četvrtak, 29. ožujka 2012.

Chantal Akerman - Saute ma Ville (1968): Anarhistička dosada kućanica

Arheologija ženske dosade. Misteriozno korištenje štednjaka. Alkemijski kamen skriven u tepihu. Tajanstveni život kuhinja. Mitologijske preobrazbe u kupaoni. Slom zrcalnih živaca. Prazan život je čudo:

"Saute ma Ville (1968), Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's brilliant first short.

{1968, 13mins, 35mm, b&w, Belgium}

greatly inspired by Jean-Luc Godard et the joyful verve of French New Wave cinema, Akerman set about independently funding et making her first film, Saute ma Ville {Blow Up My Town} when she was only 18 years old. the result is an anarchistic, absurd, tragicomic, et exuberantly satirical film, it critiques the emptiness et unfulfilled domestic life of a young woman {a theme she will return to in her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (1975)}.
the title of the film aptly expresses youthful angst, wanting to rebel, to destroy, to "blow up" the place you are forced to live in, nearly everyone can identify with that. Akerman enthusiastically attempts to live out this fantasy, Saute ma Ville is her film, her declaration to society as an 18 year old woman living in Brussels in 1968, that things need to change.

Akerman sets up the film in true Godardian fashion with a large title announcing RECIT {a small story, or personal account}, she then establishes the films location, a high rise apartment building {representative of mass cramped modern living}, we are quickly introduced to the young protagonist, Akerman herself, who rushes into the building carrying flowers, checks her mail, then frantically makes her way to her apartment, as if late for something. all the while on the soundtrack we hear her voice zestfully humming a tune, which uniquely plays out as the opening 'theme' music. once home she literally locks herself in the kitchen et begins to make herself dinner.

"Scotch!" a harsh voice repeats tauntingly as the main character begins to make dinner. this word is at first quite cryptic, just another crazy sound, but it is in fact a very significant word, the only word in fact that is spoken in the entire film. this is her inner-voice, jeering at her, to get on with it. Scotch significantly means; put an end to, smash, destroy, et we could go as far as blow up, et of course it also means cello-tape.

the main character then matter-of-factly begins to tape around the door frame, sealing it, scotching herself into the kitchen, a gesture that signifies she is in the process of putting an end to her own life, she is obeying her inner voice. but Akerman puts a brilliant comic touch to this disquieting sequence, as she tapes the door frame, she repeatedly pauses et takes large bites from an apple, the loud crunching sounds add to the absurdity of the situation.

Akerman discerningly portrays the act of suicide as just another banal ritual, like having to make dinner or polish shoes. her character indifferently goes about her preparations for suicide while making dinner et mopping the floor. it is reminiscent of Godard's treatment of torture in Le Petit Soldat (1963), he de-dramatizes it to shows torture as a banal everyday process for the torturers. here Akerman elicits humor from the absurdness of her characters awkward preparations to asphyxiate herself in her kitchen, as well as blow up her apartment for good measure, after having just cleaned it!
Saute ma Ville is a very 'performative' film, it is a solo performance, et significantly, Akerman places herself in the lead role, this is something she will subsequently do throughout her career, effectively affording her films a level of authenticity et keen sense of self-examination.

the film is staged critically in one location, a cramped kitchen, which acts as a kind of 'domestic theatre'. the camera takes an observational approach, it regards et follows the main character as she performs her domestic chores within the tight space. there is often an ungainliness to Akerman's performance, a clumsiness, mixed with her constant horsing around, gives the film a slapstick nature, reminiscent of Chaplin et Tati, which only adds to the absurd et tragicomic tone of the film.
her exuberant spontaneity mixed with the films slightly unpolished quality give Saute ma Ville its youthful charm. this is something Akerman would dispense with in her subsequent films, establishing a more formal et rigid aesthetic.

throughout the film the main character grows more et more unstrung, her movements et gestures become frantic, her behaviour more erratic. something has clearly snapped, the overwhelming thought of a lifetime of domestic servitude is too much for her.

in one such sequence Akerman deftly turns the daily ritual of polishing her shoes into a devastating feminist critique. she begins to polish her shoe, then her sock et finally her leg, absent-mindedly at first et then gleefully with broad manic scrubbing gestures. the main character is like a child who refuses to stay within the lines of a colouring-in drawing, she refuses to adhere to societies outmoded routines any longer. Akerman's performance in this sequence et much of the films themes et attitudes evoke feminist performance et body art of the late 1960s-70s.
it is impossible to talk about Saute ma Ville without addressing its highly effective soundtrack. Akerman uniquely dubbed most of the film with her own voice, utilizing any et every sound that pops into her head; humming, murmuring, babbling et other child-like sound effects.

Akerman's child-like wordless singing, produces a unique form of 'sound' music, there is even a 'theme' tune of sorts. humorously at times her voice gets overexcited et falters, sounding almost out breath, other times it becomes bored, et takes on a more agitated tone. the sounds are usually synchronised with the drama, relating to what the main character is doing. it reflects her unstable personality, at times it is innocent et whimsical but then it becomes irritated et taunting, signally the characters growing agitation.

in many ways Akerman's use of her dubbed voice allows her to represent the solitude et loneliness of the main character, humming is usually done when you are alone, or you're excited about something, or when performing menial tasks as a way to distract yourself.

the mirror has a strong symbolic role in the Saute ma Ville, as a device that enables self-awareness, et as a symbol of 'beautification', the mirror is where women make themselves beautiful et 'presentable' before they go out into society. Akerman is critiquing the role of the mirror in women's lives, she makes its indifferent reflection complicit, a witness to her characters actions et subsequent suicide.

there are three important moments in the film that occur in the mirror, the first, Akerman's character sitting on the floor, abruptly catches sight of herself in the mirror, there is a moment of uncertainty, she is asking herself if she is really going to go through with it, then resigned to the fact, she breaks the gaze et proceeds to tape up the windows frames.

the second time is when she is dancing about hysterically, rubbing lotion on her face et laughing deliriously, Akerman once again catches sight of herself in the mirror, but this time she makes direct eye contact with the camera, with the audience, it is as if she is saying, you could stop this. she slaps herself, then disgusted by her reflection, she angrily writes something on the mirror {which we cannot make out}.

thirdly when she ignores the mirror, breaking the spell, she goes over to the stove, sets a piece of paper on fire, then turns the gas on, a voice on the soundtrack disturbingly makes the sound of gas hissing as it leaks into the room, this is mixed with the crackling of burning paper.

the film ends with a long shot filmed in the mirror, as a reflection, slumped over the gas stove, flowers grasped in her hand, a symbol of beauty et innocence. we wait with her, forced to watch her in the mirror, waiting for the inevitable ... bang! all goes black, interestingly rather than an explosion, Akerman chooses to unleash a hail of gunfire on the town, a possible reference to Godard's Masculin Feminin (1964) which also used gunfire sound effects metaphorically/politically.
the films 'explosive' suicidal ending also evokes Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965), a film Akerman has cited as being the reason she became a filmmaker, so in many ways the ending is an homage, but comically, one that happens "off" camera. after the gunfire subsides, the films closing credits are cheerfully read aloud by Akerman, this is effectively her final nod to Godard, a reference to his opening credits in Le Mépris (1963)." - inearlydiedofboredom.blogspot.com

