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La Chambre Akerman
The Captive as Creator

Ivone Margulies

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1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 339.



When they take place inside a room, Chantal Akerman’s films take on the stark directness of theatre. A sequence of ritualised actions are staged and repeated. Extended symmetrical shots impose an ostensive quality on objects and people. Her characters face us with an oblique attention, speaking in quasi-monologues, and their redesigned everyday gestures attain a ceremonial intensity. The central image in this spare ascetic cinema consists of a ‘shallow-boxed space’, (1) where a few people are seen enacting simple tasks. Most often it is a lone woman, and most strikingly the filmmaker herself – as she cleans, eats, cooks, moves furniture, rocks under a blanket and writes.

It is in this confined theatricality that Akerman works out her very particular contribution to the discourse of the everyday, through a highly personal set of re-enacted cinematic figures. These are examples of neither the artist’s self-portraiture nor an involuted revelation of the qualities of the medium. It is the heightened concentration of the camera on gestures, and of gestures of the tasks at hand, which enacts an ambivalent relationship to the everyday.





2. Luce Giard quotes Chantal Akerman as well as Delphine Seyrig on Jeanne Dielman to justify her method of representing women’s relations to cooking and their bodies. Cf. de Certeau, Giard & Pierre Mayol (trans. T.J. Tomasik), The Practice of Everyday Life, Volume 2: Living and Cooking (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 154-155, 199.

3. Multiple variations of the artist’s work and everyday are the subject of Akerman’s films and videos; apart from those discussed in the text, see Family Business (1984), Letters Home (1986), Le Marteau (1986), Les trios dernières Sonates de Franz Schubert (1989), Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1989), Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman (1996), Le Jour où (1997) and Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton (2002).


Akerman's interest in the everyday emerged from a number of different discourses that informed artistic and political practices in the 1970s. The figure of the mother, issues of feminine autonomy, and ‘70s avant-garde film were each inescapable elements shaping her production. As a result, her work found a deep response amongst a wide variety of groups. For instance, the amplified materiality of household chores in Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) was so striking that it inspired Luce Giard, one of the co-authors of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, to avoid the generality typical of ethnographic accounts in her collection of oral narratives on ‘doing-cooking.’ (2) Jeanne Dielman’s lesson for the social scientist lies in the manner it defamiliarised the everyday, making it more singular and concrete. In its positivist instrumentality, this homage misses the consequences of an excessive focus on the everyday – a cost Akerman dramatises by substituting the kitchen for a room with closed doors.

Both a mother’s and an artist’s everyday feature constantly in Akerman’s films. (3) Indeed, the desire to extricate the artist’s quotidian from the mother’s banality is one of the impelling forces in Akerman’s dry transmutation of daily life. Although this mother-daughter scenario is fraught with psychology, Akerman’s representation is not – thus defining its difference. She creates opaque characters blocking psychological projection. Their concerted attention to the tasks at hand are steady, at times even manic, statements against fusion.

The problematic relation between a woman’s daily routine and her creative everyday is dramatically highlighted through the flight into a secluded room – in which the stakes of her art will be proven. It is in this room apart that Akerman performs rituals of order and disorder, as if carrying out a continuous aesthetic experiment. This room is especially charged with an obsessive quality that points to a central problematic in her films: the autonomous person.



4. Maureen Turim has likened Akerman’s task-like performances to Yvonne Rainer’s choreography and other performance artists. She compares Je tu il elle’s first part to Marina Abramovic’s Lips of Thomas (1975), in which the naked artist slowly eats a kilo of honey from a silver spoon, and progresses ‘through a series of violent self-flagellations’. Cf. Turim, ‘Personal Pronouncements in I ... You ... He ... She and Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels’, in Gwendolyn A. Foster (ed.), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1999), pp. 24-25; also my Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 48-50.

5. The easy slide of Akerman’s long take mode into the artworld shows how the stringent rigour of structural-minimalist film has come to be filtered through a vacuous pictorial sensibility. The holistic nature of a shot depicting simple actions that devolve in an arc of subtle change conforms to the duration span of gallery attention with minimal challenge.









6. In Sorry Guys (1997), Chantal Michel repeats this notion minus the pathos. Her video camera gyrates and, if she achieves feats comparable to Bruce Nauman’s with her body, it is mainly because of her cinematic rather than pro-filmic prowess.






