In the 13 years before her death, Chantal Akerman completed only three narrative features, La Captive (The Captive, 2000), Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004) and La Folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly, 2011). A deeply felt reworking of Proust’s influence on her own artistic development, a highly original revisiting of À la recherche du temps perdu’s fifth book La Prisonnière, La Captive marked a high point in her career, and gave us the hope that she would make a flurry of narratives, more and more of them, very soon. It was not supposed to be. US distribution was botched (with the production company releasing the film on DVD before securing a distributor), and the beginning of the millennium was marked by increasing difficulties for auteur filmmakers to secure funding for personal projects. Akerman was not alone in her predicament, but, as usual, found ways to remain active. Between 2000 and 2015, she directed three experimental documentaries: De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002) shot around the US-Mexican border and segueing into an installation, A Voice in the Desert; Là-bas (Over There, 2006), shot in an apartment in Tel Aviv); and finally No Home Movie (2015), about her mother who had died the year before – a film that reprises some of the telling moments of her last, autobiographical book, Ma mère rit (My Mother is Laughing, Paris: Mercure de France, 2013). Having edited this section of Senses of Cinema dedicated to Chantal Akerman, I didn’t have the strength to write yet another original text. I am submitting and slightly revising this little-known essay, which I am still quite fond of, written in 2002 (and which I had, I have to confess, cannibalised a bit for some program notes written on La Captive for the Melbourne Cinémathèque… nobody’s perfect…) with the kind permission of Thomas Lawson, who had commissioned it for Afterall. Special thanks to Zoe Crosher, who edited the piece at the time.
Tap-tap-tap… Preceded by the clicking of her high heels, a young woman (Sylvie Testud) walks through the Place Vendôme in Paris, the camera following her in one unbroken shot till she reaches her car. A young man (Stanislas Mehrar) follows her, gets into his own car and continues tailing her. In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the young woman was Albertine, and the man was Marcel. For La Captive Chantal Akerman calls her Ariane. While much has been written about Proust’s driver/companion Albert, who might be hidden behind the oddly feminine name of Albert-ine, Ariane is a name without masculine equivalent; in Greek mythology she was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, who fell in love with Theseus and gave him a magic ball of twine to find his way in the labyrinth. 1 In ARiANE, one finds five letters of AkERmAN. From Proust to Albert to Albertine to finally Ariane and Akerman, there is a vertiginous interplay of sliding equivalencies, of masks that simultaneously frame, hide and reveal some secret. In the film, Ariane’s partner, lover, captor and tormentor is named Simon, preserving the narrator’s Jewishness as well as alluding to Albertine’s family name: Simonet.
In La Captive, updated to contemporary times, Simon lives a comfortable existence of homme de lettres in a large bourgeois apartment he shares with his grandmother and a housekeeper, Françoise, 2 and in which he keeps a young woman of unclear social status. Plagued by allergies and asthma, Simon is unable to accompany Ariane when she goes out, but, suspecting her of loving women, spies on her and relentlessly questions her to find out if she’s “lying” to him. What unsettles him, ultimately, is the enigma of femininity. What is a woman? and which mystery is hidden when two women are together? Proust explores the masculine side of the question, probably transposing his own anxieties – what hidden pleasures could his (male) lover find with a woman? Conversely, in most of her films, especially those with a (semi)-autobiographic resonance – Je tu il elle (I You He She, 1974), Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978), Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Young Girl from the Late Sixties in Brussels, 1993), Akerman portrays women who desire both men and women, developing, however, a more intimate bond with the latter. For a female director, the challenge posed by an adaptation of the Proustian text is that Marcel is constructed as the subject of desire – who acts upon it, obsesses about it, suffers from it – and Albertine is its unfathomable object. While both Sylvie Testud’s outstanding performance and Akerman’s peerless direction give Ariane a complex subjectivity and agency, what she does off-screen and what she thinks remains a mystery. Is it because the effects of female authorship are not powerful enough to dispel the “active/passive heterosexual division of labour” uncovered at the core of film narrative by Laura Mulvey: “woman as image, man as the bearer of the look”? 3
Or is a more interesting (transgressive) structure at work here: a woman attempting to look at another woman who loves women through the eyes of a man who tortures himself by trying to understand female homosexuality from the inside? Threatened by the contiguity/continuity between two female bodies that the homosexual bond entails, the boundary between two individuals can nevertheless be restored by the introduction of a third term, intervening from the other side of the gender line.
In Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles, Akerman lays this structure bare by turning the main protagonist (the subject of desire) into a rather innocent, albeit passionate, teenage girl, Michèle (Circé), with a hopeless crush on her “best friend” at school. As Danielle’s confidante she is an accomplice, the unwitting witness of the latter’s awkward search for a “dream man”. Michèle escapes her predicament by cutting out of school, meeting Paul, a handsome and sensitive deserter, having sex with him, and then handing him on to Danielle:
– You’ll meet him on my behalf. Then you’ll tell me what happens. No, you won’t tell me anything.
– You know I always tell you everything.
– Sometimes, I would prefer for you not to tell me everything. Go: he’s going to be the man of your life… After that, my mind will be at rest. But you mustn’t tell me anything from now on. I should no longer observe your quest.
If not knowing is a torture for Simon, knowing is no less painful for Michèle. Those are the two reverse sides of the same predicament: there is something to know. The beloved woman does not want you the way you want her; she wants somebody else, of another gender. The subject is reduced to being the witness/non witness of a coupling that keeps being concealed from his/her gaze, like a half-forgotten primal scene, in which the forbidden body of the mother was glimpsed as “belonging” to someone else.
Tap-tap-tap. Ariane climbs a staircase at the end of a cul-de-sac where she has parked her car. Mesmerised by the sound, Simon follows her, on silent, efficient soles. The young woman disappears, and Simon is now guided by the clicking of the invisible high heels. In the labyrinth of the city, where every street corner may hide a deception, every grove shelter a forbidden embrace, every smile conceal a treacherous seduction, the tap-tap-tap is the only “ball of twine” that the despondent and jealous lover can grasp. It complicates the fort-da game 4 that Simon plays with Ariane, redoubling the original visual dilemma (now you see her, now she’s gone) into its aural version (now you hear her, now you don’t). If you don’t hear her, maybe she’s behind you, barefoot, or she’s in bed, asleep and waiting to be ravished with her eyes closed as in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. 5 Yet, if you hear something – maybe it’s not her, but another woman, wearing similar high heels (cosi fan tutte) 6 – for there are hundreds, thousands of women in heels, in the maze of streets, hidden staircases, public parks, hotels, restaurants, theatres and back alleys of Paris. When Simon starts following Ariane, the tap-tap-tap is the sign, both alluring and reassuring, of the young woman’s presence. As the narration unfolds, Simon is increasingly confronted to the multiplicity of high heels. The clicking of heels thus becomes the vertiginous signifier of an overflowing femininity. Julia Kristeva reminds us that, for Proust, Albertine has no fixed identity, but always appears as a “plural” being, a “multi-headed goddess”. “A woman could not be individuated. A petal in a bunch of flowers, a seagull in a flock of birds, or a mere reflection, detail, indistinct and interchangeable feature. (A) woman/women is always in an undifferentiated plural; she goes in group or bevy…” 7
One night, Simon is looking for Ariane, who has left earlier, wearing a white scarf. Every woman met in the shadows, attracting his attention through the clicking of her heels, seems to be wearing a similar scarf – offering herself to his gaze, or talking to him, or passing unnoticed behind him, or followed by him, half-surprised, half-frightened, in a dark staircase. Unable to fully possess the woman, Simon is reduced to grab pieces of femininity, through visual or aural signs that turn out to be lures. Since more than one woman can wear high heels or white scarves, there is no way to distinguish one from the other, and the protagonist is constantly mistaking the shadow for the prey.