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

There is something very subversive about watching a woman, in an old-fashioned housecoat, lovingly dusting the ornaments in her glass cabinet, preparing a fresh batch of coffee, anxiously peeling potatoes, glancing a hand across a bed quilt to straighten it, or sitting quietly at a kitchen table. When that woman is a classically trained actress, and when her actions are projected on screen for over three hours, these minute actions of everyday domestic life, which are almost always hidden from view in the cinema, take on the most acute sense of formal perfection. The ultimate violent dissolution of these actions in Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) make it one of the most insurrectionary films about women that I have ever seen, and certainly one of the most celebrated examples of cinema in the feminine, or indeed of cinema of any kind.
Jeanne Dielman
In 1977, the critic and scholar Marsha Kinder described Jeanne Dielman as “the best feature I have ever seen made by women” (1). Rightly, Kinder refers to “women” in the plural, not “woman” in the singular, since the film’s director, Chantal Akerman, was also joined in this formally and conceptually innovative chef-d’oeuvre by cinematographer Babette Mangolte, editor Patricia Camino, and an almost entirely female crew. Mangolte, with whom Akerman worked on many of her 1970s films – Hôtel Monterey (1972), La Chambre (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973), and News From Home (1976) – and Akerman’s less well-known film on Pina Bausch, Un jour Pina m’a demandé… (1983), is a prominent filmmaker in her own right, having also collaborated with artists such as the dancer Trish Brown and the performance artist Marina Abramovich.
But the most prominent and visually striking female presence onscreen in Jeanne Dielman is Delphine Seyrig, the much-esteemed actress who plays the role of the film’s eponymous protagonist, and was previously most well-known for her roles in the high formalist films of Alain Resnais (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), and Luis Buñuel (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972), as well as having worked in the US and Germany. A television interview with Seyrig and Akerman, broadcast shortly after Jeanne Dielman was released, shows a very young Akerman (she was only 24 when she made this, her second feature) speaking with great force and vivacity about her work. Her energetic performance is in sharp distinction to Seyrig’s powerfully graceful, reflective presence, which evidently shows restraint and admiration in equal measure. Footage of Seyrig and Akerman working together on set on Jeanne Dielman, filmed by the actor Sami Frey, further reveals these gentle tensions between two different generations of female artists. Seyrig, committed to women’s rights and women in film (2), and having practiced her own kinds of resistance and revolt through high formalist modes of performance, asks Akerman repeatedly for guidance and motivation, for signs of emotional connection between herself and the fictional woman Akerman has asked her to play. Akerman, almost mute, is vague, unspecific: not concerned with psychological depth, instead she is interested in the formal qualities of Seyrig’s gestures (3). For instance, she is interested in the way that Seyrig’s body embodies the bourgeois housewife, Jeanne Dielman, for a time, even when those embodying gestures are as simple as the act of brushing her hair. Akerman’s deceptive simplicity meets, and clashes – gently, productively – with Seyrig’s Strasberg-influenced method acting (4).
Jeanne Dielman
Jeanne Dielman is a film about what it is to be a woman: not only that, but a film about what it was to be a certain type of woman, trapped by the cultural and social norms of the Belgian – and by extension, the European – bourgeoisie in the 1970s, at a time when feminism was only beginning to become part of the social fabric of political and personal life. However, to say that this is a film exclusively about women might suggest that Jeanne Dielman is some sort of critical utopia, when this is far from being the case. The eponymous housewife, with her precise movements and economical, if not austere domesticity, is also a part-time prostitute, turning tricks in the afternoons to ensure that she and her son can maintain their precarious life in a psychologically oppressive Brussels, painted in the same drab “Flemish colour palette” as her primly decorated home (5).
All 201 minutes of the film unfurl at the same unhurried pace, revealing the minutiae of Jeanne’s daily routine over the course of approximately 48 hours. Her daily actions, and her scrupulous attention to the metronomic choreography of domestic life, quickly embed themselves as part of the visual and bodily logic of the film. I find myself equally as engrossed by the manner in which Jeanne scrupulously eschews waste of any kind, folding away barely-used tinfoil for instance, and compulsively switching on lights in each room as she enters, then off again as she exits, as by the way in which she conscientiously holds and folds the hat, coat and scarf of the middle-aged men who are her regular afternoon clients. This routine also reveals the intricate details of past and present suffering: her life as an orphaned young woman, the death of her husband six years ago, her indifference to marriage, and the judgement of a sister overseas who disapproves of her singledom. And as her routine, which seems always to have been just so, begins to fall apart, moment-by-moment, each loving act of care that Jeanne displays in her work also seems to be doubly tinged with fear, regret, anxiety and loss. Within this meticulous ethnography of feminine domestic labour, a phenomenology of affect unfolds.
Jeanne Dielman
Nonetheless, it is not the case that we can necessarily “identify” with, or fully understand Jeanne Dielman. After all, the film’s semi-distanced camerawork never allows Jeanne to be seen outside of the context of her daily activities. As Akerman said herself, the film’s frame adheres to a strict ethics of looking: “To avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces… cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful” (6). In fact, only once in the entire film is the camera permitted to enter into Jeanne’s bedroom in the course of one of her afternoon visits. That brief instant, where so little is seen, shows just one transitory moment where Jeanne is not in control: we see – or think we see, for the frame cuts off both Jeanne and the client from the waist down – an orgasm. That shuddering, fleeting glimpse into a world of unruly pleasure, so diametrically opposed to the impassive, undramatic, satisfyingly ritualistic gestures of domestic life, marks the culmination of a life unravelling. This unravelling takes place at a pace so minimal, so almost imperceptible, that the film’s violent penultimate scene seems no more shocking than the burnt potatoes that earlier marked the metaphorical grains of sand entering into the clockwork mechanism of bourgeois femininity.
Dialogue is sparse, limited predominantly to the quiet, softly chattering conversations between Jeanne and the shop-owners she visits to mend shoes, find a button, to obtain a new ball of wool. The longest and most poetic exchanges take place between Jeanne and her son, who reveals his Oedipal jealousy and fear of Jeanne’s sex life with his father, now long dead. And yet, the unspoken within the film is also one of its most potent elements. Silence is not silence: it is inflected with the ticking of an alarm clock which never rings, the click of Jeanne’s modestly heeled shoes down the corridor, the shrill screech of the doorbell, the murmur of traffic in the street beyond the apartment.
Within this film, exquisitely framed, is housed both the rumbling thunder of repression, and the intimate machine of everyday love – a love that speaks of care, and a care that speaks of the fear of unravelling, perhaps even the fear of time itself. There will never be another Jeanne Dielman, in all its exquisite, drab, metronomic, agonising glory. Its perfect depiction of the horror of the everyday world – a world predominantly conducted behind closed doors, and rarely projected large on the big screen – is spellbinding. It has lost none of its punch, its viciousness, or its complex interplay of love and despair woven into the very fabric of the quotidian, in the years that have passed since 1975.


  1. Marsha Kinder, “Reflections on Jeanne Dielman”, Film Quarterly vol. 30, no. 4, Summer 1977, pp. 2-8.
  2. Seyrig regularly campaigned for women’s rights, having been one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343 Bitches”, a list of 343 women who publicly declared themselves to have had an abortion that was published by Simone de Beauvoir in the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur on 5 April 1971. She also co-founded the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir in 1982, dedicated to women’s rights and women’s filmmaking.
  3. Both the interview and the on-set footage can be found on the DVD special edition of Jeanne Dielman, The Criterion Collection, New York, 2009.
  4. In the late 1950s, Seyrig trained in New York at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, most well-known for his mode of “method acting”. See Michel Beauchamp and Mari-Claude Loiselle, “Entretien avec Delphine Seyrig: Vertige du jeu”, 24 images no. 44-45, 1989, p. 91.
  5. Ivone Margulies, “A Matter of Time: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Jeanne Dielman, The Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1215-a-matter-of-time-jeanne-dielman-23-quai-du-commerce-1080-bruxelles. See also Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1996, p. 5.
  6. Chantal Akerman, “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman”, Camera Obscura no. 2, 1977, p. 119. See also Marion Schmid, Chantal Akerman, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, p. 48.

Je, tu, il, elle on Vimeo

Bechdel Test Canon: Je tu il elle

post by Alyx Vesey on January 13, 2012
Miranda July recently discussed using film to explore sexuality with The A.V. Club's Noel Murray. In the interview, she relays an ex-boyfriend's observation that it's rare for a woman to write and participate in a sex scene for a movie she's directing. This reflection motivated me to find other instances where female writer-directors star in their films' sex scenes. I'm proud to say that, at this point in the series, two entries can claim this distinction.
Notably, both films were made by queer directors—Cheryl Dunye's 1996 The Watermelon Woman and Chantal Akerman's 1974 Je tu il elle. They also represent queer sex very differently. Dunye's scene with Guinevere Turner is heightened in a way befitting the period, with lots of cutting and a gritty rock soundtrack. Akerman attempts to depict sex in a more realistic manner, using long takes and static framing as well as dispensing with score altogether to focus on the sounds produced by the actors and their environment. While I would argue that the results are no less stylized, Je tu il elle acknowledges Akerman's bisexuality (the title references her two partners) and makes some startling, radical pronouncements about female sexuality.
Akerman's reputation precedes her. Much of this can be attributed to the acclaim and infamy the Belgian director received for her masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Starring Delphine Seyrig as the titular middle-class housewife, the film is a meditation on the nature of sex and domestic labor and clocks in at nearly 3 ½ hours. Jeanne Dielman is beloved by a number of feminist film scholars like Ivone Marguiles and Geetha Ramanathan. It was made by an all-female production crew including cinematographer Babette Mangolte, one of Akerman's frequent collaborators. Perhaps most astonishing, Akerman was only 25 upon its release.
Frankly, Jeanne Dielman is a bit daunting and I have yet to watch it. Like Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me, I'm going to need devote some time to it and offer it my full attention. I plan on watching it after I complete my first year of grad school. Rest assured, I won't be commemorating the event with a meat loaf. Akerman's most recent film, Almayer's Folly, came out last year. But there is renewed interest in her groundbreaking early work following the release of Jeanne Dielman and her 70s-era output on Criterion. There may be more than a bit of romanticizing as well, particularly over her decision to drop out of film school, move to New York, and work several odd jobs to finance her films.

Ultimately a film about a young woman attempting to escape societal convention and control her own life, Je tu il elle is perplexing. Divided into three sections with an 86-minute running time, the film's slow pace requires adjustment (and anticipates how Jeanne Dielman tries at viewers' patience). The first part of the film, where Akerman addresses the title's je (Julie, played by Akerman) and tu (most likely the person to whom Julie is writing and rewriting an epic letter, which we hear excerpts of in voiceover), is about the dynamic passage of time. Julie spends nearly a month in her flat rearranging and repainting furniture, sleeping, eating sugar, writing a letter, and deciding whether she needs to put on clothes for any of this. Is she mourning a breakup or trying to revolutionize the act of dwelling?
Julie Je tu il elle
She decides exploring this question further is a lost cause, puts on a pair of pants, and hitches a ride with a burly truck driver (Niels Arestrup) who seems vaguely threatening. He confirms as much—and also suggests that he's a chatty Cathy after sex—when he reveals his disdain for his wife and his burgeoning attraction toward his pubescent daughter. His casual misogyny and withering attitude toward sex flows forth unfiltered after Julie gives him a hand job. He also narrates the act in a mordantly comic scene that plays to me as feminist commentary. Bringing to mind Andy Warhol's Blow Job, the camera discretely obscures Julie's action or his member and focuses on his face instead.
Finally, Julie arrives at her destination. While the film keeps ambiguous whether the letter Julie wrote is for her ex-girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), it is abundantly clear that there is unfinished business between them when Julie shows up at her doorstep. The film doesn't provide dialogue to explain why they broke up or why Julie can't stick around in the morning, but there is a familiarity and a tenderness between them that's beautiful and sad. Her ex sits with her and makes her toast. Then they fuck.
Akerman and Wauthion Je tu il elle
B. Ruby Rich argues that the sex in Je tu il elle denies pleasure. I'm not entirely with her about that in the truck. And Akerman and Wauthion's ten-minute sex scene is shockingly erotic. It's sex as a wrestling match. It's sex as an argument. It's sex as flesh. It's sex as "fuck you" and "yes, please" at the same time. It doesn't shy away from the clumsiness that can result from braiding naked bodies together. The scene allows for voyeurism, as the camera holds us at a remove while Wauthion pries Akerman's legs apart without providing a POV shot to clue us into characters' subjectivity.
Yet at the same time, I love Akerman's refusal to objectify the characters by reducing them to body parts and positions. Her commitment to unfolding this scene in real time at medium distance gives equal treatment to both bodies and suggests that what they are doing is consensual and mutually beneficial. Depicting sex in this way is a choice, and to me a radically feminist decision when compared to a number of films with close-up shots of jiggling breasts that don't represent the woman who owns them or acknowledge that sex is an action she is taking with someone. Julie departs soon after, content to leave what happened behind in search of something new and unknown. These are two words I'd use to describe Akerman's work. Je tu il elle illustrates why the enthusiastic fandom and hushed reverence it receives it feels earned.- bitchmagazine.org