A meta-theatrical space of this kind characterises contemporary live performance that needs to communicate, amidst the vague contours of art and life, the expressive qualities of a work. Akerman has primarily made films, videos and installations containing screened images. This room as a partition, a place and time adjacent yet cut out from the rest, is similar in its function to the cell-like spaces of body-art experiments. (4) Can the Akerman-chamber serve as a path to rethink the relation of her films to her artwork?

We can pursue Akerman’s theatricality through the figure of the artist, a persona most vividly found in her films frontally displayed inside a sealed-off room. This spatial configuration – la chambre Akerman or Akerman-chamber – becomes more noticeable once the filmmaker starts to make single and multi-channel video installations. The filmmaker redeploys long takes severed from her films in the installations D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), Self-portrait – Autobiography in Progress (1998), Woman Sitting After Killing (2001) and From the Other Side (2002). (5) This excision-as-self-citation is especially telling in the context of her move from the film world to the gallery, for it isolates the trope of her self-contained shots and spaces as Akerman’s artist-identity-badge.

In film, Akerman explores the implications of the shift towards liveness that began in the ‘60s with performance and body art. She adopts a presentational format and invests her room-acts with a declarative stance. Her extended presence instantiates a contained experiential world. A small room becomes the set for transforming everyday action into images of obsessive intentness. The room scene showing the artist boxed in a space, reinventing her own version of a home, is a set-up familiar to performance and video art. Existential journeys, as well as new forms of writing with one’s own body, find their best display format in the compact space of a room and of a video monitor in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Vito Acconci’s Room Piece (1970), a performance in which he brings personal objects from home into a neutral space, was an example of this attempt to redraw the line between art and life by making daily objects into props. The boxed frame was used as an analogue for television in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), where Martha Rosler brandishes domestic utensils as she ironically vents her frustration. The tight space can also occasion an acrobatic gyration around the walls, an attempt to walk through the cube. This is the pretext of Bruce Nauman’s Wall-Floor Positions (1968), in which he attempts to perch himself on a wall and falls with a recurrent thumping sound. Often the monitor is used live as a mirror, to guide and guarantee a fit between the corners of wall and frame. The contrast between the solid fixed walls and the body’s failure to defy gravity is instrumental in promoting the performance’s principal object – the rhythmic demarcation of an obsessive purpose, a repeated and pathetic insistence that one is an agent. (6)

We can read the Akerman-room as a sort of artist’s installation, a reduced stage on which the filmmaker re-enacts her agency as artist. Despite the affinity of this room with other video and performance images, la chambre Akerman can be found only in her films. For this room gains its performative raison d’être from its relations to other spaces. The primary impetus for the room is its erection of a separate, rigorously demarcated space for the self. Whether the room-set takes over the entire film as in La chambre I (1972) and Saute ma ville (1968), or whether it delimits a need for temporary seclusion as in Je tu il elle (1974) and Tomorrow We Move (Demain on déménage, 2004), the Akerman-chamber works as a display case for the conflict between artistic autonomy and the temptations of another less productive, obsessive kind of autonomy. While this struggle may be shared by anyone in their attempts to shape their everyday and flee its indeterminacy, the thematic polarity of household routines and a wandering free creativity incites both formal rigor and nervous bouts of energy in Akerman. As I tour some of Akerman’s rooms, I will note the ways in which an artist’s everyday is asserted, represented and performed.


7. Jacques Polet, ‘La problématique de l’enfermement dans l’univers filmique de Chantal Akerman’, in Chantal Akerman (Cahier no. 1, Atelier des Arts, 1982), p. 171.

8. Ibid, p. 173.









The spatial autonomy of Akerman-rooms is always relational. It may translate a phobic sensibility to intrusion from the outside, as in The Man with the Suitcase (L’Homme à la valise, 1983) or it may be the result of an acute representation of split desires, as in J’ai faim, j’ai froid (1984): a young woman has her first sexual experience off-frame while we see her friend satisfy her desire by eating a barely cooked egg. It is always the act of isolation from another space that brings into sharp focus Akerman’s themes and aesthetics. Jacques Polet has pointed out that the 360-degree pan in La Chambre maps out a literal movement of encirclement completed once the pan reverses, as if the camera had demarcated the minimally essential space for the performance. (7) Conversely, in Hotel Monterey (1972), when the camera looks towards exteriors, this same agoraphobic aménagement of filmic space is registered by the hypercautious quality of its movement. (8) The ambivalence Akerman displays towards the outside world is paralleled significantly by the ease with which she films strong city grids and apartments.

