Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 64, September 2012.
The objective of this article is to examine the hyperrealist, feminist tactics of Chantal Akerman’s early 1970s films Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles(1975) and, especially, Je tu il elle (1975). In the process, I wish to situate these two films, widely considered two of the key works of feminist filmmaking of the 1970s, within the dominant feminist discourses of the day, such as those of Teresa de Lauretis, B. Ruby Rich, and Laura Mulvey. In particular, I pay close attention to Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and how the aforementioned films literally cinematize Mulvey’s injunction for the destruction of pleasure in visual cinema and shall examine the ways in which Mulvey and Akerman have found the modernist paradigm inadequate in providing alternate, successful modes of female representation. Indeed, the very instability of the concept of female representation and of the constructed category of woman is at stake here. Finally, I intend to provide a cursory look a few of Akerman’s more recent, broadly popular works such as Nuit et jou (Night and Day, 1991) and Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004) to reflect on the implications this shift in aesthetic style, if not necessarily thematic concerns and preoccupations, raises for both assessing Akerman’s work systematically and in situating it in our post-modern, fragmented feminist discourses today.
Chantal Akerman’s fascinating, perversely anti-psychological film Je tu il elle has been appropriated by feminist scholars and critics as a significant feminist work. The film belongs to a genre of cinematic minimalism which emerged at a time when the European modernist tendency was being slowly abandoned (early-to-mid 1970s). (1) Andras Balint Kovacs, as many other critics and scholars, defines Ackerman’s style as “hyper-realist” for her depiction of certain actions in real-time. She meticulously documents the quotidian and mundane aspects of everyday life (the “images between the images”), yet this reality is not contextualized in any way; it often seems to exist for its own sake. (2) Through a close visual analysis of the first sequence of the film, I want to examine the film’s hyperrealist filmmaking techniques.
As Je tu ill elle begins, we see Chantal sitting in a spare room with her back toward the camera. “Then I left,” she says, through a voice-over. For the next thirty-minutes, Chantal’s actions are given pain-staking attention. Over the next twenty-eight days, she eats sugar from a bag, pens letters to a friend (or lover), moves the furniture, walks around the room, dresses and undresses, and sleeps. Through the entire time, the audience is not provided with a context within which to situate this character. In fact, the voice-over that frequently accompanies this part of the film distances us even more from this character as it, frequently, cannot be verified with what we see on the screen. She talks about it snowing outside and about a man passing by her room, images that we do see. However, her description of the progression of time is unsettlingly vague. As Ivone Margulies astutely observes, announcements of “first day” or “second day” mean nothing when they are not mentioned in “…relation to a specific person or time.”(3) Chantal also talks about painting the room blue and then green, information that we are, yet again, unable to verify because of the film’s black-and-white imagery. This sequence of the film, then, which unfolds in a “hyper-realist,” anti-illusionist mode (with Chantal’s character often performing actions–writing letters, moving furniture—in real-time), keeps returning to a kind of material, photographic surface; the film lingers on the surface of things, on matter and physical existence and does not seem interested in penetrating that material surface. As Margulies writes, the hyper-realistic representation of characters and objects in Je tu il elle makes the reality “…apparent, even naked,” though the lack of context, of “…particularities,” denies us psychological insights into the character. (4) Je tu il elle’s assault is on the very notion of representation itself.
B. Ruby Rich, in her article “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” explains the ideology behind Akerman’s filmmaking style. She states that, despite decades of film practice and theoretical writings, women still did not have “…a proper name” in the filmmaking practice; they lacked a voice and history of their own. (5) She praises Akerman for her “feminist” works which “free” their female characters from exploitative cinematic techniques such as close-ups, and instead, through long takes, grant their characters their own “private space”. (6) They are very much feminist in content even though their forms seem stripped of identity-based politics.