Je, tu, il, elle

Chantal Akerman's first feature-length film is a striking, minimalist work about love, loneliness, desire and gender. Actually, "minimalist" doesn't begin to do justice to the film's narcoleptic pacing and sparseness of action. The film opens with a young woman played by Akerman herself (named as Julie only in the post-film credits) alone in her room. In a series of long, mostly static shots, this woman sits on the floor in a corner, eats sugar from a paper bag, moves her furniture around, writes letters, strips naked and walks around, looking out the window or examining her body in a mirror. The camera occasionally tracks to follow her, when she's actually moving, but more often the camera sits as patiently still as the protagonist herself, locked into stasis and repetition. It gradually becomes apparent that she's recovering from a breakup, missing her lover and writing letters that she'll never mail.
This portion of the film, which last around a half hour, is a powerful and suffocating depiction of loneliness and depression. Akerman perfectly captures the sense of being locked into stasis, alternately numbed and pained, unable to break free of a series of repetitive, minimal tasks. She writes the same letter over and over again, crossing out most of it and then starting again, periodically laying all the pages out on the floor in front of her. She unthinkingly spoons sugar into her mouth as her only sustenance, then spills it on the floor and methodically spoons it back into the bag. The black-and-white photography is high contrast and alternates between crisply defined daytime sequences and shadowy scenes where Julie/Akerman is just a silhouette, her face hidden by her long dark hair. The pacing of this sequence is slow and patience-testing; it is quite deliberately empty of incident, and as a consequence the smallest movements, the smallest shifts in the familiar patterns of nothingness, have great impact. These scenes are accompanied by a voiceover in which the protagonist describes her time alone in her room. Tellingly, the action onscreen often lags behind the narration by a good amount of time, as though the narrator is anticipating what she'll do next — and it then takes a supreme act of willpower to actually go through with these tiny, insignificant actions. This disconnect between narration and visuals thus enhances the impression of a woman struggling to force herself into action, to break free of this self-imposed black hole.
In the second segment of the film, Julie abruptly decides to leave the apartment, flagging down a passing truck on the highway and hitching a ride with the driver (Niels Arestrup). This sequence is initially as static and tranquil as the scenes in the apartment, as though the woman has still not fully emerged from her exile into the world. But soon the driver asks Julie to give him a handjob, and after this extended and strangely compelling scene — in which Akerman films the man's profile while he dispassionately narrates the experience from start to climax — the driver becomes more talkative. In an intense and rambling monologue, he talks about his wife, his children, his jobs, his brother and his cousin who are both more successful than he, his thoughts while driving late at night on his cross-country truck runs. It's a great piece of writing, all the more startling because it's the first extended verbal sequence in the entire film, coming well after the halfway mark. Throughout this sequence, Akerman holds a static shot on the driver, smoking a cigarette and occasionally looking away from the road, bathed in the grainy, shadowy quality of the image, which is packed with dancing, shimmering film artifacts that counteract the static shot.
The subtext of the driver's monologue is male discontentment and the impersonal nature of sexuality. The driver has been married a long time and long ago began to see sex with his wife as an unexciting duty; he is more excited, he says, by random hook-ups with hitchhikers in his truck, and also by the simple experience of driving, alone, at night, getting an erection for no reason as his truck drifts through the night and his mind wanders. His descriptions of his sexuality are all tangled up with his boredom with his marriage, his ambivalent thoughts about his kids, his jealousy of other men who have gotten better arrangements for themselves, and his feelings of duty as a man with a family. It's a remarkable speech, and the dysfunctional view of sex presented here, in which sex is simply a needed release found outside of any emotional bond, sets up a contrast against the much different view of sexuality found in the film's final act.
Julie takes her leave of the truck driver shortly after this scene, arriving at the apartment of the lover (Claire Wauthion) who she had missed so profoundly during the film's first half hour. Julie's girlfriend tells her immediately that she doesn't want her staying the night, and the subsequent scenes are full of awkward, hesitant interaction: they embrace, the girlfriend makes Julie a sandwich and serves her some wine, and they stare at one another while Julie chomps on the sandwich. Then Julie reaches across and unbuttons the other woman's dress, while her girlfriend smiles and shakes her head, not as though saying "no" but with a faint air of admonishment and disbelief that they're going to go through this again. Akerman then cuts to the two women naked in bed, caressing and kissing one another, rubbing their bodies together and rolling around so that sometimes one is on top, sometimes the other.
Sensuous and sensual, passionate and joyful, tender and desperate, it's a forceful answer to the mechanized orgasms of the truck driver, a vision of a much more beautiful kind of sex built on real emotions. Those emotions can sometimes hurt and wound those who give themselves up to them, as they did to Julie during the film's opening, but that's just because the stakes are so high, and the rewards so transcendent. This lovingly filmed and lengthy sex scene can be read as a feminist/lesbian rejection of heterosexuality and marriage, but it can also be read as simply an ode to the beauty of real loving sex, no matter who's involved, as contrasted against sex as duty and sex as simple biological imperative. All of the film's patient minimalism was building towards this sequence, and when it's finally over, the next morning, Julie simply gathers her clothes and sneaks out, leaving the other woman sleeping peacefully, and the film ends. Je, tu, il, elle is a simple film in many ways, as symbolic and schematic as its title suggests. But for such a small, quiet film, it has a lot to say in its silences and its stark, still images. - Ed Howard seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/

Toute Une Nuit (1982):

Nuit et jour (1991):  

Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas: The Suspended Image and the Politics of Anti-Messianism

