Some readings of Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle (I, You, He, She, 1974) assign the character Akerman portrays to je (me), the viewer to tu (you), the truck driver with whom she hitches a lift to il (him), and her lover to elle (her) (1). I do not know if Akerman endorses such a reading, but it is one I find annoying in its prescriptive nature. This is a film whose power lies in its own ambiguity. To assign anything within the film to such a literal reading diminishes it. To explore this film, one needs to abandon the literal (the explanatory) in favour of a multiplicity of readings without limit and in a constant state of flux. We have to stop thinking of the film as a completed work, but as one that is completed endlessly at each viewing.
Little is gained by examining the film’s plot. A woman spends time alone in a room, moving furniture, eating sugar, stripping naked, writing and rewriting a letter. She hitches a lift with a truck driver, with whom she has a sexual episode. Finally she visits a woman, seemingly an ex-lover, who agrees to sleep with her but tells her she must go in the morning, which she does. That’s it. Trying to understand what Akerman is trying to say is similarly unhelpful. The film provides neither catharsis not thesis. We have left only the option of looking, listening and asking questions. When the viewer is the person asking, and then also answering, for themselves, questions that they (and possibly only they) are posing, the film comes alive. The apparent banality of the actions represented, the lack of conventional story, the long takes, are transformed into a very real density and richness.
The viewer becomes part of the creative process of the film by the active nature of their viewing. This happens because the film is good. By good I mean that the maker is assured. Ambiguity, which is what opens the door to the viewer and allows them to enter in to the work, is not vague. It is precise. And this is a very precise film. While the protagonist’s actions lack obvious meaning, there is no doubt that they do have a meaning, even if we never know what it is. Akerman feels no need to explain. And why should she? Most things, most actions, aren’t explainable. What she does is show, in a particular and certain way. The film is sure enough of itself to absorb the many interpretations it engenders.
An example. I have always been intrigued by the protagonist’s state of mind. While her actions suggest a level of distress (ridding herself of furniture, the obsessive sugar eating, the public nakedness, the casual, and less casual, sexual encounters), she herself never seems distressed. The voice on the soundtrack is precise and without emotion. She is calm, thoughtful and occasionally happy. Her beatific glow as she regards her reflection in the room towards the end of the first third of the film, echoed when she looks at the truck driver shaving, and when her girlfriend feeds her, is particularly striking. But on rewatching the film before writing this piece, something else became apparent. After eating, she reaches towards her girlfriend’s dress and undoes the buttons, smiling with the apparent knowledge of a desire about to be gratified. Clearly the immediate desire is a sexual one. But on this viewing I saw something else. The advance contentment in Akerman’s face reminded me powerfully of the look on a baby’s face as it reaches for its mother’s breast – a look of both desire and the certainty that this desire will be met.
On first seeing the film, over ten years ago, such a thought did not occur to me. I knew nothing and thought little about babies. But from the perspective of three children, my recognition of this look is intense. A new interpretation emerged. I saw the film as a strange but resonant portrayal of the movement of the infant into the world, into self-dom. The room the woman inhabits, “narrow as a corridor”, can be seen as both womb and birth canal, from which the naked person (baby) emerges into a world where both a male and female archetype provide her with warmth, food and physical contact. The way she looks at her reflection in the window of her room summons thoughts of Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” (2), the infant’s gradual understanding of itself, through observation of its reflection, as a separate being in the world, and its astonishment and pleasure at its own life and beauty. The eating of sugar has echoes of both the nourishment gained from the placenta and breast milk, itself very sweet. The intensity of her gaze as she watches the truck driver shaving echoes the adoration of the child for its father. Basic demands – “I’m hungry”, “I’m thirsty” – clearly stated and quickly met, are powerfully reminiscent of the early relationship between mother and child.
One must be clear. This is not what I think the film is about. It is not a reading I would fight for. Nor is it one I think Akerman intended. But I do think that it is valid, and it is this validity, this possibility of multiple – of endless – validities that gives Je tu il elle such power. One of the joys of this film is that while simultaneously delighting in my new reading, I can also abandon it. Where, for instance, is my infant-navigating-the-world theory in the extraordinary and challenging ten-minute sex scene that comes towards the end of the film, that follows on, indeed, from the reaching forward and opening of buttons that led to my first thoughts about infants? One constantly reconsiders and recalibrates while viewing and thinking about this film.
