Restoring Chantal Akerman's Masterpiece Jeanne Dielman
An interview with Nicola Mazzanti
The legendary masterpiece of the late Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman , 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is one of the most debated, influential, and singular works in the history of cinema. A domestic epic about an attractive middle-aged widow (and part-time prostitute) whose rigorously ordered life begins to come apart over the course of three days. The films has been digitally restored by the Royal Belgian Film archive. We're screening the film on April 19 as part of Restored!, our retrospective of recent (and excellent) restorations of important films,which runs from April 9-26. To celebrate the programme and learn more about the art and craft of film restoration, we spoke with Nicola Mazzanti, director of the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique (CINEMATEK), to learn more.
GIVEN THE CONFUSION ABOUT THE VERY TERM "RESTORATION" (EVEN AMONG FILM CRITICS AND CURATORS), WHAT WOULD YOU SAY CONSTITUTES A TRUE RESTORATION?
It is indeed true that the term is sometimes misused. At the end of the day it is about the quality in the approach. Restoring means to respect the work as it was conceived and produced. It is not about improving or adapting to current tastes or standards. One could, theoretically, use available techniques to turn a 1940s movie into one from the 1990s, simulating spatial sound and improving picture quality —in other words, aiming to please the spectator and betraying the work as a result. This is not what restoration is. The work, the movie, always comes first, which sometimes includes technical or narrative defects or inconsistencies that must be preserved, as they are part of the filmmaker’s effort. The bottom line is that restoration is a matter of interpretation and scientific approach.
HOW DID THE RESTORATION OF JEANNE DIELMAN COME ABOUT?
As an institution, we at the Royal Belgian Film Archive care about Belgian filmmakers and works, although we do restore non-Belgian films. (After all, the Louvre does not restore only French paintings!) It was logical for us to look at Chantal Akerman's work, particularly because I consider Akerman to be one of the ten most important and influential filmmakers in film history — not just Belgian or French-language film history, but film history in general. So the choice was obvious to us.
OF ALL THE AKERMAN FILMS IN NEED OF RESTORATION, WHY DID YOU CHOOSE JEANNE DIELMAN?
Simple: We drew up a list of the films that were available, located those that were missing, and from there we prioritized titles for which there was a scarcity of good screening materials. It should not come as a surprise that the earlier films were highest on the list: we started with Hotel Monterey, News From Home, La Chambre, and then Jeanne Dielman. And we felt no urgency — we expected to do them all with Chantal. Now we are more determined than ever to do them all, unfortunately without her. We miss her every day. Like a filmmaker once told me: She was a giant. Yes, she was indeed.
HOW INVOLVED WAS CHANTAL AKERMAN IN THE RESTORATION OF JEANNE DIELMAN?
Chantal Akerman was involved in the project from day one. We set the priorities for the project with her (while drinking numberless coffees and chain-smoking), and she accompanied it all the way through. She was involved in the colour correction (timing/grading), we discussed the grain structure and "defects" at length, and we worked together to better understand what she wanted to achieve and how we could bring that back to the screen with the utmost authenticity. To work with her was both inspiring and rewarding. We miss her desperately.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE SPECIFIC CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN THIS RESTORATION?
Restoration is about understanding a work, deeply and intimately. I always say that it is the most intimate relation with a work, after creating it. Repairing scratches and damages can take time, but at the end of the day that is just technique. What really matters is the film itself: its narrative structure, its visual and aural qualities, the colours, the blacks, the whites... or, in the case of Jeanne Dielman, the unbelievable blues, greens and browns of the interiors. I often said that restoration is somehow like translation. You need to be fully immersed in the text in order to be able to reproduce it in a different language. In the case of restoration, it is about reproducing in a different environment. Those who think that restoration is just about technique can always translate Allen Ginsberg with GoogleTranslate!
TELL US WHAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF IN THIS RESTORATION.
Chantal Akerman's look and eyes after watching her films restored. She said to us: "It is so nice, it looks like film! These are the colours I was looking for!"
HOW HAS THE RESTORATION PROCESS CHANGED IN THE PAST FEW YEARS?
The techniques have changed, but the core of what restoration is, or should be, have not. Digital restorations have been around for awhile now. My first digital project was a few shots in Chaplin's The Kid back in 1998, when it was groundbreaking — and oh boy, it was tedious and costly. Digital gave us more options and possibilities, but also gave us more chances to do something very wrong to the films. So the scientific, philological approach I mentioned earlier not only remains at the core of restoration, but it has become even more important. Perhaps what has changed recently is that more people are doing restorations, and sometimes they think they do restorations, but in fact they lack respect for the films.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF RESTORATION FOR FILM CULTURE?
I do not see restoration as a stand-alone activity. Restoration is a tool that is sometimes needed so that certain works find their way to those who want to enjoy them or study them properly. I would say that film archiving, the act of preserving all kinds of films — short, long, beautiful and not so much, documentaries and fiction — is what matters. Collecting, cataloguing, correctly conserving, making films available for study and screenings, and then, yes, if need be, restoring, this is what is important to film culture.
Posing this question is like asking why a library or a museum is needed. I recently spoke with a filmmaker who told me how he became a filmmaker. "I was young,” he told me. “I thought I wanted to do theatre until I visited your Cinematheque in Brussels. The screening was sold out, so I was going to leave when on the entrance steps, I found a ticket. I rushed in and, by chance, I saw Visconti's Il Gattopardo. When I came out I knew I wanted to make movies, not theatre." I know that print, we still have it in our collections. It’s not a restoration, it was not in good shape, it was battered, scratched. But it changed his life. That's why we are here. That's what's important.
WHAT RESTORATIONS ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
We continue working on Chantal Akerman's films. The next in line are Toute une Nuit and Les Rendez-vous d'Anna. Then we are restoring all of the Dardenne brothers’ films; Daens, an important Flemish film by Stijn Conincx; and Deja s'envole la fleur maigre, a masterpiece by Paul Meyer, another Belgian filmmaker.
On the international front, we are committed to restoring as many films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien as we can (we have already worked with him to restore three but we have a long way to go). We are nearing completion on restoring Amos Gitai's Kadosh and Edward Yang's Taipei Story in collaboration with the Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.
We are quite busy, with little means, a small staff of four people, but we all have a great passion for restoration. And every screening — like the ones you are organizing at TIFF Cinematheque, and I thank you for that — is our reward.
Catch Jeanne Dielman and more classics in Restored! a deluxe series presenting recent restorations of films by such masters as Chantal Akerman, Otto Preminger, Lino Brocka, Marco Bellocchio, and King Hu, April 9-26 only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.