Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Female European Directors: Je, tu, il, elle

Je, Tu, Il Elle (1974, Chantal Akerman)

‘I, You, He, She’

Filmed in crisp black and white, Je, tu, il, elle is much like other works by writer director Chantal Akerman in that before ever arriving at the conclusion that the film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or that I ‘was entertained’ or, at the very least, I ‘enjoyed it’, it struck me as a curiosity. I don’t use that term in any derogatory way mind you. Rather, the film struck me as intriguing and worthy of a viewer’s attention and critical eye before serving any sort of entertainment purposes. Actually, I don’t think Je, tu, il, elle is the least bit entertaining, but I do like it quite a bit, which isn’t something I admit to very often.

Shot in sharp black in white, Akerman’s outing begins with a woman sitting on her bed, staring into the camera. The viewer is privy to her inner thoughts (which sound like bland diary entries) as she plainly explains precisely what she did on which day. And so begins an intimate exercise, a reflection of character, an exploration of a state of being, both within oneself and within the greater society at large.

‘Je’, unless something terribly obvious flew over my head during both of my viewings, is the main character, the woman who lives alone in her boring apartment. The film makes no attempts at developing a typical narrative. Instead, Chantal Akerman’s work opts to share the thoughts and mundane activities of ‘Je’ as she spends what seems like weeks alone at home (the film gives no hint that she ever leaves the apartment until we actually see her do so). ‘Je’ proceeds to release herself from any personal or social constraints that could pull her down or confine her. She simply ceases to be a regular, what most of us would consider to be a ‘normal’ person. No more responsibilities, no more work, no more pressure, however how slight, that can be exercised by the outside world. What she does is of her own choosing, plain and simple, regardless of how liberating or damning it may appear in the eyes of beholders. On face value, the actions and behaviour of ‘Je’ do not amount to very much. She doesn’t ‘do’ anything that would be of interest in most other films. However this isn’t like most other films. The movie reveals some fascinating and at times strange ideas.

As I’ve described above, the film opens with ‘Je’ dressed and sitting on her bed. As the scenes, and by extension the days themselves, change, ‘Je’ adopts a peculiar routine, staring first of all by tossing aside her furniture, thus liberating space in her apartment. To the viewer, there only remains a mattress to sleep on. But things don’t end there, no sir. She takes things a few steps further by stripping naked, writing an extended letter to an unnamed character (although it’s safe to assume she is addressing the letter to ‘Tu’) and eating a bag of sugar. To change from scene of naked ‘Je’ to other scenes of naked ‘Je’, Akerman utilizes one of my all time favourite techniques: the fade to black and back again. The technique works very well here as it lends a sense that the days are very similar. It is as if the viewer is blinking or resting their eyes for a few moments, only to discover that ‘Je’ hasn’t changed her habits very much from when we last saw her.

Every once in a while ‘Je’ will share what happens next and sometimes what happened a few moments ago. It feels reminiscent of some Robert Bresson films featuring characters who write letters or diaries, with small tidbits shared with the viewer just before the character in question executes that very same action. I haven’t quite figured own my own answer as to why this happens, although it offered some slightly visceral to the viewing experience. Hearing ‘Je’ say what is probably about to happen made me anticipate the moment, and when she retold what has just occurred, it emphasized the impact of that event. Then again, it may have simply been to pay homage to the great French director, although I’m pretty certain Akerman is smarter than that. It’s a narrative technique that is used to great effect in the Bresson films as it is here.

Pay close attention to ‘Je’s’ attitude and actions and one will notice how her habits get more sloppy as time goes by. Consider the bag of sugar she has been eating since the beginning. At first the sugar was in a neat little bag and she ate it with a spoon. Later on, the bag breaks with the sugar pouring all over her letters and clothing, but she hardly demonstrates any worry or alarm whatsoever. She calmly cleans up her mess, and even then she doesn’t really pick everything up. She finishes the last of the sugar with her hands, wipes them on her clothing. She doesn’t use a blanket to sleep, opting instead to use her clothing. Until the moment she chooses to leave her home to visit a lover, and apart from the letter she’s writing, ‘Je’ has completely shut herself off from the world, not just physically, but also in regards to societal norms of adulthood. It’s like she’s becoming an infant again (no clothes, no worries, sloppily eating sugar, etc). Just before she ventures off into the world again, she has retracted herself into a shell of personal rest and aimless pleasure. Writing her never ending letter arguably serves as her method of self reflexivity, an opportunity for ‘Je’ to pour it all out, whether the ‘it’ be anger, doubt or even happiness.

