Until a couple of years ago the only Chantal Akerman film I had seen, and the only one I'd really heard people talk about, was her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Sometimes a filmmaker, even a great one, makes one picture that towers over the rest of their career, and that certainly seemed to be the case with Akerman. My opportunity to explore the rest of her work came in 2013, when A Nos Amours, the repertory film collective run by Adam Roberts and Joanna Hogg, ambitiously announced plans to screen an entire retrospective, including every feature film as well as her documentaries and television work, much of which had never been shown before in the UK. It's hard to imagine a better way to discover a filmmaker.
Akerman was just 25 years old when Jeanne Dielman was released – the same age as Welles when he made Citizen Kane, a comparable achievement – but what struck me about viewing her early works was how different they all felt. It's as if she spent the years prior to her breakthrough film trying on different styles and finding her voice, which suddenly solidified in the intimidating shape of Jeanne Dielman. The early pictures are bold, surprising, funny and haunting, and they provided one of the best cinema experiences I've ever had. 1972's Hôtel Monterey consists of a series of silent tracking shots through hotel corridors, and it was shown at the ICA on a 16mm print. When the ICA screens a film on 16mm they have to position the projector inside the theatre, as it's too big for the booth, and so we could hear only the whirring of this projector and the crackle of the print as Akerman's camera ghosted throughout the building. It's as close to an feeling of hypnosis as I have ever experienced (although her 1993 film D'Est came close to emulating it).
The other revelation that emerged from these early Akerman screenings is that she preceded Jeanne Dielman with a debut narrative feature that is every bit as formally bold and conceptually brilliant as her most acclaimed film. Je, tu, il, elle stars Akerman as an anxious young woman who we first meet alone in her apartment, frantically writing letters and – in an unforgettable image – eating handfuls of sugar straight from the bag. When she finally escapes from this location, she hits the road with a random truck driver (a Brando-esque Niels Arestrup) before hooking up with an ex-girlfriend for one of the most extraordinary and memorable sex scenes ever filmed. It's a genuine masterpiece, and for Akerman, just the first of many.
To watch Chantal Akerman's films in chronological order was to watch a filmmaker continually reinventing herself. Each film seemed simultaneously a natural development as well as a radical departure from what had come previously. Her brilliant 1978 film Les Rendez-vous d’Anna feels just as formally rigorous as Hôtel Monterey or Jeanne Dielman, but it possesses a markedly different rhythm, humour and emotional weight. In the 1980s her work became even more adventurous and surprising, culminating in the vivid and witty Demy-esque musical Golden Eighties that was preceded by a preparatory film called Les années 80, which was made as a rehearsal and features Akerman and her actors repeatedly going over their lines and choreography. It may be little more than a making-of film – a DVD extra these days – but in Akerman's hands it becomes something entrancingly creative, thoughtful and funny.
Perhaps that's the biggest misconception people have of Chantal Akerman's work if it is only represented by a challenging monument like Jeanne Dielman – her films on the whole are incredibly amusing and playful. There are rich comic moments in so many of her films from Je, tu, il, elle and Golden Eighties to Toute une nuit and Nuit et jour, and in the 1990s she even made a mainstream romantic comedy, with the beautifully shot A Couch in New York having a distinctively unusual comic rhythm, which she then one-upped with the screwball farce Tomorrow We Move in 2004. At times it's hard to look at the variety in this body of work and pin down what exactly a Chantal Akerman film is, but there are constants throughout every film – the fluid takes, the masterful use of space, the movement of bodies within the frame, the striking use of colour, the sheer boldness of the vision.
It's fair to say that this ongoing retrospective of Chantal Akerman's films has been one of the most valuable cinemagoing experiences of my life. Over the course of two years I have discovered a unique and multi-faceted artist whose work is boundary-pushing, deeply personal, warm and funny, and endlessly revealing. The retrospective is set to end late this month with the UK premiere of her final film No Home Movie and the opening of an Akerman gallery installation. I will still attend both of these events, albeit now with a heavy heart, but I am devastated that we won't get the masterclass that was scheduled for the afternoon before the screening. I wanted to be there to show Chantal Akerman how loved and respected her work is here in London, and to hopefully tell her what a formative, eye-opening experience discovering her films has been for me. This retrospective won't have the ending that any of us imagined or hoped for, but like all great artists, the work will live on. Earlier this year in Bologna a new restoration of Jeanne Dielman was shown. I can only envy anyone who sees that film and is inspired to embark on the same exhilarating journey of discovery that has almost come to an end for me.
No Home Movie will receive its UK premiere at the Regent Street Cinema on October 30th.
Chantal Akerman Now will be open at Ambika P3 from October 30th to December 6th.