A formalist with heart: Chantal Akerman's work shows this month at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the artist appears in person February 28. (Chantal Akerman, "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (still), 1974, courtesy SFMOMA)

Chantal Akerman's Everyday, and More, at SFMOMA

Glen Helfand February 13, 2009

With films that focus a patient eye on common human conditions, Belgian-born auteur Chantal Akerman is a formalist with heart—and global interests. Her work in cinema and gallery installation is at once warm, witty, sometimes neurotic and always artistically adventurous. The 12-film series at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is particularly welcome as few of Akerman’s films are on the Netflix circuit—most rely too much on their temporality and subtlety to play well at home, though her romantic streak is expressed in more accessible works. Her delirious 1991 Nuit et jour, for example, concerns a woman suffers amour overload with one lover by day, another by night, or the 1986 Golden Eighties, a humble though ebullient musical set entirely in a Parisian shopping mall—that both references nouvelle vague’s American references, as well as anticipates films like Kevin Smith’s Mall Rats. (Akerman’s more mainstream A Couch in New York, 1996, starring Juliette Binoche and William Hurt isn’t part of this series.) Those films have already been screened, but there are important works showing through February—the fragmentary look at couples in Toute une nuit, 1982 (which fittingly screens on Valentine’s Day); the unerring, dialog-free views of Eastern Europe queues in 1993’s D’Est, a film as interesting for its blend of art and documentary as for the fact that Akerman also created an installation version playing segments of the film simultaneously on multiple monitors in a gallery; and two films with particular U.S. interest, Sud, 1999, a meditation on racial violence in the American South, and From the Other Side, 2002, an artful doc investigating U.S./Mexico border tensions.

But it’s Akerman’s notorious 1974 Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles that is the series highlight. This tale of a highly composed middle class widow/prostitute, played nearly wordlessly by Delphine Seyrig, is a nearly three-and-a-half-hour opus in which Akerman makes stunning use of real time depictions of mundane activities, and mixing genre and feminist narratives. Critic Amy Taubin calls it a masterpiece akin to Citizen Kane—Welles and Akerman, it so happens, were each 25 when they made these films devoted to singular characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar—and it’s a fair comparison for the ways in which each advanced the possibilities of cinema. Dielman is screened far less frequently than Kane, so the SFMOMA presentations are major events—particularly the February 28 showing which the director will be present for an introduction and Q&A.