A sign of multiple femininity, the clicking of the heels, however, awakens in the subject the dream of a unified signifier. To the child in bed, waiting for his/her mother’s goodnight kiss, the tap-tap-tap signified her arrival, and then her cruel departure. It is also a bridge between absence and presence. The woman may be unseen, but the sound of her footsteps reveals her proximity. She is not, however, motionless, but walking – either in your direction (you’re going to see her, embrace her soon) or away from you, or even passing you by. Here is the paradox: a woman who walks resists ultimate fetishisation, for she is in constant motion; yet, the shoes she wears are among the most coded objects of male sexual fetishism. One of the many subversions offered by Akerman’s filmic text is a reformulation of this fetish within the economy of female sexuality. If a fetish signifies a lack, it may not necessarily be, as in the Freudian orthodoxy, the lack of a penis, but, more essentially, the lack of a presence. Desired women in Akerman’s films are often constructed as missing, inaccessible, lost. Signifying the ever-changing, ever-torturing distance between subject and object, the clicking of the heels is an important trope in the construction of her cinematic space. In her universe, the shoe might be a fetish, but a fetish in motion, always connected to a gesture, an inflexion of the female body: polishing them, putting them on, taking them off, standing, pacing, walking, running, dancing.
Few filmic oeuvres pay more attention to the musical, emotional and structuring roles footsteps can play in narrative. There are countless instances in which the arrival of the beloved woman is preceded by the sound of her footsteps, in which the tap-tap-tap of high heels functions as a permanent echo of a female protagonist’s mundane activities or hidden emotions. Footsteps also signify the complexity of human interactions in a city, or sometimes, simply, the presence of other human beings. Reaching the bottom of her depression, the protagonist of Je tu il elle (played by Akerman herself) stops “paying attention to the footsteps. They were too numerous, or too loud during the day.” Later, standing naked in front of her window, she hears “footsteps, which then stopped. Someone was looking at me. So I remained motionless and naked, so that others, passing by, might look at me.”
The male shoe fetishist conceives the connection between the feet and the shoes as unproblematic for the woman; she can slip in and out of them in a second, and walk in them without being hindered. However, as women know, high heels can be a torture, they are pleasant to look at but not necessarily to walk in. In Je tu il elle, Akerman wears heavy knitted socks and uninspired clogs. In Portrait d’une jeune fille, Michèle, her teenage stand-in, is shown dressed as a tomboy (blue pants, stripped T-shirt, flat black shoes). She explains to Paul that one of the elements of her conflict with her father is that she does “not want to wear chic clothes. It’s a torture. Especially wearing stockings.” Stockings are often part and parcel of fetishistic apparatus involving garter belt and high heels that constrains feet as well as body. Yet, as she continues discussing her “weird ideas” about clothing, Michèle inserts the disturbing comment that “the name embroidered on the school’s blouse, it’s like a stigmata.” No less disturbing is Paul’s reply: “A name, it’s better than a number.” Unconsciously, the young people know why Michèle’s father wants her to dress with a certain decorum, and why she rebels against the emotional weight he’s laying on her. The dress code is to conjure the poorly forgotten memories of the nudity in the camps, the numbers tattooed on the arm, the exhausting marches on bare, bleeding feet, the heaps of women’s shoes in the storerooms.
Akerman’s oeuvre displays an ambivalence between the tropes of forgetting and remembering, as well as about the codes of gender definition. Both ambivalences are connected, unfolding, one in a tragic mode, the other in a playful one. As in a Jewish joke, narrative pleasure springs from the intersection of these two registers. Most Holocaust survivors said nothing about their experience to their children in order to “spare” them. The task of the next generation was to decipher this silence. Akerman never made a film about the Holocaust – even Histoires d’Amérique (American Stories – Food, Family and Philosophy, 1989) unfolds a playful jocularity – but keeps alluding to it obliquely, thus mimicking the indirect discourse of the Holocaust survivors. Similarly, while her narrative strategies shatter the conventional representation of femininity, she still partakes in and is fascinated by tropes that could be qualified as “pre-feminist” – bringing this duplicity of approach to its higher level of complexity and artistic maturity in La Captive. Portrait d’une jeune fille had already captured this ambivalence. As she is walking on the street with Paul, whom she has just kissed on a whim, Michèle stops in front of a window that we guess to contain a pair of shoes:
– Look at those! Don’t you find them awesome!