It is this double exigency-recognition of the closure of the political and practical deprivation of philosophy as regards itself and its own authority– which leads us to think in terms of re-treating the political. This phrase is taken here at least in two senses: first, withdrawing the political in the sense of its being the ‘well-known’ and in the sense of its obviousness (the blinding obviousness) of politics, the ‘everything is political’ which can be used to qualify our enclosure in the closure of the political; but also as re-tracing of the political, re-marking it, by raising the question in a new way which, for us, is to raise it as the question of its essence.
- Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1)
When everything has been said, when the main scene seems over, there is what comes afterwards…
Antonioni (2)
I ’ve thought of her film work as philosophy. And by this I don’t mean that it just embodies previously published philosophical ideas, but that it actually realizes a historically innovative philosophical contribution.
What exactly does it mean to assert the possibility of film as philosophy? And what is the philosophical and political claim Chantal Akerman’s 2006 film Là-bas makes?
According to Gilles Deleuze, what makes cinema deeply and inherently philosophical is its ability to open up problems that require in turn a new thinking. However, in order to give some credibility to the argument that films can be philosophy, the philosophy contained in the film must somehow be presented in a way that depends on some feature of film as an artistic medium. This will protect the film from being seen as a simple heuristic means in our philosophical enquiries, or as a springboard for discussions of some philosophical interest. Moreover, the claim ‘film as philosophy’ poses inevitably the question of how one understands philosophy.
Can a visual medium like cinema do philosophy, or even better a philosophy? If philosophy is regarded as an academic discipline with a highly specific methodology, then such a claim sounds all too weak. Following Christopher Falzon’s argument, the history of philosophy is characterised by ‘a deep philosophical prejudice against the visual image as an avenue to philosophical enlightenment.’ (3) Many philosophers, from Plato (4) onward, have opposed philosophy (or the ‘world of knowledge’) to visual images (‘images and shadows of reality’), with philosophy defined as a source of rational conviction, while the visual has been considered to deceive viewers by appealing to their emotions.
Yet Falzon argues that the image is what both philosophy and cinema share:
[P]hilosophers have always resorted to a multitude of arresting and vivid visions to illustrate or clarify their position, to formulate a problem or to provide some basis for discussion. Philosophy is full of strange and wonderful images and inventions of this sort. (5)
So maybe it is in the cinematic image that we should look for the intrinsic qualities that make cinema capable of philosophising, or even better of producing its own thinking. According to Deleuze:
It (the cinema) affects the visible with a fundamental disturbance, and the world with a suspension, which contradicts all natural perception. What it produces in this way is the genesis of an unknown body. (6)
Deleuze perceives the cinematic image as the source for what can yet be thought, suggesting the possibility of a cinematographic philosophy precisely because cinema and the cinematic image engage directly to the ‘problem’ of time. (7) According to Deleuze, time constitutes a significant philosophical problem. Our conception of time delineates the way we perceive, understand and describe reality; or else, the real is constructed in time, since for Deleuze, drawing on Bergson, time possesses an ontological priority. By giving back to time its neglected ontological priority, cinema creates a new image of thought which rather than representing the real, it recreates it constantly, putting thus the notion of truth in crisis (disturbing a commonsensical seeing). (8) Hence, cinema is able to render visible the image of thought of philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza – who have argued for the falsifying force of time. (9)
Chantal Akerman’s film work is an exploration of time, movement and space. The deliberate stillness of her image puts into crisis our ‘natural’ perception and subsequently our conception of movement and time gets disturbed. Long takes, stubborn fixedness and a camera that stares produce another ‘seeing’ and a sense of additional reality (rather than a description of what already exists). As Jacques Derrida has argued: ‘One can only be blind to time, the essential disappearance of time, even as, nevertheless, in a certain manner, nothing appears that does not require and take time”. (10)
If our sense of reality, all appearance and disappearance, is based on the disappearance of time, Akerman’s cinema by giving time the leading role, by making it visible, creates a monstrous (non-human) image (11) of an additional reality: an image that occasionally becomes unbearable, a too much to bear for our common perception; an image that paralyses vision commonly understood as orientation and action and that invites instead intuition, in the Bergsonian sense of a deep apprehension of duration. (12)
As Ivone Margulies argues in her book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday:
Akerman’s use of both repetitive compositions and extended real-time shots raises questions about the destabilising, supplementary effect of detailed description. The insistence on remaining with the scene even after its narrational or referential information has been decoded, inevitably solicits an estranged experience of the image. (13)
Particularly with Là-bas, Chantal Akerman creates what I call the ‘image of suspension’ as a new thinking-image that politicizes the notion of time and temporality. By giving time an ontological priority, the suspended image breaks away from a valorisation of visuality, which has historically supported the privileging of space over time (psychoanalytic concepts of scopophilia, voyeurism, and the gaze are still dominant and key terms in order for us to think of the cinematic image). Instead the suspended image assumes a different perception and thinking that break away from the norms of representation. Hence, an image that does not serve (re)cognition and thus does not command action, but persists and endures as the power to be affected; an image that speaks without giving orders, without claiming to represent anything; an image that requires from us solely to acknowledge the appearing of time as the only event.
‘When Jews in France say to each other ‘ “Tu vas là-bas” they usually mean: “are you going to Israel?” We have the place where we live and we have ‘là-bas’. (14) The film Là-bas was shot in 2005 in an apartment in Tel Aviv. Most of the film runs indoors and the outside world becomes visible through the window blinds (we’re looking at people sitting in their balconies) or by the ambience of the flat, which is nothing other than the sounds of the city (traffic, children playing, voices from the street and the nearby flats). The only outdoor shooting takes place briefly in a nearby beach while the camera remains distant from the sea and the people strolling. The indoor static shots are often accompanied by the voice of the director: she responds to phone calls, reflects loudly on readings and events, narrates childhood memories, informs on the aftermath of an explosion that took place one block further from her residence (‘Four dead’, ‘All of that was supposed to be over’). The present and the past blend in an a- temporal narration, in a sort of visual and sound nakedness (an interior that is not personalized, (15) the generic sounds from the city).
With Là-bas Akerman refuses to make a film ‘about’: about Israel, about politics, about trauma, about power, about violence. (16) She makes a film that negates the aboutness of film, the aboutness of the image (17); a film that sees but cannot represent; a film that sees but does not grasp or seize; a film that has learned to see as pure and unintended contact. At the heart of one the most debatable political spaces (Tel Aviv) Akerman dares to create a film of the seer and not of the agent troubling our political consciousness.
Far from seeing the film’s refusal to take a clear and explicit stand on the complex political issues surrounding Israel today as political apathy or indifference, this paper argues for the mobilisation of a different kind of politics (a politics of passive vitalism) that draws on a different aesthetics – an aesthetics of vitalism that characterises the image of suspension. It will be argued that in this new aesthetics we can find different possibilities to conceive of political bodies and their relation to images outside representation, recognition and belonging.
The notion of suspension is rather ambiguous and polyvalent, varying from definitions of abrogation or cessation, to temporary debarment, postponement and/or prolongation. It could thus be seen as a rupture of a (linear) flowing time since any notion of stoppage always assumes a before and an after, a moment of time that either borrows from the past (a prolongation of what is passing by) or foretells the future (as cessation of the past). According to Deleuze, it is in the time-image that the interval, the space of the between, acquires an autonomous value so that the “film ceases to be ‘images in chain…an uninterrupted chain of images each one the slave of the next’, and whose slave we are.” (18) In Là-bas Akerman explodes the interval, annihilates it by giving it absolute autonomy as the only existent. There is no longer a between two images. The interval, the betweeness, becomes the Whole, all that there is. We thus feel that time and movement has ceased in Là-bas, since succession feels almost to have stopped. The unchanging visual scene takes us away from the realm of action and reaction, the realm of mechanism, and no truth is sought to be discovered, or to be articulated.
For Bergson, it is this lack of mechanism, of action-reaction, it is in the interval we have life or memory, with the Bergsonian memory referring to an ‘all it could have been’ rather than a personalised memory, signifying thus Life in its actuality as well as in its virtuality (a ‘would have been’). It is in this sense that the image of suspension brings about a different aesthetics (that of vitalism) that mobilises new definitions of the political. In the image of suspension the sensori-motor schema (19) is suspended, a suspension that in turn gives rise to a virtual image – often a memory, a dream, a thought; suspension as what gives memory to matter. (20)
But what is vitalistic about the image and particularly the cinematic image? Deleuze draws on the Bergsonian conceptualisation of image, in an attempt to escape the traditional definition of the image as semiological sign, as the representation of an a priori thing. (21) Rather than seeing in the image a representative force, Deleuze perceives in it an expressive and affective one, so that, according to him, we can no longer talk about the image of a body, but about the body-as-image. For Bergson, image is not simply a visual image but the complex of all sense impressions that a perceived object conveys to a perceiver at a given moment. So perception, far from being the faculty of the subject (related to cognition), is the im-pressions (22) (senses, affects) the object and subject give and receive in their interaction. For Bergson the world is made up of images, of things as they appear, in their ‘superficiality’ – world then as a surface, a huge screen, a matrix of actions and interactions. He thus rejects the distinction between ‘being’ and ‘being perceived.’ Deleuze, following Bergson, argues that there is a profound link between signs, life, and vitalism: it is not the subject or the system (the Law of the Language/Phallus) that signifies, rather signification and subjects are seen as the effects of the sense (as sensation), and of material interactions.
There’s a profound link between signs, life, and vitalism: the power of nonorganic life that can be found in a line that’s drawn, a line of writing, a line of music. It’s organisms that die, not life. Any work of art points a way through for life, finds a way through the cracks. (23)
Akerman’s cinema is a material capture of the processual rather than being representational: a process of affectivities, intensities, rhythms, matter, speed and movement. However, Akerman’s image escapes the tired notion of vitalism in its Romantic form usually related to a notion of a transcendent-unknown-mysterious creative, living force or genius, as well as, with notions of depersonalisation or renewal/regeneration. (24) As Claire Colebrook comments, the latter kind of vitalism – what she calls active vitalism – has dominated aesthetics since Kant producing a rather normative image of life and creativity– a metaphysics of life force as ‘explaining’ human spirit. (25) In the view of active vitalism.
