The monotony of modern life in Je Tu Il Elle

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A modern classic, Chantal Ackerman’s debut Je Tu Il Elle is both an ambiguous and precise film that deals with the cycles of desire, deprivation, and gratification that come with living in the modern world. (FEA: 5/5).

Review by FF2 Media Associate Farah Elattar

The film’s plot is fairly simple, and almost circumstantial compared to its themes. A woman, played by Chantal Ackerman herself, spends more than a month in self-imposed isolation. She seemingly performs compulsive tasks like constantly rearranging her furniture and eating powdered sugar, while simultaneously maintaining a calm demeanor. She then decides to go on a road trip with a truck driver and ends up with a former girlfriend. The two engage in a sexual encounter that occurs in real time, and the film ends with the French lullaby “nous n’irons plus  au bois” (we won’t go to the woods anymore).

The key to Chantal Ackerman’s films is found in their themes rather than their plots. This movie is definitely ambiguous, but one theme sticks out: its critique of the cycles of deprivation, desire, gratification, and boredom that occur in and have come to mark the modern day. This is especially evident through her conversation with the truck driver, played by Niels Arestrup. He reveals to her that due to the nature of his work, he finds himself oscillating between random moments of pleasure given by strangers and long periods of yearning. In other words, his life is a constant struggle between desire and gratification. The same theory applies to Ackerman’s character, who oscillates between “waiting” for weeks or months in her isolation, and gratification, obtained after her encounter with her former lover.

While Ackerman’s character seems happy at the end (hence the lullaby), there is a sneaking suspicion that this is nothing but momentary gratification — the same kind experienced by the truck driver when she was pleasuring him. This, to me, is a depiction of Arthur Schopenhaur’s theory on pain and boredom: “The most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other. Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two” (The Wisdom of Life, 1890). In other words, in the modern day, happiness is an unattainable status, caught between the pain of waiting, and the boredom that occurs when a desire is fulfilled. This of course, could not be more timely. In a world defined by instant gratification, one constantly goes through this cycle, from impatiently wanting something to being desensitized to it.

Chantal Ackerman’s decision to depict the protagonist performing mundane tasks emphasizes the monotony of daily life, and forces the viewer to be faced with it. Ackerman also narrates the actions as they occur, with the narration often preceding or following the video — causing a sense of discomfort for the viewer. In other words, this movie is not meant to be pleasurable in the way movies generally are. Rather, it is supposed to be a reflection of reality. This is also emphasized by the very long fades to black that occur between scenes. Oftentimes, the viewer finds themselves sitting in the dark, with no light coming from the screen. In that uncomfortable state, Ackerman forces the viewer to think and face their thoughts and feelings, and to reflect on their own condition compared to the character’s.  In such a fast paced world, a slow-moving film like Je Tu Il Elle is crucial to “slow down” and take a moment to think about why one does the things they do.

Perhaps a rather difficult movie to sit through without the right mindset, Je Tu Il Elle is nonetheless a minimalist classic that encapsulates our complicated relationship with desire in the modern world. The film will will on September 2nd at 5:30 AM EST on TCM, for those of you looking to see this modern classic!

© Farah Elattar (09/01/20) FF2 Media

Q: Does Je Tu Il Elle pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes! There are scenes between the protagonist and her former girlfriend.

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