– Yes, you’re right. You want them?
– You don’t have to buy me a pair of shoes because of a kiss.
Paul and Michèle are framed in medium close-up, talking to each other while looking in the direction of the window. There is no reverse angle shot of the famous shoes, but Michèle being a teenager in 1968, we can imagine them as a pair of sophisticated, ultra-feminine high heels. Their conversation drift toward the nature of Michèle’s conflicted desires, her “impossible” search for “closeness”, her double attraction for both Paul and “the one” she wanted to make suffer. Here we find two of Akerman’s major tropes. One, at the narrative level, is the woman who loves two people. The other is the refusal to cut and show the object of the protagonist’s desire. Later, during a party, the camera stays on Michèle’s face for a long time, as she intensely watches Danielle who dances with a young man to the tune of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World (released in 1966). At the end of the film, pushed by Michèle in Paul’s direction, Danielle produces a radiant smile, but the young man is never shown. This cinematic grammar sweetly implies that the pair of shoes is no less an object of desire for Michèle than Danielle is, or later, than Paul is becoming for Danielle. 8
People who were once deprived of everything, or whose parents were, are sometimes overcome by a violent, irrational desire for shoes or clothes. The ownership of material goods fills the gap once created by poverty or physical abjection, and, on the scale of human emotions, becomes a stand-in for emotional fulfilment. This adds a new perspective to the speech about the “fickleness of the heart” that closes Window Shopping (1986). 9
In the film’s last scene, Mr Schwartz (Charles Denner), the clothes shop owner, attempts to comfort Mado (pop singer Lio), who, still in her wedding dress, has to cope with the fact that Robert won’t marry her.
– You see [one dress] in the window you’ve got to have, but maybe it’s too expensive… Or maybe it looks well on the rack, but not on you. So you have to choose another. After all, you can’t walk around naked!
The same thing goes for shoes (and Akerman makes sure that the Schwartzes sell shoes as well, and orchestrates two close-ups of Delphine Seyrig putting a magnificent pair of high heels on a customer, then on a dummy.) Like in La Captive and Portrait d’une jeune fille, in Window Shopping shoes become the substitute for the women who wear them – halfway between the fetish (they trigger desire) and the sign (they signify a presence/absence). A musical comedy, the film starts on a static medium shot of the smooth, glittering floor of a shopping mall, on which 75-odd women, framed from the knee down, pass, either alone or together, walking or running, in all possible directions. Flowing, colourful dresses or straight black skirts, flat shoes, small heels, formal footwear, sophisticated high heels, blue, red, black, yellow and even pink. The shot lasts 2:10 minutes, over a rendition of two songs of the film (“The Tango of the Shampoo Girls” and “At Night”), the passing of shoes becoming swifter and swifter, the pace accelerating, and we start to notice that the same shoes, the same dresses, are reappearing. In the mall, women are not going from A to B, but round and round, like laboratory animals or performers in a Pina Bausch choreography. In the course of the diegesis, we may recognise some of these shoes: they belong not only to shoppers but to working-class women, the bevy of hairdressers and shampoo girls who work for Lili (Fanny Cottençon), the salon owner, femme fatale and kept mistress of a businessman/gangster. The shoes these young women wear are not only made for walking, but for working; they are their uniforms. On the other hand, the first time Lili appears, royally, at 11:30am, she is seen descending the stairs in a striking red dress, barefoot, a red bag and a pair of red shoes playfully dangling from her left hand. Window Shopping interlaces several narrative strands – the most moving being an unexpected reunion between Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and Eli (John Berry), the American who had taken care of her when she was just out of the camps. The film’s red thread, however, is the love quadrangle between the Schwartz’s son, Robert (Nicolas Tronc), Lili, the young hairdresser Mado, and Monsieur Jean (Jean-François Balmer), Lili’s protector. (Characteristically, Akerman adds more angles to the love geometry, for Pascale, Lili’s best friend, also pines for Robert, and at some point Lili makes a spectacular exit on Eli’s arm.) In a moment of anger at Lili, Robert proposes to Mado. Yet, on the eve of the wedding, Lili makes a no less theatrical comeback. As she hides behind the stage-like red curtain of the dressing room, Robert recognises her by the way she impatiently clicks her fine black high heels. A few moments later, returning to the shop in her wedding gown, Mado sees Robert’s and Lili’s shoes involved in some erotic dance in the space between the curtain and the floor, and understands that she’s done for.