In Là-bas (2005), her most recent film, Akerman hides behind the shades of a Tel Aviv apartment, filming little vignettes of everyday life out of her blocked window, as well as a few excursion shots to the beach. Her title, a reference to Israel as spoken about by the Northern European Jewish community, follows the trend set with D’Est (1993), South (1999) and De L’Autre côté (2002) to use generic geographic coordinates to amplify the resonance of her documentaries on racial and ethnic discrimination, borders and forced displacement. Akerman is present solely as voice-off – in direct phone conversations with Israeli friends and as voice-over, a commentator on her distanced relation to Israel. The film gives sequence to Akerman’s persistent fixation on her Jewish identity, and as such fits perfectly with all the other documentaries that speak about a newly configured Eastern Europe, James Byrd Jr’s murder, or Mexican immigrants’ troubled border crossings into the US. In each of these films, Akerman purposefully lets her humanist preoccupations mesh with a more visceral relation with Jewishness, a relation she has most explicitly linked to her parents and grandmother. In its play of disjunction between subjective voice and objective vision, Là-bas is close to News from Home (1976). In that film, the daughter’s exile and link with her mother are posited simultaneously, as the daughter reads her mother’s letters, voicing the mother’s words and yet distancing herself from her. In the Tel Aviv apartment of Là-bas, as Akerman excuses herself on the phone for not going out with friends, saying each time that she is working, one notes – perhaps for the first time in such a stark way – the connection between retreat, depression and creativity.


9. Akerman in an interview with Dominique Païni on the Artificial Eye DVD of La Captive.

  Asked why she had returned, in La Captive (2000), to her rigorous apartment compositions, Akerman indicates that she did not have to go very far: ‘It is the mother’, she says, smiling. (9) The opening sentence of Molloy – ‘I am in my mother’s room’ – becomes in Akerman’s work: ’I am in a room next to my mother’s’. Hearing how domestic images of her mother and aunt at the kitchen are imprinted on her memory, one understands that the protected but suffocating space of the home is the first object for testing creative autonomy.  



In Saute ma ville, Akerman’s first film, a sprightly Chantal bounds up the steps leading to a tiny studio apartment, mostly taken up by a kitchen. Her determination and precision are evident, but the tasks follow a not altogether clear pattern. As she energetically polishes her shoes, Akerman keeps going with the same obsessive gesture – until she has also brushed her legs and stained the floor around it black. The same gesture seems to produce at once disarray and tidiness. For a while, it is enthralling to try to sort out one from the other. The pleasure derived from witnessing these fully finished actions follows from the rapidity with which mess and neatness (contrasting sharply with each other) are reciprocally wiped out. The framing of these unexplained gestures can be likened, in its reduction of focus, to the single-shot frame of minimalist films trained on a single action carried to completion. But while the action in Richard Serra’s Hands Scraping (1971) comes to a close on a blank, clean screen, Akerman’s space is not neutral. The kitchen immediately defines a domestic space, and other social indices are marginally present.

With the kitchen fully in order, Chantal eats spaghetti, spills wine and food over herself. She then she leans her head on the stove and lights a match. The explosion happens over a freeze frame, in sound only. Here, she presents us with the literal image of a compression chamber, the implicit consequence of the mad chemistry she performs in every one of her boxed-in spaces. Saute ma ville announces, literally and with a bang, Akerman’s entry into artistic adulthood. It is well known that suicide is a favorite subject of adolescents’ first films. Indeed, it would be interesting to check if those who go on to live creatively declare so loudly, as Akerman does in this filmic rite of passage, their future tools, elements, genres. Brushes, spaghetti, water and soap dance animistically with Akerman. In this first film-room, droll humor and tragedy, slapstick and rigorously concerted process alternate in disturbing in-distinction. Saute ma ville presents in swift succession – as if they all pertained to the same order of events – cleaning, cooking and committing suicide. This perversion of categories, of banal and dramatic, of the literally performed action taken to the point of a suggested death, is frontally presented, enhancing these actions’ paradoxical equivalence.

