Friday, December 11, 2015

Au revoir Chantal: Philippe Garrel Remembers Chantal Akerman

The following is my translation from the original French of a piece that appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Cahiers du cinéma. Thank you to Gabe Klinger, who is finishing his first feature in Paris now, for the heads-up. And thank you to Jean-Philippe Tessé, co-editor-in-chief of the Cahiers, for allowing me to print this translation here. Please check out the December issue for, among other highlights, its potent cover image by Luz.

"It was in New York, the morning of the New York Film Festival screening of
L'ombre des femmes, that Philippe Garrel learned of the death of Chantal Akerman. The same evening, he presented his film to the New York audience with a few moving words for she who was among the five filmmakers of her generation that had come together in Les ministères de l'art [1988]. It was also in New York that he discovered No Home Movie, her final film. The next day, Philippe Garrel granted us a long interview, during which he quickly revealed at which point his life and his work are inextricable from those of his friend Chantal. The title of this interview is his. —Nicholas Elliott"

The Underground

The first time I met Chantal was at Frédéric Mitterrand's Olympic cinema. She came down the stairs that led from the booth in wooden clogs. She was very young. I saw right away that this was a girl of extraordinary intelligence. For Chantal and me, and whenever we got together you could tell, the greatest pleasure in life was intelligence. Nothing can stop someone from thinking, such are the conditions of freedom, and thinking is something that is extremely exciting. But for people who look at the world only as a mirror for intelligence, it's also a form of solitude. When you connect on that level, inevitably there's a kind of attraction. That's why we had Godard as our master. Not because he was the most talented of the Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut had as much talent as him, but for us Godard was the most intelligent. We looked at Godard as the greatest modern filmmaker.

We're the only two to have started out as teenagers. We were the youngest two filmmakers out of anyone. This was a source of great pride. It created a tremendous bond between us. When I saw Saute ma ville, I thought it was extraordinary. It was in 35, in black and white; it was exactly like the twin of Les enfants désaccordés. That's typical: if someone's making films at 16 or 18 years old, he has an outlook on the world that's incapable of imitating someone who's 25-30 years old. On that point Chantal and I connected immediately. We weren't trying to make our way in cinema. We just wanted to make cinema in a different way. We're the only two inside the post-Nouvelle Vague movement to have belonged to the counterculture.

So what binds Chantal and me together isn't just the generation — Doillon, Eustache, Téchiné, Jacquot — it's that we're the only two to have belonged during a decade in the underground. Chantal was an underground filmmaker, but that wasn't our aim when we were making Saute ma ville or Les enfants désaccordés. It's '68 that put us in the underground. Your generation has to understand that it's not because we were forced into the underground, it's because after '68 we didn't want to show our films to a mass audience. We thought that was a vulgar job, as a matter of critiquing the society of the spectacle. We joined up with a movement whose idea was circulation purely by word-of-mouth. It was a really peculiar thing, with an elitism that didn't belong to the bourgeoisie, nor to social success, nor even to the conquest of any run-of-the-mill power structure. We tried to remain a secret. It didn't last just for one film; we were all committed with the idea of staying that way for the rest of our lives. Even Jeanne Dielman is the story of a star, Delphine Seyrig, accepting to work for an underground filmmaker, just as Jean Seberg accepted working with me in the same period for Les hautes solitudes. In the underground, if there was ever a get-together, the well-known people weren't the stars of the party; on the contrary, they were slightly ashamed. An artist as unknown as they were known was superior, by very virtue of the fact. Chantal was in this category. When we were known by only a few people, as was the case with Chantal, famous people were deferential to us, as though we were pure. And as though they had already watered down their wine. So we weren't frustrated at being unknown, because on top of that we managed to construct a work at home. It's a movement of refusal, the underground — it's not a movement of compensation.

The Industrial Cinema

Afterwards there's another person who contacted us — Hubert Bals, the creator of the Rotterdam Festival. He invited all the marginal and underground filmmakers. He had a hotel-boat for the invitees, a building with several movie theaters, and a live closed-circuit television where there'd always be the image of a filmmaker talking. And filmmakers from around the world, but underground. Chantal and I were at every festival. There was also Fassbinder and Godard, who always arrived like the Grand Manitou.

