Formally, the two ﬁlms share a trope, however, in their mutual use of 360 degree camera pans as structuring device and mode of diegetic presentation. Eschewing montage cuts or sequential edits, both features, indeed, trace circular tours through their material, replacing the teleological, progress-oriented bent of plot-based ﬁlmmaking with a spherical aesthetics of enclosure, repetition and what Gilles Deleuze might term a planar, ‘rhizomatic’ embrace of horizontalism over verticality. This suspension of traditional cinematic practices opens, in both ﬁlms, intermediary spaces to reﬂect on different modes of ﬁlmic being and expression. The use of wide, inclusive camera orbits which refrain from homing in on speciﬁc objects or perspectives prevents a ﬁxing of authorial or spectator outlook and encourages a slow, respectful gaze which avoids the piecemeal and appropriating look of cinematic fetishism. In a 2014 piece on Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès, Mulvey posits that 'the cinema invests in the woman as spectacle, her circulation as commodity forms an amorphous circuit of desire.' Both Riddles of the Sphinx and Akerman’s La chambre break this cycle by imagining the circuits typically containing women's presentation in the cinema anew. In both, the circle is refashioned less as a motif for the unending round of production and consumption trapping women as commodities than as a new way of looking able to make space for a broader range of perspectives and interpretations.
I: A room of her own
La chambre, preempting 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, explores questions of space, seclusion and exile: orbiting a woman, played by Akerman herself, in bed in a small, studio apartment, largely immobile, and surrounded by an intimate array of domestic accoutrements. Filmed with the cinematographer Babette Mangolte, with whom Akerman would go on to produce Jeanne Dielman, as well as Hotel Monterey and News from Home, its deliberate, exacting tours of the room it takes as subject speaks both to Akerman’s investment in this period in the structural, minimalistic legacy of ﬁlms such as Michael Snow’s La Région centrale and Andy Warhol’s Empire, as well as to the ﬁlmmaker's growing concern to engage with phenomenologically inspired questions of embodied cinema, ﬁlmic temporality, and the limits of spectator endurance. At a screening of the ﬁlm hosted by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2013, Akerman suggested that La chambre’s realisation gave rise to the crucial insight, informing her ﬁlmmaking practice to date, that ‘I didn’t need a story… to bring attention to my movies.’ This quality of renewed audience attention at the expense of plot or exegesis comes to the fore as the spectator is choreographed into an eleven minute recalibration of perspective: disciplined, indeed, to follow the scenography’s strict circuits circling the woman who is simultaneously offered and protected from our view.
Reminiscent of a Flemish still-life portrait, the ﬁlm opens on a light-bathed shot of a kitchen table strewn with eggs, apples and various utensils. Beginning its counter-clockwise itinerary, the camera movement is shaky and uncertain: speaking to the human presence operating the machine, and to the vulnerability of ﬁlm as medium: the impression made upon by it contingent subjectivities, and its subsequent subjection to inﬂections, variations. Shots ensue of a kettle, cooker, and a vast expanse of undecorated wall space before the camera lands on Akerman, sitting up in bed, brazenly returning the camera’s stare. Upon this meeting, the camera does not pause or alter its set route, but steadily continues scanning, exposing its politics of non- differentiation between animate and inanimate objects. The circuitous path of the camera here cultivates patience, as we are made to sit through another round of surveying the room before we can encounter, for a second time, Akerman’s presence. This time she is lying down, half-covered by sheets and holding her arm up to her face, as if shielding herself from the camera’s intrusions. Again, the formal device of the steady, thorough 360 degree pan makes no concessions to her image: continuing upon its trajectory of gliding through the room, replacing an aesthetics of attachment and framing with a praxis of indexing and surveilling.
In reference to the ﬁxity of the position of the camera in Jeanne Dielman, which never strays from a static, frontal registering of the tableau at hand, Akerman, in an interview with Angela McRobbie, employs a language of ‘respect’ and ‘ethics’: suggesting that judicious ﬁlming distance was maintained in order not to ‘mutilate’ the body of the woman on display and in order to encourage a tender, even loving gaze for the feature’s otherwise object of intense, unyielding observation. Although mobile as opposed to ﬁxed in nature, La chambre’s rigidly adhered to surveys serve a similar purpose: encouraging a holistic portrait of Akerman as young director, ensuring that we can partake in the ‘whole picture’ yet, in refusing to come close or linger over her potentially seductive image, refusing, at the same time, any easy framings of woman as spectacle, or as object of aesthetic, or indeed haptic lure. As well as sensual conceit, encouraging precise attention to the textural, material quality of the space registered, the piece’s circular surveys harness, then, political potential: opening not only to what Marion Schmid terms the ‘womb-time’ of gradual ferment and pregnant burgeoning but also to a ﬁlmic ethics of inclusion and accommodation: to a politics of the panorama, as opposed to of the narrow snapshot. This politics of refusing an easy absorption of the ﬁlmic image, preempting Mulvey’s manifesto against cinema as uncritical and purely leisurely activity, is both creative and imaginary - opening an in-between, labile space in which to receive, rather than dictate images of women - but also palpably material. The automatic, indeed quasi-mechanical nature of the pans, accompanied by the preservation of a whirring, crackling sound, alerts the audience to the status of the camera as object and as instrument, rather than transparent aid to voyeurism. It reminds us, as Mulvey would suggest, in 1975, that the ‘ﬁrst blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional ﬁlm conventions…is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.’
