Issues, Videos

Walking, Talking, Singing, Exploding . . . and Silence: Chantal Akerman’s Soundtracks

by Barbara McBane

from Film Quarterly Fall 2016, Volume 70, Number 1


Everything changed in 1984. I sang so loud I exploded. Since then I explode from time to time.1

1. Desynchronization

How is it that Chantal Akerman’s films feel so close to raw experience? Akerman has said, “I want the spectator to feel…the time used in each shot; to make this a physical experience in which time unfolds in you, in which the time of the film enters into you.”2 If frontal framing and camera position contribute to this effect, so—very obviously—do shot duration and editing, as well as her system of oppositions.3 But there is another aspect of Akerman’s film language that contributes at least equally with these elements to activate what feels like a direct, embodied experience of representation: her sound strategies.

Beginning famously in the multilayered, desynchronized soundtracks of News from Home (1976), and extending the technique intermittently in her four documentaries, D’Est (From the East, 1993), Sud (South, 1999), De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002), and Là-bas (Down There, 2006), Akerman relies heavily on sound “rarely matched” to the visual image, but precisely orchestrated in relation to it.4 Even in her non-documentary films—Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, 1975), Je tu il elle (1974), Les rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978), Toute une nuit (1982) Akerman brings such attention to bear on the soundtrack—carefully selected, choreographed, and precisely mixed sounds modulated to certain ends—that her technique has the effect of lifting the soundtrack away from the images and inserting a space between them. An awareness of the condition of sound and image tracks as separate constructions is generated and sustained.

The sound is never meant to disappear in Akerman’s films as it does in commercial cinema; it is not invisible, as the conventions of feature film sound production would have it be.5 At the same time, Akerman is not after the kind of reflexive, deconstructive awareness of sound and image that interest a modernist like Godard. The sound/image relations in her films produce complex effects of temporality and signification indirectly, often with hypnotic effect. This essay uses both Akerman’s own statements and the kind of taxonomy that a sound editor might use in order to assess Akerman’s sound in terms suited to her practice.

How do the sounds within Akerman’s soundtracks work in relation to each other (as layers) and how does her finally mixed soundtrack (as a whole) work in relation to the image track? Examples from several films can help to identify the recurring sound-image figures that contribute to a vivid, visceral reception experience and a complexly layered sense of time. These sound-image tactics are integral to Akerman’s distinctive cinematic language, so understanding them is fundamental to reading her representational strategies and following where these lead.

Imagining the sound for her hybrid documentary D’Est, Akerman wishes for “a sound-track only partially in sync, if at all. A river of diverse voices borne along by images…like music from a foreign land, only more familiar.”6 The cinematic syntax of D’Est articulates

…a pure audio-visual rhythm that liberates the image from the text…visual events…are rarely matched to acoustic ones. This nearly continuous nonsynchronous montage of images and sounds provokes optical and auditory impressions that seem entirely unfiltered and that accentuate the effects of narrative disjunction and discontinuity.7

2. Walking

As a primer in critical listening to film sound, film-sound theorist Michel Chion proposes three modes: reduced listening, causal listening, and semantic listening.8 To listen to footsteps and Foley (body movement) sounds is to direct auditory attention to the first two modes. One listens to footsteps for their pure rhythmic patterns.9 One also listens to them, though, narratively: Where do they come from? Where are they going? Whose are they? What emotions motivate them? In the documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (Marianne Lambert, 2016), Aurore Clément remembers Akerman’s unusual attention to details of costuming for their sounds rather than their appearance. Hitchcock, she says, would clad the feet of his actresses in pumps that were gray, white, or brown. Akerman was more concerned about the sounds the heels made: “the height and width of my heels making a certain sound” on, say, a tile surface.

