An ongoing collaborative research project on space and time in Chantal Akerman's films between Ella Harris, Eve Marguerite Allen and Keifer Taylor.
Spaces of Refraction - Ella Harris
Three Geographical Encounters
1. “The site is defined by relations of proximity between points or elements”
2. “one could describe, via its network of relations, the closed or semi-closed sites of rest—the house, the bedroom, the bed, et cetera. But among all these sites, I am interested in certain ones that have the curious
property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.”
(Foucault, Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias and Utopias)
The mirror is a semi-real/semi-unreal site. It is real because it takes up a literal portion of spacetime, it occupies an actual site in a given room. However, the mirror is also virtual because it has the potential to take on countless images, and unreal because it shows things where they are not. In ostensibly displaying you in your own real site the mirror actually transports your image over there – reframing it in a curious elsewhere, where it is given a new site and takes on a whole new set of relations and therefore characteristics, changing your image before you have a chance to catch it. The mirror is therefore a not a space of reflection: its surface is one which refracts, bends and distorts what it shows by a process of theft and motion, taking what is and transfiguring it into something else, in its passage via the virtual.
For Foucault, there are certain spaces, which he names ‘heterotopias’, that function like mirrors, in that their relations with other sites have a transformative effect. The relational connections that heterotopias have with other sites are not relations of affirmation or propping up, a neighbourly proximity that secures each’s place – they are relations of questioning and destabilisation; relations which cast a critical light upon all spaces and their relations. As Foucault suggests, even the most seemingly circumscribed of sites, ‘the house, the bedroom, the bed’ can have this transformative power.
Akerman’s early work demonstrates a fixation on the interiority of precisely these places, the bed, the bedroom and the apartment. This is spelled out in La Chambre but more acutely explored in Je Tu Il Elle and Saute Ma Ville and 15/8.
Saute Ma Ville:
As Ivone Margulies describes, Saute Ma Ville, Akerman’s first piece of cinema, is a sort of coming of age film. It begins as Akerman bounds up the stairs into her first adolescent apartment. For Margulies, the apartment is a space of youthful experimentation and the suicide finale of the film is a rite of passage through which Akerman passes into her creative adult life. Importantly, we see the suicide in the apartment’s mirror – it is performed as much for the benefit of the character as for the audience and, as Margulies argues, this mirror-image performance does not just reflect Akerman – it propels her into her future. A real hetertopia, the mirror’s relationship with exterior spaces is one of transformation.
A bedroom or an apartment is crucial as a private space. It is a space to be yourself, so to speak. But whilst being yourself is about identity, it is not about being identical to your own image, to who you are day to day. When you’re young, being yourself in your bedroom, as we all remember, is more to do with experimenting. The little kid plays with the dressing up box, imagining themselves as other in order to advance themselves as themselves. The teenager too uses the walls as a set to be endlessly redecorated with posters -also an act of trying on. Being in the bedroom is being +, it is you + the tentative creation of what you might become. You, but you in relation to known and future others, and therefore more than just you.
Three minutes before the end of Saute Ma Ville, after Akerman has found and explored herself in the mirror, Akerman’s mirror image climbs onto the radiator and crouches in the window. The mirror Akerman then jumps, sideways, back into real space. In the mirror Akerman’s antics in the apartment have come into a new set of relations – what seemed a film about the untroubled and chaotic explorations of youth, becomes about self-consciousness and (at the end of the film) self-sacrifice in the artistic process. This theme is discovered in the mirror, and this discovery changes our protagonist. It is not the reflected but the refracted Akerman who jumps back, equipped with a more worldly knowledge.
From this point on she is the virtual Akerman from the mirror, the Akerman who could be anything and who awaits a world with which to relate her performances. Her subsequent suicide is therefore also virtual: a symbolic death designed to create not to destroy, represented in the mirror because literally an act of self-reflection within which both Akerman, and the spaces her world come into relation with, are reconfigured.
La Chambre starts with an empty chair, with a missing person. The camera works methodically to find its subject. Panning round, then back, catching glimpses of the young woman in her bed. The woman is looking directly into the camera. Ironically this means we know her less. If she was not looking she would just be a character within the world of the film and we’d know how to take that. Characters are not unknown because they cannot be known, they exist in a different realm. But this character’s stare, her direct address, transforms her from the known- because-unknowable protagonist into a stranger in the real world, somebody we don’t know and whose coy stare suggests that she is keeping something from us.
The bedroom we find her in is, on the one hand, completely circumscribed by the circular motion of the camera. On the other it is penetrated by the camera which Akerman stares straight back into like a mirror – making us the image – the result of her glance refracting as it passes through the lens. The table we pan past is set for two and this private space is certainly transfigured into a space of encounter. But it’s unclear who found who, which is the original gaze, our slow panning or Akerman’s stare? Either way, this is an encounter which complicates the act of looking and the resultant relationship between the viewer and the viewed.
Je Tu Il Elle:
In Je Tu Il Elle the protagonist, Julie, begins by telling us that she has spent the week repainting all her furniture. Whilst the first shot that greets us is of an unassuming room that we have no reason to question, Julie’s narration immediately unsettles this apparent stasis by conjuring images of the room’s alternative appearances. It seems we’re not necessarily meant to believe that the room was a series of different colours, Julie’s main aim is just to press upon us that despite initial appearances this is a highly unstable apartment. As if to prove her point, Julie proceeds to rearrange and then banish all the furniture, systematically dismantling the ordinariness of the space. She heaves the furniture across the floor until at last she is satisfied to sit, pushed up against a cold looking corner.