Life has a proper trajectory towards fruition and the realisation of its proper form; art is the process whereby deviations, failures or corruptions of the vital power may be retrieved and re-lived. (26)
An aesthetics of active vitalism perceived as praxis strives to overcome the banal or the common (an example of this is the imperative to make life an art work in- progress, or the imperative to restore creative spirit and fulfil life’s potentials), and equally a politics of active vitalism strives to overcome imposed norms that reduce individual autonomy, aiming instead at an ever expanding notion of freedom. Following Colebrook’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of (dominant/active) vitalism in their work What is Philosophy? (27), the vital political self ‘acts but is not’, in other words, works as a critique and negation of the norm, the image, the figure or the stereotype (i.e. the politics of performativity in the case of sexual politics (28) or the politics of deconstruction in terms of race politics). Politics and political activism then are usually solely conceived of as different degrees of act in relation to the (normative or ideal) image and consequently, our political activism gets reduced into the following questions: Is our relation to the normative or the authoritarian image enough productive, properly political, enough transgressive, enough resistant? What kind of images of belonging should we mobilize? Thus, an active vitalism, in its political and aesthetic expressions, strives for some active representation of ‘a life that must know and recognise itself and always remain in command of the production of affects’ (29); a politics of images of/about life (be it critical, anti-normative, representative, etc.), a production of affects in the service of political subjectivity.
The film Là-bas refuses to provide us with images of / about life (in Tel Aviv). It does not make any judgment or does not privilege any kind of depersonalisation (on the contrary it is highly personalised.). It does not seek a way out, nor is it interested in rendering productive the minority voices. It does not look forward to a change, nor holds a nostalgic backward look. Breaking away from an epistemology of regular time tied to space (30), the film captures, or better arrests the time of a ‘now’, not as action with references to past and future events, but as an a-temporal en-during, almost like a living without a tense. The voice over informs on past, childhood memories and gives present reflections but its monotonous rhythm together with the static shots unburden it from any psychological and emotional charge that would mobilise a certain political sentiment towards certain political attitudes (the political economy of affect). A voice that feels attuned to the stillness of the image; an illusion of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a false confirmation of the “I” that exists as this or that subject position (i.e. the woman of her childhood memories, the second generation child). Who is speaking? There is no longer even a place from which to ask. Chantal Akerman refuses to take up the space, to make herself (or a self) visible in front of the camera. Occasionally, we see only her shadow or her reflection on the window’s glazing. She is, but does not act.
We are left only with the inhuman eye of the camera and with time. The camera is there to record not to grasp or understand. The objects and the setting in the film almost take on an autonomous (material) reality freed from human perception: ‘suspension of human presence, passage to the inanimate’. (31) Objects appear as independent of the subject, endowed with their own properties, objects as events: ‘the glowing rectangles of light made by windows and a door in her sublet apartment’ (32) is a light which emanates from the objects themselves, creating surrounding images that turn toward the body-behind-the-camera and to our body as viewers. Action is floating in the situation rather than being brought to a conclusion. Unlike the aesthetics of an active vitalism that puts forward a fruitful image as a synthesising, unifying view of the world (a directional image from the body to the world), Là-bas feels sterile and receptive in its feeling of that which is not itself (33), of a world that cannot be possessed or mastered by the image; an image of immense brutality since it sees and hears but does not respond.
I don’t feel like I belong. And that’s without real pain, without pride. No, I’m just disconnected. From practically everything. I have a few anchors. And sometimes I let them go or they let me go and I drift. That’s most of the time. Sometimes, I hang on. For a few days, minutes, seconds. Then I let go again. (34)
By bringing out the inhuman powers of the time of suspension (time as internal differentiating, difference as nuance), (35) the film runs still, expressing an undecidability between prolongation and cessation, postponement and debarment; an undecidability that in turn puts forward a new aesthetics and a new politics of vitalism, not as representation, belonging or negation (active vitalism) but as negotiation of the multiple affections and attachments that compose the body-behind- the-camera and the image-as-body.
Hence, the suspended image produces suspension as another temporality and not as a disruption of time: a temporality of enduring as the qualitative changing in time. It thus urges us to think of different durations that often pass invisible, and the void as the only possible site of the event. ‘It is the stillest of the words that bring on a storm.’ (36) The suspended image urges us to reflect on the time of the event outside linearity and cause-effect relations. It rather locates ‘the point of the inner limit, or inherent impossibility of a given discourse (philosophical or artistic) and activates this precise point as the potential locus of creation.’ (37) The suspension in Là-bas puts forward new questions and a different problematisation of trauma: What is the temporality of rupture, of trauma without a before (historical explanation) and an after (future imperatives for transformation or recuperation)? What is the temporality of trauma outside its pathologisation and historicization (that is outside narratives and interpretative mechanisms)? What happens when we stay within the trauma while being denied the possibility of resolution through past references (flash backs) or the possibility of a next image that will set the action on? What is the duration of trauma outside knowledge?
Unlike so many films on trauma (historical trauma, personal trauma), Chantal Akerman makes a film that does not look at trauma from the other side (that of historical time or the chronicle ordered time), with the trauma being depicted as disruption and breakage (38) in the form of flashback. The suspended image of Là-bas is the reflection-image of the trauma itself: an image that is suspended and suspends the outside historical world.
In Là-bas, Chantal Akerman does not give an account on the political situation in Israel, finding it impossible to deal with the matter. When an explosion happens in a nearby block she comments, among other things, ‘it put things in perspective and then sorrow returns’. The film expresses the impossibility to account for trauma: her trauma in which the past is never over (a second generation child of the Holocaust), the trauma of the explosion that threatens a living present. In her book, Parting Ways, Judith Butler argues (evoking active vitalism):
To paraphrase Derrida, precisely because one cannot give an account, one must give an account. The capacity for narration suspended or debilitated by the trauma is precisely what emerges as the sign evidence of a capacity to live on and survive.” (39)
A capacity that the film denies to the viewer as a possibility and the director to herself, affirming an impossibility to live: ‘I don’t know how to live (…) Sorrow returns’ (40); a living-with-the-trauma outside resolutions of understanding.
I read very complicated books about the Jews. I take notes, I re-read them, I try to understand. Sometimes I understand. Or I get a whiff of something. Something that’s already there inside me but I can’t express. I re-read my notes. Once again, I tell myself it’s really complicated. (41)
Past stories of her aunt’s mental illness and eventual suicide are put alongside with the event of explosion and the recent suicide of the mother of a well known Israeli writer; fragments of narration, descriptions, but no account. The suspended image of Là-bas exonerates the suspension of account, and puts trauma at the centre of the image. Not a film about trauma but the suspended image-as-trauma, cut off from past and future accounts, without a will for accountability. A trauma that is but does not act. A trauma already là-bas, already down there, before the ‘I’. “My wound existed before me…I was born to embody it.” (42) The suspended image of Là-bas gives a specific form in time and space that “threatens to destabilise or de-actualise its being” (43): its being liveable, its being political (as active vitalism) through suspension and the stillness of the event as internal implosion.
Là-bas has no action or actor other than time itself. (44) It thus forces us to direct our attention less to what is there and instead engages us to connect to the multiple perceptions that compose it in time, to all those barely discerned perceptions, to “networks of perception and imagination which create points of view, and that can produce entirely different relations and configurations” (45); perceptions that produce a truly foreign body. The film Là-bas creates indeed a truly foreign body, a melancholic body ‘that is and does not act’. A vital body precisely because of its radical passivity and of its distance from the ‘I viewpoint’ that commands; a body that eschews self- recognition mainly because it does not possess its time or its space. It is precisely this lack of ownership of space, of time, of life, even of the self that enables the intuition of other durations, and which opens up a different ethics of relating to Life and Earth as not one’s own (against the tradition of huMANism as possessive individualism).
I’m here, in an apartment, which is not mine. Basically, I don’t know how to live. Out of the feeling that if I sink, well then I should just sink. I should just deny myself. Like I usually do. Except sometimes, in spurts. (46)
The suspended image of Là-bas refuses to put forward forces of belief, hope or anticipation. Against the Jewish tradition of an ethics of transcendence, Chantal Akerman creates a flat image of a ‘here and now’ that does not seduce; an immanent image as inward flexion and not a utopian image of a ‘down-there’ (là-bas/Israel) as the land of salvation. A radically anti-messianic image that initiates a new thinking of time: a rather emptied time, a vacuum, or what Deleuze calls the ’dead time’, since it is not conceived of, or measured by what is happening or what is coming, but a time that simply is; a time that persists, and insists. Thus, the suspended image creates an intensification of the present moment, which reveals heterogeneity and changing as the internal condition of Life (both organic and inorganic) outside language and human intervention.
Là-bas produces a radical political body of an ‘I’ as always a second comer, one caught in suspension: not a messianic body-to-come as the self-righteous Subject, the political Promise, the Truth, the Revolutionary but always the ‘second’ coming of the ‘I’, as radical counter-messianism (47) and falsification.
Something in me has been damaged. My relationship with the real, with daily life. How do you make a life in non-rarefied air. A minimum of order. A minimum of life. (48)
Là-bas is an involution in time rather than an evolution in space (49); a politicisation of trauma and damage not in the form of historical, political and psychological interpretations and truths, but as the capacity to be affected and effectuated in time differently: a different sense, a different expression, another feeling, a feeling of utter powerlessness. (50) Suspended time does not command a future, an à-venir (to-come!), but persists and insists as internal variation. In Là-bas, to come second, to be this ‘highest’ point of evolution, progress and rational development is not to have an existential priority; it is to be belated. (51)
This article has been peer reviewed.