With Jeanne Dielman comes the structural lesson: the stark separation between the scene and the obscene defines how an excessively dutiful domestic concern replaces the desire relegated to the elided room. In Akerman, every single space stared at for too long will bear witness to the cost of this economy. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, the frame remains the same whether a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, or a shoebrush drops. This intrusion of objects moving on their own gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that obsessive-compulsive characters attempt to suppress.


10. This book (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) is essential for understanding the central link in Akerman’s aesthetics between obsession and a problematic autonomy.





11. Sigmund Freud. ‘Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, Collected Papers, Vol III (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 367.

12. Ibid, p. 330.




Excessive doubting is the most common feature of this condition. In Monomania: the Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, Marina Van Zuylen brilliantly explores how the panic of the mutable engenders the idée fixe and obsessive behavior. (10) Even though rituals are an important part of day-to-day life, and normal people use concentration to keep away what is irrelevant, the obsessive-compulsive finds the manifestation of ambivalence unbearable. A submission to external orders and schedules always feels better than having to decide for oneself. Manic activity is an attempt to bypass a depressed sense of autonomy through a minute, circumscribed competence. The escape from situations felt as being too contingent, too confusing to bear, is performed through invented orders, made-up series and a reasoning that is mostly lacking in logic. In his description of the typical synapses that occur as a result of obsessive behavior, Sigmund Freud stated: ‘Repression is effected not by means of amnesia but by a severance of causal connections brought about by a withdrawal of affect.’ (11) ‘Compulsive acts in two successive stages, of which the second action or thought neutralises the first’ are for Freud another expression of this inability to deal with conflict. (12) Akerman mimics such severed causality by having actions and words follow each other in continual, almost self-annulling revision.

It is an unwritten rule of Akerman’s cinema that, once she retreats into a room, a perversion of categories and registers is sure to take place. The oscillatory energy maintained in the closed-off experimental chamber is borrowed from the doubting dynamics of obsessive-compulsive neurosis. Controlling measures such as counting and cataloguing are invalidated in their futile attempt towards achieving absolute certainty. And yet, by retracing this impossibility, Akerman reasserts her own independent expression.



  It is important to note how in her work the indecision associated with obsessive thinking is immediately transposed onto a specific space. In Moving In (Le Déménagement, 1992), a monologue shot for French television, the character played by Sami Frey starts by measuring the dimensions of his new apartment. He walks its length, then its width, twice with different results. Rationality is belied by the very need to repeat the action, and this first physical tracing of doubt is followed by a verbal enunciation of myriad permutations among the character’s possible love choices:  


  Juliette, Béatrice, Elisabeth – I loved all three with an immense love ... Elisabeth was from Toulouse, Béatrice was from Toulouse, Juliette was from Toulouse, and none had a dog. Each had a room. Elisabeth had a room, Juliette had a room, Béatrice had a room. None had a dog. There was a strong concentration of Toulousians in an apartment in Paris.  


13. Rosalind Krauss, ‘LeWitt in Progress’, in Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1985).

  Akerman’s refusal to subsume her list within a category, and her contrary insistence on naming each of the terms in the series, echoes writers and artists like Beckett, Sol LeWitt and Robbe-Grillet who have challenged classical logic through absurdly extended sequences of obsessive thought. (13) Such alogical permutations are best demonstrated within a sparsely furnished room enclosed by three rigid walls, in which the character’s recital is revealed in all its starkness. In this regard, Je tu il elle is exemplary for its structural boldness. It unfolds in three autonomous sequences, of which I will discuss here the first, a chamber sequence.  



Je tu il elle’s first statement – ‘And I left’ – is spoken over an image of Akerman sitting at a small table by her bed, her back to us. The room is fully furnished. We see an armchair, a little table, a side table, a vanity and a bed. In this black-and-white film, she initiates a further referential slippage – announcing that on the first day she painted the furniture blue, and on the second she painted it green. Akerman’s use of verbal description, and its sporadic reference to what we see, creates an eroded indexicality. From the very beginning, the temporal indicators are unhinged by an unmotivated skipping of days. This descriptive instability gradually places the character and scene into a liminal state. The liminal moment in a rite of passage is often accompanied by a stripping-down of rank and status, the loss of one’s possessions, and an untried state of unformed identity. And indeed, precisely because this process is not psychologically inflected, this originally anthropological category describes Akerman's denuded aesthetics well – especially as she covers her body randomly with clothes. In this non-psychological take on indeterminacy, character and space have to match.