II: Separate spheres
In Riddles of the Sphinx, concerns related to the politics of women’s visibility and representation in the cinema are expanded, given space to aerate, and subjected to a more essayistic format which interweaves formal conceits with documentary reportage and psychoanalytically inﬂected theory. The ﬁlm is divided into seven segments of which the fourth - a series of thirteen 360 degree pans following the public and private lives of a woman, Louise, her young daughter, Anna and her close girlfriend Maxine - bears closest resemblance to La chambre’s project of affective cartography, and to its attempt to open up new spaces from which to think the place of women in the cinema. Echoing La chambre’s close attention to the often underrepresented spaces of female domestic labour, the ﬁrst ‘pan’ encompasses a survey of a kitchen in which a woman - later introduced as Louise - balances a child on her hip whilst undergoing, at the same time, several mundane household tasks. The path of the camera is meticulous, deliberate. We see the tiles of the kitchen’s work surfaces, the clutter of the toddler’s cutlery and toys. In contrast to this painstaking scrutiny, we see only a portion of Louise’s body - her face remaining out of view. Departing from La chambre’s obstinate, deﬁant, gaze, its assertion of the coincidal of feminine viewed object and female viewing subject, then, here Louise is reduced to her manual, menial capacities, absorbed by her domestic duties, depersonalised as a result of them.
Suggesting greater interest in the voice rather than the gaze of the emancipated female subject, Riddles of the Sphinx breaks with its titular associations with feminine enigma and aloofness by overwriting its circular tours of interior and public space with an audio soundtrack of probing political and social questions and word-association games. Such additions which intrude upon the diegesis dislocate the otherwise smooth symmetry of the wide camera pans and keep the viewer in a state of permanent suspension between semiotic and symbolic realms. Lucid points of debate such as ‘Should women organise themselves separately from men?’ intersperse with nominal pile-ups of associative terms - ‘distressed/strained/nesting/in the nest’ - speaking to the ﬁlm’s desire, at large, voiced by Mulvey in an essay written on occasion of the ﬁlm’s rerelease in partnership with the BFI - to ‘experiment with sign-systems.’ In the ﬁrst, introductory segment of the feature spoken by Mulvey and mirroring La chambre’s insertion of the female artist as director into the proﬁlmic space, these aural additions are qualiﬁed in terms of a ‘voice-off’ rather than a ‘voice-over,’ speaking to the sphinx’s, and women’s more broadly, marginalised status, to their simultaneous exclusion and suppression, to the fact that ‘the sphinx can only speak with a voice apart.’
This interest in the layering of ﬁlmic textures, in the sourcing of cinephilic pleasure in the juxtaposing of heterogeneous, dissonant ﬁlmed materials extends Riddles of the Sphinx’s orbits beyond purely structural, but also, political concerns, and re-imagines ‘the piecemeal’ in creative and collage-like, rather than straightforwardly possessive, terms. Mirroring La chambre’s sudden change in direction at its mid-way point, these orbits are indeed, subject to amendments and additions. As the ﬁlm broadens its outlook to include tours of Louise’s workplace and the childless living spaces of her female friends, it conspicuously forfeits its policy to depict its protagonist only partially and allows the audience, for the ﬁrst time, to see her in full. This sudden access to her image, far from facile commentary on women’s presence in the workplace and counterpoint invisibility in the home, afﬁrms the feature’s faith in collective structures of support and, in contrast to Akerman’s more secluded, enigmatic study, its distrust of isolation and estrangement. The presence afﬁrmed here, of what Mulvey at one point in the ‘voice-off’ observes as ‘bodies at work, suspending their labour power’ consoles to some extent the otherwise fragmented offerings on display, these seductive panoramas of an internal and external life which fall short however, of attuning to a single nodal point of concentration.
In both ﬁlms, then, the singular recourse to circular, wide-ranging camera orbits provide templates to rethink questions of feminine exposure in ﬁlm, and the lenses of power through which we see cinema. In both, an aesthetics of the straight line is abandoned in favour of a less propulsive mould of the circle or sphere which posits a queer temporality of repetition and enchantment over expectations for narrative advancement. In Akerman’s ﬁlm the horizontal surveys of the eponymous chambre in question speak to cinema’s project of enclosure, cocooning and holding, to its status as affective architecture. In Mulvey’s more collage-like bricolage of plural techniques and devices the circle extends further to encompass other means and modes of making ﬁlm. Together, both speak to a moment in the history of cinema where an aesthetics of inclusion and accommodation could be just as radical as shock tactics of extreme disclosure and enforced visibility: making us complicit in the path of the camera, extending cinema's outlook inwards and outwards, at the same time.
Alice Blackhurst is a PhD student in the French department at the University of Cambridge. Her thesis, supervised by Emma Wilson, looks at ideas of luxury in Chantal Akerman, Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle and Annie Ernaux.
 ‘Compulsion to Repeat: Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès.’ Afterall, Issue 35, 2014, 84-93.
 2 ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen, 1975, 16 (3), 68.