  1.   Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Re-treating the Political, (Psychology Press, London, 1997): 112.
  2. Antonioni as quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): 7.
  3. Falzon, Christopher, Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy, (Routledge, London, 2002): 4.
  4. Plato, The Republic, Book VII, paragraphs 514-520, pages 119-141. Translated by Paul Shorey (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 2006)
  5. Falzon, Christopher, Philosophy Goes to the Movies:An Introduction to Philosophy, (Routledge, London, 2002): 4.
  6. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005):194.
  7. According to Deleuze : ‘What is specific to the image, as soon as it is creative, is to make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present.’ (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): xii.
  8. Deleuze draws a direct relation between time and what he calls ‘the power of the false’ in thought that breaks away from truthful linear narration and redefines consistency in thinking outside judgment, rigidity and cause-effect relations. Time as change, without a retrospective or a prospective power to determine any past or future truth: ‘The power of the false is time in person, not because the contents of time are variable, but because the form of time as becoming questions every formal model of truth.’ (Deleuze in Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1997): 16.
  9. ‘Critique in the Kantian sense, which asks how a thing is known is a central question for both cinema books. From a Kantian perspective, the important distinction is between time in its essence and in its form of being known. With Nietzsche the critique implied by the direct time-image takes a different form. Important here is the critique of value and how the powers of the false are related to a will to power and the eternal return. Following Spinoza, Deleuze asks how time-image affects our power to think?’ (Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1997): 122)
  10. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf. (Chicago: Chicago U P, 1992):6.
  11. ‘[W]here the concept of time could almost be a substitute for the image’ (Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Duke University Press,1996): 68.
  12. ‘If we place ourselves from the first, by an effort or intuition, in the concrete flow of duration. . .we shall then find no logical reason for positing multiple and diverse durations. . . . The intuition of our duration brings us into contact with a whole continuity of durations which we must try to follow, whether upwards or downwards’. (Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind- An Introduction to Metaphysics, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1992): 48-49.
  13. Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, (Duke University Press, 1996): 69.
  14. Chantal Akerman, www.wooltonpicturehouse.co.uk/film/Down+There+%28L%E0-Bas%29
  15. ‘Any-space-whatever’: what we see of the room is not as generic as hotel rooms, but chairs, picture frames, and a bottle-shaped vase that could be anyone’s anywhere.
  16. ‘When X.C. [producer Xavier Carniaux] proposed that I make a film on Israel, I immediately had the impression that it was a bad idea. An impossible idea even. Almost paralyzing. Almost nauseating.’ (Chantal Akerman, www.wooltonpicturehouse.co.uk/film/Down+There+%28L%E0-Bas%29).
  17. ‘The term aboutness signals representation, which is at the heart of any debate over the ontology of truth.’ (Linda Martin Alcoff, ‘Becoming an Epistemologist in Becomings Explorations in Time, Memory and Futures, ed. Elizabeth Grosz, (Cornell University Press, New York, 1999): 70).
  18. Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): 180.
  19. ‘But precisely what brings this cinema of action into question after the war is the very break-up of sensory-motor schema: the rise of situations to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are only now chance relations, of empty or disconnected any-space-whatevers replacing qualified extended space. These are pure optical and sound situations, in which the character does not know how to respond, abandoned spaces in which he ceases to experience and to act so that he enters into flight, goes on a trip, comes and goes, vaguely indifferent to what happens to him, undecided as to what must be done. But he has gained in an ability to see what he has lost in action or reaction: he sees so that the viewer’s problem becomes ‘What is there to see in the image?’ (and not what are we going to see in the next image?)’ (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): 261.
  20. ‘When we think of this present as what ought to be, it is no longer, and when we think of it as existing, it is already past…. All perception is already memory’ (Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, (Zone Books, New York, 1999): 166-67.
  21. A definition, which resides on the distinction made initially by Plato between matter and form, and that was later on reproduced by Saussure’s theory of the signifier – signified distinction.
  22. I use the term ‘impression’ in the way Sara Ahmed uses it: ‘We need to remember the ‘press’ in an impression. It allows us to associate the experience of having an emotion with the very affect of one surface upon another, an affect that leaves its mark or trace’ (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Routledge, New York, 2004): 6.
  23. Deleuze, Gilles, (1995), Negotiations (1972-1990), (Columbia University Press, New York, 1995): 143.
  24. ‘The supposition of a ‘vital principle’ or ‘power’, a mysterious, non-mechanical life-force whose energies animated the living world, became central to a new understanding of nature, whose self- activating powers were comprehensible neither via the laws of motion nor as directly manifesting the hand of God, but as unique to living matter’ (Catherine Packham, Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics, (Palgrave, London, 2012): 2.
  25. ‘Such high modernist or Romantic modes of defamiliarisation and renewal that would reawaken the creative force from which our lived world has been synthesised are essentially normalising insofar as they refer back to the subjective or grounding conditions from which works must have emerged and which can be retrieved, recognised and re-lived as our own’. (Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, in New Formations, Deleuzian Politics?, Editorial: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010): 89.
  26. Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, in New Formations, Deleuzian Politics?, (Ed: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010):12.
  27. ‘Vitalism has always had two possible interpretations: that of an idea that acts, but is not – that acts therefore only from the point of view of an external cerebral knowledge …; or that of a force that is but does not act – that is therefore a pure internal awareness. … If the second interpretation seems to us to be imperative it is because the contraction that preserves is always in a state of detachment in relation to action or even to movement and appears as a pure contemplation without knowledge’ (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Felix, What is Philosophy?, (Verso, London, New York,1994): 213.
  28. ‘A politics and vitalising imperative follows: do not be seduced by normativity. Recognise that the self who is performed and recognised is at odds with the less stable – one might say ‘queer’ – vital self who acts (who ‘acts but is not’). I would suggest that this form of active vitalism, as critique and negation of norm, image, figure or stereotype is not only the dominant in theory, but also in popular culture and public policy.’ (Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, in New Formations, Deleuzian Politics?, Ed: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010): 90.
  29. Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, New Formations, Issue Spring 2010, Deleuzian Politics?, Editorial: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010):14.
  30. ‘[A] territorialized time; regular or not, it’s the number of the movement of the step that marks a territory’ (Gilles Deleuze, ‘Vincennes Seminar Session of May 3, 1977: On Music’, Trans T.S Murphy, Discourse Journal; for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 20 (3), 1998, (Autumn): 205-18.
  31. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): 274.
  32. Bill Arning, ‘Down There (La-bas)’, in Chantal Akerman – Moving Through Time and Space, (The Art Museum of the University of Houston, 2008): 41.
  33. ‘[T]he vital is not that which springs forth from itself to synthesise, unify and produce its world; it is receptive in its feeling of that which is not itself, often yielding nothing more than the isolated or punctuated affect of encounter’ (Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, New Formations, Deleuzian Politics?, Ed: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010): 89.
  34. Chantal Akerman, from the film Là-bas, (2006).
  35. ‘The vital difference can only be experienced and thought of as an internal difference; it is only in this sense that the ‘tendency to change’ is not accidental, and that the variations themselves find an internal cause in that tendency’ (Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, (Zone Books, New York, 2002): 99.
  36. Nietsche, in Alenka Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, (MIT Press, 2003): 8.
  37. Alenka Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, (MIT Press, 2003): 8.
  38. ‘The flashback, the nightmare, the return of traumatic memory, are distinct from historical memory, insofar as they concern an event that has not been integrated into historical time, ordered by a relation to the past and the future’ (Charles Shepherdson, Lacan and The Limits of Language, (Fordham University Press, New York, 2008): 107.
  39. Judith Butler, Parting Ways- Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, (Columbia University, New York, 2012): 192.
  40. Chantal Akerman, from the film Là-bas, (2006).
  41. Chantal Akerman, from the film Là-bas, (2006).
  42. Joe Bousquet in Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, transl. by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1997): xxix.
  43. Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, New Formations, Deleuzian Politics?, Ed: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010): 80.
  44. ‘The only subjectivity is time, non-chronological time grasped in its foundation, and it is we who are internal to time, not the other way round. That we are in time looks like a common place, yet it is the highest paradox. Time is not the interior in us, but just the opposite, the interiority in which we are, in which we move, live and change’ (Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time-image, Continuum, London, New York, 2005: 82.
  45. Claire Colebrook, ‘Queer Vitalism’, New Formations, Issue Spring 2010, Deleuzian Politics?, Ed: Jeremy Gilbert, Chrysanthi Nigianni, (Issue Spring 2010) :14.
  46. Chantal Akerman, from the film Là-bas, (2006).
  47. Derrida’s messianism argues for a politics and ethics of futurity that is attuned to the messianic order, a more Jewish, biblical time: a time of a promise and anticipation constituted by both a demand to “come!” together with a “don’t come!” since the Messiah should never appear but should be protected from ordinary time, from the present, being preserved instead only as a promise, as an appeal to a future that remains absolutely other. For an extended discussion on messianic time see John Caputo’s book, The prayers and tears of Jacques Derrida, (Indiana University Press, 1997).
  48. Chantal Akerman, from the film Là-bas, (2006).
  49. “But a real evolution, if ever it is accelerated or retarded, is entirely modified within; its acceleration or retardation is precisely that internal modification. Its content and its duration are one and the same thing.” (Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind- An Introduction to Metaphysics, (Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1992): 20.
  50. To “make use of this powerlessness to believe in life, and to discover the identity of thought and life” (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – TheTime-image, (Continuum, London, New York, 2005): 164.
  51. I am thankful to Claire Colebrook for this last thought. I am citing her informally here.

