The “Undervalued Gesture” in the Lens of Babette Mangolte

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Image credit: The Criterion Collection

Behind the lens that shot Chantal Akerman’s iconic Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is camerawoman and filmmaker Babette Mangolte. The landmark film propelled Akerman into the critical spotlight, but at its heart lies the shared bond and vision between the young director and the film’s assured, powerhouse cinematographer. Mangolte fostered an environment both inside and behind her camera lens: her carefully considered cinematography expanded portrayals of women on film, while her sensitivity proved nourishing for her collaborators offscreen, assisting at the genesis of the careers of luminaries such as Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, and Sally Potter. Even as she grappled with the rollercoaster of pursuing the technical field of cinematography as a woman, she made a career of continually spotlighting alternative perspectives.

“The eye reflected in the camera lens.”

As a young French girl, Mangolte watched and rewatched films at the cinema. The films’ plots could be formulaic, but it was the image, sound, and sensory methods in which the stories were told, rather than the stories themselves, that had Mangolte rapt. Seeing Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was the impressionistic experience that fuelled her desire to leave the “predictable” path of academia and pursue cinematography specifically [1], its images sending her brain whirring.

Education, training, and jobs for a young woman were almost impossible to obtain in 1960s France: film schools either rejected Mangolte or accepted her in almost any area other than cinematography, like editing or scriptwriting. Camerawork turned out to be one of the most expensive and typically “masculine” forms of work in film. After eventually finding a school that accepted her in her desired area of study, she struggled to get further training.

The result was that Mangolte was largely self-taught, learning from watching films, doing photography, and taking editing jobs where she could find them.

The result was that Mangolte was largely self-taught, learning from watching films, doing photography, and taking editing jobs where she could find them. This occasional work exposed her to the hostility of the male coworkers in her field, who were made uncomfortable by her presence. “I had not understood the importance of male bonding in [a] work situation,” she has said. “They could not unwind with me.” Furthermore, notes Mangolte, “[the men] were embarrassed because they had doubted my physical stamina.”[2]

Escape to New York: “Eye to Eye” with Chantal Akerman

Meanwhile, the French New Wave, for all its claims of innovation, wasn’t particularly inclusive of women in Mangolte’s experience and she was uninspired by the scene’s imitation of Hollywood buddy and crime films revolving around men. It was only when she left France and entered the New York experimental film scene that her world finally opened up. Crucially, it was here that she met Chantal Akerman. It was 1971 and Akerman was just 21 years old; Mangolte, 29. As Akerman pursued filmmaking, she struggled to find a cinematographer who would not condescend to her as her previous cameraman had. “The two of us had a common goal to make films that would reflect the world in which we lived,” says Mangolte. “We shared a sense of being ignored, and realized that if we worked together, we might communicate experiences that had not yet been told. We […] articulated the need to invent our own language devoid of references to a world dominated by men.” [3]

Against the backdrop of New York’s burgeoning experimental scene, both young women discovered works and methods that would help them actualize their ideas. “Babette Mangolte is a story in herself,” said Akerman of their working relationship.

“Babette Mangolte is a story in herself,” said Akerman of their working relationship.

“We saw eye to eye on how things should be filmed. We really felt the same way about framing and lighting.” [4] Akerman credits Mangolte with introducing her to films whose non-narrative modes spurred her imagination and changed her life. Soon after meeting, the pair shot two shorts that would go on to become iconic in Akerman’s oeuvre: La Chambre (1972) and Hôtel Monterey (1972). But the ambitious shared aims of these two young talents could only be fully articulated in a major-scale project, and it was right around the corner.

