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Regarding plot, there isn’t much to summarize in Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle (1974). In the Belgian director’s second feature-length film, the principal character “Julie” (played by Akerman herself) spends a month in voluntary isolation before hitchhiking with a truck driver (Niels Arestrup) and finally visiting her ex-girlfriend (Claire Wauthion). Little action paired with long shots of mundane life scenes might compel audience members today to dismiss the film as boring. If the camera dedicates a full five minutes to a scene in which Julie and the driver drink their beers and smoke cigarettes in silence, why do I need to keep my eyes on the screen? What will I miss in the seconds that I turn away?
A dedicated cinephile is likely familiar with Akerman’s work and legacy. Though the director herself resisted categorization in her lifetime, she is associated with feminist and queer thinking. I myself love film, though I never heavily studied it in an academic setting. Upon watching this piece, I found myself feeling nervous. What if I could not see what so many other critics and scholars had seen and lauded? I am stressing my lack of expertise on feminist and queer theory because I want to highlight that one not need such knowledge to enjoy this film. Acclaimed films, old films, and even avant-garde films can and should be viewed by anyone. Now, ignoring the prestige and reputation that precedes both this filmmaker and her film, what do I myself find?
As I watch the film, I am uncomfortable. At first, I assume it is from my impatience at the story’s lethargic pace. Julie spends the first act in an empty bedroom save for the mattress and the pages of a letter scattered around the floor. As she narrates her days of isolation, she focuses on waiting. “I spread my clothes over me and waited.” On another day she waits “for God or gloves for cold” as it begins to snow. Finally, she declares that “life has come to a halt and nothing would happen” and “I should wait for the snow to stop and then melt.” Paired with this waiting is a sort of aimlessness that not only inhabits the scenes on screen but that diffuses into the mind of the audience. Julie shifts and fidgets as she moves about the room, sometimes sitting, sometimes leaning against a wall, sometimes laying down, body spread out. Almost mechanically, she eats spoonful after spoonful of sugar from a bag, barely noticing when she accidentally spills it onto the floor.
When the sugar hits the floor, I realize that my discomfort stems from the recognition that I can relate to Julie all too well. I have interpreted a kind of depression that is dull and grey in her apathy, the kind I have known. Suddenly, I am no longer impatient and disengaged, but engrossed in the familiar mental state of consciousness I see playing out before me. Lack of emotion no longer unsettles me but compels me to keep watching.
Akerman seems to enjoy showing processes, and I enjoy watching them. I have taken on the passive energy that exudes from Julie. I cannot put my energy or focus into anything more advanced or intellectual than watching—and that is a vital response! Julie slowly scoops up the spilled sugar from the floor. I am happy to watch her and the driver finish their drinks slowly, happy to watch him shave in the bathroom, happy to watch Julie’s ex-girlfriend make Nutella sandwiches for her lover.
Passivity, which reigns over the film, is only broken by meeting base needs: food, drink, and sex. The realization of these needs spurs the characters into action. Julie, off-camera, gives the driver a handjob while he sits at the steering wheel. Barely conversing with each other, characters sit in silence as they drink their beer and smoke their cigarettes. Julie only leaves her room when the sugar has run out: “I realized I was hungry.” She expresses this hunger again in the house of her former lover. After quickly finishing her sandwich, she asks for more, then states that she is thirsty. When these needs are met, she undoes her ex’s dress buttons, fulfilling the final need.
In this final scene of lovemaking, the characters finally feel active, both literally and figuratively. Earlier in the film, the driver states that “I know there’s no tomorrow, no nothing. Just the moment.” Perhaps it is this statement that makes Julie abandon her waiting and begin doing. As the women intertwine their bodies, I finally feel a true exchange unraveling before me. The apathetic energy that has settled like dust over the film has been disturbed by a feeling of something—maybe passion. The lovemaking here lies in stark contrast to the handjob scene. With the camera trained on the man’s face, it’s almost as if Julie isn’t there at all. But on the bed with her lover, she seems whole.
The beauty of Je Tu Il Elle lies in its ambiguity. I can read it in whichever way I please, as slowly as I please. So often films try very hard to tell us something very specific, but Akerman doesn’t seem to care much about that at all. This film was made for her, not for us. It feels almost relaxing to know that what you think doesn’t really matter. In a world that insists on finding meaning and instant gratification, this is a welcome respite. Sometimes it is enough to simply observe and feel..
For a deeper dive into Akerman’s life and films, check out Marianne Lambert’s documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere (2015). The FF2 review can be found HERE.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (8/28/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Julie and truck driver drink beers.
Middle Photo: Julie sits in silent thought.
Bottom Photo: Julie and ex-girlfriend embrace.
Photo Credits: World Artists