Leaving, Waiting, (Not) Doing: on Chantal Akerman’s “Je tu il elle” (1974)

A shot of Julie in Chantal Akerman's "Je tu il elle", depicting her head resting against a window as she looks meditatively at the viewer.

The woman occupies an emptiness—spare furnishings, glass doors, a dingy bathroom—and it occupies her. There has been a separation, and an exile, likely self-imposed (“And then I left”). She arranges and re-arranges the furniture, lies in silence, disrobes and walks around naked. She writes letters to someone and, copying and re-copying, obsesses over their details. In her nakedness, she flirts with exhibitionism when a faceless man skirts the windows of her room. And she devours spoonfuls of sugar out of a bag, staring out the window, or at nothing, until the sugar is a pile on the floor.

There is activity, agency, even, but of a stifled and confused sort. More than once, the behavior shown onscreen contradicts the narration of her voice-over. They are small deceptions, but clear ones, and a nice touch of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s to show the fickleness, the inner dissatisfaction, of the character.

I am largely unfamiliar with Akerman’s filmography, and Je tu il elle is my first of hers. I, of course, knew the name, even before the minor controversy surrounding Sound & Sight’s catapulting of her Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to the No. 1 spot on their Greatest Films list. I’ve never seen that particular film myself, but critics I trust deem it a tedious mediocrity, so I came to Je tu il elle with my analytic hackles up, somewhat.

I’m pleased to say, however, that Je tu il elle (translating to “I you him her”) is actually an interesting little film (86 minutes, a delectable length compared to Jeanne Dielman‘s monstrous 201), and, considering its radical-for-the-time approach to queer sexuality, a socially impactful one. Told roughly in three parts, the story follows its protagonist, Julie, as she sulks in a room post-romantic separation, then hooks up with a male truck driver before ending up in the home of a female lover (whether this is her immediate ex is not clear), where Akerman devotes the final fifteen minutes of the film to a graphic (for its time) sex scene between the two.

Je tu il elle’s first act is (echoing the issues Jeanne Dielman‘s detractors have with that film) a catalog of tedium, but there’s a point to it, arguably, and it’s never all that overbearing. We are watching an individual unmoored, an individual aching for sensation: the bag of sugar being a proxy for the sweetness she craves from a lover, but cannot, for whatever reason, obtain. She wanders her spartan room in the nude and gets a thrill imagining strangers catching a glimpse of her, because even that threadbare connection would still, in some way, constitute a human connection. And her switching the locations of her mattress is simply what everyone has done, at some point, in order to affect a measure of change in their surroundings (and thus, their lives), only exaggerated, since at one point the mattress is pushed vertically up against the wall, and she sleeps on the floor with her clothes as blanket, the very picture of destitution.

We don’t know exactly where (and whom) this character has departed from (or who has departed from her), but the specifics are less important than the plight, which is commonplace. But “universality” would be not quite the right word to describe Akerman’s approach. There is something too neurotic about the woman’s behavior for that, and the environment a little too off-kilter; as if the viewer were watching some organism estranged from its native population then dropped into a tank, where it helplessly impels itself into a cycle of futile action. And yet, despite the seeming miserableness of her situation, the viewer is barred from any strong insight into her person—the character is (and will remain) a cipher, however intriguing.

A shot of Julie eating in Chantal Akerman's "Je tu il elle", depicting a blanket which has fallen off of her revealing the top part of her breasts.

When the character finally frees herself from this veritable cell, there is little exultation in the matter. It’s as if the character becomes bored with inflicting her loneliness upon bare material, and must now try for flesh and blood. She hitchhikes onto the truck of a man who reveals himself to be a wanton hound, married but unsatisfied with his relationship to the point of frequently bedding girls on the road, and even creepily fantasizing about his young daughter.

Julie is unfazed by these admissions, even slightly amused; and when the man finally makes his move by compelling her limp hand onto his groin, she disappears completely. Akerman’s camera blocks her out of the frame while the man, enveloped in his own lust, and dominating the screen in close-up, breathlessly narrates his own orgasm. It’s a nice technique on Akerman’s part to lambast the self-centeredness of man as sexual partner.

The final portion, celebrated for its brazen display of sapphic desire, may or may not go on for too long, but it does represent a breakthrough for the character. It is the first time in the whole film where she exudes outright joy, and the sex scene itself, while obviously restricted by the decorum of the time, is at the same time telling in its lack of salaciousness – Julie and her lover’s writhing is less sleazy intercourse than it is a fitful attempt to merge two bodies into one, and thereby satiate Julie’s craving.

But is it love? Julie’s first spoken words (diegetically) are directed at her lover, who seems to have been somewhat ambushed by her arrival: “I’m hungry.” She feeds Julie bread, but this cannot satisfy what, in the end, requires more than the pleasing of taste buds. Seduction, disrobing, smiles…and yet, I don’t think it’s necessarily incorrect to assume even the rapture of their lovemaking is insufficient to fill Julie’s inner lack, if her silent morning-after departure is to be taken at face value. After all, appetite extends past the stomach’s yearns, and there is always another raw experience to replace the first, and another strange part of the world will always beckon to her past the walls of whatever confinement she draws around herself.

For all its intrigue, though, Je tu il elle is far from a masterpiece; and while Akerman’s indebtedness to the structural films of Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow and the like is evident, such experimentation never really swings the narrative into greater heights beyond the hermetically sealed interiors of Julie’s world. The disjointed editing, long takes, and other bravura techniques are interesting to puzzle out, but they don’t lead to anything more profound than an odd assay of an odd woman’s ennui.

And oddly enough, having watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) not too long ago, parts of Je tu il elle reminded me of it, particularly when it came to Akerman’s performance of Julie. Her stiltedness and naivete make it seem as if the woman is just a mere partaker of the human experience, not a native participant, like the alien in Under the Skin—both seem to portray worlds in which certain fundamental relations fail to fully connect, whether it be Julie with the trucker and the female lover she quickly leaves (as well as herself), or the alien with her own presumed humanity. And both films cannot quite break through the ceiling they create for themselves, no matter how interesting their visual approaches are.

Seeing as, however, Je tu il elle was Akerman’s full-length feature debut at only 23 years old, such should serve as no significant discredit. Jeanne Dielman aside, I am certainly looking forward to watching more of Chantal Akerman’s filmography, as this film clearly showcases an artist with eclectic perspective, no matter the excesses or roughness.

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More from Ezekiel Yu: America Falls Flat: on Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024), Through the Void: on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023)

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