When we leave the underground, it's around the time I make L'enfant secret in '79 and I get the Vigo in '81, and Chantal manages to sign with Gaumont for Les rendez-vous d'Anna thanks to the cultural success of Jeanne Dielman. That's where we emerged from the underground and afterwards, bang, in the '80s, we enter the ordinary, classical cinema, but as we're still greatly influenced by the avant-garde, it remains completely abstruse to people. Even still, afterwards we had a little bit of nostalgia for self-produced films. Her most beautiful film of the '70s is News from Home — that's one of the self-produced films. For me, there's Les hautes solitudes. We told each other that still, it's not making the same kind of films when we're produced. At that point, Chantal and I had even more of a bond as industrial directors — industrial and avant-gardist, mixed. I made Les ministères de l'art, in which I made the synthesis of our generation. After that we met Marco Müller, who became the director of Venice. He came looking for me in my editing suite when I was making Les baisers de secours, and then he went looking for Chantal. It's a little as if we'd had the same people helping us out — Langlois, who screened Chantal at the Cinémathèque, then Marco Müller. There'd been a period in which we made films for Venice and we'd cross paths down there. We only ran into one another with finished films, not in the factory. It was always one film under our arms, one new film under our arms.

We weren't at all jealous of one another; just the opposite. I was laughing, saying if Chantal hadn't liked women, I would have married her. I thought she was an extraordinary woman.

We made the anthology film Paris vu par... 20 ans après. Frédéric Mitterrand calls me up after '81 — it's almost certain, since he has the same name as the president, that he can just go to a bank and say he wants to make a film — he tells me he's going to make an omnibus film, very quickly, and that there will be me and Chantal. As soon as he says Chantal, I say okay, and I get moving. What was fun was racing against Chantal. I love competition. He explained to us that he was going to do it like Barbet Schroeder did with Paris vu par..., that we were going to make the film in blown-up color 16mm, and that each of us was going to choose a neighborhood. I'm making Rue Fontaine, I'm in my editing suite, and I'm told Chantal has left the project: "Oh, you know, she finally got to shoot in 35 black-and-white." "Oh shit, I'm finished!" And that's the truth: J'ai faim, j'ai froid is one of her masterpieces. The films of hers I love are Les rendez-vous d'Anna, Jeanne Dielman, News from Home, Saute ma ville, La captive, and J'ai faim, j'ai froid. And No Home Movie. She won. Very strong, Chantal. It's magnificent. J'ai faim, j'ai froid. The two girls in the street saying: "There's no work."

A Loss for Art

If again we take Les ministères de l'art, between Jean [Eustache] who committed suicide in 1981 and her in 2015, it's strange, this kind of distress. And then there's me, who makes four films with people who kill themselves in fiction. I don't know why this is. I'm not suicidal at all. I think one has the right, that's all. But it really makes you think, the fact that among the six, the first two mentioned would go by their own hand. It's something that didn't exist in the Nouvelle Vague. All this is very complicated. Deleuze would still have to be among us to say alright, we'll try and write about this.

When I made Les ministères de l'art, it really had to do with Eustache, I already told that story. In May '81 I had him on the phone, and I told him things were going to change, that he was going to have more money. He was in despair, he was living in a shoebox, he no longer had any money after the failure of Petites amoureuses. Because Jean didn't come from the underground, he hadn't started out invisible. He always found a way into theaters. To try and draw a moral, I read him what I wrote for Les ministères: "Jean Eustache is a genius. La maman et la putain is the Règle du jeu of our generation." Now you'd have to write a Ministères de l'art Part Two: "Chantal Akerman was the most intelligent among us and the sole female."

I think she did this according to a private plan, having no regard for us. But it's also a loss for art. It's a loss for art because the people who are very nonconformist from the time they're children — Chantal was at the head of the class, but a bit apart, just like me — all the people who are incapable of being satisfied with life such as it is, it's art that is their saving grace. I for one was saved when I was given a sheet of Canson big as the table, and some gouache, and I had the right to do what I wanted and if I got myself messy it didn't matter... It's like in Saute ma ville, when she polishes her shoes and doesn't care that there's polish everywhere, before turning on the gas... The fact that art could be freedom to act saved people like me and her. And normally it saves them on the scale of existence. It might even be more than that. Now like I'm involved in the field of cinema studies, if someone told me you have three years left, I'd think that I'd have a reason for occupying them with cinema. It's a field in which life gets short by relation to the complexity of what it is, art; it's at once having the right to express oneself and to translate the world...

It's a loss for art in the sense that there's considerably enough work for a lifetime's worth, in the sense of an exciting kind of work, not as an obligation. Jean Eustache's suicide, same thing — it's a defeat. But what one really has to see — and here one can make a critique — it's that art is incredibly useful to our civilization but doesn't receive enough support. You have to know that Adieu au langage cost 400,000 euros, while the average film here costs 2 million. How is it that the greatest filmmaker in the world has the smallest budget in his native country? As Chantal demonstrated with films like News from Home, you always have to work with the budget found and which is granted to us, but to almost always experience an absence of budget, even if Chantal managed to survive and was no longer completely flush, the fact that she didn't have the budget to make a film, that's a joke. It's a place we're looked at from. Compared to Eustache, after Mes petites amoureuses, he makes Une sale histoire. It's made for next to nothing. It's like with Chantal. These are films made on the scale of a private life. But if Chantal still made those kind of films, it was no longer a matter of choice, as the underground no longer exists; it was really because she couldn't do otherwise.