An even more scattered narration, Toute une nuit (All Night Long, 1982) follows snippets of the lives of 75 anonymous characters during a hot summer night in Brussels. Lovers on the lam, married couples taking a stroll, teenagers eloping, chance erotic meetings, stolen embraces, one-night stands, lovers parting or being reunited, lonely walks through the city, insomniac’s sleepless moments, a cigarette quietly smoked on a street corner. Some appear only once. We are allowed to follow others, ever so slightly, as their stories develop more fully. A few of these stories stand out, including one that revolving around the only recognisable star of the lot, Aurore Clément, 10 a woman unhappily caught between the love she feels for one man and the love another man feels for her; she paces her apartment up and down without daring to make a phone call, or runs through the streets to stand below the window of the object of her passion. In another, a housewife packs a suitcase while her husband is asleep, walks away, checks into a small hotel, and throws herself on the bed, still wearing her white suit and high heels. We see her later, carrying her suitcase, on a deserted square at dawn, and then sneaking back home, and finally into bed by her snoring husband, just in time for the alarm clock to ring and for her to get up. Earlier in the film, two strangers, a man and a woman, sit at contiguous tables in a café, without looking at each other, while the erotic tension mounts. When they get up at the same moment, they violently grab each other. 11 A few shots later, they are dancing with a passionate and awkward abandon, to a tune from a jukebox. As they slowly retreat in the back of the café, the women’s shoes become visible – it’s a pair of golden high heels, quite improbable for such an occasion.
Realism is not what governs the subtle choreography of Toute une nuit. The film is constructed like a musical, structured by its soundtrack as much by Akerman’s much lauded visual compositions. The mood is given by a few musical numbers, whose source is sometimes diegetic (the jukebox), sometimes not. Gino Lorenzi’s “L’amore perdonera”, a syrupy Italian love song, is overlaid over two crucial sequences – the faux closure of the Aurore Clément story (she dances with one man while whispering in his ear how much she loves the other one), and the little girl dancing (see below). The soundtrack is a multilayered symphony populated by the tunes and noises of the city and the ever-present sound of footsteps.
All the women in the film, young and old, pretty or plain, wear high heels, and can’t move without being “betrayed” by their constant clicking. Akerman plays on this, in two different sequences. A woman goes down a flight of stairs, having removed her shoes to escape unnoticed and joins a man waiting for her outside. Another, in the morning after a one-night stand with a younger man, attempts to sneak out from his house on tiptoes, but is caught back by her lover, and an awkward, but sweet, exchange of first names follows. Akerman also pays attention to children’s footwear. In a disturbing sequence, a tomboyish little girl enters a café, where a lonely middle-aged man is drinking himself to an alcoholic torpor. The only markers of the child’s femininity are her little red boots, quickly glanced at (no boy would wear these), and her voice, when she invites the man to dance. Accepting, the man is embarrassed, not knowing what to do with his body, his hands, reduced to caress the little girl’s short black hair as she snuggles up to him. Then, as abruptly as she had entered the place, she leaves.