Of the many pieces of furniture in the initial scene of Je tu il elle, we see only two being pushed out – not out of the room but out of the frame. She moves a mattress to each corner of the room, cataloguing every possible position in turn. These initial shots map the limits of the character's enclosure. Filming in axes perpendicular to the walls, Akerman performs a descriptive tour of the room's four sides. As she positions herself and the mattress in relation to the camera, she is recording herself in the process of constructing a mise en scène: she is physically and optically charting the space. Her single prop (the mattress) becomes a compositional element: she lies on it, or sits in its shadow as it leans against the door.



14. Sally Banes describes this particular transformation in dance from everyday to art in Terpsichore in Sneakers (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), p. 43.




15. Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p. 12.






Whether she looks at the camera or perfectly enframes herself, these tableaux confirm Akerman’s mastery of the mise en scène. Her resting poses after each movement underscore her self as movable object. The performance artist Joan Jonas describes a similar process in her own choreographed videos: ‘At first I treated my body as material to move or to be carried by others, stiff like a mirror – to be moved by or to move props, to be part of the picture to make the picture.’ The simplicity of her movements and of her relationship with this prop can also be likened to the ‘purposive concentration’ with which Yvonne Rainer uses objects in her task-oriented dances. (14) This move was essential for the choreographer’s trajectory towards a minimalist reconfiguration of the everyday. If Akerman’s actions resemble the dancer’s stage and choreography, it is because, in cinema, the destabilisation of everydayness starts with an abstractive manoeuvre: the theatricalisation of space. Objects loose their functional pretence and the scene is bared for the act to start.

In The Stage Life of Objects, Andrew Sofer states that ‘the prop is not defined by size or potential portability ... the prop must alter as a result of the actor’s intervention ... a prop is something an object becomes rather than something an object is.’ (15) Akerman clears her space and introduces new props, juggling with them as Beckett did before her. In Je tu il elle there are sheets of paper, a pen, a spoon and a paper bag. She writes a letter furiously and eats from a sugar bag. It is not by chance that, in this second tempo of Akerman’s staging of the character’s indeterminate, liminal position, she should actively initiate a chain of obsessive undoings. A letter is the perfect instrument for the exercise of narrative suspension since, in conventional drama, letters and documents are central markers of time and place. Even before they are read, letters indicate to the audience a change in direction, fulfilling the need for exposition and plot twists. Here, the sheet of paper signals simply the beginning of another work cycle. But it does matter that the writing paper multiplies. In Akerman’s films, to see the character as agent is also to witness her indecision. She writes three, six and then eight pages. She further enriches her choreographics with the addition of yet another rhyming movement: a distracted and then determined vertical dip into the paper bag. Such mundane actions are charged with rhythm and design in Akerman. Concentration and distraction alternate as affects, while spoon and pen almost trade roles.




16. Cf. Nothing Happens, pp. 109-118. Jean Narboni calls attention to the cosmogony of Akerman’s naming and counting strategies in recreating her world from scratch in ‘La quatrième personne du singulier (Je tu il elle)’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 276 (May 1977), pp. 5-13.

17. Quoted in Willoughby Sharp, ‘Body Works’, Avalanche (Fall 1970), p. 14.




The spoon dips mechanically into the paper bag, counteracting the lateral gestures of erasure. Crossing-out is another mise en scène for writing, a shift in the direction of the pencil. Each movement becomes, in this spare space, writing. Her intent absorption in her own writing and in the floor arrangements compels our attention to mise en scène as work. Split between their modular pattern and a hint of a script draft, the pages become place-markers for Akerman’s aesthetics, her particular intersection of narrative and series. (16) Carl Andre’s statement that ‘A work is not put in a place, it is that place. And when the body is used as a place it is marked’ resonates with Akerman’s territorial demarcation. (17) Her straddling of an object/subject relation is similarly marked. With a physicality closer to performance art than to conventional narrative cinema, this scene in Je tu il elle suspends the very notion of character, replacing the self with a shifter-like dependence on actualisation.