This deconstruction, and Julie’s tales of redecoration immediately establishes the space’s lack of fixity and its virtuality: another space of exploration.
Julie herself is in also in state of unrest. She dresses and undresses, eats sugar straight from the bag, spills it, piles it back in, and intermittently examines herself in the window at various stages of undress, as if to catch snap shots of her alterations. It’s a lover that has generated this unrest and Julie’s main pursuit is to write letters to them. However, her letters are less acts of communication than props in an internal dialogue. They are themselves unstable: we are pointedly told that they have been crossed out and started over again. Performatively, she lays the letters across the floor of her room. There, they are rendered not methods of communication, but an exhibition for her own benefit, an exhibition which displays and therefore objectifies otherness, neutralising it and ensuring Julie’s safety within her space of interiority.
But this bounded space cannot hold. The energy of its oscillations eventually breaks the walls and thrusts Julie into relation with real others.
In retrospect we feel like Julie’s apartment has been like an incubator where she tosses and turns until she is ready to emerge into the world outside. At night she uses the window as a mirror to examine her naked body, self-reflecting again. But by the morning the window has become something to see through rather than to see in. Strange men catch glimpses of her standing uneasy in the light. She is back in a space of relation and her first foray into communication is to take up with an unpleasant truck driver whose deplorable traits she pretends not to notice, studying instead the back of his neck. Luckily, this proves merely to be a test run of human interaction and Julie soon arrives at an ex lover’s house.
In the lover’s homely apartment she and Julie, perform a strange, negotiated geometry of relations. First they establish a line of connection, a line defined by the lover’s giving (first time, attention, then food, then wine), then, in bed, they twist and push themselves into new shapes, new relations of self/other until, having completed some kind of quasi platonic coming together, they sleep, and Julie leaves.
The noises which accompany the sex scene are reminiscent of the crazed humming which supervenes over Saute Ma Ville. In both, the self becomes its own narrator, providing its own accompaniment –and this discordance of voice and image coming from same-but-separate sources sets up a space of dis-identity (as does the sequential disjunction of narration and action throughout Akerman’s early work). This space-between, like the mirror in Saute Ma Ville, functions as a space for refractions of the self and for the invention and transfiguration of its relations.
 These noises are conspicuously absent on version of the film available online but I am certain they existed in the A Nos Amours screening. Any verification/refutation of this would be very appreciated!
Catching sight of the Real - Keifer Taylor
For Slavoj Zizek “the Real” and “symbolic reality” we inhabit is inextricably linked. In ideological terms, we are governed by a “false consciousness” that prevents a clear understanding of our “Real” surroundings. As many are aware, Zizek’s lofty theoretical framework stems from Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan proposed that our perception is constructed by a symbolic order of laws and language, featuring an “absence” that “cuts the real” When we encounter this “Real” it becomes a traumatic symptom that ruptures our cushioned everyday routines.
Returning to Zizek, these two realms intermingle via the corresponding symptom of the Real. Despite the indirect nature of this area, he explains, “the real (the part of reality that remains non-symbolised) returns in the guise of spectral apparitions” that “gives body to that which escapes (the symbolically structured) reality” In relation to the spatial properties of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the unspoken traumas and regimented procedures of the eponymous housewife’s daily life collide over the three-day narrative.
Usually, before we even consider the thematic basis of Jeanne Dielman or other Akerman films, the vividly constructed spaces demand primary attention. Symmetrical framings of this mundane setting presents obligatory household chores, against a backdrop of bland patterned walls, a marble green bathtub, a spacious living room and compact kitchen. These images illustrate a utopian bubble of domestic bliss. The compositional rigour of these spaces and its central figure’s manoeuvres can be considered a symbolic reality of Dielman’s attempts to repress her closeted pain.
The first day is a steady visual summary of this symbolic order: the phlegmatic single-parent housewife’s daily routine consists of preparing the food for her young son, Sylvain, babysitting, cleaning, engaging in her additional role as a prostitute and sleeping until the following day’s aforesaid activities. The stringency of its formal qualities proposes a sense of oppression within this seemingly natural environment. The stiffening absence of camera movement alone implies a lack of emotional fluidity. Instead, Dielman is locked inside her securely barred tedium of homely rituals.
It’s difficult to grasp the enigmatic trauma haunting Dielman across the film’s duration, though pinholes of insight into her past shed light on this. Perhaps her husband’s death is the cause of her emotional and sexual repression? Possibly the numb divorcée’s evening visit from a customer sparked an incandescent surge of thoughts and feelings, holding close ties to her true self? Towards the film’s convulsive climax, the photograph of a married couple resting upon the make-up table may solidify these claims.
The power of suggestion is an integral part of this investigation. To scope out symptoms of the looming Real one must pierce Chantal Akerman’s stiffly balanced frames. Gradually, the well-engineered space becomes a permeable sight of repressed desires, highlighting the unvoiced imperfections of Dielman’s symbolic reality. Once present, it is uncertain whether these two worlds are separate or exist concurrently. The final handful of images leans towards the latter, indicating the inextinguishable traumas that lurk within the seemingly prosaic.