The high heels worn by the shampoo girls, window shoppers and anonymous passers-by in Toute une nuit and Window Shopping are as artificial and “theatrical” as tap-dancing shoes in American musicals, and fulfil a similar function: they provide a rhythm, a musical counterpoint to the story. Yet, never losing her sense of irony, Akerman acknowledges they can be a bore to wear as well. One of the “Jewish jokes” of Histoires d’Amérique is passed between two men, but it could uncannily fit (or “misfit” as the case may be) women.
– Oi! My shoes hurt!
– Why are you wearing them?
– I owe money to the butcher, to the baker, to the landlord. I have two daughters so ugly, who knows if I’ll be able to marry them. My son is a real idiot. And my wife nags, nags, nags. Each time I come back from a fruitless day of work and look at my bills, look at my family, at that point, I could kill myself. So I take off my shoes, and this minute… it’s the only thing that makes life worth living.
The most famous woman in Akerman’s cinema, Jeanne Dielman, does not experience the relief of taking her shoes off – except at the very end of the film. A full-time housewife and part-time hooker, she does a lot of walking, even though her wanderings are mostly confined to a restricted space – 12 from her bedroom to the kitchen to the living room, to the grocer’s, cobbler’s, post-office, the vendor of notions, the little square, the café where she sits in the afternoon, the entrance where she greets her johns, the bedroom again, the bathroom where she scrubs her body afterwards. It seems important to rescue Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) from being described as a “realist” film simply because it explores the semiotics of women’s daily gestures as nobody had done it before. Instead, it alludes to, subverts and reworks the tropes of genre film. As in a horror movie, the spectator is put in a situation of suspense, experiencing a vague feeling of gloom, waiting for the catastrophe to happen, for “the monster” to spring out of nowhere and kill. And like a classical musical, it features a glamorous blonde, whose clothes, shoes and haunting tap-tap-tap are given centre stage.
Jeanne abides to a strict, abstract dress code. She wears a generic white blouse covered by a blue cardigan, with a black skirt and conservative brown heels. Her colour-coding is unwavering. When working in the kitchen, she puts on a blue housecoat, which she takes off as soon as the doorbell signals the arrival of a john. When she goes out, she has a light blue coat on. In bed, she wears a white nightgown, and when she goes to the kitchen to polish her son’s shoes and prepare the coffee in the morning, she puts on a blue bathrobe, slightly shorter than the nightgown, with a pair of short-heel light-brown slippers. Between breakfast and the moment she says goodbye to her son, she has managed to slip back into her full “dowdy-but-formal” attire. Never seen barefoot (as Akerman elides the bedroom scenes, but one), Jeanne is constantly accompanied by the clicking of her shoes or slippers, that resonate in the empty apartment for her ears only, or signify, at different moments, femininity-for-sale, or loving-but-distant motherhood.
Jeanne is shown as lacking a language of her own, (she’s unable to talk about herself, as her son, Sylvain, keeps entreating her to do, with an earnest and boyish insistence that will monstrously develop into Simon’s feverish questioning of Ariane). It is as if the musical tap-tap-tap of her heels was her only form of aural expression. 13 She clings to it, as a signifier of both her identity and her lost dignity. From the little she reveals, one surmises that this loss occurred before her husband died, before she started turning tricks in the afternoon. What happened to Jeanne and her family during the war? What or who killed her parents, forcing her to live a dull life in her aunts’ house? Why is it that nothing seems to matter, as if everything had been rendered insignificant by an overwhelming catastrophe? One Jeanne echoes another, and one is reminded of Mrs Schwartz (also played by Seyrig), whose heart was “dead” after what she’d seen in the camps to such an extent that she chose a dull life with a man she didn’t really love rather than passion with the American soldier. 14
As Jeanne Schwartz says, “as long as there is food to eat” or, as her husband adds, as long as people buy clothes, things will be okay. For the alternative is too horrible: “If we don’t make it through, there’ll be another horror. And this time none will be spared.” It is another Jewish joke 15 that “while Jewish men have the Wailing Wall, Jewish women have their families”. Families to cry over, indeed, but also to feed, clothes, hold together and manage. While Jeanne’s ancestors may have walked miles in the Polish or German plains to find food for their children, she matter-of-factly turns tricks to feed her son. This is what a good Jewish mother should be able to do.