One of the most striking sound moments in Les rendez-vous d’Anna takes place in a train station: Anna enters the station to meet her mother; she walks with clicking heels, then stops; she hears another set of heels at a distance. Recognizing her mother, Anna walks eagerly across the empty resonating expanse of the station, her footsteps loud and decisive. The two women come together in long-shot and converse—but the audience is not made privy to the content of this conversation, which is choreographed almost as silent cinema, that is, all gesture. However, silence in this case is carved out of noise, movement, emptiness, and contrast; a silence made precise by mixing the sharp coded sounds of footsteps with other elements: an echoing, machinic train station ambience; voices we imagine more than hear.10 Footsteps become the metronome of the film’s real-time; rhythmic markers that lead into the silence of an intimate encounter whose privacy is amplified precisely because the audience is held in thrall to the duration of the moment, but not let in.

In Akerman’s film language, built around formal oppositions, the pull between movement and immobility is fundamental. Making D’Est, she was preoccupied with the immobility of waiting, even though the film contains powerful sequences of nothing but the footsteps of moving feet (movements she associates with dislocation and evacuation). In the 1970s and 1980s, Akerman made a series of films in which footsteps are formally choreographed as exhilarated dance-like movements: Toute une nuit; Un jour Pina a demandé (One Day Pina Asked…, 1983); Les années 80s (The Eighties, 1983); Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1985). In these, she is engrossed in the patterns and codes of feet in motion; in the semiotics of footsteps. Golden Eighties opens with a sustained static shot of women’s feet in clattering high heels energetically crisscrossing a resonant marble floor in myriad rhythms.

If Toute une nuit is partly a city symphony film, it is also a sustained musique concrete composition—after the manner of Walter Ruttman’s early image-less film, Weekend (Wochenende, 1928), known more widely as a radio drama. Akerman, though, sets her composition alongside of, rather than in place of, an image track. Footsteps and movements play as important a role in this film as in Jacques Tati’s sound classic, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), where a bed of inspecific sounds (Foley movements, location ambiences, and walla, the radio term for crowd murmurs in no identifiable language) takes precedence over dialogue and narrative sound events, making the inversion of sound layers into an insider’s sound-joke that contributes to the comedy of the film. Considering the impact of radio sound-art on American avant-gardists like John Cage and the impact of European radio-art on American film noir, one might argue that Akerman’s cinematic language owes as much to avant-garde radio art as to experimental filmmaking.11

In Toute une nuit a little girl runs on soft feet toward a couple who embrace in the street. She pauses and watches as this pair walks away, their footsteps ringing out in the silence as she stands by unnoticed. A woman enters the same building, mounts the stairs with heels pounding, and stops to listen to the sounds of an unseen couple inside: indistinct murmurs and laughter. She knocks loudly on the door, knocks again, and then, unheard, turns and clatters down the stairs. The apartment door flies open, a woman calls after her: “Christine!,” then pursues her on unshod feet, and a Foley duet can be heard: sharp steps and soft ones down the stairs. Outside, the first woman trods off in the dark, and this and other footstep dramas unfold inside and outside the apartment, punctuated by doors opening, closing, slamming, and an occasional (rare) single word, name, or “you!” This very long scene is orchestrated almost entirely by the language of feet, and is only the most extended example of a pattern sustained throughout the film.

Unlike nonsynchronous sound in the hybrid documentaries, footsteps often take the image as their point of departure, and are often synchronous. For Akerman, though—as in Toute une nuit—they soon overflow the image; they narrativize offscreen space and proliferate stories we can’t see or verify. Footsteps and Foley have a particular place in the rhetoric of the soundtrack. As the backbone of the sound film, they are what everyone hears and nobody notices. They are both individualized and generic, offering limited information about the body in terms of gait, costuming, and (often) gender. But this information is also abstract and conventionalized. Thus, footsteps and body movements are easily replaced—produced by a different body entirely, that of the Foley artist.12

It is important to remember that the fugue of feet in motion, of people going or being taken somewhere, materializes crucially out of a background of near-silence throughout this cycle of one night that is full of unseen offscreen acoustic events, including a summer storm. For Michel Chion, an effective “way to express silence … consists in subjecting the listener to … the subtle kind of noises, like the ticking of an alarm clock.”13 Footsteps are small sounds: they stir into motion against immobility and become audible against a background of silence.