Teresa de Lauretis in her article “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Film Theory,” acknowledges the neutral, minimalistic aesthetic of Akerman’s films as well. She too believes that despite the fact that Ackerman’s films do not conform to an essentialized feminist philosophy, there is something distinctly feminist about them. By granting (through hyper-realist methods) the female spectator a neutralized cinematic space where she can freely navigate and come to her own conclusions, by addressing the female spectator as a “woman” and not as an essentialized “Woman,” Akerman’s films, de Lauretis suggests, psychically liberate female viewers. (7) Je tu il elle avoids the “politics of emotion” by being constantly fixated on the visible reality, the surface of things; by de-contextualizing its visual images, it seeks to “….problematize the spectator’s identification” with the woman in the film. (8) De Lauritis, quoting Laura Mulvey, reflects on the political function of this “…passionate detachment” which Akerman achieves in this film through her single-minded focus on the photographic image, the visible reality. In her seminal essay, Mulvey advised us to destroy the status that Hollywood narrative cinema had assigned woman, that is, a status of “to be looked-at-ness”. As she wrote in that piece: “The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions…is to free the look of the camera into its materiality and space and look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’, and highlights the way film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms.” (9)
We need to further assess how Akerman’s hyperrealist methods emerged as a reaction to some of the key modernist European films made after 1960. Though many of these films, such, as say, a film like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) did focus on female protagonists, their politics of “subjective representation”, at least to Akerman, prevented them from being effective feminist films. In the end, they “…focused on those subjective boundaries that mark woman’s division as gender specific.” (10)
L’eclisse is an important example of what Kovacs calls the modernist film with a “spiral narrative.” (11)In such films, there is no real solution to the characters’ predicaments. They often have “open-ended” conclusions that do not provide a tangible answer to the central conflict. They tend to be driven not by classical, deterministic conventions of plot but rather by their own abstract, moody logic (complementing the complex, irregular rhythms of human life.) The film is noted for its strange, open-ended conclusion. A couple that we have been following for most of the film, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon), decide to meet at 8 o’clock that night. In the film’s disconcerting ending, however, the meeting never takes place. Instead, the camera lingers in the spaces and streets where we saw this couple previously. For over seven minutes, we look at many people and objects (a nanny with a baby, a horse-carriage, a man reading a newspaper, a bus, water flowing on the streets, street lights, etc.) but the characters that we keep waiting for never arrive. The film ends like that, its central characters, just as ghosts, having vanished from the film. Another significant realist tendency in many of Antonioni’s films, such as L’eclisse, is their unique emphasis on the landscape that the characters inhabit. His camera gives just as much, if not more, attention to the architecture and landscape as it does to the human drama.
The film’s realist elements, however, serve to illuminate the alienation of Vittoria. Indeed, as Kovacs states, many key European modernist films from the 1960s have “abstract individuals” as protagonists. (12)Such central characters generally belong to a middle-class background and do not have pressing material concerns. Their problems are of a moral, intellectual, or spiritual nature. He or she is often an artist or intellectual. Such is the case with Vittoria: her anguish is rooted in her (futile) search for her inner self. At the beginning of the film, we see Vittoria break- up with her boyfriend Ricardo. She cannot point to what exactly went wrong in the relationship. She is just bored, dissatisfied, having fallen out of love. The central conflict in the film is rooted in Vittoria’s alienation, not only from other people, but also from herself. Vittoria seems to be detached from everything and everyone and when she and Piero embark on an affair, we wonder whether they both will be able to relate to each other, to love each other.
There are a number of reasons why Akerman wanted to distance herself from the subjective predispositions of European modernist films, and why she made films which constantly emphasized the outer, material reality (such as in the first sequence in Je tu il elle), without contextualizing these images in any way. Films like L’eclisse, Akerman felt, did not do enough to change the representation of women on the screen. What was needed was a completely new cinematic vocabulary, a new cinematic form, which would forcefully resist the politics of female representation and identification. As de Lauretis writes, it was no longer enough for films to “…destroy or disrupt the man-centred vision by representing its blinds spots, its gaps,” or by focusing on socially-liberated, independent female protagonists and their interior (emotional) lives, such as is the case with Vittoria. (13) Akerman believed that this cinematic form could be achieved by creating other objects and subjects, by formulating “…the conditions of representability of another social subject.” (14) She wanted to draw attention away from those woman-centred films like L’eclisse and other feminist works that, again, relied on “…those subjective limits and discursive boundaries that mark women’s division as gender specific.” (15)Rather, in Je tu il elle, she de-individualizes the individual, presenting an inscrutable, continually elusive female character without an inner, emotional life or a developed psychological state. We, in the audience, soon learn that the voiceover accompanying the first sequence in the film is presenting us with either false information or statements that make no rational sense. The audience, then, is forced to confront the materiality of Akerman’s images. Akerman’s camera focuses on the spare room, Chantal’s body, and the physical objects (the mattress, the chair, the bag of sugar). In sum, Akerman’s hyperrealist methods, as I have argued, complement the kinds of ideological positions she wants to advocate for and those she wants to advocate against. In Je tu il elle, she justifies her film’s formal, realist rigor (with its affinity for the outer, visible reality and not much else) by demonstrating that only such a cinematic technique can disengage the often problematic ideological codes embedded in representation. Je tu il elle remains Akerman’s most strategic and impassioned assault on the politics of the closely related concepts of space and female representation.
