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No Room of One’s Own. Exile and Exodus in the Works of Chantal Akerman

Je tu il elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974)


for M.G., my home in exile

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Psalm 137

“It’s dislocated.” These are the first words spoken by Natalia Akerman, the mother, in Akerman’s last film No Home Movie (2015). The first images were those of the wind blowing through a tree in an Israeli landscape followed by a man sitting on a bench in a park in Brussels and a garden that will later turn out to be the one viewed from the windows of the apartment where most of the Movie takes place. It seems as if the filmmaker is showing us her own movement inwards from the world she had been traveling and capturing in her documentaries, back into the confined interiors where it all began. That same movement concludes the dialectic at the core of her cinematic output, between the prisonlike interiors and the slandered landscapes that belie and magnify each other, each serving as a reflection of the other. If Akerman’s last movie could be interpreted as an ultimate synthesis, which we are inclined to do because of the lamentable biographical details that surround it, it is a synthesis that I will try to understand in terms of the concept of exile, the modus vivendi of those who no longer have or never had a home.

Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)

I. Paradise Lost

In a short text he wrote in remembrance of the second anniversary of Akerman’s untimely passing, Elias Grootaers ruminates on this same opening sentence, intuitively connecting it with the space “between a lost paradise that has never been and a world that was expelled from that paradise”. The idea of a paradise lost seems to be a scattered, unifying idea that connects the seams of all of Akerman’s films. When seen from this perspective it can be no coincidence that the protagonist in her first short film, Saute ma ville (1968), is eating an apple — age-old symbol of female rebellion — while violently parodying the role of the housewife Akerman would later put in the center of her most famous film Jeanne Dielman. It was 1968, times were a changin’, and a daughter seemed to grasp the Zeitgeist of emancipation and turn it into a (at least topographically) very personal act of rebellious freedom against so-called kitchen-sink realism. L’imagination sera au pouvoir. And yet the short ends with a suicide by gas, ominously reaching both back to her mother’s past in Auschwitz and forward to her own untimely demise.

Steven Jacobs starts his essay ‘Semiotics of the Living Room: the Domestic Interiors in Chantal Akerman’s Cinema’ (in Chantal Akerman : Too Far, Too Close, 2012) with the observation that “interiors play an important part” in her work. He goes on to list the titles of her movies as a first and most obvious proof of evidence. Yet, two of the most famous films out of her extraordinary prolific output in the 70s are omitted from that list. These are the movies wherein the theme of interiority is the most conflicted in this early stage of her oeuvre: Je tu il elle (1974) and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). The first one is a film about lovesickness in an unidentified metropolis, the other one a road movie along the railroads of Western-Europe.

The first words spoken in Je tu il elle are “Et je suis partie” (And I left). Only at the end of the movie we come to realize that this narrated action is an answer to the protagonist’s girlfriend’s desire not to spend the night together, but as we do not know this when first watching the movie, this line gets much greater meaning, certainly when what follows seems to be a variation on the creation myth out of Genesis wherein the narrator tells us what she did the first six days, meaningfully skipping over the seventh day. The biggest contrast with the biblical Genesis, lies in the fact that she’s not creating a world, but liberating herself from one by turning the room wherein she locked herself, into an empty space. Getting rid of the furniture and her clothes, at one point the image of her naked body crawling between the debris of the empty room, recalls the post-apocalyptic scenery of a Beckett play. In his essay ‘On Joseph Koudelka’s Exiles’, Czeslaw Milosz says about Beckett’s plays:

Time in them is not perceived as a serene repetition favoring a gladly accepted routine; on the contrary, it is empty and destructive, it rushes forward to an illusory goal and closes on itself in a display of futility. Man in those plays cannot enter into a contact with space which is abstract, uniform, deprived of specific object, in all probability a desert.

In Akerman’s personal mythology the “serene repetition favoring a gladly accepted routine” can easily be understood as that of the archetypal mother, Jeanne Dielman. So when first watching Je tu il elle, the parting with which it begins, could as easily be a parting from the routine of a domestic life. (In my case, this also had to do with the fact that I watched Je tu il elle immediately after Jeanne Dielman.) One interesting detail gives us a clear idea of what is at stake for the protagonist of Je tu il elle, whom, for dialectical reasons, I will refer to as the prodigal daughter: the writing of a letter. When Jeanne Dielman sits down to answer the letter she received, she comes to the conclusion that she has nothing to say. Of course she has nothing to say, she could only speak of those things she doesn’t want to speak about. The daughter on the other hand keeps writing and rewriting, crossing out, rephrasing, until she has dozens of pages covering the floor of her pied-à-terre. She is probably not satisfied with the result, but the main goal is the writing itself, making “noise over the silence”, as Akerman once described her own oeuvre.

Là-bas (Chantal Akerman, 2006)

II. The Desert

The desert is another famous Urbild in Akerman’s personal mythology. It is the desert of Exodus (the book of slavery and renewed exile): the convergence of a landscape with the time it takes to forget one’s past and start anew. “To lose everything that made you a slave,” as Akerman famously said in an interview. When the daughter finally leaves the room, she hitches a ride with a trucker. If we were to try and understand the passing of time in this film chronologically, we would have trouble locating this road trip between the two sections that bookend it. Is the driver taking her to the girl that asked her to leave? Or is this actually the story’s end, after which we see the chronological beginning, which retrospectively marks everything that happened before? The answer might and probably will be that it doesn’t matter. The events portrayed in the film aren’t supposed to be understood in so-called real-time, they’re supposed to be understood as a dialectical movement, a traveling towards the paradise that is at the same time a traveling towards the exile from it. The driver tries to teach the young girl something about his ethos (and aesthetics) of being on the road. “There’s no future, only present.” When the young girl finally arrives at the beginning of the story, in the apartment of her lover, she knows as well as the spectators do that she’s entering a paradise that is already lost, but decides to allow herself the present of it.

