Looking at and listening to the first scene of Chantal Akerman’s J’ai faim, J’ai froid (1984), in the complex long shot that describes the arrival of the two girls from Brussels, we discover a recurrent motif in her films: one sound is isolated and takes over the scene without being blended with other sounds. The sound of the car is foregrounded and dominates the sound of the street, which although far from deserted seems almost silent. There is no “off-screen” sound that could bring a certain ambiguity to what you see: what you see and what you hear is what you get. This film, J’ai faim, J’ai froid, is about literalness and truth with the physicality of the world made tangible. The image associated with those spare sounds contributes to this effect of physical immediacy of what we see and permits us to hear the world instead of being distracted by the anecdotal elements that are represented. In Akerman’s films we, spectators, stand still and hear the world pass by.
Akerman privileges the use of loud primary ambient sound playing off a single sound effect like the sound of the car with no scoring of layered sounds. She rarely adds to the ambient sound a musical undertone or sound effects that could be distracting. If there is sound effect we see the source of the sound or it is a recall of something we have seen and know. She does not use the tools of the average filmmaker to establish distance and depth with off screen sounds. 1 Instead of adding sounds, Akerman subtracts. The final mixed sound track is made of few sounds, mostly amplified effects and room tone with a minimum use of off-screen sounds that could add complexities to the visual field. Akerman avoids most off-screen sounds unless it serves a dramatic function. And, if there is music, it is in general a solo instrument, like a singular voice, mostly the cello. It serves as musical white noise that interiorises the actions of the protagonists.
Akerman’s sound-design owes a great debt to the 1960s ideal of “live sound”, a sound that represents the acoustical specificity of shooting on location. The sound is not “cleaned-up” to erase the roughness as is customary in American films in which all dialogue is replaced systematically with the dead acoustics of the studio recording in additional dialogue replacement (ADR). This influence of “live sound”, which can be traced to the Nagra revolution in the late 1950s, shepherded in France via the documentaries and fiction films of Jean Rouch, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, has not markedly changed in Akerman’s films since her first feature film Je tu il elle (1974). Another important influence is Robert Bresson’s sparing minimalist use of amplified sound effects starting in A Man Escaped (1957) and in Pickpocket (1959) that influenced Jean-Luc Godard more than anyone else in the 1960s and, in turnfluenced Chantal Akerman in the 1970s.
The specific “live” quality of the sound in Akerman’s films is manufactured by the re-recording in the studio of both effect and ambient sounds to permit a cleaner and greater amplification to heighten presence. It is this liveliness of the primary sound that structures the temporality of her films and permits duration of certain shots that are held beyond the necessity of the narrative. This elongated time lets us hear the loudness of a soundtrack in ways that are singularly specific to Akerman’s world. Silence is amplified to the point of being louder than anything else. The background ambient sound and amplified sound effects appear naturalistic, but the balance between one and the other is often tweaked to exaggerate the importance of one over the other. The creaking of floorboards, the noises of the elevator shaft, and the muted footsteps are Akerman’s territory. Through the sound the image suddenly reveals what we were not looking at although it was there all along. In her fiction films, such as Jeanne Dielman and La Captive, sound is anchoring the sustained attention to the visual, which creates memorable moments that are a perfect example of what Michel Chion called the fusion of sound and image in his book Audiovision.
There are several scenes in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles (1975) to exemplify this strategy. Jeanne Dielman, having made a fresh pot of coffee, sits still in the kitchen under a pale winter sun. She is seen in profile, her hands on the table; she doesn’t move. The fresh coffee is ready but she forgets to drink it. The kitchen is quiet but suddenly, faintly, we hear the sound of the counterweight of the old elevator in the building situated at 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Brussels. The elevator does not stop at her floor. Her solitude is made visible by the sound. The last time she was in the elevator, just yesterday, she was happy after her afternoon shopping. Today, earlier on this fateful morning, because her schedule is in disarray and everything goes wrong, Jeanne has all this free time she doesn’t know what to do with. She sits still in an armchair in the living room for a full two minutes and nothing happens. Some vague changes in the low rumble of traffic below in the street have come and gone without any sign of recognition on her part. We understand how bereft she is. The heaviness of the silence is oppressive. In those two instances, Jeanne’s immobility makes us “hear” and note, as John Cage said, a silence that is full of noises.