Jeanne Dielman, too, is an extension of such an ideological rigor. The film, through its lengthy, almost three-and-half hour running time, makes us not only look at but experience the quotidian rhythms of its protagonist’s life. Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a widowed, part-time prostitute and homemaker, raising a teenage son on her own. Though it shares with Je tu il elle its positions on female representation and the politics of space, it is, more than that film, about a sense of duration. It is provides us (in very much a Deleuzian sense) with images that are concerned with movement and the passing of time itself. Simply put, the film is not simply concerned with shedding light on the monotonous drudgery that women subsumed within a patriarchal system frequently endure on a daily basis. It is also concerned with giving us a sense of time as it is lived by such women; its character’s anxieties are not contained within the film. They reach out to the spectator as well.
Despite Akerman’s ideological engagement with duration, she remains in Jeanne Dielman resolutely against cinematic female representation. The film is Akerman’s most literal application of Mulvey’s instructions. Consider, for example, Mulvey’s criticisms against the fragmentation of the female body through conventional editing styles, and its appeal to voyeurs. Then, consider Jeanne Dielman which forcefully blocks voyeurism through its lack of close-ups. In numerous scenes, we look at Jeanne performing banal tasks at a removed distance. At one point, we see her preparing a meat-loaf, at another, washing and drying the dishes. Even at the end, after Jeanne has stabbed one of her clients and is seen sitting at her dining table, Akerman refuses to grant us a close-up of her face. For over seven minutes, we look at Jeanne but are bewildered. Is she finally calm? Is this a moment of some perverse victory for her? Is she worried, now having escaped from one prison and having entered another (ostensibly legal) one? Indeed, in a revealing interview shortly after the release of the film, Akerman seems to be quite literally dictating Mulvey’s positions: “It was the only way to shoot that scene and to shoot that film. To avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces…cutting the action in a hundred pieces, to look carefully and be respectful…The camera [in Jeanne Dielman] was not voyeuristic in the commercial way.” (16)
Having situated Akerman’s Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman within Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic model of the destruction of visual pleasure, I want to proceed in examining some of Akerman’s later films which seem to be fully invested in expression, in pleasure. How can one, for example, reconcile the hyperrealist, detached severity of Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielman with the formulaic romantic conventions of Night and Day and A Couch in New York (1996), or the sitcom-ish, outlandish slapstick antics of Akerman’s recent Tomorrow We Move? Furthermore, what does this erratic shift in aesthetic styles and genres tell us about Akerman’s work at-large, and how does it complicate her own aforementioned ideological positions on Je tu il elle and Jean Dielman? More importantly, what implications does it have for our increasingly fragmented, postmodern feminist discourses?
Angela McRobbie, in her incisive essay “Chantal Akerman and Feminist Filmmaking,” states that Chantal Akerman’s “…path from Jean Dielman onwards has been singularly removed from theory,” and that this course has been a source of “disappointment” to many feminist spectators and scholars. (17) However, if one looks closely, Akerman’s ambivalence about feminism and identity politics is very much present from the very outset of her career. One is perhaps familiar with Akerman’s oft-cited pronouncement that, “I am not making women’s films. I am making Chantal Akerman’s films.” (18) This auteurist statement, within itself, does not completely undermine Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle’s feminist strengths. As Annette Kuhn astutely observes, “a film can be feminist tangentially even if its author did not intend it as such.” (19) Nonetheless, this statement does shed light on previously mentioned shift in Akerman’s aesthetic styles and preoccupations in the films that followed, and leads us to interrogate Akerman’s own ambivalent, seemingly conflicted and contradictory attitude towards Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle.