La folie Almayer

By Eva-Lynn Jagoe
At the end of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly, the title character, a benighted Dutch trader at a failed Malaysian outpost, is deserted by his beloved half-caste daughter Nina and determines to forget her before he dies. “He had a fixed idea that if he should not forget before he died he would have to remember to all eternity,” writes Conrad. “Certain things had to be taken out of his life, stamped out of sight, destroyed, forgotten.” The last pages of the novel narrate this implacable determination, and in the end Almayer is found dead with a calm look on his face, showing that he “had been permitted to forget before he died.” Chantal Akerman’s La folie Almayer is not so kind: in its final, unbroken, minutes-long shot, it considers the ravaged face of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) as he is forced to confront his folly, to face it in all its unrelenting horror. The extraordinary opacity of this final shot is inversely related to the psychological cataclysm taking place within Almayer’s mind, his annihilating rush of self-knowledge depicted not through (conventional) drama but duration—thus remaining, in a crucial dimension, unreadable, unknowable to the audience. Yet it is this very tension between knowing and not knowing that gives this final shot its remarkable, wrenching power: a painful plenitude that evokes physically, phenomenologically, the self-annihilating folly/delusion to which Almayer has willingly yielded.
Folly (from the French fou) is something which goes beyond a fault or flaw. It is something that one falls prey to, stoops to, gives in to; a madness that consumes the whole being. Unlike Conrad, Akerman does not make this madness a property of Almayer’s (“la folie de Almayer”), but rather conjoins it with his being; she gives the madness a name and a face. Each madness has a specificity which renders it unique; each madness is one’s own, particular to the coordinates and disorientations of oneself. That self is, of course, an inherited one, formed through the biological and cultural memories and experiences that shape it, and thus la folie Almayer is not one that resides solely in Almayer, but in the child he haplessly, helplessly consigns to a life between two worlds.
Akerman evokes the lineal descent of this madness through a circular structure. In the opening sequence, a listless karaoke performance is interrupted by sudden violence: the young man lip-synching on stage is stabbed by an assailant and pulled out of the frame by onlookers, while his backup dancers scatter, leaving a single girl still dancing vacantly to the canned music. “Nina—he’s dead,” an offscreen voice utters; and as the news gradually seems to sink in, the camera moves in to a close shot of the girl we do not yet know as Almayer’s daughter as she begins to sing, hesitantly and then intensely, a religious song in Latin. The studied obliqueness immediately invites our questions: Why is this dark-skinned woman singing a Christian hymn in archaic European Latin? What does her mounting euphoria signify? Release and relief at the brutal end of an abusive relationship, an unlikely salvation, or an irretrievable descent into madness?
The questions posed at the beginning have not been answered by the time of the mirrored final shot, though the lineaments of the muted narrative have given them some context. Almayer has resided at his forsaken outpost for a number of years at the urging of the entrepreneur and explorer Lingard (Marc Barbé), who has promised him wealth and urges him to think of himself as a cultured European—even as he coerces the deluded trader into a loveless marriage with his ward, a Malaysian woman who stubbornly rejects the language and culture that is forced upon her. Nina is the outcome of this undesired union, and for Almayer his one one raison d’être apart from the illusory bonds of race and class. When Lingard—who, it would seem, orchestrates all aspects of Almayer’s life—insists that Nina must be sent to a European boarding school, Almayer begs his “benefactor” to let her remain, saying that he loves her and she him, that she is all he has in this uncivilized jungle. Lingard is adamant, and essentially challenges Almayer to prove his faith in the future that he has been promised. Like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Almayer submits, demonstrating his unwavering fidelity to the religion of profit, white superiority, and culture that Lingard preaches.
As Nina grows up in the boarding school, she is watched by an aged Malaysian man who, in a narratological shift, assumes the interim role of narrator, recounting the events in a past tense and thus giving the audience a hindsight that the characters do not have. Hearing the religious songs from within the school’s walls interrupted by a teacher’s voice reprimanding Nina, the man recounts the outcome of this failed educational imposition: Nina’s ostracization due to her race, her inability to become “one of them.” With this retrospective voiceover that already knows the tale’s tragic end, the film enters the temporal realm of the fable. Yet the “native informant” who relays this is not empowered by his omniscience; like the doomed Almayers, father and daughter, he is trapped in a silence that allows their tragedy to unfold. Up to whom is it to speak out against folly? Almayer and Nina know the misery their separation causes them, but cannot speak it aloud; he never once writes to her during their years of separation, nor she to him. Abraham and Isaac’s misery, Almayer and Nina’s; both are discounted in the service of a greater good, a grand delusion that promises metaphysical salvation in place of a beloved child’s voice, the feel of his or her arms lovingly clasped around your neck.
Unlike Isaac, however, Nina knows that she has been sacrificed on the altar of her father’s god. Expelled from school when Lingard dies, leaving her without financial support, the teenaged Nina (Aurora Marion) returns to her father and mother, the latter’s years of mute refusal having now reduced her to near-catatonia. Listlessly wandering the jungle, Nina meets a Malaysian man, a smuggler and mercenary; dead to emotion and desire, she chooses to go away with him, her knowing acceptance of a dead-end life (as the opening sequence makes clear) a sullen rebuke to her father’s baseless words and passive protestations of love. As with her mother’s, Nina’s rebellion is a negation: a defeat that reveals the fragility and weakness, the impotence of the ideology that has defined her existence. Pursuing the fleeing lovers into the jungle, Almayer discovers them making love and peers at them through the foliage, his pale, hollowed face a stark contrast to their brown skin, dark eyes and black hair. When Nina rejects his appeals to return with him, choosing her Malaysian identity over inculcated white rituals, he mutters to himself “I am white, I am white” —reminding himself of the “duty” he had forgotten in his fear of losing his daughter: to maintain the dignity and superiority of his race, to not adulterate its purity, to not “go native.”
Almayer’s love for Nina clashes with, and is ultimately overcome by, his irreconcilable fidelity to an absolutist religion of race. In Almayer’s mind, his Malaysian wife is darkly malevolent, his daughter is pure love, the jungle is untamed savagery; he cannot conceive of Nina as the product of two cultures, as a grey in his starkly chiaroscuroed world. She has either to be all white or all black, either his or completely lost to him. Almayer’s folly is that he refuses to acknowledge how his own feelings and inclinations contradict the sterile worldview to which he subscribes, how his own existence intersects with those Others whose full humanity he cannot admit, and how he draws them into the madness to which he eventually succumbs. In that final shot, his illusions shattered and his mind slipping away, Almayer shares the space with his attentive and faithful servant posed in a doorway at the back of the frame, the man’s dark, shadowed, immobile body a contrast to Almayer’s shockingly pale visage. The white man figures death, destruction, madness; the brown man has cared for him throughout without the ability to stop him, to wake him from his folly (a previous scene shows a similar relationship of loyal patience from the abused servant of Lindgard, who cares for him in his dying moments). So he waits on him instead, watching, without judging, in a patient inscrutability that shows the ways that the folly touches them all.
So the film has come full circle, then, from the bodily death of the opening sequence to the irreparable destruction of a mind at the conclusion. But while there is a formal continuity, and closure, to the repetition of distance and duration between Nina’s introductory close-up and Almayer’s final collapse, the film denies any comforting sense of finality. Not afforded the structure of montage to tie up loose ends, we endure instead a confrontation with an unmitigated pain. The camera witnesses a ruined man faced with the extent of his folly and its repercussions, and one knows, watching those memories and understandings cross his sunken eyes, his pale and trembling lips, that he will not survive the realization sane. Much as the audience is denied the explanatory potential, the normalcy of editing, Almayer also cannot edit anything out of his realizations, cannot save himself from madness. There is a horror in fully knowing one’s present. That degree of knowledge is, in a “sane” life, glimpsed at intervals, like a swinging door that opens and shuts; if it is known all at once, without a break, a reassertion of the narrative we have constructed around and for ourselves, it is unbearable. That swinging-door metaphor could extend as well to the practice of montage: something is seen, then another image follows it, and a narrative is pieced together out of a sequence of cuts and sutures, reassuring us with its explanatory potential. Montage keeps madness at bay, as normalcy and understanding is reasserted; a long take forces the confrontation between reality and the traumatic Real, that which resists signification and incorporation into comprehensibility or continuity.
What we witness in Akerman’s final, extended shot is Almayer’s tortured oscillation between opening and shutting, knowing and not knowing: we watch him understand something, deny it, confront it again, shrug it off, not be able to control the spill of tears that have irrevocably exposed it to his consciousness. It is as if he is trying to create his own montage, and cannot make the film cut, jump to another scene. His folly of not knowing, of not opening the door to an understanding of his motivations and his manias, turns, at the moment of recognition, into a madness that condemns him to a harsh and unavoidable downfall. Thus he says, twice, “Tomorrow I would have forgotten my daughter.” Not “I will have forgotten” but “I would have…” If what? If tomorrow could arrive, but it won’t, for there is no longer the possibility of a future. The present, brought to an impasse by the folly of his past, is all he has. He is a man who has never lived in his present, always yearning for a European paradise, imagining that one day he will be wealthy, and that his daughter will return to him with trust and love. In the last scene, he is confronted with the selfish, fruitless Real of his present, and he can no longer imagine a moment in which he will be able to delude himself further. Akerman, unlike Conrad, will not allow Almayer to forget, will not give him that blessed peace. She will not forgive him for having sacrificed his daughter to a delusion, for having submitted his own self-knowledge to an external authority, for sacrificing his present to the baseless promise of a future imagined by another. For Almayer to not truly know his desires is only human; to wilfully ignore them and submit them to another’s demands is also human, but it constitutes a moral failure that devastates not only himself, but his daughter as well.

