Tuesday, February 8, 2011

731. Pervasive Gender Politics and Sexual Confusion Through Life

…Or Hey! You’re All Gonna Be in This Experiment Film

(the only publicly available video is some shots of the film set to Charlotte Gainsbourg's excellent "5:55")

I am going to put on my pseudo-academic cap for a moment and discuss Je, Tu, Il, Elle, an experimental Avant garde film from Belgian-born Chantal Akerman. She would achieve international recognition for films like “The Rendezvous of Anna” and “Jeanne Dielmann,” (both of which are mentioned later in this list) but her auspicious debut is also a work of major note.

The film opens in the bedroom of “Je” (French for “I”) and features Akerman as the titular character. She is oft-nude throughout the film and examines her own body, its failings, and a recently doomed relationship. Throughout the film, she eats from a bag of sugar and contemplates her failings. The imagery is remarkably melancholy and depressing as she wanders from one part of her single room apartment to another only to return back to her original spot as a voiceover narration details her thoughts and movements. She gazes outside a large bay window but never leaves the confines of her room. The camera is always pointed towards her and looking outside the window so we are always in the same space as the narrator though we never see her view outside the apartment just the extremely poetic vision of her looking out.

The second major section of the film concerns “Il” (“he” in French). She leaves her apartment to hitchhike back to her former lover. Along the way, a trucker picks her up and the servile role she maintained in her apartment carries through to the cab of the truck. She gives the driver oral sex (shown off camera) as Il delivers a soliloquy on love and loneliness. The two characters form an immediate bond with each other based on the nothingness of their lives and hollow relationships. Both of the characters speak towards one another but do not truly converse and form a bond based on isolation rather than a true connection. Also, it would seem that the oral sex was a foregone conclusion though neither character wants to go through with it. It was not an act based on want or desire but from societal expectations. In the end, both characters part ways seemingly forgetting entirely of the other’s existence almost immediately.

The last section of the film concerns “Elle” (French for “her”). As Akerman arrives at her lover’s apartment, we see that her lover is a woman which would suggest that “Je” suffers from sexual confusion. What follows is a tense and at times violent love-making session filmed entirely in one static shot 15 feet from the bed. The passion and intensity in this scene would suggest that “Je” is gay rather than bisexual and the recent sexual contact with a man was based on an opportunity rather than something more emotionally tangible.

Akerman spent the whole film judging herself and basking in her own insecurities and faults though when reunited with her former lover, her life energy returns. She hugs her as if to hold on for dear life and the sometimes violent wrestling might even be allegoric and comparable to Jacob wrestling an Angel; the Angel representing Jacob’s own insecurities and struggles with faith. Though she is still wrestling with her own demons, the battle has become more passionate. However, the film ends inauspiciously as “Elle” leaves for work with the assumption that Akerman will leave never to see her again.

“Tu” refers to us, the viewers, as we watch the filmmaker’s journey through her own sexuality and loneliness. Perhaps Akerman wants us to reflect on the scared malcontent inside of us that exists from the inside looking out at the world. Her journey of self-discovery and love, albeit temporary was fraught with heartbreak, self-pity, wonton acts of forced carnality, and redemption though the films ends as it begins, with “Je” alone.

“Je Tu Il Elle” was a bold movie for first time director Akerman and it wasn’t just the nudity. To be nude on screen isn’t difficult but to allow herself to be truly naked, in the literal and existential sense is an enormous challenge. The movie wasn’t erotic or meant to titillate but to express intense overwhelming emotional desire. A recent parallel of such a role would be Riko Kikuchi in Babel, who was absolutely robbed of a supporting actress Oscar by Jennifer Hudson (whose performance in the truly awful Dreamgirls was passable, at best).

Akerman has spent most of her career making films about gender roles and small character studies of normal women. “Jeanne Dielmann,” largely considered a masterpiece and among the greatest films ever made, is an epic four hour film, shot largely in one room, about the title character who becomes a prostitute to make money to raise her son. No sex is shown in Dielmann and doesn’t need to be, as the statements of female independence from claustrophobic lives are strong enough. For her debut film though, Akerman, laid herself bare and expressed more emotions in 60 minutes than most movies show in 3 hours. It was an excellent hint of things to come and introduced to the world to a great talent and truly original mind.

About the Top 800 Project:

Using the They Shoot Pictures Starting List of 8800 films (LINK) and my Netflix ratings, I sifted through the list and of the 4500 films I’d seen, I selected a random number of films I liked more than the others. The list was about 812 films. I kicked off 12 to get an even 800. The list chronologically goes up to 2009. Each blog entry will list ten films, one of which will be discussed in detail. The ten films will then be posted toThe Top 800 Master List, a Google docs file compiling them. When the countdown finishes in what will be probably be a really a long time, I will begin discussing random films that I didn’t get to before.