In La Captive (2000) the film starts with the image and sound of ocean, at night, waves breaking on a beach. The sound is of what we see and then it is transformed into the sound of a 16mm film projector showing a silent home movie of girls playing on another beach. 2 Then the prologue cuts to a sunny midday scene at Place Vendome in Paris with a young woman wearing high-heels, which produces an isolated and loud sound that will become the dramatic focus of the scene as well as emblematic of the whole film trajectory of the two protagonists. The woman gets into a convertible and leaves, being silently followed by a man in a Rolls Royce. We are in the car with the man, and music replaces the sound of the city streets during the pursuit that brings the two cars to a dead-end near a staircase. 3 The music is replaced by the quiet of the street below, where both the woman and the man parked their cars. The woman is climbing this steep staircase somewhere in Montmartre and the man follows silently. He is Simon and the woman, we will learn later, is named Ariane. The sound of the woman’s high heels is louder than the man’s footsteps, although they are climbing the same staircase and he is closer to the camera than she is. The footsteps sound is not treated naturalistically nor is the balance between footsteps and ambient sound. The woman’s steps are amplified more than the man’s, as if her high heels resonate inside the man’s head. The scene concludes as the steps go briskly to an alley leading to an out-of-the-way hotel where the woman disappears. He follows, learns she has been there and has already left. The same disconnection between sound loudness and camera distance is again used during the Rodin Museum visit, with the same sound of high heels anchoring Simon’s following Ariane from room to room. We see her entering a room where Simon cannot see her and suddenly the sound of her high-heeled shoes, instead of becoming lower, increases in volume, creating a brief moment of aural ambiguity that is immediately erased by the re-appearance of Ariane, who instead of being closer to Simon is much further back than previously although her high heels are as present as before. The sound amplification is again not treated naturalistically in order to reflect that Simon’s senses are only tuned to Ariane’s presence or absence. The film ambient sounds are used selectively to enhance Simon’s affectivity and jealous obsession.
Akerman’s narrative in La Captive uses the acoustic of the whole apartment to justify some of the oddities in the controlling relationship between Simon and Ariane. They whisper to each other, careful to lower their voices in order to not be heard during the day but also at night. The apartment seems endless, with several hallways that mirror each other, and rooms that are in renovation and seen covered with white linens put in by a painting crew. The sound is muted. 4 Some allusions later explain this muteness by the proximity of the grandmother’s room next to her grandson’s. The murmuring and low whispers exchanged between Simon and Ariane and Simon and Andrée reinforce the ubiquity of the grandmother’s mostly unseen presence. And the work of the painting crew is never heard although they are seen carrying ladders and moving about. The apartment is clearly in a building from the renovation of Paris by Haussman in the 1860s and modelled after Marcel Proust’s lodgings, which was known to have thick walls and to be soundproofed.