In March 2012, at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, Akerman suggested that she sees Jean Dielman and Je tu il elle as aberrations in her body of work. The films were too “dogmatic,” she told the audience and are very much part of the feminist discourses of the time. When she got those films “out of the way,” she stated, she “opened herself up” to different aesthetic styles and genres. Indeed, Akerman’s assertions are well-supported by her later films. Night and Day is a fairly conventional romantic drama which engages with the theme of ménage à-trois and self-consciously echoes certain masterpieces of the French New Wave such as Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). (20)The film is about a woman (Julie) who is in love with two men, Jack and Joseph. She meets and conducts affairs with them at the same time. The film’s aesthetic strategies are drastically different from, say, a film like Je tu il elle’s. At times, the camera seems infatuated with Julie’s “flawless body,” languorously caressing it during the film’s sex scenes. Chantal Akerman’s recent Tomorrow We Move unfolds as a playful domestic farce about a young woman’s desire to move to a larger apartment and mark a (literary) terrain of her own. Her mother’s recent move into her home amplifies her anxieties even further through the mother’s encroachment both on her personal and physical space. La captive (The Captive, 2000) has drawn more scholarly attention than any of her other works since Je tu il elle and Jean Dielman. This perhaps is a consequence of the fact that the film’s minimalism and deceptive austerity echoes those earlier works. Yet the treatment of the female body in The Captive is, once again, quite different from what we had seen in Jeanne Dielman. The film, “loosely adapted” from the fifth volume (“La prisonniere”) of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, is about a young man’s paralyzing jealousy and suspicion of his lover Albertine, who he thinks may be involved in another romantic affair with a woman. (21) We are given numerous close-ups of Albertine and intimate shots of her naked figure throughout the film. Moreover, she is often seen through the position of the protagonist, with whom we look at her. The audience, like the male protagonist, is on the quest (however ludicrous it may seem at times) for the truth: Is Albertine having an affair? The point-of-view of the man becomes the audience’s point-of-view; we/he frequently examine Albertine closely, as when she is standing singing on the balcony or when she is sleeping in her bed. It is also important to point out that the film’s minimalist aesthetic is not (as in Jean Dielman and Je tu il elle) in the service of political/ideological rigorousness. Rather, the minimalism is playful and part of the detective-film’s design which is laced with muted wit. Indeed, the film often plays as a slightly deranged farce about the tragic comedy inherent in all romantic relationships (the inability to “completely” know someone else, to possess them.)
I began my discussion by examining the political functions of Chantal Akerman’s early 1970’s films Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle, and assessed how the films both informed and were informed by the dominant feminist discourses of the time, such as those of Laura Mulvey who vigorously advocated against cinematic pleasure and conventional forms of female representation, and how Akerman’s films also emerged as a reaction to (what she perceived were) the inadequacies of the modernist paradigm. As we have seen, Akerman’s subsequent works have abandoned such polemical strategies. This is not to say that Akerman’s films no longer share the thematic concerns of her earlier films. Indeed, there are certain themes that Akerman keeps returning to again and again, some of which include the displacement of self, the incommunicability between mothers and daughters, the obsessive nature of romantic love, the violence that our desires often inflict upon us, the anguish of personal and social isolation. What has changed is Akerman’s approach to female representation and her visual engagement with some of the aforementioned concerns through different genres and styles (some commercial, some even voyeuristic).
What implications do Akerman’s varied approaches have to feminism in our contemporary era? For one, Akerman has astutely observed that we must acknowledge that, “there is no one way for women to express themselves…[that] there should be as many different ways as there are different kinds of women making films.” (22)She had always been suspicious of absolutes and began to find that a blind adherence to Mulvey’s injunction that female filmmakers ground their works in a model resolutely bent on undoing the ideological codes of pleasure in mainstream cinema increasingly produced works marked by an ideological hegemony. Far from denouncing such an approach, Akerman has shown us that we must remain open to numerous approaches to female representation (or anti-representation). Such approaches can be invested in pleasure and expression or can launch an assault on them. In our postmodern era, with its progressively pronounced suspicion of identity-based politics, Akerman’s advice has achieved even greater resonance. It is naïve and misguided, a futile endeavor, then, to approach Akerman’s works with the goal of imposing an overarching, systemic ideological order on them. Akerman’s oeuvre, her diverse films, need not be reconciled. If anything the continually unpredictable and ambitious trajectory of her body of work demonstrates that feminist discourse must not become a closed-system but strive to remain part of a broader ongoing dialogue, a process on its way.
- Kovacs, Andras Balint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 382
- Margulies, Ivone. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 3
- Ibid., p. 115
- Ibid., p. 118
- Rich, B. Ruby. “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism”, in Erena, Patricia, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 271-72, 277
- Ibid., p. 273
- de Lauretis, Teresa. “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Film Theory”, in Erena, Patricia, ed. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 303
- Ibid., p. 209
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Kaplan, Ann E., ed. Feminism and Film. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 47.
- de Lauretis, p. 296
- Kovacs, p. 80
- Ibid., p. 65
- de Lauretis, p. 295
- Ibid., p. 295
- Ibid., p. 296
- “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman”, Camera Obscura 2, Fall 1977, p. 119
- McRobbie, Angela. “Chantal Akerman and Feminist Filmmaking”, in Cook, Pam and Philip Dodd, eds. Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 200
- Quoted in: Schmid, Marion. Chantal Akerman. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 62
- Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. (London: Verso, 1994), p. 49
- Vincendeau, Ginette. “Night and Day: A Parisian Fairy Tale”, in Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, ed. Identity and Memory: the Films of Chantal Akerman. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), p. 118
- Schmid, p. 150
- Quoted in: Schmid, p. 49