Moving Pictures
Mar 29, 2024, 06:27AM

Goodnight Chantal

The reflection of Chantal Akerman in Andrew Bujalski's filmmaking.

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On March 19, 2016, Andrew Bujalski spoke at “Chantal Akerman: New York Remembers,” a tribute to the late legend put on by the City College of New York and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Akerman had been the filmmaker-in-residence at Harvard University for one year in the late-1990s (a gig that allegedly almost went to Whit Stillman), serving as a guest professor and overseeing several thesis projects, including Bujalski’s. At that point, Bujalski had only seen her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and he was intimidated. 

She was a serious European artist, and he was just a 20-year-old kid from the Boston suburbs. At their first conference, Akerman, mid-cigarette, asked to read his proposed script for the semester. Bujalski didn’t have one: he’d spent the summer pretentiously writing a “manifesto” instead. “I don’t think I can work with you,” Akerman replied. Panic-stricken, Bujalski ran back to his dorm and wrote a script. “She had no interest in bullshit and could cut through it with remarkable efficiency,” Bujalski told the crowd at Lincoln Center.

Over the course of the school year, Bujalski earned Akerman’s respect. After his initial fear dissipated, Bujalski found himself surprised by her humility, as well as her humor and whimsy: “For me, she seemed to prove the theorem that you can’t truly be serious unless you’re funny, and vice versa.” In his tribute, he recalled watching her try to order a glass of warm milk from a confused waitress at IHOP; finding her in the hallway with an entire finger in a bottle of nail polish remover after she had let a friend’s daughter paint her nails; and talking to her about Jim Jarmusch—“Oh he takes everything from me,” she quipped. Bujalski was a bit dubious, but later, when he saw Je Tu Il Elle (1974), her remarkable debut, he thought to himself, Oh okay, I guess she’s right. (Incidentally, Je Tu Il Elle remains Bujalski’s favorite of her oeuvre, in part because it stars his favorite of her leading ladies: Chantal Akerman.)

All of Bujalski’s comedic memories of Akerman make sense considering one of the two pieces of advice she gave him that year: “Leave profundity alone and just be funny”—which is something he feels like she was trying to do herself (she often called herself “a female Charlie Chaplin”). The second was to stop dressing like a teenager if he wanted girls to like him, which he admitted he never took.

Bujalski is frequently asked by interviewers about Akerman’s influence on him, looking for a detailed technical answer about aesthetics or how to extract beauty from the banal rituals of everyday life—something they both excel in, albeit in different ways. As critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote in 2018, “Though they’re profoundly different directors, Akerman’s and Bujalski’s films are polarizing along similar lines. Their detractors say they’re boring, or that ‘nothing happens.’ Their admirers say, ‘Yes, just like life.’” The above anecdote about Bujalski’s thesis script (or lack thereof) is interesting in this light, given the often “scriptless” feeling of their respective work. Akerman, in a way, instilled a sense of intentionality in Bujalski—on the first day they met, no less. Bujalski would go on to become famous for films so intricately scripted that they feel completely improvised. His debut, Funny Ha Ha (2002)—which he made at about the same age that Akerman made Je Tu Il Elle—has persisted as a classic of American independent cinema for this very reason. Notably, Akerman stuck her neck out for Bujalski to help get Funny Ha Ha made, introducing him to all of her Los Angeles contacts; in return, she received a special thanks in its credits.

For Bujalski, however, Akerman’s influence had little to do with filmmaking specifics or imitation: it was personal and, in many ways, unquantifiable. It was his observation of Akerman that made a lasting impression: “It was the influence of seeing an artist navigate a world that’s rarely easy on artists, and doing so uncompromisingly, unapologetically, and—this is the most important part—generously.” A lot happened through osmosis. Akerman undoubtedly affected Bujalski’s filmmaking in more tangible ways, but again, her impact was not stylistic. While Akerman’s commitment and generosity are hard to quantify, they did directly benefit the casting of Bujalski’s thesis film: based solely on instinct, Akerman stopped a random Harvard student, Maggie Hatcher, on campus (something Bujalski never would’ve done), and told her matter-of-factly, “My student needs you for his film.” A decade or so later, Hatcher, who had since become an emergency room doctor, reunited with Bujalski, co-starring with her twin, Tilly, in his 2009 film Beeswax.

Through the years, Bujalski and Akerman stayed in touch via an occasional email exchange. They really only knew each other for a single academic year, but her guidance and wisdom were extremely formative for Bujalski. He’s repeatedly said that Akerman was the truest, most committed artist he ever knew, which is important considering he also studied under the great Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev while at Harvard. In 2012, Bujalski was invited to teach a masterclass at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin. In conjunction with his instruction, his first three features—Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax—were screened at the Arsenal Cinema. Not only had the student become the teacher, but Arsenal also happened to be screening Jeanne Dielman at the same time. It was an unintentional and insignificant pairing, but to Bujalski, it meant the world.

“Very simply, I adored her,” Bujalski concluded at Lincoln Center. He’d traveled from his home in Austin, Texas for the event, speaking for only about six minutes of the nearly two-hour event. The emphasis of his remarks wasn’t on Akerman’s films, career, or legacy. Above all, his focus was her lovingness: “I know that her reputation for incisiveness and brilliance will live as long as cinema does. But since the devastating news of her death, I find myself constantly wanting to remind people of her warmth.”

He knew her warmth firsthand: toward the end of their year together at Harvard, Akerman kindly hosted Bujalski’s 21st birthday party at her Cambridge apartment. She invited students and personal friends, and purchased about $300 worth of gourmet cheeses for the affair. After a few hours of carousing, and after the older partygoers headed home, Bujalski and his drunken classmates noticed that Akerman had disappeared: “Where’s Chantal?” They searched the apartment and found her in her bed, sleepy. She insisted they stay and keep socializing, but her students refused—there would be no party without her. “So we tucked her in and said goodnight.”


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