“Look at a painting, read a book, have fun and here we go!”
– Chantal Akerman in the documentary Chantal Akerman, écrivain de cinéma
by Nicole Witart (1993)
A pungent and tragicomic critique of domestic life and the literal explosion of the so-called ‘feminine universe’, Saute ma ville (1968), the first short film by Chantal Akerman, then 18, allows each of us to identify with the position of women assigned to the home (here, the kitchen, emblematic space of this universe) and, as a retort, glorifies the revolt against this confinement, doomed to its own destruction.
From the opening titles, Akerman installs us in her récit (narrative) (the word is written in capitals, black on a white background). Subsequently, we enter a story told by Akerman, one she will keep on telling in later films, most notably Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles.
Saute ma ville is supported by images constructed like a burlesque and the performance of an actress that seems to come straight out of a slapstick comedy. This exuberant character is played by the filmmaker herself, who literally bursts in front of a large building (the sounds of the city being omnipresent there), flowers in hand, to get back to her apartment. Akerman’s humming adds an enthusiastic and light touch to this jaunty entrance.
Driven by an inner voice which repeats the word “Scotch”, Akerman seems to be preparing a banal diner of pasta, when all of a sudden she begins peeling off a thick roll of brown scotch tape, systematically sealing up the kitchen door. The noise of the tape ripping is counterpoint to and in rhythm with her determined crunching on an apple. In between, she eats the pasta in a compulsive manner. After negligently getting rid of her cat by throwing her outside, Akerman then systematically trashes the kitchen, where the entire film plays out, in a parody a contrario of domestic order, creating an exhilarating ritual.
Putting on a raincoat and a small headscarf (does Akerman represent here the typical woman of the 60s?), she embarks upon a simulation of cleaning which turns into a grand farce of housework. The conscientious polishing and the repetitive and vigorous brushing of her shoes, quasi-choreographed, leave her legs covered in black stains.
The camera, which films the character at her level and in comically, allows us to see, in a discordant manner and in high angle, a pensive Akerman humming while leafing rapidly through the daily paper Le Soir. She then looks at herself in the mirror. By not gazing at herself, but reflecting instead, she cunningly “subverts” this symbol of the woman who ‘makes herself up’, does her hair, and dresses for braving the outside world with the weapons of femininity.
Gradually, in the narrow space of the kitchen, Akerman seals up a window. This action is shown as one of the rituals of daily life: collecting one’s mail, buying flowers, tidying cupboards, clean, polishing one’s shoes…
The soundtrack, the interior voice, the manner of humming, the noises of the kitchen and the jerky acting style all lead us towards farce and absurdity, yet they quickly bring us back to tragicomedy. Everything here points the spectator toward a fatal end.
The motif of the mirror again re-appears in the scene in which she smears beauty lotion on her face with frenzy and disgust while bursting out laughing. Striking a match while pronouncing “Bang, Bang!”, then setting fire to some paper after turning on the gas, Akerman allows us to hear the hiss of gas while she curls up on the stove, an arm folded under her head and the bouquet of flowers in her hand. This entire scene is presented to us through the mirror. As a final thumb of the nose to the conventions of drama, the sound of the repeated explosions over a black screen are brutally cut short to make room for Akerman’s light-hearted and cheerful humming.
This final image infuses the whole film with euphoria. Saute ma ville is tolling the boycott of the housewife and the destruction of the dutiful and “gendered” feminine, but also leads to the heroine’s death. Today, after Chantal Akerman’s suicide, this ending has taken s on a new dimension, creating a feeling of immense sadness at the tragic loss of a free, mordant and audacious voice in international cinema.
Over the final, black screen, the adolescent voice of Akerman reads the credits: “This was Saute ma ville. Camera: René Fruchter. Assistant: Richard Bréchet. Editing: Geneviève Luciani. Sound: Patrice. Direction: Chantal Akerman.”