The Formalist Film-Maker with a Subtext:

Chantel Akerman

Bernard Zelechow1

York University

Chantel Akerman began her cinematographic career as a minimalist. A dual value structure defines her aesthetic. Her films, at least until A Couch in New York (1996) eschewed the characteristic bombast of conventional Hollywood film making. Her films foreswear the frenetic pace of action, the overwhelming operatic and interactive background musical score, and the linear (condensation) of events to film time. Typically her films emphasize nonlinear narrative, discontinuity of thought and action, the illusion of real time, and the random inscrutability of a surface image. Akerman trains her camera on appearance's facade by that offering a simulacrum of unorganized, meaningless phenomena lacking teleological significance.

Akerman's approach to film making resembles the pop realism of Andy Warhol but stands in the French formalist tradition of the nouvelle vague movement in film and literature. A convergence in aesthetics and social theory provided a superstructure for arts of suppression and repression (for an exhaustive study of French structuralism cf. Fosse, 1997; Calvet, 1994).2 Formalism dictates that works of art are exclusively self-referential and encrypted. This principle enables the formalist artist to justify rationally the evasion of responsibility for his/her art. In France in the hands of its supreme practitioner Alain Robbe-Grillet, formalism provided the rationale for the willful repression of unwanted cultural and personal memory of France under occupation, the deportation of French Jews and the shoah that followed.3 The formalists examine repression to re-inscribe it. The holocaust survivors' generation mostly colluded with the formalist repression of historical memory.4

Paradoxically, the radicalism of formalist doctrine produces results opposite to its structures. To generate meaning the viewer/reader must locate it in references that transcends the artwork. Therefore, the formal denial of meaning forces the viewer to generate the sense or significance of the work. All language is purposeful and encoded and therefore allows itself to be decoded and interpreted irrespectively of the speaker's intent. However, in the formalist work of Robbe- Grillet breaking the code yields a communication that the buried past cannot, must not, be unearthed. A generation later young artists, particular French Jewish writers, such as Dan Francks, and film makers like Chantel Akerman began the task of examining the wounds caused by the repressed past. What is of particular interest and significance is that their project remains within the framework of aesthetic formalism engendering acute tension between the desire to reveal everything and the human exigency to shield oneself from the memory of the painful burden of the shoah. The formalist doctrine is acutely appropriate for this project. The tropes signifying the wound's expressions are linguistic homelessness and silence. In Akerman's work the tropic strains reward the viewer with an experience of fractured identity, the pain of the harrowing past, and the gulf separating the generations and the resulting vacuum. In her purview Jewish identity is an erasure. It is at home neither in Jewishness nor in French universality.

Chantel Akerman is a Belgian Jewish film director working in Paris, a child of holocaust survivors. While Akerman does not mention the holocaust, or ethnic particularity, the shoah is the central traumatic event of her oeuvres. Her artistry in the typical French manner frames the issues in universalist terms understood as cultural uniformity. She subsumes the question of Jewish identity in Europe in the closing decades of the century under the general problematic of postmodern identity crisis. The mutilation and fragmentation of the Franco-Jewish identity are the foregrounds articulating the splintering of the ego in postmodernism. Jewish identity represents the latent content exposed between revelation and concealment. Only gradually and in a peculiarly French manner does Akerman articulate the specific Jewish dimension of post-modernity. She reveals this through the specifically French valorization of language. In her work the self is reduced self-consciously and effectively to near silence by linguistic fracture and homelessness.

1. Dr. Bernard Zelechow, Professor of Humanities, York University (Toronto);   [RETURN]

2. The French intellectuals and artists were explicitly aware of what they were creating. Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan agree to the erasure of the self in the new social theory. I suggest both repression and suppression because the former is inevitable and necessary for memory and remembering. The latter is willful and is desires nothing more than providing barriers to remembering. In practice the differences are hard to discern. The problem presents a hermeneutical challenge. For an exhaustive study of every aspect of French structuralism see Francois Fosse, History of French Structuralism two volumes, translated by D. Glassman (Minneapolis, 1997) and Louis- Jean Calvet, Roland Barthes: A Biography (Bloomington, 1994).   [RETURN]

3. Bernard Zelechow, "Aesthetic Formalism: Repression and Post Holocaust Writing: A Moment in French Culture," (Jewish Studies, 1998). And Bernard Zelechow, "Michel Tournier: Falling for the Fall," ISSEI, CD-ROM, (in press). [RETURN]

4. Bernard Zelechow, "Georges Perec: The Sign of the Void," ISSEI Utrecht CD ROM, (1997) and Bernard Zelechow, "Is There a New Derrida?" European Legacy, Special Issue vol 2 # 1, (1997).   [RETURN]


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© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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