Alongside Mikio Naruse, Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) was the cinema's greatest poet of the act of walking. Her characters cover all possible variations on this gesture. They march in straight lines, or wander with cheerful aimlessness. They ascend public stairs, or they exit and enter doors situated right on the street. Their humble footfalls, in a suitably artificial, stylised context, can become performance art (like the choreography of Pina Bausch, about whom she made a film) or musical song-and-dance (Golden Eighties, 1986).
Sometimes her female walkers become the celebrated flâneurs who found hidden wonders tucked away in the coves and corners their home cities; at other times they drudge along like automatons. Occasionally they are accompanied by tension, even menace — especially when men are watching and following, as in La Captive (1999). Walking is both the reality of daily entrapment and the promise of euphoric liberation in Akerman's work — freedom or death, one step at a time.
Akerman's way of filming these walkers always serves to express, as she said in the mid 1990s, "the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film, time and energy". Her celebrated Jeanne Dielman (1975) was the manifesto of this new aesthetic. But her particularly charged form of minimalism did not avoid emotionalism; rather, it found a different path to feeling.
Walking is integral to Akerman's take on intimacy in the modern world, in films including Less Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978), Toute une nuit (1982) and Nuit et jour (1991). She often interrupted the blessed solitude of a stroll with the joy or terror of a rencontre. Sudden, unexpected liaisons with strangers can lead to withdrawn, hyper-defensive, near-catatonic states: the burlesque heroine of The Man with the Suitcase (1983), played by Akerman herself, retreats to a small room and makes it her sanctuary and surveillance-station. But, for all that, Akerman was also a romantic — of a particularly modern, gender-fluid kind — and the walk-by encounters in her cinema are also full of the music and magic of chance, hope, yearning.
The careful research of plastic forms, and the giddy, free-floating emotions they can trigger, was not a theory-driven abstraction for Akerman. She internalised and projected, as if it were her destiny, a vision of the 20th century world citizen: displaced, nomadic, rootless, "people as blurred as myself", as she said when recalling her experience as a runaway Belgian girl landing in the Soho of the 1970s. At the start of Histories d'Amérique (1988), Akerman narrates the parable of successive generations who progressively forget the location of a certain tree in a special forest where they must go to say the words of a long lost prayer...
This parable was associated with Akerman's profound sense of her Jewishness. As her script collaborator and friend Henry Bean recently testified: "She was, it sometimes seemed, a Jew before she was anything, even before she was a person, and she was more of a person than anybody I've known". Being a Jew was not so much a matter of selfhood for her, but rather a feeling — even a trial — of belonging that went far beyond merely personal identity. It was, as in the life and philosophy of Simone Weil, a decreation of the self. It opened her to all the ghosts and torments of history — her family's history, her people's history, world history, and her own history. This is all in her final film, No Home Movie.
Back in the 1970s, the critic Meg Morley prophetically described the often brutal, disconcerting, hard-edge effect of Akerman's art as a "circulation cut short", an "impossibility of dialogue, both between the characters on screen, and between the spectators and the film". This woman walks no more on the earth. But the sound of her steps, the rhythm and energy unleashed by those movements she inscribed so lovingly on screen, can still reach us, grip us and shake us.