3. Talking

News from Home is a talking picture, but whoever is talking is never seen. The film’s indirections go further: the mother’s textual voice (Natalia’s letters) is delivered through the daughter’s material one (Akerman’s voice-over); the latter is offscreen and the former is across the ocean, far away. This is a film about distance, one voice collapsed into another; and about the distance in scale between a vast city (New York) and a small foreign visitor contained within it, speaking accented English. It’s also a film about the distances between a voice-over track, reading letters in a rather hurried, flat tone, and a faux-sync track of city backgrounds and traffic; and between both of these, sound-flows and an image track of city scenes. This is a city separated from its own voice, depersonalized, yet filled with people. The effect of this dispersal of parts is striking, for they come together to rivet the attention hypnotically: the time of the film enters into the audience, but only indirectly.

At the opposite extreme is the subject who speaks directly into the camera. In Sud and De l’autre côté, Akerman alternates between these modes. De l’autre côté begins with a straight-on shot of a man telling the story of his brother who has disappeared trying to cross the border. Unusually for Akerman, this monologue is layered with music and the ambient sounds of a desert evening. She believes that her use of front-facing address preserves her films from her notion of idolatry “because it’s face to face with the Other.” She elaborates: “When you face the Other you already hear the phrase Thou shalt not kill, says Levinas.”14 Akerman suggests that, facing the Other, the sound of an unheard internalized ethical voice slips in indirectly for the listener: it emerges paradoxically out of a gap between, and an engagement with, the Other and its heard: the materiality of the speaking voice.

Front-facing address is sometimes favored by Akerman in her nondocumentaries, also, as in Les rendez-vous d’Anna. There, the back-and-forth rhythm of dialogue is replaced by monologues that alternate in this case with Anna’s near-silence. The monologues combine into a soundtrack that becomes a litany, “a psalmody where the meaning of the sentences should not count…a vague association with music and chant—songs and religious litanies being shared, collective forms of expression.”15 Navigating personal emotion, politics, liturgy, and cliché; moving between the sacred and the profane, the immensity of inherited tradition and the idiosyncrasies of individual grain, accent, and expression, this technique infuses the present-ness of Akerman’s films with a highly personalized sense of history and a resonant but indirectly transmitted sense of the past.

In the third room of her installation Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1995), the “idolatrous” image begins to slip away altogether, and to move toward darkness and obscurity. Sound has a special place in the three rooms of this installation. In the first room, D’Est in its entirety is screened; in the second room, it is broken down into twenty-four short segments dispersed throughout the space in eight separate banks of three monitors each. In the third room, a small monitor is on the floor and speakers feature Akerman in voice-over alongside a disappearing, barely readable image. Here, Akerman is at her most emphatically semantic, for she tutors the gallery visitors in an understanding of the body of work that spreads out before and after this installation. She reads the Biblical injunction against “graven images” twice (in Hebrew and English), then offers a poetic narrative of her journey East and the process by which the film reveals itself to her in a chilling monologue of process and realization.16

The setup in the room in which Akerman delivers this account performs physically the separation of sound from image also effected in her films. Here, the monitor sits on the ground with the two speakers moved slightly forward and to each side, stretched out to the right and the left like detached ears, or enveloping arms.

4. Singing (Music)

On the semi-synchronous soundtrack of Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968), a young girl hums as she prepares her suicide. The humming veers disturbingly between melodic and manic. “Julie” (Akerman) in Je tu il elle hums during sex; the film ends with a voice-off children’s song, sung by a woman and two children in call and response. Anna sings an Edith Piaf song for Daniel in Les rendez-vous d’Anna. And in J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I’m Hungry, I’m Cold, 1984), two girls burst into offkey song, hoping for a handout in a Paris restaurant. This was the early 1980s, when Akerman started to sing “so loud.” She made three music-based films between 1983 and 1986 (Un jour Pina a demandé…; Les années 80s; Golden Eighties), often collaborating with cellist/composer Sonia Wieder-Atherton. Music became an increasingly important component of her films. Nowhere does it play a more important role than in La Captive (The Captive, 2000).