Jeanne Dielman is an Ashkenazi Jew, her family and Akerman’s come from the same parts of Europe, they share the same history – but not the same daily habits. “When I started working on D’Est,” Akerman recounts, “I was surprised to see that, at home, people were wearing bathrobes and slippers. In my family, in Brussels, we used to change into such clothes as soon as we got home, but nobody else I knew did the same. I found the origin of that custom in Eastern Europe.” 16 While Jeanne peels potatoes in real time, the way she dresses is not entirely “realistic”. And maybe, in our excitement at seeing women’s work represented so accurately for the first time, we forgot the specific work of the filmic text itself, we jumped to conclusions about the referent (a mistake common to “misrepresented” people) instead of focusing on Akerman’s masterful command of cinematic signs. The real time filming of some actions – like similar moments in Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973) – was not meant to have a documentary value, but to convey a certain quality of emotion, an essential truth about Jeanne’s inner life, and maybe ours. Cinema works through visual and aural means to communicate the invisible and the inaudible. A blue cardigan and a pair of shoes sometimes say more about human life than the Kierkegaard aphorisms that young Michèle earnestly quotes to Paul.
Jeanne’s formalwear, and especially her shoes and slippers, are the corset that holds her soul together, the dam that prevents abjection and disorder pouring into her life. For we know all too well who are the women who went barefoot in history – those who lost everything in a pogrom, those who left their suitcases at the entrance of the camp, those who went naked to the gas chambers. And as the other Jeanne (Schwartz) fiercely hopes, “that won’t ever happen again. Never again.”
Yet catastrophes, even minor ones, do happen. A john stays too long, the potatoes burn, my son speaks with a Flemish accent and is slipping away from me, an unexpected orgasm shatters my body, and here I am, trying to repair my composure with this idiot in my bed. In the last 10 minutes of the film, Jeanne never puts her shoes back. When she goes around the bed to stab the man, we only hear the sound she makes when she picks up the scissors. Gone is the tap-tap-tap of her heels, the solemn, sad, yet stylish music that had marked the rhythm of the entire film. In the last shot, Jeanne sits silently in the living room, waiting. Like in comparable moments (always at the apex of a crisis) in Je tu il elle or Toute une nuit, the drone of the traffic and city noises invades the room. The dam has collapsed; real life is entering, yet too late, Jeanne’s world again.
For you can never keep reality completely at bay. The film that most echoes Jeanne Dielman is a minimalist documentary (long, uninterrupted sequence shots, no voiceover, no translation), D’Est (From the East, 1993), shot in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is also a film resonant with footsteps. They make a joyous sound, when people are crowding the streets, wearing stylish footwear to keep on with their busy day, go on a family outing, seek the excitement of the night, or go dancing. It becomes more grim when shoes are crushing frozen snow, clicking against icy roads, stepping over freshly fallen snow, wading through slush, or when ageless peasant women, wearing unsightly rubber boots, are picking potatoes in a muddy field. It becomes a sinister sound when emanating from crowds of people waiting, in the street, under the snow, at night, in the dead of winter – or in immense waiting rooms – or in noisy train stations. Akerman captures the agony of waiting, through relentless tracking shots (some lasting over 6 or 7 minutes). She skips the referent, so we don’t know what these people hope to find at the end of their wait. Food? Ration coupons? Administrative papers? Jobs? The arrival of a train, of a bus? So these moments become instances of pure waiting, multiplied into hundreds of conscious minds. Some read books or newspapers, some knit, some carry children, some sleep, some talk or complain, some stare vacantly ahead of them, or look at the camera with absent-minded curiosity. Gone are the smart city shoes and dancing shoes. People are wearing no-nonsense clogs, heavy boots, bootees, they stamp their feet to keep warm, or express their impatience, they are going nowhere, they have walked far, in the cold, to arrive here, and now they are stuck. Nothing is more desolate than the noise of immobile footsteps, giving the space of waiting its typical, unmistakably recognisable resonance.