All through the film, the sound is treated emotively rather than realistically, in the choice of sounds as well as in the balance between sounds, increasingly so as the second half of the film progresses. It starts to be obvious in the taxi ride along the Bois de Boulogne when Simon asks the driver to drive slowly so he can examine the girls and transvestites who show off their wares (make-up, legs and breasts). Even though the car windows are closed, inside the car we hear what is outside the windows while the sound of the car is totally nullified. At the end of the film, when, after a succession of arguments, Simon and Ariane arrive in Biarritz at the luxury hotel and enter their suite with an ocean-front view, the ocean sound is so loud that it covers their voices. Ariane wants to escape to unpack and have a quick swim and when she leaves the room you do not hear the sound of her high-heeled shoes. When Simon goes to the terrace of his hotel room overlooking the ocean, the ocean sound is less present than it was when he was in the hotel room with her. Music by Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead 5 replaces the ocean sound and takes over. It is night. Simon suddenly screams the name of Ariane, but the sound of his scream is barely heard over a jump cut between a shot of his back and a shot of his profile, so the scream appears to have been a figment of our imagination. Simon is still on the terrace. The music continues and the sound does not seem to correspond to that which we see so far away that we doubt that we have seen it. Simon rushes to the edge of the ocean, undresses and swims toward Ariane, who is struggling in the water. Simon reaches her and she seems to utter a scream in protest and we see or think we see a sign of struggle. Those shots are very brief. It is a dark night. The next shot, the last shot in the film, is, in contrast, luminous with a pale morning light. This shot is extremely long and seems at first to be in exact sound continuity with the preceding night shots. We have all the time in the world to think we have imagined the struggle of the night before. The music continues, intermingled with the quiet sound of a calm ocean and the low rumble of the motor of a small boat that approaches the camera. Rachmaninov’s orchestral score, as in the pursuit scene at the beginning of the film, echoes Simon’s own mental state by replacing the physicality of the world around him (here the ocean) by a music that visualises his obsession and fixation on Ariane’s disappearance. The music seems to bring the crisis as well as explain it. As the boat approaches, the music recedes and stops. In the boat we see Simon wrapped in a blanket and shivering because of the cold. He is still wet. The film ends when the sound coincides with what we see: all is quiet, the ocean is still, and Simon is liberated.
In her fiction films Akerman uses dramatic ambient sound and effects and sometimes substitutes ambience by music but the mixing of all the sound elements always comprises just a few sounds and primarily clarifies the actor’s emotional state rather than his or her actions. The camera movements are motivated by the dramaturgy and anchored by the actor’s presence, and the final mixed sound reinforces the physicality of the space around the protagonist. Akerman’s documentaries retain many of the visual characteristics that typify her fictional works, in particular the use of long takes, but in the documentaries, there is no implicit narrative progression: they are mostly about absence and the sound is not explanatory. The sound reveals what is out there but often makes it even more opaque than the visuals, which seem to have been chosen because of their imprecision and their everyday blandness. This vagueness of what we see and hear become emblematic of this non-space. 6
Since Hotel Monterey (1972) and News From Home (1977) Chantal Akerman has systematically used long static shots as well as tracking shots in her documentaries, in particular in D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), and De l’autre côté (2002). The tracking shots are singularly poignant because they almost always appear to be random. In D’Est, the tracking shots are of people with vacant stares waiting in train stations or standing at bus stops, paused in their diaspora to nowhere. In Sud and De l’autre côté, the shots mostly involve deserted spaces and if some people appear, they are far away and not the reason for the shots, which are purely descriptive of a spatial context rather than a specific activity. The shots can evoke a memory, as in the recalling of the road that saw the execution of the crime in Sud 7 or in the concept of home as in the long tracking shot along the fence from the Mexican side in De l’autre côté. Those shots are ambiguous in their visual composition, and their mystery is linked to an ambient sound that is not descriptive and does not help in decoding the space in any singular way. What we hear is a complex magma of white noises that call attention to the indecipherability of the world. The noise in those tracking shots is so rich yet indistinct, permitting them to be held on the screen far beyond the time needed to establish a narrative necessity. The sound does not narrate the image but makes it unfathomable. We, the viewers, need the time to hear the evidence of what is there, as nothing specific is really seen and we hope that listening will help us see. Again as in her fiction films, Chantal Akerman constructs images that force us to hear what is out there.