Once ‘Je’ leaves her apartment, the film takes on a slightly different mood, never quite shifts into any sort of high gear. Possessing no mode of transportation of her own, she succeeds in hitching a ride with a trucker, ‘Il’. This middle section of the film sees ‘Je’ begin to enter the real world again, during which time the film becomes far more sexual than it was in the opening chapter, notwithstanding ‘Je’s’ nakedness during that part. The most telling moments are when, after sharing a dinner and some drinks, she gives ‘Il’ a hand job (off screen) and he tells her of his sexual exploits, his family, when he gets some wood while on the road, etc. He even makes a bizarre joke about how his 11 year old daughter excites him. Well, at least I hope that was a joke. ‘Je’ does not speak one word during this entire time, but her purpose is served mainly as an object for ‘Il’. ‘Je’ sits quietly while they eat, while they drink and while he talks about sex and relationships like a manly man. If the first part of the film was ‘Je’ being recluse, this part is her experiencing the prevailing sexuality of the outside world. She doesn’t question him at all when he makes her give him a hand job and she admires him when he shaves in a bathroom. There’s a convergence of these two parts in a sense, in that ‘Il’, through his monologue about his life, reveals that he also has a negative view of responsibility and norms at times (family responsibilities in his case), while ‘Je’ is opening up to her sexuality. It is through ‘Il’ that ‘Je’ begins to rekindle with her sexual inhibitions and, consequently, find a certain freedom. There is indeed a very care free sense that permeates throughout this middle chapter, where the characters can either sit quietly at a table or give one another hand jobs all the while feeling perfectly fine and comfortable.

Finally, the third and final part of the film is the pinnacle of these two facets of ‘Je’ when she visits ‘Elle’. She has ‘Elle’ make her sandwiches, serve wine, and makes her give ‘Je’ more food still. This attitude works in conjunction with what the viewer has seen during the first part. Once again, ‘Je’ is behaving in a very lazy, almost infantile manner. While ‘Elle’ does acquiesce to the demands of ‘Je’ out of friendship and love, I still think believe this behaviour is very much in sync with what has come before. The tone in which she asks for the food hints at a care free attitude, in that she knows what she wants and all she has to do is ask. It will be served without any effort on behalf of ‘Je’ or with the the need to think about any consequences whatsoever, much like with children. She is perfectly comfortable with herself and her actions. For a brief it seems like ‘Elle’ is mothering ‘Je’, but the role of mother transforms into the role of lover when ‘Je’ slowly unbuttons ‘Elle’s’ blouse to reveal cleavage. They then proceed to make sweet, passionate love before ‘Je’ leaves in the morning. The sexuality found during the second part of the movie was but a precursor to the complete embracing of it in this concluding chapter.

‘Je’, for most part, gets her way throughout the film. I’m not going to argue whether the things she does or asks for are worthwhile or just. I’m just saying that she gets and does what she wants with little to no opposition. The whole journey functions like a quest of liberation for her character. We don’t know what she did before the movie began, but we can fill in the blanks with whatever we like. I think this is easiest if one is familiar, even if only minimally, with some of Akerman’s other work. She gives her female characters very powerful and liberating story arcs. Perhaps ‘Je’ was fed up with the status quo, whatever that may have meant to her, you or myself, and therefore had a radical change of heart. Je, tu, il, elle, in a sense, is an exploration of how one woman is choosing to be what she wants to be, societal norms be damned. Looking at the director’s filmmogrpahy, I learned that Jeanne Dielman (reviewed here) was her next project. While some may refute this argument, I see Je, tu, il, elle as a kind of JD, just in its earlier stages, as though Akerman already had the idea of creating a movie that dealt with a woman’s liberation, took a crack at it with this movie, but then created her masterpiece with JD the next time. Despite its seemingly sterile nature, I think there’s actually a lot of passion burning underneath the surface in this film. It’s slow, deliberately so in fact and doesn’t offer any kind of safe or relatable characters in the traditional sense of the term, but ‘Je’ represents something greater than that. I don’t think the film is supposed to be taken as a simply story. It is an example of art used to express an ideal, a dream and to drive home a point.

To read some more about Chantal Akerman's work, head over to Processed Grass for a review of Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

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