Image credit: The Criterion Collection

“Undervalued gesture”

Jeanne Dielman would be a radical film from the ground up: in story, style, and production. Its nearly four-hour duration showed the domestic routine of a widowed mother (Delphine Seyrig) who masks her anxiety with rigid rituals and unravels when they’re disrupted. The film’s long takes are its most notorious, divisive, yet critically heralded aspect. Mangolte and Akerman were certain that these were in fact the film’s defining facet. “Chantal did not want to excerpt things or do ellipses on the gesture,” recalled Mangolte. “You don’t do what men do. It’s not an action picture.” [5] Light, too, was an instrumental part of depicting this story’s progression visually: “My light was changing with the relation to the time of the day in terms of colour and light.” Mangolte thus manipulated the electric wiring in the small apartment they shot in to enable faster light modification. Her tight control on these aspects of production would be critical for the film as its real-time presentation was crucial in articulating the world of its protagonist. “[T]hat sense of real time is connected with undervalued gesture,” she has said, such as “somebody waiting for potatoes cooking”. [6]

Dielman does not rely on cuts, reverse shots, or close-ups, yet dispensing with these techniques did not mean forsaking drama: a grandiose sense was accomplished nonetheless via Mangolte’s framing of lead actress Seyrig. “The best compliment I ever got was from [photographer and filmmaker] Robert Frank. I was shooting a documentary with him. ‘Oh you photograph people like if they were giants.’” [7] Mangolte had learned this striking sense of visual presence from the John Ford westerns she watched as a youth. She recognized a special significance in applying the same grandiosity of Ford’s heroes to a woman in this domestic context.

Mangolte’s broad technical involvement in the film’s production was novel in its time. As the cinematographer had learned early on, the more technical aspects of filmmaking were often restricted to men. “People didn’t trust a woman cinematographer, for example. It was really considered a man’s job,” Akerman once stated. “Female sound recordists practically didn’t exist. There were script girls, and women who were editors or in charge of wardrobe or makeup … [but] quite a few positions were very much off-limits to women. So I wanted to show that it was entirely possible.” [8] Dielman‘s crew was 80% women, which four decades later is still an uncommon occurrence.

Mangolte and Akerman’s separate struggles as women pursuing film forged their bond, a relationship that nurtured each other’s creativity where men had so often failed to do so.

The shared understanding between the two women ultimately resulted in their radical innovation in how women’s experiences were portrayed on film.

The shared understanding between the two women ultimately resulted in their radical innovation in how women’s experiences were portrayed on film. Dielman’s story and photography valorized the nobility of the lifestyle and domestic space of a housewife. Still, their work ended up being defined primarily through their gender (it proceeded their titles: “woman cinematographer”, “feminist filmmaker”). In the case of Dielman, “feminist” became a one-dimensional label that distracted from and erased the other dimensions of the film; its centring of a woman character meant that it was construed as a film with a “message” or feminist agenda. “The difference is, I don’t think a man would’ve made this film,” Akerman specified. “From birth men are taught different values. A woman washing dishes isn’t art. It wasn’t a conscious challenge. I simply told a story that interested me, and [Dielman] is the result.” [9]

Image credit: The Criterion Collection

A triptych of subjectivity: films “beyond language”

Just as Mangolte had exposed Akerman to experimental forms of filmmaking, Akerman encouraged Mangolte to make her own works. Akerman was going on a trip and left behind some expired film stock that was too bulky to travel with and suggested Mangolte make a film with it instead. Mangolte began shooting with no script and a vague concept around a little girl’s perspective, very loosely inspired by a Henry James’ novel. The result was her debut film: What Maisie Knew (1975). Here, the precise lines and small interiors of Dielman were exchanged for something far more fanciful, spacious and abstract. Though Mangolte would inevitably be asked to replicate the aesthetic of Dielman at times throughout her career, she balked at this approach, rejecting the idea that a cinematographic style could be pre-made and forced onto a project. For instance, when shooting in black-and-white on Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983), the results are starkly stylized in portraying the more adult, formal matters of capitalism. Maisie, in contrast, utilized feathered black-and-white photography, shadowplay, and dreamlike imagery to depict the haze of a child’s limited understanding. [10]