There are many ways of waiting – being motionless, pacing up and down, or running because you can’t stand it anymore. You can wait for love, for the potatoes to cook, or you can wait for the train. And if love comes, or if the train arrives, you don’t know where it’s going to take you: maybe to another horror. The originality of Akerman’s representation of women is that she shows them as active desiring subjects, even when they seem to be repressed or in a position of passivity. Instead of focusing on Jeanne’s alienation, why not praise the incredible courage and gumption this middle-aged widow is displaying when turning tricks (as difficult a job as any) instead of despairing or turning to welfare? Instead of seeing Ariane as “acted upon” by Simon’s desire, why not see her as a modern woman who, by loving men and women at the same time (not an easy feat), acts upon her own desires? Whether they are waiting, hiding, cooking or running, Akerman always shows women on their feet. Their shoes, indeed, were made for walking.
Special thanks to Yvonne Rainer who showed me the importance of women’s high heel shoes in Toute une nuit, and indirectly inspired this text.
- For all her troubles, Ariane became Theseus’s concubine, but shortly after he abandoned her on the island of Naxos. ↩
- The name of Françoise is kept from the original novel, as well as that of Andrée, the heroine’s confident who, at the protagonist’s request, accompanies her in her outings, and Levy, a friend of the narrator who comes to return a borrowed book. ↩
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Constance Penley ed., Feminism and Film Theory, New York: Routledge, 1988, pp. 63 & 62. ↩
- Fort-da (“gone-there”) were the exclamations of Freud’s grandson when throwing and recovering a cotton reel to re-enact and master his mother’s departure. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Norton, 1961), pp. 8-9. ↩
- Depicting a woman lying asleep in a long white gown, her head and arms falling down from the couch, a dark monster sitting on her belly and an indistinct figure lurking in the shadows, this 1781 large painting (180 X 250 cm) is considered one of the apexes of Romanticism. It had also inspired a key scene of Eric Rohmer’s La Marquise d’O (The Marquise of O, 1976), his adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 eponymous novella. ↩
- Lit: “So they do it all”. This is, of course, the title of Mozart’s opera, an ode to sexual freedom and cynicism, which appears on the soundtrack of the film. ↩
- Julia Kristeva, Le temps sensible (Paris: Gallimard), 1994, pp. 95-96. ↩
- The name given to the two schoolgirls also connotes Akerman’s love of pop music. “Michelle…. Daniel…” were romantically connected by the Beatles song. ↩
- The French title of the film is The Golden Eighties. However, when an earlier version of the film, Les Années 80 (1983) was released in the US, it was given the title of The Golden Eighties. So the US distributor of the second film gave it the title Window Shopping, which I will keep in the text to avoid confusion. ↩
- A quintessential Akerman’s actress, Clément was the eponymous heroine of Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, appears as a singing waitress in Les Années 80, plays Léa, the “promiscuous” actress who befriends Ariane in La Captive, and the mother in Demain on déménage. ↩
- A similar scene occurs, later in the film, with another couple, in another café. ↩
- The destination of Jeanne and Sylvain’s ritual outings is not shown, and there is an unexplained moment in which Jeanne is shown by a train, but these moments suggest an off-screen space not included in the text of the film itself. ↩
- The jingle of the anklets traditionally worn by East Indian women seems to fulfil a similar function. ↩
- Since this text was originally written, there has been a significant amount of information/commentary/interviews etc… identifying Jeanne’s rituals as lost Jewish rituals. ↩
- This joke is not recounted in Histoires d’Amérique. ↩
- Chantal Akerman, e-mail to the author, 18 July, 2002. ↩