Chantal Akerman’s cinema is within me.
This vaguely paranoid hypothesis, it seems to me that I share it with other women (undoubtedly some men as well). 1 From the first time, from my first exposure to the work through a screening of Je tu il elle (1974), the films of Chantal Akerman are a part of me. Since the beginning, they are pieces of me. They are part of my history. And yet I don’t identify with Chantal Akerman, or to her obviously singular history – even though it offers similitudes with mine – nor to her voice that moves me to the core, nor even to the dazzling intelligence of her framing and shooting. I am, however, bound to her, to her cinema through a form of incorporation, which, in the following, I will attempt, if not to understand, at least to translate.
What binds me to Akerman’s cinema, her ways of filming as well as her media installations, is something so powerfully physical, so corporeal, that “it” sweeps through every attempt at taming it. Let’s take, for example, Je tu il elle. Let’s fasten our attention on this scene in which the narrator – both the subject of enunciation and the vector of the action – crosses the threshold to the apartment of the woman for whom she just hitch-hiked over a good thousand kilometres, while giving pleasure to the truck driver who brought her thus far. And all of this after having tried, shut up in an empty apartment, to write a letter while feeding herself with powdered sugar scooped from a paper bag… So, as she crosses the threshold, she stumbles and fans out on the floor. All of this for that? The betrayal, the fall of the body triggers not the start of a choreography, but its reprise. Repetition, or return, is denoted in this corporeal “pun”. This mishap in the film, no doubt other filmmakers would have elided it, maybe with another take. Yet the stuttering of the body matters as much as the other gestures that are being performed. For it alters the following one: a tight embrace, between a clinch and an infighting, that does not happen “finally” but “again”. Again, as in a slip of the tongue, two women shove their bodies against one another. They make love without fucking. There is a respectful distance, and it will always remain so. This flaring intimacy, shown without voyeurism, is also a way – this is at least the way I read it – to address all spectators, to avoid making of Chantal Akerman “my” or “our” filmmaker, avoiding therefore to reduce her to being solely a lesbian filmmaker. 2 Chantal Akerman refused to have Je tu il elle screened in a specifically dyke, or gay, or LGBT context. What the film enunciates is not a difference, but a decentring of the enunciation, cracking the cultural cement. In her refusal to identify Je tu il elle as a lesbian film – as, elsewhere, she objected to the terms “feminist” or “women’s cinema” – Akerman, somewhat, gives me back a place within the world. She does not exclude anybody, she includes me.
Similarly, the slow stream of faces wrapped in coats and hats, glued to each other’s gaze, of an entire people waiting for the bus in the cold, this also is a piece of me. I am talking about D’Est (From the East, 1993), as you well know. For me the east, the orientation of the orient, will always be a tracking shot from summer to winter, to where an entire people waits for the bus for the whole duration of the film, and maybe even longer. Likewise, the south of Sud (South, 1999) and the other side of De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002) are, each of them, a road. It is always a movement toward recognition: that of the gazes, which cannot be foreign to us for we recognise them, even if we have never seen before. They are featured in the register of our history. Thus, in Toute une nuit (All Night Long, 1982), this moment of erotic paroxysm in which a silent couple sitting in a café suddenly embrace each other, madly, as they start dancing. Another pas de deux. Only the string of small electric lights hung by Felix Gonzalez-Torres to define the dance floor, to which he had affixed two Walkmans and their earphones, so you could hear music only audible to the entwined dancers, produces in me a similar empathetic feeling of forming one body. 3 Likewise, I am bowled over by the karaoke cabaret projecting its pink hues in the black night of the river, accompanied by the first inquisitive notes of Prelude and Isolde’s Death. 4 The river, overflowing, overflown, rain-drenched, gluttonous, poisonous, muddy, sticks to the characters, even to the death-bed in La Folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly, 2011). It leaves the city in a lateral motion and takes me away otherwise and elsewhere, toward the black and frontal waters of The Isle of the Dead, accompanied by Sergei Rachmaninoff eponymous musical piece in La Captive (2000). And I embrace the effort of the small boat that confronts the lethal waves, only to return toward the absolute silence of the painted canvas, the indistinctness between the sea and the oceanic feeling, within which every object oozes away.