That which we hear is not exactly clear, for example, the motor sounds with clickety metal rattling in Sud, in the shot of the empty road seen from the back of a pick-up truck. It is this sound that permits us to imagine seeing the body hitting the pavement, which we know happened a year ago, but today we just see an empty asphalt road. The sound works in opposition to the image, similar to the diffuse and strange noise on the other side of the border fence in Mexico in De l’autre côté. This opposition between sound and image is particularly intricate and varied in the latter film where Akerman displaces the visual opposition between brown and dusty Mexico and green America, with its large private lots, with ample water supplies for its tropical plants with luscious foliage that are non-native vegetation imported from elsewhere. In Mexico where we see a dusty and parched land, the sound is almost tropical, as if we were in the Amazonian jungle, full of the presence of swarming beings, while the American side is silent and almost devoid of life. A very moving scene is constructed by a long tracking shot along the border, which is inserted into the middle of an interview conducted in Spanish with a young man who has just been caught by the US border patrol after a three day trip to reach the other side. He appears to be 15 or 16 at most and is seated in a hallway in a detention centre on the American side. The room behind him is visible through an open door. 8 After the brief retelling of his hard passage in the desert around Tucson and subsequent arrest, the film cuts to a long tracking shot, starting from the fourteen foot metal fence that signifies the border seen from the Mexican side, which then pans to the right, to a series of track houses and low shacks that are facing the border, with laundry hung out to dry, American pick-up trucks parked along the street but no gardens or vegetation because we are in Mexico. The sound at the start is very loud, but it becomes quieter as the tracking shot progresses. It is dawn. The sound is constantly shifting our perception of the scene, both visually and aurally. We feel an intense presence but cannot really see it or identify what this presence is. The camera continues tracking right and completes a long 360 degrees turn, landing on the metal fence, which is glistening in the morning sun. Cut back to the interview with a quiet but vibrant and rich texture of exterior sound of traffic and birds in the interior of the detention centre. And we hear Chantal Akerman asking in Spanish this young man what he wants from life, and he tells his dream: to build a house for his family so they can feel safe. His simple way of speaking about his dream is one of the most memorable moments in the film. Does the fascination come from the set-up of the very long tracking shot that precedes what he is telling the filmmaker? Is that long tracking shot an illustration of what “home” is for the young man? The subtle sound keeps shifting from more presence to less presence of what I called the sound of the loudness of the world.
Later in the same film, there is a strange scene in the darkest night when we follow a policeman with a sniffing dog. The immigration officer’s footsteps are loud in a noisy ambient sound with cello in accompaniment. He walks in the brush instead of solid ground. Suddenly, in pitch darkness, you hear a Humvee with dimmed beams loudly moving through the dirt roads. The sound makes us aware of the richness and potential for cover that a moonless night permits. It brings alive the life around the border. Some infra-red footage taken by the police with a centre cross for aiming at the target shows us white phantom-like figures on a black background, hurrying past an open area to reach a covered one. In the darkness of the desert, we hear muffled sound, possibly footsteps, mixed with abrupt silence, interrupted with static and snatches of radio transmission from the police. The fragments are not linked in a narration. We just hear and see. Nothing adds up except fear and uncertainty.
In a later shot in the same film, a long tracking shot follows the line of vehicles waiting to cross the border from the Mexican side and it is so long that all is stopped and you hear idling motors that feel like a loud silence. When you get closer to the entry point, suddenly you perceive some motor sounds, pick-up trucks starting to re-launch their motors before stalling on their stick shift. It is as if the long line is suddenly waking up from a thick slumber although you don’t yet see any vehicles moving, you know that one by one they will get closer, cross and reach the other side. We are on the interstate that goes to Los Angeles. The cello music takes over on the transition from a road at night to the freeway in the centre lane and we hear Chantal’s voice recounting the story of David’s mother, “On a pu suivre sa trace…”, 9 another emotional peak in De l’autre côté.
To me, Akerman is totally consistent in her films, whether they are fiction or documentaries. One of her key strategies is to shift the viewer’s attention from image to sound by increasing the opaqueness of the sound imposed against an image that shows a situation we already know and in which nothing happens except the weight of stillness. The image becomes mute in order to shift the viewer’s attention to what we hear. It is typical of Akerman’s films and seems more prevalent in the documentaries like News From Home, D’Est, Sud and, in the perfect achievement of this strategy, in Là-bas (2006).