By the late 1990’s, Akerman was using both source music (gospel and guitar in Sud, for example) and score (Wieder-Atherton’s cello in De l’autre côté) in her hybrid documentaries. Released between these two films, La Captive exploits the differences between source music and score to drive the film formally and thematically. Forging a specifically cinematic language to capture the Proustian tension between obsession/fixation/death (Simon) and elusiveness/movement/life (Ariane), Akerman links performed song—a mode favored in her early films about female sexuality—to Ariane and to her “little band” of women. For Simon’s theme, there is nondiegetic music (the score of Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead), which dominates the end of the film. A dialectic between these two musical modalities is sustained throughout the film, but crystallizes in a few sequences.

Ariane, captive in their claustral apartment, bathes and sings as Simon, separated by a translucent wall, listens. The song she sings is from Mozart’s Così fan tutte (“And in May as the proverb goes / Do what comes your way”) and recalls the permissive words of the children’s song (“Kiss whom you please”) heard after the lesbian sex sequence of Je tu il elle. Simon is reminded of Ariane’s invisible and unknown life outside, in the world, where she consorts with the opera singer Lea and Lea’s friends and followers. A second source-music song sequence is overheard by Simon as he walks home and eavesdrops on Ariane and another (unseen) woman as, separated from each other by darkness and an empty street, they find their way into a song together that represents, invisibly, a consummation that is forever offscreen for Simon. The singers, whose voices are as distinct in timbre, grain, range, and musical training as separate bodies might be, discover each other gradually, one singing and the other answering. The phrases are from “Che Diletto,” from Cosi fan tutte, and their call-and-response is a return to Je tu il elle.17 The two voices eventually commingle in a crescendo of offscreen rapture—an implied sexual climax organized around what, for Simon, are primal sonorities.

The songs sung or hummed in Akerman’s films have been understood as musical clichés that align with Akerman’s structural interest in repetition, reiteration, and variations on recurring themes.18 Humming and songs also issue directly from a background of musical traditions in Jewish culture and liturgy, where voice and vocalizing play prominent roles. Rhythm, rhyme, and chanting are protections against psychic overwhelm. Songs and humming are conjured, Margulies observes, “against the dread of stasis that haunts” such films as Saute ma ville and Jeanne Dielman.19 Stasis and immobility or death are given formal meaning in La Captive through Akerman’s complex and unusual use of nondiegetic music, or “score.”

The final sequence of La Captive—Ariane’s drowning and its aftermath—is motored obsessively by the score of Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninoff’s score for this orchestral work was directly inspired by a painting of the same name by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.20 With this image in mind, Rachmaninoff composed a highly narrative piece that translates into music the somber stillness, the rising and falling of water, the rhythms of Charon’s oars, and the arrival at the island. In the rather mysterious final image of La Captive, Simon is huddled at the front of a boat with the boatman looming behind him as the boat very slowly approaches a shore, then passes offscreen. The scene reproduces Böcklin’s painting precisely except that, in La Captive, Böcklin’s painted image is turned inside out by reversing its perspective so that the audience (and Akerman) are already situated alongside the Dead on the island, and the boat seems to cross over and move offscreen into the theatre.

The conventions of filmic representation are also turned inside out by Akerman’s choice to anchor a visual image (Simon’s journey in the boat) in an acoustic one (Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem), rather than the other way around, which would be the usual cinema protocol. The final sequence also turns the movement image inside out by subtly directing attention toward its founding unit: a single framed still image that reminds the audience of the constructed nature of the medium and its constitutive parts.