It’s not really a question of punctum – through which Roland Barthes had resolved, too easily I dare say, the problem that Louise Bourgeois used to point out as “this is it”. It is about something else. It is not about ineffability, for we know that the body is not outside language. Words matter when bodies become matter, to paraphrase the title of Judith Butler’s book, Bodies That Matter. 5
When talking about identification, it seems to me, one is also talking about individualisation. And the question of identity starts showing up. Thus indeed can be glimpsed the canonical presence of the Mirror Stage that has been used so much in the theory – and practice – of cinema and camera lucida or obscura; 6 a presence that maybe Chantal Akerman sends back towards Nuit et jour (Night and Day, 1991), recapturing here the origin of the sensory program developed at the romantic threshold of the 19th century by Philipp Otto Runge. 7
The locus of recognition, i.e. of the mis-recognition of one’s own body, the Mirror Stage has defined the modalities of an appropriation of the self, of a unity quite plainly denunciated as a fictional crutch. Identification, in the meaning it receives in psychoanalysis, is a template and a fiction through which a personality is constituted and differentiated. It has also been the apparatus through which the film spectator has been retroactively theorised, just at the moment when Akerman’s cinema was taking shape. In 1975, the year of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, the British theoretical magazine Screen published, besides the translation of Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, its refutation, Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Let’s not hash it out again. I’ll just say that, by distinguishing, on the one hand, active scopophilia that uses the other as an erotic object from which the subject then differentiates, and on the other hand, the narcissistic drive, through which the spectator identifies with his/her image on the screen, the discursive apparatus also holds a mirror to sexual difference. The latter, indeed, is articulated and reflected through the differentiation introduced within a scopic drive doubled up upon itself. Sexual difference thus becomes what shapes as well as temporarily configures selfhood, which is defined through the contact with others and the gap hollowed out by the gaze. At least, this is what seems to be spelled out in the forceful, albeit schematic criticism uttered against a “phallocentric” cinema made and produced for the pleasure of the same patriarchal, heteronormative society.
Indeed, Chantal Akerman’s films have appeared with a generation that was collectively attempting to use cinema, whether experimental, narrative and documentary, to find precise tools – their speculum, in Donna Haraway’s words 8 – to stray from this patriarchal, heteronormative society. The point is not to get rid of cinema, narrative, documentary, the gaze, pleasure, you name it, but, on the contrary, to assert gazes, figures, narratives against the historicity of a norm that presents itself as universal; to include these stories in the rubble, i.e., in the lapses of memory through which History is hallucinating. It is not the image which is the problem, but the projection, i.e. the mode of address, i.e. how the relationship is regulated between domination and those upon which it is exerted. 9 It is at this juncture that appeared, on the screens, Chantal Akerman’s “cinema of projection”. 10 To confirm (or quash) this point, I will send the reader to all the exegetes, from Giuliana Bruno to Jacques Rancière, and those involved in this special issue of Senses of Cinema. 11
Now I would like to focus on the practice of installation that Chantal Akerman had also embraced from 1995 on, in addition to projected cinema. The displacement in space brings along some layout of objects, screens, resonances that suggest different stances to the bodies that come within it. In this delocalisation, as Jacques Rancière explains it, “the world of the art object, the world of the theatrical body, the world of film/video unreality are interwoven and have interwoven different meanings of the body.” 12 They also insert holes in the body itself of the images arranged in the rows of screens, as blind spots in the continuity of the exhibition space.
For Chantal Akerman, the displacement toward art institutions has a specific history, springing from a transformation: from the film D’Est (From the East, 1993) to the installation D’Est: au bord de la fiction (From the East: Bordering on Fiction, 1995). Neither within nor without, but at the border. There were, accompanying the projected film, 24 screens plus one, alone, where Akerman’s voice starts by reading in Hebrew and in French the Old Testament Commandment forbidding to make images. The installation, beyond the film, inscribes the spectacle’s performativity in dialogue with the typical process of negation: I know very well, but nevertheless. By undoing the unitary vision of a single screen, and by exhibiting its gaps to the bodies of the spectators – standing up and moving – the image, in its multiplication, discombobulates the gaze “that knows” and transforms it into the gaze “that does”.
At M_KHA in Antwerp, where I was able to see the first retrospective of the installations of the artist in Belgium (2012), this history of the installation in Chantal Akerman’s work can also be read as the by-product of an après-coup (deferred action). Indeed it dates back to an old film from 1971, 13 that resurfaces in the form of a piece, In The Mirror, in 2007. Never shown theatrically, this film was at once incorporated into an exhibition 14 and was functioning retroactively. It revolved around the figure of a young woman. Only wearing panties, the young woman turns her back to the spectator. Her reflection in the large mirror of a wardrobe, the only element of a room represented abstractly, is shown obliquely. We hear her voice commenting: no waistline, oddly shaped ears, too small a head, too many imperfections. But what is it, and whose future is being assessed through these words? The young woman? The view in the mirror? The text being spoken? The triple dissociation created between the role, the body and the image defers every interpretation, every foray into the internal space of the projected young woman. In the way the frame, the respective positions of the body, the image and the voice of the young woman, are constructed, a (filmic, photographic, artistic) practice coils up, that moves away from the time and space that naturalistic narrative, like a good doggie, retrieves. On the contrary, it aims toward a duration shared with the body behind the camera, with the screen around which one evolves, with the bodies in motion that are gazing with you, with the collective body of the exhibition.
