Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chantal Akerman and the Rejection of Identity Politics

This will necessarily be a fairly short post, as most of my information is coming from a highly reputable source a few stray lines on Wikipedia.  You see, I recently watched Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an uber-realistic depiction of a few days in the life of a Belgian housewife (it features a potato-peeling scene, the high drama of which would not be matched until the potato content in Bela Tarr’s and Agnes Hranitsky’s The Turin Horse (2011)). 
Now, it’s not hard to make the argument that Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film, or rather: a film with a feminist message.  It’s depiction of the quiet desolation in Dielman’s life is unambiguous and heartbreaking.  But I’ve always been skeptical about the political labels that get attached to art.  Can a work of art be black? Or feminist? Or gay? Alberto Manguel raised this last question in the introduction to his anthology of gay short stories, Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest.  In order for a story to be gay, he asked, does it have to have a gay writer, gay subject matter, or both? If it’s a story by a straight writer about a gay subject, is that a gay story? Or vise-versa? And what is “gay subject matter?” There is a similarly vexed question in the title of Eavan Boland’s recent essay collection, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.  And what is the difference between being a “woman poet” and just being a poet? We wouldn’t speak of a “man poet” (except maybe Robert Bly, but I don’t want to speak of him period).  And by describing a poet of the female sex as a “woman poet,” do we not ghettoize her and reduce the appreciation of her work? Do we not trivialize her artistic accomplishment with these labels, which seem to suggest that the artists in question are not pure artists but must be seen in a political light?  Does not Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o diminish his own work by insisting upon its African character? Can’t it just be art, as in the case of, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?

Chantal Akerman has evidently been troubled by these same questions (or so Wikipedia teasingly suggests).  In the article on Jeanne Dielman, it states that “Akerman was reluctant to be seen as a feminist filmmaker, stating that ‘I don’t think women’s cinema exists.’” And that’s certainly not to say that women don’t make films.  But it says that these films are not fundamentally distinct from the films made by men, and that we would be wrong to ghettoize them.  Akerman has expressed similar concerns about the reception of her 1974 film Je tu il elle, whose female protagonist engages in an extended sex scene with another woman, which led some to label the film as an example of “queer cinema.” Well, Akerman is having none of that.  Take it away, Wikipedia: “According to the book Images in the Dark by Raymond Murray, Akerman refused to have her work ghettoized and denied the New York Gay Film Festival the right to screen Je tu il elle. ‘I will never permit a film of mine to be shown in a gay film festival.’” Now, unfortunately, the Wiki doesn’t elaborate anymore on this subject, but Akerman’s stance on the issue is quite clear: she clearly wishes to be an artist, first and foremost, and not a woman artist or a gay artist. 

I wonder how she would respond to the way Wikipedia has labeled her, as the categories in which her article appears include: “Belgian women film directors,” “LGBT directors,” “LGBT Jews,” “Women artists,” “Belgian Jews,” and “LGBT people from Belgium.”


  1. I met someone recently who told me her favorite literary genre was "queer fiction". I asked her what that meant, and she said she had no idea.