Image credit: Babette Mangolte

Mangolte’s next projects depicted women in the process of creating and producing: a photographer’s point of view in The Camera: Je (1977) and a painter’s in The Cold Eye (1980). As in Dielman, Mangolte showcased a woman’s work, process, and struggle front and centre, without romanticization or diminishment. Together with What Maisie Knew, Mangolte considered these films a “triptych about the use of the subjective camera,” each one giving the viewer direct experience of the action in some capacity [11]. Both she and Akerman were astringent critics of the dishonesty imposed by much documentary and similar modes of “objective” filmmaking. “As soon as you frame something, it’s fiction,” said Akerman [12] who expressed relative disinterest in the omniscient point of view employed by other filmmakers. “The static camera is very instinctive for me. [It’s] a question of ethics, morality, politics.” [13] The words and works of both artists articulate their synergetic philosophies on point-of-view that laid the groundwork for their continual collaboration.

“Revealing new perceptions”

The film industry’s sexism compacted with ageism has led to decreased job opportunities for Mangolte over time, even now as she holds major achievements in film history. In a cruel irony, she discovered that many emerging directors feel threatened using a cinematographer more established than they are. Meanwhile, the industry hasn’t changed much for women pursuing cinematography: several decades after the beginning of her career, she sees that women are still perceived in essentialist, limiting terms – too physically and psychologically fragile, weak, emotional, illogical – and deemed unsuited to do the gritty, technical work that cinematography entails.

In recent years, Mangolte has become more involved in photography and installation, and writes and speaks regularly on film. In her long career, she has continually magnified the overlooked gestures of women, domesticity, alternative points-of-view, perceptions beyond language, and more inside her compassionate lens. Through it all she’s remained committed to the mode of highlighting the overlooked she honed at the beginning of her career with Akerman: “I still feel informed by this concept of revealing new perceptions.” [14]

Nel Dahl has written for Dazed, Mubi, Broadly, and more. Her interests include fantasy/horror, the gothic, and synths.

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Babette Mangolte, “Life in Film: Babette Mangolte”, in Frieze.com; Sep. 9, 2008.
[2] Brian Price, Drake Stutesman and Babette Mangolte, "Babette Mangolte Interview", in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring 2004): 34-57.
[3] Babette Mangolte, “Chantal Akerman: 1950-2015”, in Artforum.com; January 2016.
[4] Video Interview with Chantal Akerman, “Chantal Akerman: On Jeanne Dielman”, conducted in Paris in April 2009 for the Criterion Collection.
[5] Eric Hynes, “‘We Wanted to Invent’: Babette Mangolte on Chantal Akerman”, in Villagevoice.com; March 30, 2016.
[6] Minda Martin, “Babette Mangolte interview”, Cinemad Magazine, 2005. (Reprinted at: http://socialcontextfilm.blogspot.com/2011/02/reading-for-class-5-mangolte-interview.html)
[7] Martin, “Babette Mangolte interview”.
[8] Video Interview with Akerman, in Paris in April 2009.
[9] "Les rendez-vous du dimanche" interview with Chantal Akerman and Delphine Seyrig, February 15, 1976.
[10] Babette Mangolte and Elena Filipovic, "Babette Mangolte in conversation with Elena Filipovic", in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Issue 23 (Spring 2010): 44-52.
[11] Mangolte and Filipovic, "Babette Mangolte in conversation with Elena Filipovic".
[12] I Don't Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, documentary film directed by Marianne Lambert (2015; Artemis Productions).
[13] Dinitia Smith, “Chantal Akerman And the Point Of Point of View”, in Nytimes.com; April 26, 1998.
[14] Lina Bertucci, “Babette Mangolte”, in Flashartonline.com; January-February 2008.

Nel Dahl has written for Dazed, Mubi, Broadly, and more. Her interests include fantasy/horror, the gothic, and synths.