Sometimes, the installation reintroduces the screen: Une Voix dans le désert (A Voice in the Desert, 2002), for example. It is a mise en abyme: a rectangular piece of fabric, surrounded by a landscape, turned inside out like a glove toward the outside of the room. Une Voix dans le Désert is the recording of a performance: that of the projection on a 10 metre-wide screen, at the border between Mexico and the US, of the film on/about this border, De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002). The screen is here designed as a membrane, letting the sound pass through, on both sounds of the border. Akerman’s voice in Spanish and English is heard from both sides; it accompanies another passage, from night onto day, which drains all colours from the screen, eventually driving its ghosts away. In Akerman’s world, you have to be insomniac to be able de distinguish figures.
This is the same for Maniac Summer (2009). This hallucinatory installation is split between several screens. Inside, there is the night of the apartment where the artist hides away, communicating with the outside world by phone, smoking, eating, letting the camera record at her side – therefore with her but without her as well. Elsewhere there is daylight, in the street, outside the window of the apartment, the sounds of a summer in Paris, also recorded by the camera. This vision of a day in its banality outside – and inside – is projected like a beam within the exhibition space, like almost unbearable flashes of light, sometimes affecting the matter of colours and sounds within the interactions as well as the dissociations of the images.
To be one with the night of Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre (Women of Antwerp in November, 2007). In the installation each of these women is isolated in her architectural surrounding, reiterated within the frame of each screen. Each of them, in her loneliness, is a sculpture. The women, standing, consume their time and share it with me. This time of intimate freedom, the time of a cigarette, is given back its full duration. As a witness, a screen co-exists with and orchestrates the chorus of the female smokers. It is a bit larger than the others. Shot in black and white, a young woman, her lips, skin and eyes made up “for the film” inhales, breathes in, exhales and breathes out the smoke of the cigarette as it is being consumed: four minutes. This brings us back to the irretrievable passing of time, to a full jouissance of time in its most random, most “nebulous” form. The image shows us a cloud crossing over not the sky but a face. To adapt Baudelaire’s poetry to the feminine: “And what is it that you like, extraordinary stranger? I like the clouds, the clouds passing by… over there… over there… The marvellous clouds!”
Chantal Akerman’s cinema is in me.
Translated by Bérénice Reynaud.
- I am thinking of the French artist Christian Boltanski, through whom I discovered Histoires d’Amériques (Food, Family and Philosophy, 1989). For him, this film constructs the representation of the sheer ambivalence of power, or rather of the “cinema of images”, coining a “completely false place” where true stories are being told, the stories of a dead world, “to which there is no desire to return”. ↩
- As Monique Wittig said, “a text written by a minority writer is only efficient if it succeeds in making universal the minority point of view.” ↩
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Travels: Travel#2, Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris, 1993. ↩
- From Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. ↩
- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge), 1993 and 2011. ↩
- This is a pun on the notion of camera obscura – the optical device that made possible the development of photography and is widely used in film theory – and the title of Roland Barthes’ book on photography, La Chambre Claire, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980; translated into English by Richard Howard as Camera Lucida, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. Translator’s note. ↩
- Between 1802 and 1810, the project of the cycle Phases of the Day (four large panels symbolising Morning, Day, Evening, Night) never completed as painting (but existing as drawings), allowed Philipp Otto Runge to call it “an abstract pictorial fantastic musical poem with choruses, a composition for three arts united.” He wanted the viewers to look at these painting while listening to music and inhaling perfumes. ↩
- Donna Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order”, Feminist Review (1997), pp. 22-72. ↩
- Here I will mention Jose Esteban Muñoz’s book, Disidentification. Queers of Colour and the Performance of Politics. New York: NYU Press, 1999. ↩
- Giuliana Bruno develops the idea of a cinema of projection, as a threshold and a boundary between the inside and the outside in “Projection: On Akerman’s Screen. Chantal Akerman”. Too Far, Too Close. Ed Dieter Roelstrate. Anvers: Ludion/M KHA, 2012. ↩
- For additional reading, I will only mention a few texts, in particular: Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion. Journeys of Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2002; Jenny Chamarette, Phenomenology and the Future of Film. Rethinking Subjectivity beyond French Cinema. London, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012; James Harvey-Favitt, “The Subject of Chantal Akerman’s News from Home: On the Political Potential of the Cinematic Flâneur”, The Flâneur Abroad: Historical and International Perspectives ed. Richard Wrigley, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014; Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 1996; Jacques Rancière, Le Partage du sensible, Paris: La Fabrique, 2000; and the texts of Janet Bergstrom. ↩
- Christine Palmiéri, “Interview de Jacques Rancière”, ETC, n. 59, 2002, pp. 34-40. ↩
- It was titled L’Enfant aimé ou je joue à être une femme mariée (The Beloved Child, or I Play at Being a Married Woman, 1971) and was apparently disowned by Chantal Akerman. ↩
- The art historian Lynne Cooke included the piece in two exhibitions she organised: Ellipsis, Akerman, Dujourie, Woodman, first shown at Tamayo Museum in Mexico City, then at Lunds Konstal (Sweden) and finally at DCA Dundee (Scotland); it also features in a group show at CCS Bard titled If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now in 2011. Apparently, at the Tamayo Museum, Akerman had also parcelled out Je tu il elle into a three-screen installation. ↩