Chantal Akerman, 1974
Chantal Akerman was a humanist, a quiet revolutionary who introduced to cinema a decidedly female gaze. Born in Brussels into a poor Jewish family, Akerman would come to be considered by many a foremost European director of her generation. Amongst her most celebrated films is the 1974 tenderly confessional Je, tu, il, elle, a simple tale that tackles, through its minimalistic plot and aesthetics, the issues surrounding the queer, female body in a quest for things unknown.
With the help of a women-led production crew, a then 25-year-old Akerman released her intimate statement on female sexuality and life as a woman. The plot follows the three-act story of Julie, portrayed by Akerman herself, a woman troubled by past, present and future dilemmas, mostly unknown to the viewer.
Within the first act, Julie – the titular “je” – repeatedly moves around the little furniture she has in her apartment, dresses and undresses, and writes letters to a subject unknown – the “tu”, or maybe even the viewer. In what can be seen as an autobiographical representation of Akerman herself, Julie waits. While calmly describing everything she does through a voice-over, the character frantically repeats those same three actions again and again for the first half of the film, which accounts for 28 days within the story.
During that time, the evidently troubled character awaits for something we – and seemingly herself – do not get to know. Perhaps she was trying to gain control of her own life before exiting her self-imposed exile, or maybe she was simply trying to escape the societal conventions which tied her up as a bisexual woman in the 1970s. The minimalism, both visually and narratively, renders the viewer uncomfortable – they watch as a nude woman does nothing except write letters and eat sugar straight from the bag.
While it may be distressing to some, it can feel like home to others: Akerman displays with radical transparency how it may feel to be in conflict with the search for human connection and the fear of rejection from the world outside. Through the letters, Julie attempts to reach out for the relationships everyone longs for, but at the same time she ponders, looking through her window, what goes on outside of her solitude. She chooses to wait, and one day, the wait comes to an end.
The second act is that of “il”. It can be seen as the bridge between the two others, as she passes through the outside world and eventually back into her own intimacy. In this little voyage, Julie hitchhikes with a truck driver with whom she hooks up; she listens to his chatter, revealing his misogyny and disdain for women. As a woman, I felt extremely restless seeing another young woman hitchhiking with an unknown man; the character kept upon her face the same calm expression she carried during the first part of the film, which made it even more difficult to watch. Quietly, Julie sits next to him and listens to him talk as he reveals his aversion to his wife and divulges his sexual attraction to his pubescent daughter.
Here, Akerman’s subtle feminist commentary is one of the most appealing uses of cinema; displaying the horrors of the male mind within a patriarchal society. It is depicted through a simplistic camera angle and movement, along with the banality of the day-to-day actions in which Julie and the hitchhiker partake together. Until, after a hand-job, Julie finally arrives at her destination, inaugurating the third and final act. She replaces the uneasiness of that bizarre relationship with a man with the comfort of an ex-lover’s embrace – “elle”. This mysterious ex-girlfriend rejects Julie, asking her to leave, but still makes a sandwich for her hungry, thirsty lover, with whom she proceeds to make love in what turns into one of the most fascinating portraits of queer and female sexuality cinema has ever achieved.
Despite not being open to Julie’s love at first, the girlfriend passionately fulfils her needs, embracing and satisfying the need for human connection Julie longed for through the letters written in the first act. Her hunger for humanity is disclosed by the long, perplexing eating scenes, which take place throughout the film, and are finally rendered as love takes the screen for the last twenty minutes of the film.
Their passionate embrace is a refusal of the male gaze, a refusal of the aesthetics of eroticism in cinema, of the patriarchy and its standards of sexuality. It is real: embrace, flesh, love. Akerman is able to make a powerful statement against the male voyeurism that exists throughout cinema, in films acclaimed by cinephiles such as Brian de Palma’s Body Double and Dressed to Kill. The scene is not only a refusal of such voyeurism, but an active assertion of female sexuality and pleasure. The women consensually partake in eroticism, free from objectification and power roles. They are not body parts sexualized for the titillation of men, they are real; fulfilling their needs and wishes, together and as individuals. Despite its simplicity, Je, tu, il, elle is a revolution.