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Theme Tuesday - Je, Tu, Il, Elle

Chantal Akerman is one of the most prominent female filmmakers of the 20th century, and a director that has been a glaring blind spot for me. During March, I seek to rectify that blind spot.


Je, Tu, Il, Elle is not a hard to follow film, at least in terms of its complexity of plot. A young woman (played by Akerman) occupies herself with mundane tasks in a dingy apartment for several days. She moves a mattress; she writes a letter; she survives by eating spoonfuls of sugar. One day, she decides to leave for no clear reason. She manages to hitch a ride with a truck driver, with whom she has the most casual of sexual relations. She then ends up with a (seemingly) older woman with whom she has sex with in real time on screen. She leaves her without any clear reason.

As one can probably tell, this is a challenging and, dare I say, boring film. Akerman lingers on images and scenes much longer than most people are comfortable with. These images are often uniquely, if not beautifully composed and are actually richly varied. The scenes at the beginning are striking for their sparseness and how Akerman chooses to present her body. She plays with shadow and lighting in the scenes outside and with the truck driver. The scenes with her female lover are almost antiseptic in nature, to contrast with what is happening on screen.

Perhaps the best way to try to make sense of Akerman’s challenging Je, Tu, Il, Elle is to think of her as a child. There is plenty of evidence in this film that points to this infantilization. She can barely take care of herself; she survives on spoonfuls of sugar and depends on other people to feed her and take care of her. She barely knows how to behave “properly” around people. Even the way that she dresses is somewhat childlike, especially that raincoat with the big zippers. It should be noted that Akerman’s nude body is often on a full display here and her very obvious female traits contrast greatly with the infantilization I speak of.

Children do not see things the way that adults do, and I think this film is all about challenging perception and expectations. For example, we see Akerman’s identity shift from object to victim to child to lover/aggressor all without her saying but a few words out loud. Her static long shots have the paradoxical purpose of both examining the shot’s subject in excruciating detail yet also strangely dehumanizing them to the point that they become objects on the screen. She also very pointedly avoids the male gaze, and in fact, she comments on it when she stares at the truck driver as he shaves and then urinates in a bathroom. The sex scene is perhaps the least erotic part of the film; the two lovers writhe around like animals, and Akerman seems more interested in the contortion of the bodies rather than the pleasure they derive from their interactions.

If it weren’t for the cinematography, Je Tu Il Elle could easily have been made last year. The ideas that Akerman hints at, and the images that she chooses to show are still startlingly original and challenging, and I am eager to see how this aesthetic of hers will be sustained.

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