The aesthetics of being on the road are further explored in Les rendez-vous d’Anna, a movie made only four years later, in which time Akerman made Jeanne Dielman and News From Home (1977). Continuing the theme of ‘writing letters’, News From Home consist of a series of static shots of transitory spaces in New York (sidewalks and subway platforms) combined and contrasted with Akerman reading the letters she got from her mother during her stay in the Big Apple. The letters inform us about the sweet everyday nothings that happen in her mother’s life and the images show us the excitement and danger of 70s New York, the big city to which the daughter fled. Michael Koresky notes in his essay ‘A Belgian in New York’ that News from Home “is further connected to her Jewish heritage in its depiction of exile —- one could even call it a highly idiosyncratic diaspora tale.”

And yet she came back, as prodigal daughters are wont to do. Les rendez-vous d’Anna is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, traveling across Europe to present her films. The movie is a concatenation of trains, stations, hotels, car rides, to only at the very end arrive at an apartment where the ‘frigidaire vide’ awaits exactly no one. In Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (1996) Ivone Margulies distinguishes Anna’s cross-European road trip from the more canonic road trips because Anna is traveling for work instead of looking for an identity, the latter of which has always been the romantic ideal epitomized by the idea of Wanderlust. “[O]ne could almost say of Anna that she has a vocation for exile” and her trips “designate[…] her as a ‘mutant being,’ a woman who truly rules out the values of domesticity.” The two concepts are linked to each other, because it is Anna’s refusal of a family that makes her life as an artist on the road possible. This is the price she has to pay, albeit that she pays it willingly. In a hotel in Frankfurt Anna tells the man who she’s about to have a one-night-stand with — until she refuses him midway — that she has had two abortions. Because it wasn’t the right time. When she later meets an old friend of her parents in a German station, the woman informs us Anna broke off the engagement to her son an equal two times. She continues by asking Anna what is there “when your parents are dead and you don’t have children,” forcing her in a position between the old generation and a possible new one, saddling her with the task of continuing a tradition Anna seems to want nothing to do with.

But the question kept haunting Akerman. In a monologue in her film Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy (1989), Akerman recounts the famous Jewish parable (often attributed to Martin Buber), of the man performing an elaborate ritual in order to be heard by God and how every generation that comes after him, forgot one part of the ritual until only the story about the ritual was left and yet God would still hear them. “My own story is full of missing links, full of blanks, and I do not even have a child,” Akerman concludes rather ominously, insinuating the end of the tradition when she is no longer able to tell the story. But she might have partaken in the tradition in another way and this is most explicitly reflected upon in her documentary on Israel called Là-bas (2006). In typical Akerman fashion, the documentary consists mostly of images shot inside the apartment she inhabited for a month while taking on a teaching position at an Israeli university. While we see the everyday lives of her neighbors outside the window, Akerman talks about the suicide of her aunt and that of Amos Oz’ mother as it is portrayed in his autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness. In an interview with Vacarme, Akerman explains:

[Et] c’est comme ça que je commence mon film. Cela veut dire qu’il n’y a peut-être pas de solution. Il n’y a pas de « là-bas », pas de paradis, pas d’ailleurs. C’est aussi pourquoi je filme    à un moment des gens qui regardent la mer, encore là-bas. Ce n’est à jamais qu’un rêve, ce   « là-bas ». Tout ça parce qu’Ève a croqué dans la pomme… Enfin, c’est ce qu’on raconte.

(And that’s how I start my film. That means that maybe there isn’t a solution. There is no “over there”, no paradise, no elsewhere. It’s also why at one point I film people who are watching the sea, still over there. It will never be more than a dream, that “over there”. All that because Eve bit the apple… Well, that’s what people say.)

The story that keeps being told is that of exile. Even Israel is not the solution it was thought to be by some. The title itself already dramatizes this conflict between the supposed Promised Land and the down or over there where the gaze is nevertheless still directed. It also has an even more ambiguous meaning since Là-bas was not only the name Akerman used for Israel in her childhood but also the way her mother referred to Auschwitz as one can read in Autoportrait en cinéaste.

Je tu il elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974)

III. Bringing it (no) Home

But the idea of exile shouldn’t only be interpreted in a negative way. In Là-bas we are told that Akerman reads a lot of difficult books about the Jewish condition. One of these books she presumably read down there, as she mentions it in an interview that would become known as ‘The Pajama Interview’, is The Infinite Conversation (1993) by Maurice Blanchot wherein “he affirms nomadism and the book.” The specific text is identified in a footnote as ‘Being Jewish’ and Blanchot indeed interprets the nomadic history of Judaism not as a history of victimhood but instead he believes that

the words exodus and exile indicate a positive relation with exteriority, whose exigency invites us not to be content with what is proper to us (that is, with our power to assimilate everything, to identify everything, to bring everything back to our I).

By being the ultimate nomad the Jew has always been the ultimate Other; contesting the perceived self-evident truths of sedentarism but also forced to reconsider their own truths time and time again. It is this truth of the unknowable Other and the violations this Other has to endure that has always been at the core of Akerman’s work and that makes her work at the same time deeply personal and irrefutably universal. Because, once more in the words of Czeslaw Milosz:

Perhaps a loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressing to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, however we call him, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all.