Akerman’s choice of Merhar to play Almayer establishes a continuity with his depiction of Simon in La captive (2000). In that film, too, his possessive and deluded character loses the woman that he has so obsessively tried to create, manipulate, keep, know. These men are deluded into thinking that they can maintain an imaginary order predicated on their colour, gender, or class, and attempt to control the women they think they love. The end of each of the films sees them denied that desire, and suffering for their folly. Akerman’s films are not vindictive towards her deluded protagonists, however; rather, compassionately yet firmly, she forces them to finally know, to not forget. In the extended takes that linger on Simon and Almayer during the time in which they fully register the interplay of knowing and not knowing, we enter into a dream experience where the workings of the unconscious are glimpsed, where the characters are unable to delude themselves any further; and where we, sharing the space and time of their horrible realization, are unable to remain complacent in our (false) distance from them, are unable to deny the everyday delusions and deceptions we practice upon our own selves as a barrier against the terrifying weight of self-knowledge. One could call Akerman’s durées “demanding,” but their demands are as modest, and all-encompassing, as the mere perpetuation of our existence. All she asks is that we sit in the dark and let whatever it is that’s going to happen in us, happen.

Invested in Expression or in Its Destruction?: The Politics of Space and Representation in Chantal Akerman’s Cinema


The objective of this article is to examine the hyperrealist, feminist tactics of Chantal Akerman’s early 1970s films Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles(1975) and, especially, Je tu il elle (1975). In the process, I wish to situate these two films, widely considered two of the key works of feminist filmmaking of the 1970s, within the dominant feminist discourses of the day, such as those of Teresa de Lauretis, B. Ruby Rich, and Laura Mulvey. In particular, I pay close attention to Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and how the aforementioned films literally cinematize Mulvey’s injunction for the destruction of pleasure in visual cinema and shall examine the ways in which Mulvey and Akerman have found the modernist paradigm inadequate in providing alternate, successful modes of female representation. Indeed, the very instability of the concept of female representation and of the constructed category of woman is at stake here. Finally, I intend to provide a cursory look a few of Akerman’s more recent, broadly popular works such as Nuit et jou (Night and Day, 1991) and Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004) to reflect on the implications this shift in aesthetic style, if not necessarily thematic concerns and preoccupations, raises for both assessing Akerman’s work systematically and in situating it in our post-modern, fragmented feminist discourses today.
Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman (1976)
Chantal Akerman’s fascinating, perversely anti-psychological film Je tu il elle has been appropriated by feminist scholars and critics as a significant feminist work. The film belongs to a genre of cinematic minimalism which emerged at a time when the European modernist tendency was being slowly abandoned (early-to-mid 1970s). (1) Andras Balint Kovacs, as many other critics and scholars, defines Ackerman’s style as “hyper-realist” for her depiction of certain actions in real-time. She meticulously documents the quotidian and mundane aspects of everyday life (the “images between the images”), yet this reality is not contextualized in any way; it often seems to exist for its own sake. (2) Through a close visual analysis of the first sequence of the film, I want to examine the film’s hyperrealist filmmaking techniques.
As Je tu ill elle begins, we see Chantal sitting in a spare room with her back toward the camera. “Then I left,” she says, through a voice-over. For the next thirty-minutes, Chantal’s actions are given pain-staking attention. Over the next twenty-eight days, she eats sugar from a bag, pens letters to a friend (or lover), moves the furniture, walks around the room, dresses and undresses, and sleeps. Through the entire time, the audience is not provided with a context within which to situate this character. In fact, the voice-over that frequently accompanies this part of the film distances us even more from this character as it, frequently, cannot be verified with what we see on the screen. She talks about it snowing outside and about a man passing by her room, images that we do see. However, her description of the progression of time is unsettlingly vague. As Ivone Margulies astutely observes, announcements of “first day” or “second day” mean nothing when they are not mentioned in “…relation to a specific person or time.”(3) Chantal also talks about painting the room blue and then green, information that we are, yet again, unable to verify because of the film’s black-and-white imagery. This sequence of the film, then, which unfolds in a “hyper-realist,” anti-illusionist mode (with Chantal’s character often performing actions–writing letters, moving furniture—in real-time), keeps returning to a kind of material, photographic surface; the film lingers on the surface of things, on matter and physical existence and does not seem interested in penetrating that material surface. As Margulies writes, the hyper-realistic representation of characters and objects in Je tu il elle makes the reality “…apparent, even naked,” though the lack of context, of “…particularities,” denies us psychological insights into the character. (4) Je tu il elle’s assault is on the very notion of representation itself.
B. Ruby Rich, in her article “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” explains the ideology behind Akerman’s filmmaking style. She states that, despite decades of film practice and theoretical writings, women still did not have “…a proper name” in the filmmaking practice; they lacked a voice and history of their own. (5) She praises Akerman for her “feminist” works which “free” their female characters from exploitative cinematic techniques such as close-ups, and instead, through long takes, grant their characters their own “private space”. (6) They are very much feminist in content even though their forms seem stripped of identity-based politics.
Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman (1976)
Teresa de Lauretis in her article “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Film Theory,” acknowledges the neutral, minimalistic aesthetic of Akerman’s films as well. She too believes that despite the fact that Ackerman’s films do not conform to an essentialized feminist philosophy, there is something distinctly feminist about them. By granting (through hyper-realist methods) the female spectator a neutralized cinematic space where she can freely navigate and come to her own conclusions, by addressing the female spectator as a “woman” and not as an essentialized “Woman,” Akerman’s films, de Lauretis suggests, psychically liberate female viewers. (7) Je tu il elle avoids the “politics of emotion” by being constantly fixated on the visible reality, the surface of things; by de-contextualizing its visual images, it seeks to “….problematize the spectator’s identification” with the woman in the film. (8) De Lauritis, quoting Laura Mulvey, reflects on the political function of this “…passionate detachment” which Akerman achieves in this film through her single-minded focus on the photographic image, the visible reality. In her seminal essay, Mulvey advised us to destroy the status that Hollywood narrative cinema had assigned woman, that is, a status of “to be looked-at-ness”. As she wrote in that piece: “The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions…is to free the look of the camera into its materiality and space and look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’, and highlights the way film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms.” (9)
We need to further assess how Akerman’s hyperrealist methods emerged as a reaction to some of the key modernist European films made after 1960. Though many of these films, such, as say, a film like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) did focus on female protagonists, their politics of “subjective representation”, at least to Akerman, prevented them from being effective feminist films. In the end, they “…focused on those subjective boundaries that mark woman’s division as gender specific.” (10)
L’eclisse is an important example of what Kovacs calls the modernist film with a “spiral narrative.” (11)In such films, there is no real solution to the characters’ predicaments. They often have “open-ended” conclusions that do not provide a tangible answer to the central conflict. They tend to be driven not by classical, deterministic conventions of plot but rather by their own abstract, moody logic (complementing the complex, irregular rhythms of human life.) The film is noted for its strange, open-ended conclusion. A couple that we have been following for most of the film, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon), decide to meet at 8 o’clock that night. In the film’s disconcerting ending, however, the meeting never takes place. Instead, the camera lingers in the spaces and streets where we saw this couple previously. For over seven minutes, we look at many people and objects (a nanny with a baby, a horse-carriage, a man reading a newspaper, a bus, water flowing on the streets, street lights, etc.) but the characters that we keep waiting for never arrive. The film ends like that, its central characters, just as ghosts, having vanished from the film. Another significant realist tendency in many of Antonioni’s films, such as L’eclisse, is their unique emphasis on the landscape that the characters inhabit. His camera gives just as much, if not more, attention to the architecture and landscape as it does to the human drama.
L’eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni (1962)
The film’s realist elements, however, serve to illuminate the alienation of Vittoria. Indeed, as Kovacs states, many key European modernist films from the 1960s have “abstract individuals” as protagonists. (12)Such central characters generally belong to a middle-class background and do not have pressing material concerns. Their problems are of a moral, intellectual, or spiritual nature. He or she is often an artist or intellectual. Such is the case with Vittoria: her anguish is rooted in her (futile) search for her inner self. At the beginning of the film, we see Vittoria break- up with her boyfriend Ricardo. She cannot point to what exactly went wrong in the relationship. She is just bored, dissatisfied, having fallen out of love. The central conflict in the film is rooted in Vittoria’s alienation, not only from other people, but also from herself. Vittoria seems to be detached from everything and everyone and when she and Piero embark on an affair, we wonder whether they both will be able to relate to each other, to love each other.
There are a number of reasons why Akerman wanted to distance herself from the subjective predispositions of European modernist films, and why she made films which constantly emphasized the outer, material reality (such as in the first sequence in Je tu il elle), without contextualizing these images in any way. Films like L’eclisse, Akerman felt, did not do enough to change the representation of women on the screen. What was needed was a completely new cinematic vocabulary, a new cinematic form, which would forcefully resist the politics of female representation and identification. As de Lauretis writes, it was no longer enough for films to “…destroy or disrupt the man-centred vision by representing its blinds spots, its gaps,” or by focusing on socially-liberated, independent female protagonists and their interior (emotional) lives, such as is the case with Vittoria. (13) Akerman believed that this cinematic form could be achieved by creating other objects and subjects, by formulating “…the conditions of representability of another social subject.” (14) She wanted to draw attention away from those woman-centred films like L’eclisse and other feminist works that, again, relied on “…those subjective limits and discursive boundaries that mark women’s division as gender specific.” (15)Rather, in Je tu il elle, she de-individualizes the individual, presenting an inscrutable, continually elusive female character without an inner, emotional life or a developed psychological state. We, in the audience, soon learn that the voiceover accompanying the first sequence in the film is presenting us with either false information or statements that make no rational sense. The audience, then, is forced to confront the materiality of Akerman’s images. Akerman’s camera focuses on the spare room, Chantal’s body, and the physical objects (the mattress, the chair, the bag of sugar). In sum, Akerman’s hyperrealist methods, as I have argued, complement the kinds of ideological positions she wants to advocate for and those she wants to advocate against. In Je tu il elle, she justifies her film’s formal, realist rigor (with its affinity for the outer, visible reality and not much else) by demonstrating that only such a cinematic technique can disengage the often problematic ideological codes embedded in representation. Je tu il elle remains Akerman’s most strategic and impassioned assault on the politics of the closely related concepts of space and female representation.
Jeanne Dielman, too, is an extension of such an ideological rigor. The film, through its lengthy, almost three-and-half hour running time, makes us not only look at but experience the quotidian rhythms of its protagonist’s life. Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a widowed, part-time prostitute and homemaker, raising a teenage son on her own. Though it shares with Je tu il elle its positions on female representation and the politics of space, it is, more than that film, about a sense of duration. It is provides us (in very much a Deleuzian sense) with images that are concerned with movement and the passing of time itself. Simply put, the film is not simply concerned with shedding light on the monotonous drudgery that women subsumed within a patriarchal system frequently endure on a daily basis. It is also concerned with giving us a sense of time as it is lived by such women; its character’s anxieties are not contained within the film. They reach out to the spectator as well.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975)
Despite Akerman’s ideological engagement with duration, she remains in Jeanne Dielman resolutely against cinematic female representation. The film is Akerman’s most literal application of Mulvey’s instructions. Consider, for example, Mulvey’s criticisms against the fragmentation of the female body through conventional editing styles, and its appeal to voyeurs. Then, consider Jeanne Dielman which forcefully blocks voyeurism through its lack of close-ups. In numerous scenes, we look at Jeanne performing banal tasks at a removed distance. At one point, we see her preparing a meat-loaf, at another, washing and drying the dishes. Even at the end, after Jeanne has stabbed one of her clients and is seen sitting at her dining table, Akerman refuses to grant us a close-up of her face. For over seven minutes, we look at Jeanne but are bewildered. Is she finally calm? Is this a moment of some perverse victory for her? Is she worried, now having escaped from one prison and having entered another (ostensibly legal) one? Indeed, in a revealing interview shortly after the release of the film, Akerman seems to be quite literally dictating Mulvey’s positions: “It was the only way to shoot that scene and to shoot that film. To avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces…cutting the action in a hundred pieces, to look carefully and be respectful…The camera [in Jeanne Dielman] was not voyeuristic in the commercial way.” (16)
Having situated Akerman’s Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman within Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic model of the destruction of visual pleasure, I want to proceed in examining some of Akerman’s later films which seem to be fully invested in expression, in pleasure. How can one, for example, reconcile the hyperrealist, detached severity of Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman with the formulaic romantic conventions of Night and Day and A Couch in New York (1996), or the sitcom-ish, outlandish slapstick antics of Akerman’s recent Tomorrow We Move? Furthermore, what does this erratic shift in aesthetic styles and genres tell us about Akerman’s work at-large, and how does it complicate her own aforementioned ideological positions on Je tu il elle and Jean Dielman? More importantly, what implications does it have for our increasingly fragmented, postmodern feminist discourses?
Angela McRobbie, in her incisive essay “Chantal Akerman and Feminist Filmmaking,” states that Chantal Akerman’s “…path from Jean Dielman onwards has been singularly removed from theory,” and that this course has been a source of “disappointment” to many feminist spectators and scholars. (17) However, if one looks closely, Akerman’s ambivalence about feminism and identity politics is very much present from the very outset of her career. One is perhaps familiar with Akerman’s oft-cited pronouncement that, “I am not making women’s films. I am making Chantal Akerman’s films.” (18) This auteurist statement, within itself, does not completely undermine Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle’s feminist strengths. As Annette Kuhn astutely observes, “a film can be feminist tangentially even if its author did not intend it as such.” (19) Nonetheless, this statement does shed light on previously mentioned shift in Akerman’s aesthetic styles and preoccupations in the films that followed, and leads us to interrogate Akerman’s own ambivalent, seemingly conflicted and contradictory attitude towards Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle.
Tomorrow We Move, Chantal Akerman (2004)
In March 2012, at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, Akerman suggested that she sees Jean Dielman and Je tu il elle as aberrations in her body of work. The films were too “dogmatic,” she told the audience and are very much part of the feminist discourses of the time. When she got those films “out of the way,” she stated, she “opened herself up” to different aesthetic styles and genres. Indeed, Akerman’s assertions are well-supported by her later films. Night and Day is a fairly conventional romantic drama which engages with the theme of ménage à-trois and self-consciously echoes certain masterpieces of the French New Wave such as Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). (20)The film is about a woman (Julie) who is in love with two men, Jack and Joseph. She meets and conducts affairs with them at the same time. The film’s aesthetic strategies are drastically different from, say, a film like Je tu il elle’s. At times, the camera seems infatuated with Julie’s “flawless body,” languorously caressing it during the film’s sex scenes. Chantal Akerman’s recent Tomorrow We Move unfolds as a playful domestic farce about a young woman’s desire to move to a larger apartment and mark a (literary) terrain of her own. Her mother’s recent move into her home amplifies her anxieties even further through the mother’s encroachment both on her personal and physical space. La captive (The Captive, 2000) has drawn more scholarly attention than any of her other works since Je tu il elle and Jean Dielman. This perhaps is a consequence of the fact that the film’s minimalism and deceptive austerity echoes those earlier works. Yet the treatment of the female body in The Captive is, once again, quite different from what we had seen in Jeanne Dielman. The film, “loosely adapted” from the fifth volume (“La prisonniere”) of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, is about a young man’s paralyzing jealousy and suspicion of his lover Albertine, who he thinks may be involved in another romantic affair with a woman. (21) We are given numerous close-ups of Albertine and intimate shots of her naked figure throughout the film. Moreover, she is often seen through the position of the protagonist, with whom we look at her. The audience, like the male protagonist, is on the quest (however ludicrous it may seem at times) for the truth: Is Albertine having an affair? The point-of-view of the man becomes the audience’s point-of-view; we/he frequently examine Albertine closely, as when she is standing singing on the balcony or when she is sleeping in her bed. It is also important to point out that the film’s minimalist aesthetic is not (as in Jean Dielman and Je tu il elle) in the service of political/ideological rigorousness. Rather, the minimalism is playful and part of the detective-film’s design which is laced with muted wit. Indeed, the film often plays as a slightly deranged farce about the tragic comedy inherent in all romantic relationships (the inability to “completely” know someone else, to possess them.)
I began my discussion by examining the political functions of Chantal Akerman’s early 1970’s films Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle, and assessed how the films both informed and were informed by the dominant feminist discourses of the time, such as those of Laura Mulvey who vigorously advocated against cinematic pleasure and conventional forms of female representation, and how Akerman’s films also emerged as a reaction to (what she perceived were) the inadequacies of the modernist paradigm. As we have seen, Akerman’s subsequent works have abandoned such polemical strategies. This is not to say that Akerman’s films no longer share the thematic concerns of her earlier films. Indeed, there are certain themes that Akerman keeps returning to again and again, some of which include the displacement of self, the incommunicability between mothers and daughters, the obsessive nature of romantic love, the violence that our desires often inflict upon us, the anguish of personal and social isolation. What has changed is Akerman’s approach to female representation and her visual engagement with some of the aforementioned concerns through different genres and styles (some commercial, some even voyeuristic).
What implications do Akerman’s varied approaches have to feminism in our contemporary era? For one, Akerman has astutely observed that we must acknowledge that, “there is no one way for women to express themselves…[that] there should be as many different ways as there are different kinds of women making films.” (22)She had always been suspicious of absolutes and began to find that a blind adherence to Mulvey’s injunction that female filmmakers ground their works in a model resolutely bent on undoing the ideological codes of pleasure in mainstream cinema increasingly produced works marked by an ideological hegemony. Far from denouncing such an approach, Akerman has shown us that we must remain open to numerous approaches to female representation (or anti-representation). Such approaches can be invested in pleasure and expression or can launch an assault on them. In our postmodern era, with its progressively pronounced suspicion of identity-based politics, Akerman’s advice has achieved even greater resonance. It is naïve and misguided, a futile endeavor, then, to approach Akerman’s works with the goal of imposing an overarching, systemic ideological order on them. Akerman’s oeuvre, her diverse films, need not be reconciled. If anything the continually unpredictable and ambitious trajectory of her body of work demonstrates that feminist discourse must not become a closed-system but strive to remain part of a broader ongoing dialogue, a process on its way.


  1. Kovacs, Andras Balint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 382
  2. Margulies, Ivone. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 3
  3. Ibid., p. 115
  4. Ibid., p. 118
  5. Rich, B. Ruby. “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism”, in Erena, Patricia, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 271-72, 277
  6. Ibid., p. 273
  7. de Lauretis, Teresa. “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Film Theory”, in Erena, Patricia, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 303
  8. Ibid., p. 209
  9. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Kaplan, Ann E., ed. Feminism and Film. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 47.
  10. de Lauretis, p. 296
  11. Kovacs, p. 80
  12. Ibid., p. 65
  13. de Lauretis, p. 295
  14. Ibid., p. 295
  15. Ibid., p. 296
  16. “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman”, Camera Obscura 2, Fall 1977, p. 119
  17. McRobbie, Angela. “Chantal Akerman and Feminist Filmmaking”, in Cook, Pam and Philip Dodd, eds. Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 200
  18. Quoted in: Schmid, Marion. Chantal Akerman. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 62
  19. Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. (London: Verso, 1994), p. 49
  20. Vincendeau, Ginette. “Night and Day: A Parisian Fairy Tale”, in Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, ed. Identity and Memory: the Films of Chantal Akerman. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), p. 118
  21. Schmid, p. 150
  22. Quoted in: Schmid, p. 49

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