Score, as nondiegetic music, is considered to lie outside the story proper. The musical image within Rachmaninoff’s score has an unusual role in being the source, or inspiration, for what is seen on the screen (so it is “source music” in a different sense). Score and visual image are, in this case, in acute tension with each other. Positioned outside the story, nondiegetic music generally aligns more closely with the apparatus or machine of cinema—with that which moves film forward through time, moment by moment—than does source music, which is linked to story-time. Rachmaninoff’s score, as Simon’s theme, is associated both with the movement of the apparatus, and with its collapse, as death, stasis, or immobility. In La Captive, score and source music fluctuate in a variety of ways, setting rhythms in motion inside of, with, and against other rhythms, and ultimately setting the terms for the visual image itself.21

5. Exploding

Akerman herself associates the state of confinement, arrest, and capture in La Captive with what she calls “jail”: “The jail is very very very present in all my work. Sometimes not very frontally. La Captive, it’s the same…The jail is coming from the camps, because my mother was in the camps, and she internalized that and gave it to me.”22 Explosions—large, small, and inverted (“implosions” for Akerman)—disrupt the internalized jail. They can be overt, as in the series of offscreen explosions at the end of Saute ma ville. They can be psychic and sexual, as in Jeanne Dielman’s orgasm which, Akerman says, “destroyed her jail and her existence. So she killed the guy.” They can be unheard, offscreen, and purely textual, as in the bomb explosion in Là-bas which, although an important structuring element of the film, is known only by reference. They can also be worked into the film “not very frontally” as elements of the soundtrack that have the acoustic (physical) effect of violently exploding, even when visually tied to something clearly not an explosion. They can be heard in the way acoustic explosions are worked into No Home Movie (2015) by raising the volume on cuts to create sounds that, almost overmodulated, have an explosive effect, such as the shock of the sound of the desert windstorm that opens the film. The cut and the mix here suggest the acoustic violence of warfare; but it is also a very sustained sound, and as the volume gradually lowers—or as one’s ears adjust to hear many frequencies—it is possible to hear the many “voices” this wind actually contains.

Akerman’s acoustic metaphor moves in many directions and is, in the end, untranslatable. A similar “explosion” in No Home Movie is the sudden blast of street sounds cut over a rapid zoom toward a window as it bursts into a blaze of whiteness near the end. Such sound cuts are engineered to detonate, the more so since no actual explosion takes place. Instead, the viewer/listener internalizes the violent effects, experiencing them as jolts that seem to remind one there is something else being represented, something not seen; that experience is layered, and that what is present in these films refers to another reality or set of experiences that is tied to the past, offscreen, set apart from the literal image.

The term “postmemory” has circulated since the early 2000s to unpack the importance to children of Holocaust survivors of the merging of an imaginary “Then” with a lived “Now.”23 Such second-generation memory is based in displacement and belatedness. In D’Est and elsewhere, Akerman uses asynchronism and disjunction between sound and image to give form to the simultaneous recognition and disavowal of the temporal distance between a self and a generationally separated other: the one(s) from whom images are inherited and internalized. The state of arrest, of being entrapped within the self-cancelling temporalities of a paradoxical chronotope in La Captive, is a fictional equivalent to the condition of postmemory. Simon is driven to constant movement by a fantasy of overcoming a temporal and experiential gap between the psychic productions of his jealousy and what really is.

Akerman was partly motivated to make D’Est by a wish to revisit, in reverse, her parent’s journey from Poland to Belgium in the 1930s, and the formal gestures of the film reproduce the feelings and structures of displacement at every level. Distance and past-ness leak in through the soundtrack via Akerman’s belated, indirect monologue in the third room of the installation; and through the voices and music of Poland and Russia in the film itself, which are culturally and historically specific and suggestive, even if untranslated and decontextualized. This is not a forward-moving linear migration, then, but a reverse one; not a narrative or recounted story, but an anti-narrative with innumerable stories implied; not one layer of experience—or of representation—linked straightforwardly to another, but experiences and representational registers forever disjoined.