As Chantal places the pages carefully on the floor, filling the space between her bed (inactivity) and the camera (filmmaking activity), she stakes out serial narrative as her artistic territory. Her sudden appearance from the camera side, after crawling over the pages, is the first sign of that traversal. Visually she produces an image of intent concentration, but also a surface laden with narrative potential. Fade-outs and pauses suspend a clear demarcation of time, making us breathe along with Akerman as both she and the narrative are held in abeyance. When she undresses, lying on the bed to avoid wasting energy, we note the lulling quality of someone occupying at once the parent and the child position. A horizontal Akerman concludes one of the many cycles of solipsistic activity performed in Je tu il elle’s first part. It establishes the bed as critical to Akerman’s iconography. In this film more than any other, the pendulum between bed and work signals Akerman’s ritual commitment to the question of making art.




In Lettre d’une cinéaste: Chantal Akerman (1984), the filmmaker peeks at us from beneath the bed covers. ‘If you want to make a film, you have to get up. So let’s get up!’ In between the lazy passivity in bed and making a film, a first, standing-up step is needed. In Saute ma ville, Je tu il elle, The Man with the Suitcase and Tomorrow we Move, the preamble for a film, its first threshold, is a scene in which the protagonist arrives at an apartment and charts her domain. The Man with the Suitcase starts at the same point The Meetings of Anna (Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, 1978) ended: with the protagonist returning and reclaiming her space after some time away. She opens the windows, checks the refrigerator, throws the bad food out. After finding that her guest, a male friend of a friend, has not left yet, her plan to start writing is frustrated. In a pre-verbal tantrum, she retreats (table, chair and typewriter in tow) to her bedroom. From then on, Akerman obsessively maps the actions and presence of the intruder, drawing elaborate schedules of his comings and goings.

The Man with the Suitcase describes a paradoxical domestic entrapment. At the highpoint of exile in her room, Akerman follows the invader through a surveillance camera. This figuration of authorial control is a condensed image of the entire film. She cannot write, but uses her own body to partition time and space. She also carries a tray (a suitcase of sorts), holding food and a clock, around the apartment. She thus thematises her own exile, as well as her own œuvre – since duration and cooking offer a summary image of Jeanne Dielman.

Akerman’s body perfectly fits the contrastive purposes of the sight gag. The man who does not leave is very, very tall and oblivious, while Akerman is very short and hyper-attentive. The corporeality of the bodies, their contrast with each other, as well as the delay in self-expression, suggest the affinity between The Man with the Suitcase and Je tu il elle. To convey the postponed writing, Akerman overuses gesture rather than speech, borrowing silent comedy’s expressivity.

Akerman’s presence in her films answers a deep personal need. Her move into musical and comedy, genres that thrive on incongruity and failure, were stated attempts to break away from the perfection of Jeanne Dielman’s structural mastery. Especially when she appears, a manic, excessive animation energises her mise en scène: in The Eighties (1983) she conducts Magali Noël’s singing with a matching, frantic gesticulation; she speeds up the slurring of her lines in Lettre d’une cinéaste; she takes all of her vitamin pills at once to save time in Sloth (1986). Such overstated compressions have become Akerman’s signature: a set of themes and strategies she draws on each time she feels the need to offset her dry, minimalist sobriety.

Given this ritual motivation – to break the directorial sense of formulaic rigidity – these performances can only be carried out by the director. At the same time, the Akerman-chamber is neither conducive to psychodrama nor propitious to self-exposure. Akerman’s presence in the films has a performative purpose rather than a referential quality. If Akerman’s strongest films are propelled by an interest in restaging the terms of her artistic autonomy, how are we to expand these considerations beyond her literal presence? As proven by Jeanne Dielman’s success, any obsessive will do for Akerman. As a character, the obsessive allows for a staging of a peculiar form of creativity – a revisitation of the everyday as doubt. The basis of Akerman’s art lies in creating occasions for this doubt to proliferate. She does so most successfully when the frame’s rigour and the setting’s architecture conspire with a character’s compulsive need for certainty.

