This is the first full-length feature from Chantal Akerman, made in 1974, a year before her best-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It showed in Picturehouse Cinema’s ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot last night. Much of the time I think the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ programming idea is an insult to audiences and a general excuse to show foreign language films just once. However, on this occasion it offered a genuine opportunity to see a film which would otherwise not appear in UK cinemas. The selection of Chantal Akerman films is possible because of ‘A Nos Amours’ – the partnership of Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts – who have negotiated a deal with Picturehouse. Their programme of Akerman’s films continues at the ICA.
Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 and she was only 23-24 when she made this 90 mins feature – which in itself is an outstanding feat. After just a year at a Belgian film school she left and took off for New York where she became an experimental filmmaker in the thriving New York avant-garde community. Something of American structural film of the 1970s is evident in Je, tu, il, elle, but so is something of European cinema.
Je, tu, il, elle comprises three parts of roughly equal length – that is my assumption, I didn’t time them but I suspect the first part seems longer. It features ‘Julie’ (Akerman herself) as a young woman seemingly trapped in a room where she performs four sets of routine operations – she re-arranges the furniture, writes pages of a letter which she then revises and shuffles the pages several times, she eats sugar straight from a bag in spoonfuls and dresses and undresses – often lying naked on her mattress with her clothes draped over her. Eventually someone passes by the full-length windows and she seems to want to expose herself. A little later she opens the windows and walks out. The structuralist element of this for me comes from the repetition of actions and the weird way in which eventually a kind of narrative rhythm emerges, complete with a kind of hermeneutics – what will happen in the end? What will she do next? Is there a pattern etc.? In themselves the actions are not very meaningful, but as a structure they fascinate. This section also reminds us of Godard’s play with sound an image. Akerman offers us ‘direct sound’ from the street and then she deliberately ‘mismatches’ a voiceover describing the actions with the actions themselves which happen well before or after they are described. I assumed that the voice was the director’s. It sounds like a young girl’s voice and doesn’t match the physical presentation of the mature woman.
The second episode, by contrast, sees ‘Julie’ hitching a ride with a truck driver (a young Niels Arestrup). I found this quite a conventional narrative sequence (at least, conventional for European art cinema). It reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’ films from the late 1960s, early 1970s – but without the pop music on the soundtrack! There is a sequence in which the driver (or Julie?) flicks through the channels on a radio which mainly seem to be American, another example of the sound/image split? The scenes in the cab and various bars do evoke an intensity and an intimacy in which it is the male character who is the subject of the gaze and who talks about himself. Julie feels like kissing him and seems quite happy with herself as she watches him shave and wash – and earlier when we barely see her at the edge of the frame as she fulfils his request for sexual relief as he drives.
In the third episode Julie visits a young woman – her friend or former lover? Her host says she can’t stay but then gives in to Julie’s demand for food and drink. Julie is aggressive in what is I think an eroticised encounter – she feeds with a lascivious voraciousness. Before long the couple are naked and making love in the sequence for which the film is best known. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter is filmed in three or four long takes over the ten minutes or so of the whole session. The two young women are shown in long shot (so the whole body fills the frame) on the bed but not beneath the sheets. The standard viewpoint on this sequence is that Akerman has ‘de-eroticised’ the lovemaking. We hear the sounds, the grunts and exclamations, the sounds of flesh on flesh and flesh on sheets. It is too ‘real’, too ‘raw’ to be eroticised or for us to enjoy a voyeuristic gaze. I’m not sure about this. These are two attractive young women. Chantal Akerman is not conventionally beautiful perhaps but she has personality and a voluptuous figure. Her partner is more willowy. How challenged do we feel presented with their urgent sexual needs? I’m sure some audiences would be aroused by this couple’s lovemaking no matter how it was shown. Annette Foerster (see below) states that “we see only the lust and the violence of this love, and it is an uncomfortable experience”. But this is not accurate: we see moments of tenderness as well and I was moved by these.
I think that if I’d seen this in 1974 I would have felt ‘challenged’. Now the context has changed. It occurs to me that when I saw avant-garde and counter-cinema films in the 1970s/1980s it was usually in an academic context and so it was odd to watch Je, tu, il, elle in a commercial cinema. Taboos have also changed. The most shocking aspect of the film for me was Julie eating sugar by the spoonful – I couldn’t bear to watch it.
Researching the film after the screening I was surprised to discover that several of Chantal Akerman’s later films were released in the UK and I would be interested to see how her work developed. She clearly has been an important director for feminist audiences and scholars. Judith Mayne brackets her with Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and Trinh T. Minh-ha in ‘Women in the Avant-garde’ (in Experimental Film, The Film Reader, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Routledge 2002). She quotes Akerman as saying that she wouldn’t have had such a clear idea [in making Jeanne Dielman] if it wasn’t for the women’s movement. Yet in her entry on Akerman in The Women’s Companion to International Film (Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone (eds), Virago 1990), Annette Foerster tells us that “Akerman does not want to call herself a feminist”.
The film ends with a song that plays on on after the brief credits have rolled. This was not subtitled but from the few words I caught it sounds like some kind of commentary. Is it a children’s song, a folk tale? – I picked up ‘dancing’ and ‘the woods’ and I’m sure I know the song. Does anyone know what it says?