Carol’s ghost: Chantal Akerman, Todd Haynes, and the problem of representation

Like so many people, we at Femina Ridens have been grieving the loss of Chantal Akerman since her death at the beginning of October. A conversation that Maddy, Chelsea, and I had this morning  foregrounded how much this loss requires us to grapple not only with Akerman’s incredible body of work, but also with the work that she didn’t do: that is, with the conditions of possibility under which her films were completed or left unfinished. Our conversation was sparked by an interview with Eric de Kuyper, Akerman’s friend and collaborator, which was posted online by the European Journal of Media Studies. Among many other topics, he shares information about some of Akerman’s unrealized projects:

de Kuyper: In a filmography there are always these blind spots: written scenarios which were never shot, projects which never materialised. For instance, after working on La Captive (2000), we wrote a wonderful adaptation of Chéri and La fin de Chéri by Colette. Too late, we discovered that all the rights for the French writer were blocked by Stephan Frears, who made a rather mediocre film on Colette some years later. Our next project was the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which was later published under the title Carol. Again, our work had to be interrupted because of film rights. We had learned our lesson. Carol is coming out now, but by Todd Haynes, not by Chantal Akerman.

We were all stunned by the thought of these never-to-be-made films, and had the following exchange (here edited and expanded) about what knowing this means for us:

Chelsea:  I am so sad we’ll never see Akerman’s Carol.

Maddy: My interest in the film has almost entirely evaporated now that I know this, no offense Haynes.

Chelsea: Same… He can’t even compete with hypothetical, incomplete Akerman.

Emily: The fact that the project was abandoned because they couldn’t get the rights is messing me up.


Emily: I love Haynes but this is so painful. It really shows how women’s stories are taken away from women — in this case, if not by Haynes specifically, then by the system that allows him to have a career and be funded for a film like Carol.

Chelsea: I’m kind of indifferent to Haynes, though I loved Safe… but yeah.

Maddy: What if Akerman had done Safe, though?

Chelsea: You’re killing me!!!

Emily:  (To be clear I fully support blaming Haynes.)

Maddy: Fuck Todd.

Chelsea:  He works in a system that allows him to succeed and put up barriers for Akerman. And she was much more skilled! I feel like if anyone could do this story justice it would be her.

Maddy: Cinema is a history of possibilities taken away from directors who aren’t white men.

Emily: Also, if I’m not mistaken, Haynes dedicated Carol to Akerman at a screening … knowing this that feels so cruel.

Chelsea: Was this before she died?

Emily: It was after. [And I was wrong: he didn’t dedicate the film itself to her, but rather that night’s screening of the film.]

Chelsea: This is gross… The story is like, made for Akerman. We’ll never get films for queer women by queer women.

Emily: This really brings home for me how fucked everything is for women, queer women, and so many other marginalized people in film. Even the amazing representations we cherish were so often made in place of the shadow ghost versions that could have been made by the people they represent.

Maddy: Often I feel like the “female canon” is us making do with what little we’ve been offered. Representation has always been middling, so we have to build from what little there is. Everything could have been better, works should have been done by others. Especially since there are so many filmmakers who are better suited.

Emily: Yes, we’re so hungry for any scraps….

Chelsea: I’m sick of all representation being mediated by white men, then praising these white men for ANY sensitivity.

Emily: I’m thinking again of that Facebook thread where Akerman said, “everyone inspired by me should pay me.”

Maddy: It was Annelise who pointed out that now it’s just heartbreaking:

Annelise: I thought this was funny once, now it breaks my heart. Why didn’t she get the money, or even the respect she deserved?


Chelsea: Everyone wants to cite Akerman as an influence for cred, but no one wants to actually support women artists.

“I think the weight of that loss is still being understood,” Haynes began, revealing he was still reeling from Akerman’s death. He called Jeanne Dielman “so inspiring as a filmmaker and as someone thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted and what we’ve come to expect is occupied onscreen when we’re dealt the story of women’s lives and what is important and what is not important.” – THR

Emily: It’s upsetting to me that the takeway from Akerman’s work here is “be inspired.” I think her work is inspiring for women and other people who have been largely barred from the opportunity to make films or to see films that represent them.  And it’s not that it can’t be meaningful for someone like Haynes… but it’s different for him to see an Akerman film and then, by using it as an “inspiration,” mine it for his own work (which, because of his social location, is more commercially viable, more widely seen, and more lauded).

Chelsea: And it’s almost absurd that men making films about women must learn that women are people in college. “Not until adulthood did I realize that women are misrepresented!” And then: “Have I done anything to help women artists represent themselves? Ummm… But I gotta work too…”

Maddy: Remember how Spielberg has the rights to Martin Luther King’s speeches, so they couldn’t be used in Selma?

Emily: The systems in place mean that your story isn’t your own anymore, and you are left hoping that it will be sold back to you in a form that you can still recognize.


One thought on “Carol’s ghost: Chantal Akerman, Todd Haynes, and the problem of representation

  1. Pingback: 2015: Year in Review | À l'allure garçonnière

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