6. Silence

Queried as to whether her iconic tracking shots, where the camera “never stops moving” in D’Est, might not be the flip side of the confined space of the jail, Akerman disagrees: “It’s also a jail, because what you feel is an implosion instead of an explosion. The whole film is an implosion.”24

What is the sound of an “implosion”? Filmmakers are fond of saying that there is no silence in cinema. For Bresson, “[t]he soundtrack invented silence,” which it deploys through contrast “[a]gainst tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.”25 Silence—understood by Bresson as near-silence—is a trope that functions in different ways in Akerman’s films. The silence of night is an enveloping transpersonal background to the fragments of human interactions signified by footsteps and Foley in Toute une nuit. It foregrounds the pathos, smallness, and loneliness of the coded, repetitive human movements that make up the rhythms of the film. As the background against which these rhythms are etched, it has a specific affective weight, and it conveys scale.

In certain contexts, Akerman’s silent sounds suggest the baseline noise of an apparatus deliberately foregrounded: the sound of the ferryboat engine at the end of News from Home that disperses into white noise; the electronic music hum that begins and ends Toute une nuit; the sound of the boat-motor in La Captive; the helicopter surveillance camera, or traffic noise, at the end of De l’autre côté; and scattered sounds throughout her oeuvre that reference projector noise, camera noise, elevated noise to signal ratios, or indistinct blurs of white noise. Such sounds—especially traffic sounds—are sometimes mixed in alternating waves to create effects of rhythm, phasing, or cancellation, suggesting fluctuations or struggles between meaning and noise. Akerman frequently allows both her narrative and her nonnarrative films to resolve back, finally, to the sounds of the apparatus, an indistinct hum (in News from Home, Toute une nuit, and De l’autre côté, for example) that marks a formal sonic gesture. More chillingly, in Sud, she aims to use the organic buzz and hum of rural southeastern Texas as a foil for the silence of murder:

I would like to make images evoke almost too much happiness. Almost nausea. And then the landscape will begin to buzz. And through turning over, always turning over, I hope to make you waltz with the pleasure that nature, a trip to the country can give…until you start having doubts about this pleasure; until there emerges a feeling of horror, and even of tragedy, in a leaden silence.26

The lateral movements of the tracking shots in D’Est press on, relentlessly hesitating and resuming. The feeling of force and propulsion seems linked to the condition of nomadism itself, and has an intimate bearing on the near-silences of Akerman’s baseline noises and machines of conveyance, since the tracking shots (here and in News from Home, De l’autre côté, Sud, La Captive, and elsewhere) are accompanied by a range of sound markers that are silent (in Chion’s sense of being so subtle they are barely identifiable).

These almost inaudible traces seem to issue directly from the means of transport or propulsion that are Akerman’s production machines. The quiet footsteps of a camera-person treading uneven ground (De l’autre côté); the low rumble of a car or truck engine (Sud); the creak of a cart or trolley (D’Est); intermittent dolly creaks (La Captive) are all examples of sounds that occur over (or under) the tracking camera and provoke a sense of looking beyond what one sees to the unseen. The unseen sources of ghostly offscreen noises are often menacing and unsettling; they suggest conveyances that grind forward inexorably toward a future or an event which, because unseen, cannot be controlled.

This kind of machine noise is used perhaps most hauntingly in De l’autre côté, a film that addresses questions of surveillance most directly. Here, footsteps and engine noises occur behind tracking shots throughout the film; but more frightening is the shrieking whir over shots taken by an infrared surveillance camera from a helicopter as it hovers over a line of migrants—depersonalized white dots—while they are herded fatefully toward the border. With its gunsights fixed on the line of bodies and with the radio-voices of overzealous operators breaking through the static, the machine that searches, tracks, and patrols, in this case, is a killing machine.

