As we tread deeper into the Promethean vault of Chantal Akerman’s vast filmic corpus the director’s personal vision seems to be taking shape. Already six films into the retrospective we are miles away from the brisk energy of Saute Ma Ville as Akerman tenaciously grips to a more emotionally restrained, pared down approach with numerous stylistic ventures.
In the article before this I referred to Hotel Monterey as an experimental film. At this point, however, it is clear that Akerman’s stylistic choices weren’t tentative exercises in cinematic expression. La Chambre, Le 15/8 and Je, Tu, Il, Elle all retain the themes and aesthetic principles of the previously screened films: lonely, anxious figures who yearn for excitement beyond the tedium of their confined spaces, loneliness and, of course, broken barriers where documentary and fiction conflate in a series of precisely framed shots governed by a uniquely hypnotic rhythm.
Made the same year as Hotel Monterey (1972), La Chambre is a continuation of Akerman’s interest in space and spectatorship. The mute short (accompanied by the whirling 16mm projector and warm crackle of the film print) consists of one 360-degree pan around a cramped New York bedsit of typical household items and the lone director herself wrapped in a white dressing gown on an unkempt bed. Akerman’s stare possesses something haunting and growingly charming with each languid spin. During the second sight of her she seems restless, rocking about under the covers, indicating to us her anxiety and longing for more. This image alone could be a touch of irony, mocking our own search for action. Midway through the third rotation, drifting past Akerman now eating an apple, the camera abruptly decides to return to the lonesome subject. Subsequently, the camera begins to shift back and forth between the mahogany chest of drawers flanked to the right and the cluttered desk on the left. After being lulled by the film’s leisurely orbit around the small dwelling one is caught within its stirring pot of indecision and agitation until it’s blunt ending of ceaseless movement. Seamlessly, as images of worn celluloid and grain travelled across the screen, the second film began.
After returning back to Europe the Belgian nomad co-directed Le 15/8 (1973) with her compatriot filmmaker Samy Szlingerbaum. A poetic documentary of displacement that observes a young Finnish woman named Chris who is staying in a sparse Parisian apartment (apparently owned by Szlingerbaum himself). Chris’ banal activities are shown with a delicate eye for detail through flat, black-and-white images of her smoking, eating, sitting in the kitchen, pensively staring out onto the unseen streets and reclining on the floor against the crisp shadow of a railing pattern. Parallel to these scenes Chris’ high-pitched voice-over rapidly flows through the narrative, imparting a stream of both trivial and personal thoughts.
The narration gradually dissects the warmth of Chris’ enchanting smile and marbled eyes that stare back at the audience, revealing the aimless Nordic wanderer’s fragility. After the amusing reiteration of “I’m sitting in the kitchen,” other seemingly mundane descriptions seem to convey an unspoken sorrow. For example, the self-conscious critique of her dirty blonde hair alludes to the subject’s inner conflict.
Chris’ doleful situation deepens as she briefly recounts her experiences in London and Paris. As the film never escapes the confines of the apartment, imagining the timid Finn roaming the glitzy districts and parched gullies of both capital cities like a lost Whooper swan amongst thousands brings us closer to her possible desire for an emotional connection. Despite preferring the city of love and light (after expressing how “cold” the stares are in London) her encounter with a man grabbing her arm only accentuates this hankering. Even the natural sounds of off-screen cars roaring a long the streets amplify Chris’ predicament with the stuffy air of melancholy trumping all romantic associations of the city.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974) blends elements of Akerman’s preceding films, solidifying them into a boldly austere debut narrative feature. After a break-up with her boyfriend a young woman played by Akerman (named Julie in the closing credits) lives an ascetic lifestyle – involving a cloying diet of coarse sugar - inside her one-room flat until heading out to experience the thrills of the outside world. Photographed in steely black-and-white, images carry the same eeriness and peculiar beauty found in the filmmaker’s other works.
Presumably “Tu” refers to the audience members themselves. Akerman even gives us the odd glance to acknowledge our presence. Through a bulk of static, uninterrupted takes and occasional movements we observe and absorb the process of Julie’s immurement. During her brief fling with a truck driver (played by a young Niels Arestrup) the camera almost becomes an autonomous entity. While the soft-faced protagonist stares at the trucker shaving, he then decides to urinate before returning to the mirror. Rather than following Julie’s gaze, the delayed camera pans to the right seconds later, focusing on the trucker’s reflection.
The languorous first half is accompanied by Akerman’s voiceover in which she describes her day-to-day activities inside the room. Interestingly, the narration is never in sync with the onscreen action as the latter takes place some moments after. Each description creates a sense of anticipation with the impeccable execution of the scene offsetting the minor delay: a prime example being the deadpan incident where Julie robotically scoffs the bag of coarse sugar; caught in a daze, nearly gagging, the contents fall out onto the letters.
Once again, the domestic space is framed as a suffocating symbol, signifying the character’s malaise. Eventually, the compulsive rearrangement of furniture leads to only a mattress and a messy assortment of written letters remaining inside the glum outcast’s stripped down chamber. As time slips by Julie’s hermetic existence begins to wane, producing symptoms of discomfort and sexual desire.
After viewing her naked body through the faint reflection of a windowpane the ravenous Julie leaves her self-imposed prison in search of sexual gratification. She then hitches a ride on a misty highway with the aforesaid truck driver. This second portion becomes a road movie of sorts, travelling to multiple public establishments. Sporadic shakiness even begins to appear, although the dominantly stationary camera pushes the segment forward. Stasis aside, the truck – however much a tight squeeze – is a mobile force, granting a loose sense of freedom a long the boundless landscape.
The pair’s journey involves a silent meal together at an empty diner and drinking beer at smoky bars. The prevailing silence of their romance drives the sexual tension between them. After channelling their libidinal energies (more so the male’s) with a hand job the trucker provides a monologue on his morally complex background.
The rambling speech becomes a great insight into male discontentment. The driver reflects on his empty marriage of bland, obligatory sex with a wife who no longer arouses him, his occasional hook-ups with other hitchhikers, familial duties and the repressed attraction towards his eldest daughter. Many parallels spring to mind: both characters stem from enclosed environments; the driver’s escape from the numbing home of matrimonial commitments onto the open road equates Julie’s own dissatisfaction. In the end, regardless of gender, all people share an inner craving beyond the prosaic.
Perhaps still unfulfilled, Julie arrives at her female ex-lover’s home. A sandwich and speechless flirtations leads to the women stripping and embracing in a lengthy sex sequence. The camera remains clinical, omitting the erotic intensity found in other films (comparisons have already been made with Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Blue Is The Warmest Colour). Nonetheless, the scene bleeds passion as the feral bodies clasp with an irrepressible amatory.
The differences between Julie’s sexual encounters are clear. For the trucker, sex is considered a frivolous activity, merely feeding his carnal appetites while the feminine duo display a tender and searing love. On a cynical level, there are similarities in both cases. When Julie leaves her lover in the morning the coldness of their relationship is exposed, rendering the night’s events as nothing more than an untamed attraction.
Chantal Akerman’s work remains challenging yet strikingly hits close to home. By now, attendees should be able to acclimatise to the weight of her filmmaking. Though undeniably arduous at times these films are acute accounts of instinctual pleasures and human frailties with cracks of humour to shed light on these dim realities. We can only brace ourselves for the upcoming screening of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Keifer Taylor is a BA Graduate in Film Studies at Queen Mary, University of London