The sexual elements in Je tu il elle are powerful and deserve consideration. From the nakedness of the first third of the film, which while not literally sexual, has a sexual power, the middle section of the film contains a sexual incident – Akerman’s character masturbates the truck driver, an action described rather than seen. And finally the extended sexual encounter between the two women, both shocking and provoking, and unlike any other sexual image I’ve seen on film. What strikes one most about it is how un-sexual much of it is. The scene is shocking it its length, the refusal of the camera to either look away or come closer. There are moments of a powerful erotic nature – the kissing, the moment when the girlfriend slowly opens Akerman’s legs – but this is not an erotic scene. It is designed neither to turn you on nor to develop a story. It is physical but formal. White bodies on white sheets. The sounds are essentialised: breathing, the thud of bodies and a strange humming. It feels like a wrestling match from ancient Greece.
In the mysterious power of this scene I need to put aside my theories about infants, and open my mind to something else. If I was searching for literal readings I would be frustrated. Indeed, people who try to view the film literally seem to end up somewhat enraged (3). Watching this film, one has to allow one’s mind to be constantly fluid and avoid assumption, which is the enemy of ambiguity. Many assume, for instance, that the letter the protagonist writes in the room during the first third of the film is to the female lover of the last third. But there is no point in the film when it is made clear to whom the letter is written. Only that it is written, again and again. It is of great import to the protagonist – it and its meaning matter. It is easy, and comfortable, to assume that it is written to a lover – especially to the female lover of the last third of the film. And there is no reason why the letter should not be to her. But neither is their any reason why it should. From the start, this film makes it clear that we cannot trust temporal continuity. The first line, “And so I left”, corresponds to the last action of the film. Throughout the first third the voiceover conflicts with the image. The assumption that the letter is to the lover happens because it is neat. It makes sense. But we live in a senseless world. We long for the neatness of a sense-filled narrative because it makes that senselessness less frightening. But neither the filmmaker nor the woman she portrays seems frightened. We never know what is going on with the woman in this film beyond the physical reality of her actions. But we know something is going on with her, something that only she can know but that resonates with the endless something going on within ourselves.
After this viewing of Je tu il elle, when I think of the title I tumble back to the idea of the baby, of the self beginning to understand the idea of its own self and its separation from its mother, between I/je and you/tu, and the huge, imposing figures of father and mother: Il and Elle. It also reminds me of small children learning their grammar, reciting their verbs by rote, an image echoed by the handwritten titles and the youthful voices singing in call and response at the end (4). Or the title could be an indication of choice, of the multiple possibilities of what or who the film is about. All I know, though, is that the title was given to the film by its maker, and given for a reason. What that reason is – you decide.
- “Akerman directs and stars in this film, which focuses on two days in a woman’s life. The story centers around the lonely woman’s creative struggles and her emotional distance from most people she encounters. The je (I) refers to the protagonist [Julie], played by Akerman; the tu (you) is we, the viewers; the il (he) is a truck driver she hitchhikes with; and elle (she) is her estranged female lover.” See “Je, tu, il, elle”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2009: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/events/1304.
This précis of the film also states that it takes place during two days of the protagonist’s life – untrue, the voiceover clearly states that the woman is in the room in the first third of the film for at least 28 days. There is a similar, though more considered interpretation of the title in Michael Koresky’s “A Belgian in New York”, published as part of the DVD release, Eclipse Series 19: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, The Criterion Collection, New York, 2010: “letters we see her writing to an unknown party, possibly the ‘to’ (you) of the title […] two sexual encounters, one with a truck driver, the film’s ‘il’, and the other with ‘elle’, her ex-girlfriend”. See: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1351-eclipse-series-19-chantal-akerman-in-the-seventies.
- For a brief description of Lacan’s theorisation of the “Mirror Stage” see Terry Gamel, “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’”: http://www.academia.edu/1539509/Summary_of_Lacans_The_Mirror_Stage_as_Formative_of_the_Function_of_the_I_as_Revealed_in_Psychoanalytic_Experience_.
- See Janet Maslin, “Je tu il elle”, The New York Times 27 December 1985: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C01E0DE133BF934A15751C1A963948260.
- A whole paper could be written about the use of this song in Je tu il elle. A traditional song for children, the chorus translates as
Join in the dance
See how they dance
Jump, dance, kiss whoever you like
With such lyrics one could formulate an argument that the film is indeed about the entrance into life, as well as the blurring of sexuality and even gender. However, the roots of the song are decidedly un-child-like, referring to the brothels that grew in the Versailles forest during the building of the Chateau de Versailles by Louis XIV, and which he later closed down, alarmed at the growth of venereal disease. Meaning is so elusive and layered in this film that one could go on and on.
Je tu il elle/I, You, He, She (1974 France/Belgium 90 mins)
Prod Co: Prod, Dir: Chantal Akerman Scr: Chantal Akerman, Eric De Kuyper, Paul Paquay Phot: Bénédicte Delesalle, Renelde Dupont, Charlotte Szlovak Ed: Luc Fréché, Geneviève Luciani
Cast: Chantal Akerman, Niels Arestrup, Claire Wauthion