Thursday, February 26, 2009

CHANTAL AKERMAN: JE TU IL ELLE (1972)—A Critical Overview

As the SFMOMA retrospective of the films of Chantal Akerman winds to a close this coming weekend, my anticipation has been somewhat—though not thoroughly—sated. I wasn't able to catch every film in the series; but, I caught several. Thus, I can claim to having at least a working grasp of Akerman's oeuvre and—much like Jonathan Rosenbaum's evolving commentary—shift my anticipation from being introduced to Akerman's films to appreciating them more fully over time. Several warrant re-viewing and I, of course, must catch up with those I missed. Hopefully, such opportunity will not be too rare and far between.

When it proves daunting to reinvent the wheel, it's perhaps best to contemplate existing spokes. Thus, rather than venture an original review for a film that has been extensively analyzed for over 30 years, I sift through existing criticism on Je tu il elle in an effort to be not only more exact in my own understanding of the film but cognizant of varying critical styles of description.

As SFMOMA succinctly encapsulates: "Akerman directs and stars in this film, which focuses on two days in a woman's life. The story centers around the lonely woman's creative struggles and her emotional distance from most people she encounters. The je (I) refers to the protagonist [Julie], played by Akerman; the tu (you) is we, the viewers; the il (he) is a truck driver she hitchhikes with; and elle (she) is her estranged female lover."

What was of prime import and interest to me in my first viewing of Je tu il elle was my dawning awareness of what has come to be recognized as Akerman's signature usage of "detached, non sequitur soundtracks to underscore the 'action' "
(Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide). Voiceover descriptions of actions depicted in the film are provided both before and after said actions, trumping expectations of narrative temporality and sequentiality. As Acquarello phrases it at Strictly Film School: "Akerman incorporates dissociated aural cues that illustrate the heroine's innate pattern of alienation and estrangement: non-diegetic narration that either precedes, follows, or does not at all correlate with Julie's on-screen actions." I found this aural device of Akerman's fascinating.

Equally compelling was the film's minimalist triptych structure rendered in different color tonalities: shades of gray, then black, and then white, which in
PFA's capsule they suggest forms "a process and a journey" exploring "the heroine's desires in three different sets of circumstances" (Dennis Schwartz).

Like most reviewers, I feel compelled to finesse the grammatics of the film's title. The "je" of Akerman's title references Akerman herself, who is shown in the film's opening sequence attempting to express her desire in compulsive-obsessive fashion, bingeing on sugar spooned straight out of the bag, struggling to overcome writer's block, distracting herself by rearranging the furniture and painting the walls in her small apartment (a different color each day). As Jonathan Rosenbaum has referenced elsewhere, the film's protagonist, Julie, is like many of Akerman's characters who seem at odds with the rooms (i.e., the interiorities) they inhabit. These interior spaces are both protective and imprisoning. This tension is skillfully presaged by the film's opening statement, "...And I left", which Julie accomplishes by escaping the confines of her apartment to more fully experience her inchoate desire in the outside world. L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas determines that Akerman's "unnerving, darkly comic panorama" sets the stage for such recent female auto-portraits as Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva, Marina De Van's In My Skin and the video diaries of Gina Kim. And Bérénice Reynaud recognizes that Julie's decision to hitchhike conforms to the frequent tendency among the female protagonists in Akerman's films to "run away" from an obsession with an unspoken past "too big to be contained."

Although the "tu" of the film's title can be interpreted as the audience to whom Julie is reading her diary entries outloud, I'm not convinced this is wholly how the audience is implicated. Julie is reading her diary entries to herself but the audience—as spectator—is, in essence, interpreting what they hear or—as Fernando Croce explains it—the audience has been "pulled in by the Warholian use of viewer perception to shape what transpires before the lenses." In her director's commentary to the DVD release of La Captive, Akerman clearly defines the spectatorial position of her audiences and their direct—in contrast to voyeuristic—relationship to her films.

Julie meets "il"—attractive butch truck driver (Niels Arestrup)—when she finally leaves her apartment to begin hitchhiking. Her relationship to him is intriguingly opaque. She accepts his lift, accepts a beer, listens politely to his monologue on wife, children and the ignobility of work and—just as politely—yanks him off while he drives down the highway. Considering that the film's third segment "elle" concerns Julie's estranged lesbian lover Claire with whom she has ambivalent (albeit athletic) sex, her encounter with the truck driver is all the more disorienting. In his ArtForum essay, Malcolm Turvey defines the motivational opacity of Akerman's characters as "objectivity without omniscience." He writes: "These films impart an almost tactile sense of what it is like to observe, from a respectful distance, the people and places they record and the concrete sights and sounds one would experience in doing so. Yet most other information is withheld, underscoring the limits of what one can discover through perception alone."

In this sense Je tu il elle is not so much a story told or shown as it is an experience shared in all its sensory details. PFA will be sceening
Je tu il elle on Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 7:30PM as part of their ongoing "Essay in Cinema" series.

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