The view from above broadens the perspective on this “mechanism” so it can be clearly understood to be not just the sounds of a cinema-like apparatus, but a vast, impersonal, inescapable machine—a social, political, economic, and existential machine—whose gears turn irresistibly, and whose effect is fundamentally cruel. These are the sounds of a relentless mechanism that drives innocent people across a real and metaphysical boundary line to their disappearances and deaths.

Finally, of course, there is the discursive silence that has underpinned these reflections on Akerman’s sound all along: the question of what cannot, will not, be said, sounded, or shown. Behind Jeanne Dielman’s ritualized movements; behind all the noises of walking, talking, or singing, is the fundamental silence behind her gestures. When Akerman tells Sam Adams that “jail is coming from the camps, because my mother was in the camps,” and then he asks whether her mother spoke about that, Akerman answers emphatically, “No, never. Never, ever, ever…I wanted her to talk about it, and she said, ‘Well, I can do a lot of things for you, except that…’27

Another child of Holocaust survivors, Israeli artist and writer Bracha Ettinger, wrote of her parents that they are “proud of their silence. It is their way of sparing others and their children from suffering. But in this silence, all is transmitted except the narrative. In silence, nothing can be changed in the narrative, which hides itself.”28

Akerman’s project, from the beginning, was to invent a language—with film as her medium—that could both duplicate and break open the silence she inherited; a silence in which “all [was] transmitted except the narrative.” Her mother’s refusal to speak about the camps was a profound and well-noted influence on the distinctive, indirect film language she developed to say the unsayable, show the unshowable, and communicate with a force that feels, for the filmgoer, like something exceptionally close to direct experience. For Akerman, the injunction to silence must paradoxically be both observed and transgressed; listening closely alongside this paradox, somewhere inside it, there echoes a sound that might well be termed an implosion.

On her journey across East Germany and Poland when making D’Est, Akerman traveled very near her mother’s original hometown. She passed right on by it, however, shunning a direct confrontation with the past in favor of a detour. Maintaining a distance from something that seems so close to the subject of her film in its most personal incarnation seems analogous to Akerman’s sound-image strategies, where the path of indirection mandates a distance between direct confrontations with the past and potently implied feelings about it, preserved as carefully as the distance between the stark indexicality of the image track and the connotativeness and nuance of sounds.

Akerman’s carefully composed soundtracks are structured in mindful contradiction to the conventions of narrative cinema, where synchronicity, the intelligibility of the voice, and back-and-forth dialogue are favored; where body movements and ambient sounds are kept backstage; where music is used primarily for affective emphasis or narrative commentary; and where the aim is for a unified representation in which cinematic time passes by without being noticed. Instead, Akerman’s sound strategies lift the layers of representation away from one another and attend to each register separately to produce the under-the-skin effects that come with the unexpected, the barely suggested, the fresh, and the discomforting.

Author’s Note

The author would like to give special thanks to Teresa de Lauretis for her early encouragement to write about sound in Akerman’s films, and to B. Ruby Rich for her patient shepherding through revisions.


1. Chantal Akerman, in Griselda Pollock, “Chantal Akerman: Moving between Cinema and Installation,” in Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film, ed. Lucia Nagib and Anne Jerslev (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013), 238. In the same passage, Akerman speaks of her grandparents’ deaths in the concentration camps and identifies the year 1984 as the time when she received her grandmother’s “young-girl diary” from her own mother: “She gave it to me instead of talking.”

2. Darlene Pursley, “Moving in Time: Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit,” Modern Language Notes 120 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 1193.

3. Akerman’s films are often constructed through a system of oppositions, “exteriors vs. interiors; the crowd vs. faces, bodies, and particular individuals; day vs. night; summer vs. winter; tracking shots vs. fixed camera; silence vs. noise; long vs. short.” Catherine David, “D’Est: Akerman Variations,” in Chantal Akerman with Catherine David and Michael Tarantino, Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 5.

