J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 18, 2016

NYJFF ’16: I Don’t Belong Anywhere—the Cinema of Chantal Akerman

It is hard for cineastes to grasp how a filmmaker whose work has been given the prestigious Criterion treatment could reportedly commit suicide while still producing provocative work. Such appears to be the case with Chantal Akerman, the celebrated director of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Yet, Akerman’s former production manager turned documentarian Marianne Lambert captured revealing glimpses of the filmmaker that ring with significance after the fact. Although it predates Akerman’s premature finality, those sad circumstances inevitably inform Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere—the Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which screens during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Akerman is best known as a trailblazing experimental feminist filmmaker, but her later films also explored the part-time Israeli resident’s Jewish Identity. However, her final film, No Home Movie intimately documented her failing mother’s last days. In Lambert’s relaxed interview sequences, it is clear Akerman was still emotionally reeling from the loss of her mother. Based on news accounts, we can surmise this depression took a fatal toll.

Ironically, Akerman is mostly a rather lively and charming presence in IDBA. Yet, the flashes of darkness are inescapable. Regardless, she gives Lambert considerable insights into her diverse filmography, including her mainstream rom-com A Couch in New York, co-starring Juliette Binoche and William Hurt. She also revisits her intense early work, like Je Tu Il Elle, which in retrospect now looks like an early forerunner of Blue is the Warmest Color. There is also something appealing about Akerman’s aversion to labels, which often manifested in a reluctance to allow its screening at thematically LGBT festivals.

There are notable exceptions, but IDBA is generally more accessible than the films it analyzes. As a filmmaker, Lambert is unflaggingly sensitive and respectful, but through no fault of her own, the cinematic portrait still feels uncomfortably revealing in light of subsequent events. Illuminating but deeply depressing, I Don’t Belong Anywhere—the Cinema of Chantal Akerman screens Wednesday evening (1/20) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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