stories. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she was never privy to her mother’s stories, but instead felt the weight of her experiences in her bones. She used the same tactic in order to tell her own. 

I have peered through to see her commitment to tell women’s stories in the destruction of herself in a kitchen, as in Blow Up My Town (and many other films, as the kitchen was her favourite room to film). I have felt the devastation of my own lesbian breakups in Je tu il elle without her ever mentioning love, or being in love. I have seen my own roots traced in Judaism, as we see the idea of ritualising as the skeletal feature of Jeanne Dielman, as she values routine above all. In other words, I have felt myself represented in jest, rather than in image. This is the rare, unparalleled gift of Chantal Akerman: everything you see is through a silent lens.

I feel that there is a gaping hole left in cinema since Chantal left us, but as we tend to say in Judaism, I am eternally grateful for her memory.

To honour Chantal’s philosophy on which she fervently exclaimed “I hate idolatry,” I will conclude with a joyeux anniversaire. Thank you for making me feel like I belong. 

Ariel (@qqnenfeu) is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favourite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favourite book is Normal People, and her favourite chocolate is Kinder Bueno white. 

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