4. For D’Est, David says, “the sound was recorded live, then almost entirely remixed (sometimes effaced; sometimes lowered or greatly increased in volume, as with the amplified sound of feet in the snow, for example). It’s often the dominant element of a sequence and exceeds, in every sense of the word, the image and its duration, overflowing it. In certain places, the ‘reverse shot’ is a sound effect, either paradoxical or very out of sync…the sound-track offers no pretense of realism.” David, “D’Est: Akerman Variations,” 60.

5. For succinct insights into these conventions, see Mary Ann Doane, “Ideology and the Practice of Sound Mixing and Editing,” in Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elizabeth Weis and John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

6. Chantal Akerman, “On D’Est,” in David and Tarantino, Bordering on Fiction, 20.

7. David, “D’Est: Akerman Variations,” 59.

8. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 25–33.

9. Robert Bresson writes of the “[r]hythmic value of a noise. Noise of a door opening and shutting, noise of footsteps, etc., for the sake of rhythm” in his Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin (Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1997), 52.

10. Michel Chion notes, “a hint of reverberation added to isolated sounds (for example, footsteps in a street) can reenforce the feeling of emptiness and silence. We cannot perceive reverb like this when other sounds (e.g., daytime traffic) are heard at the same time.” Chion, Audio-Vision, 58.

11. Douglas Kahn tracks important features of these influences in Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); see also Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), especially Mark E. Cory, “Soundplay: the Polyphonous Tradition of German Radio Art.”

12. Ivone Margulies has rightly emphasized the extent to which Akerman takes the characteristics of this kind of sound—its rhythms; the abstractness of its qualities as code (like Morse code); its repetitions; its generalizing conventions; but also its individualizing indexicalities—and collapses them into an effervescent concoction that pulls toward an anatomy of the semiotics of gesture, toward a deconstruction of the conventions of (represented) desire, and toward pure musicality. See Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), esp. chapter 7, “The Rhythm of Cliché.”

13. Chion, Audio-Vision, 67.

14. Akerman quoted in Marion Schmid, Chantal Akerman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 115.

15. Margulies, Nothing Happens, 68–69.

16. For the full text of Akerman’s monologue see Alisa Lebow, “Memory Once Removed: Indirect Memory and Transitive Autobiography in Chantal Akerman’s D’Est,” Camera Obscura 52, vol. 18, no. 1 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 41–42.

17. For Roland Barthes, the “grain of the voice” expresses a bodily interiority as well as “the encounter between a language and a voice.” Responses to this grain can activate an erotic relationship between the bodies of the singer/speaker and the hearer, especially when listening to vocal music. See Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

18. Ivone Margulies, “Echo and Voice in Meetings with Anna,” in Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman, ed. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 69.

19. Margulies, Nothing Happens, 211.

20. Max Harrison, Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings (London: Continuum, 2005), 148–57.

21. Martine Beugnet and Marion Schmid view the trope of jealousy as “a problematization of certain qualities of cinematic representation,” that is, it circumscribes the paradox of fixation (thrall, immobilization) “through the very medium of constant fluctuation” that is the cinema itself. See Martine Beugnet and Marion Schmid, “Filming Jealousy: Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000),” in Studies in French Cinema 2, no. 3 (2002): 157–63.

22. Akerman, in Sam Adams, “Interview: Chantal Akerman,” A.V. Club, January 28, 2010,

23. Marianne Hirsch, “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy,” in Acts of Recall: Cultural Memory in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal et al. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), quoted by Alisa Lebow in “Memory Once Removed,” 47.

24. Akerman in Adams, “Interview.”

25. Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 48, 63; Michel Chion: “Silence is never a neutral emptiness. It is the negative of sound we’ve heard before or imagined; it is the product of a contrast.” Chion, Audio-Vision, 57.

26. Chantal Akerman, Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cineaste (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2004), 164. Quoted by Marion Schmid in Chantal Akerman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 111.

27. Akerman in Adams, “Interview.”

28. From Bracha Ettinger, Matrix Halal(a) Lapsus: Notes on Painting (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art; 1993), 85. Quoted by Griselda Pollock, “Moving between Cinema and Installation,” 240.