Traversing Proust’s ample understanding of the insufficiencies of the quotidian to animate desire, La Captive renews Akerman’s investment in obsession as a dynamic force. She propels Simon (Stanislas Merhar) after Ariane (Sylvie Testud) in a relentless line of tension. His pathological need for control, a condition that feeds on doubt, is met with a series of barriers. Ariane’s flank is offered instead of her sex, the opaque glass separating her body from him as she showers. Her body is always on call, yet it limns a boundary whose pliable ambivalence becomes strikingly visible to us, in what might be called Ariane’s ‘ eyes wide shut’ state – her sleep during sex. Ariane’s separate desire erects a closed door, always inviting Simon’s eyes – pained torches in search of yet more uncertainty.

When, after splitting from Ariane, Simon drives her to an aunt’s house, he feels that now, at last, he can demand that she confess all the lies she told when they were together. After she mentions two such lies, he pleads for more. ‘What are two lies, give me at least four, so I can trust you.’ Ariane refuses to say more, explaining that her desire is connected to unknowing, not to knowing. In this scene Akerman has, for the first time, given one of her characters am explicit speech against fusion. She has always disliked manipulating the spectator’s feelings; her characters’ quality of a quietly resistant autonomy is wonderfully expressed in the countenances of Ariane in La Captive or of Anna in The Meetings of Anna. Their opaqueness disallows identification. Just as we cannot read these characters, neither can any of Anna’s interlocutors imprison her through their desire. Ariane, similarly, escapes Simon’s voracity.

Akerman’s filmic command of the obsessive movement in La Captive is spectacular. She stretches the object of desire in an elastic line that brings it now close, now far. The main, tragic line is traced by the final car ride. The car is a mobile chamber in which Akerman once more stages a resistance to another’s control. Many scenes establish the centrality of the car as prison. The contrast of this closed space with the exterior is continuously paraded. The car becomes a makeshift bed in which sexual acts (always performed with that feigned sleep) can take place. After their stroll through the Bois de Boulogne, and another series of interrogations, Ariane asks to drive; the road surrounded by trees takes on an ominous, fairy tale quality.

After arriving at the aunt’s house and formally sitting for a brief instant, Simon and Ariane decide to give their relationship a few further weeks. They abruptly stand up to leave. The sudden reversal of course is a recognisable trait in Akerman – she alternates long slow scenes with abrupt turns. Simon and Ariane go back to the car in a last retracing of doubt. Uncharacteristically, the filming of the entire drive from Paris to the aunt’s house and from there to the sea alternates between different framings: a long shot of the car, their back to us as they leave Paris, a frontal shot of Simon and Ariane as he starts his pleas, and an extended long-shot of the road ahead, denoting Ariane’s introspection. If, at first, these variations seem random, we soon notice how the filmmaker is testing new ground. On the way to the sea, as Ariane drives, Simon immediately resumes his harangue. She says: ‘Leave me be.’ He asks for a kiss and she complies. Akerman expressively cuts to the car swerving on the road. A dry cut takes us to Ariane looking at the sea, and Simon gently nudging her to follow him. They walk together, but by now we know that Akerman’s adaptation of Proust is close to its tragic denouement.


18. Kenneth Burke, ‘On Tragedy’, in Tragedy: Vision and Form (San Francisco: Chandler, 1965), p. 285.



  ‘Tragedy as a mechanism is based upon a calamitous persistence in one's ways.’ (18) This definition by Kenneth Burke is especially applicable to Akerman’s treatment of the obsessive’s doomed attempts to conquer uncertainty. The filmmaker’s complicity with Ariane is revealed by her decision to represent Ariane’s unseen reaction to Simon’s control indirectly, displacing it onto the image of the swerving car. The violence of this rejection, seen from the back in a long shot, gains an unforgettable force. Akerman’s embrace of one of the most exciting conventions of melodrama, car-reaction shots, confirms her formal courting of the new as she makes the car – that mobile room – tremble with emotion.  


  This essay was first presented at the Images Between Images symposium on Chantal Akerman organised by Kaira Cabanas at Princeton University (1 December 2005). Thanks to Mark Cohen for his help.  

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© Ivone Margulies and Rouge December 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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