The film Là-bas (Over There) is less a documentary on Tel Aviv, where the film was shot, than an essay film on an existential question: how do we live near others? The images are all static shots of what is seen from an upper floor apartment, in a quiet neighbourhood with terraces and balconies. It is summer. The apartment blinds are drawn. The street is four or five floor below. What we see through the crack of the blinds is totally limited by the apartment windows and the position of the camera inside it. It is only after 52 minutes that we will go briefly to the beach for a fragmented series of shots from midday to night before returning to the apartment. The sound is of what is out there and the shots are held for a long time. Instead of voyeuristic attention, the image projects a sense of poetic observation. We look, across the street, at spaces as well as mechanical actions of people or couples moving things around or doing nothing. Sometimes, but rarely, we hear the presence of a woman inside the apartment. She answers the phone a couple of times speaking English, Hebrew and briefly French; once we hear the sound of dishes being cleared out, and at the end of the film the woman brushes her teeth. We never see her or the phone when she speaks; we see only some mirror passages that are vague and not enough to identify the woman except by her voice that is off-screen. The actions implied inside the apartment do not change the balance of the mixed track between the sound of what is out there and the presence of what we do not see but just hear in the apartment. Out there we see casualness and privacy. People stay on their terraces and do not look at the world around them. It is as if the inside and outside worlds are co-existing without affecting each other. Varying from one position to the others the camera angles are clearly a choice, showing curiosity and empathy but also distraction and routine. The camera positions, looking outside from within the apartment are not affected by the few phone calls and actions we hear. An off-screen sound communicates the presence of the filmmaker who we can recognise as Akerman herself because of her voice.
The end of the film suddenly brings narrative closure to a work that is all about presence, absence and a narrative void. A sequence at night is made of quick moving shots of sky following what could be rockets flying in a fierce attack. The sound, at first chaotic, changes to the sustained sound of planes crossing the night sky and the jagged camera movements slow-down to land on the dark building across the street with no sign of life. Just as suddenly it is a sunny day abnormally quiet and calm, and for the first time out there, we see and hear a conversation between two men who are talking across the divide of the narrow street from their balconies. Prior to this in the film, we had never seen people relating outside the confine of their own homes. The conversation can be perceived, but it is too far to hear what is said. Because it is a sunny day, the image radiates optimism. We don’t know why. The answer is out there.
New York December 2005 – Paris August 2011
© 2011 Babette Mangolte
This text was originally published in a German translation as “Die Lautheit der Welt: Hören, was dort draußen ist” in Astrid Ofner, Claudia Siefen and Stefan Flach (eds), Retrospektive Chantal Akerman, Viennale/Filmmuseum, Vienna, 2011, pp. 54-59.
- This type of scoring is the norm in commercial film since the 1980s. ↩
- This prologue, a film inside the film, shows us the protagonist Simon trying to decipher what Ariane says to Andrée and deciphers “je vous aime bien”. It forces the viewers to “hear” something that, like Simon, we just see but can’t hear as the home movie was shot without sound. ↩
- The music starts with the movement of the Rolls driven by the man following the woman from Place Vendome to Montmartre. The orchestra piece is loud and seems to replace the sound of the streets and the convertible that is followed. The theme is from Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead and this choice of music will take its full signification at the end of the film. ↩
- In French, we would say “c’est un son feutré”. ↩
- It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff’s composition (1909) was inspired by the painting L’Île des morts (Die Toteninsel) by Arnold Böcklin (1886). ↩
- This expression is a reference to Robert Smithson’s “non-site” and it is a private association of mine and not of Chantal Akerman. ↩
- The film Sud evokes the times and places of the modern lynching of a black man whose body was dragged for several miles along a Texas road in 1998 by white supremacists. ↩
- This shot evokes irresistibly Hotel Monterey, shot in New York in 1972, and in which you see old people sitting at their doors waiting for a visit in this hotel for derelicts. ↩
- “We were able to follow her trace…” Told by the filmmaker in voiceover the story is about the plight of an immigrant with no papers who now has vanished. ↩