Doing Otherwise

What's brilliant in Chantal — it's there too in Duras with India Song, is how she truly invents a cinema on the cheap: silent, with a voice-over, as in News from Home. Sync-sound slows down the creation of a film a great deal and is extremely expensive. It's not just multiplied by two — you can do a silent movie all on your own. When I made Les hautes solitudes, there were no technicians. If you make a movie all by yourself, you can be in the room sleeping with the actress and you're making the film. You can't bring a crew over to people's house. Chantal made films like that. Even in No Home Movie, she has her camera, with digital sound — she takes care of everything by herself. That's what makes a different cinema. The others of the post-Nouvelle Vague never practiced that kind of cinema. There's only Chantal and me. We thought it was very interesting because it never existed before then. When we had problems, all we did was downscale. Better shooting alone with professional material, which was the case with Chantal. The evidence is that the majority of the others remained stymied for several years because they didn't find a producer, whereas we had to keep on a roll or we'd be tanked once again — but we never stopped shooting. Chantal made forty films. It's mindboggling. I think I've made twenty-eight or twenty-nine. If we waited to have them properly produced, we never would have made them. For Chantal, she managed to exist within the D-system, but truly the D-system, while inventing a way of making films in a different way. That her last film should be as it is, that she'd made it all on her own... voilà, quoi.

The Cinema According to Mama

Inbetween our running into each other at the Olympic and the point I see her over and over again at Rotterdam, I remember I was at my mother's house. The TV was on and Chantal came on to speak about Jeanne Dielman. My mother says: "This woman, she's something, Philippe." For me, that was the cinema according to mama. With respect to the fact that you have to make a humanist cinema — it's not everything just to have talent.

Yesterday seeing No Home Movie, the whole time I thought about my mother's death. What was extraordinary in Chantal's cinema is that she proves that we're all the same, we all live through the same thing. It's much stronger than "I don't think the same way as you do." You need people who say this when they're young, but No Home Movie is: "we all live through the same thing." Our parents' agony, the love that's capable of bonding us to them. All the discussions between Chantal and her mama, her mother's attitude, even her advanced stage of decrepitude, is exactly what I just saw my mother in a year and a half ago before starting production on Les ombres des femmes. She was dead five days before shooting began, and as this is an industry I had to go to the set. It's as though Chantal lived everything I lived: the chaise-lounge, the mama who wants to sleep because she's exhausted, the mama who's very proud, the connection of love... What's very strong in Chantal is that she draws from a modern tradition to tell us that we're all from the same stream, we're alive here, and she makes it so by way of art. People criticized the fact that Delphine Seyrig peeled potatoes and did the dishes in Jeanne Dielman. But we all peel potatoes — we all do the dishes — and Chantal introduced the idea of making a work of art out of this, all while speaking with talent.

Chantal had two arts: cinema and literature. Her first novel, Ma mère rit, is the major work of the last part of her life. Fantastic. The year before the release of her book, Chantal was reading it at the Châtelet during the Nuit Blanche. People came by at 1 in the morning. She was alone on the stage in the middle of reading Ma mère rit. When I was there I felt she had again become an artiste maudite, doing a performance, all by herself. Afterwards, I read Ma mère rit and I was cut into two. I gave the book to my mother. It's the last book she read.

She's something else, Chantal... For me, there were very few people like her. There's Leos. There's Godard. There's Jacques Doillon. It's become emotional; it's not just artistic. It's a little like the beginning of my own end. I tell myself I really only have twenty more years to make films. And her death will be like Eustache's death. A decisive moment that shows that the cinema too is a drama.


From The New York Times, November 8, 2015:

"Spectre, the latest James Bond thriller, took in about $73 million in ticket sales at domestic theaters over the weekend, giving Hollywood one of its biggest openings of the year, even though sales were down sharply from those for Skyfall, the previous Bond movie. Spectre, the most expensive 007 installment ever, costing Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Eon Productions roughly $400 million to make and market, has taken in an additional $223 million overseas, breaking records."

From The New York Times, November 8, 2015:

"Filming the movie version of the novel Room, in which Joy Newsome, played by Brie Larson, and her son, Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, are held captive in a small garden shed, was a challenge.

"About 70 crew members worked for 22 days in and around a box that was no more than 150 square feet that precisely duplicated the Newsomes’ fictional prison, somewhere in the American Midwest, right down to a working version of the bathroom plumbing.

"“Yeah, I got sick of it,” the film’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, said of the space."


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