Caster Sugar. Stray Thoughts On Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle.
There’s a real sense that “all roads lead to Jeanne Dielman” with the first act of Chantal Akerman’s ouevre. Be it in the endless shots of Hotel Monterey, or the gender roles defying and spatial and temporal awareness of Saute ma ville, the director’s first short film.
Je, Tu, Il, Elle , the director’s first feature film from 1975 and screening in the UK via London-based film collective A Nos Amours’ multi-screen tour of the film, opens in a similar place to that chaos-driven short. Akerman once again is alone in a room, only this time she is grieving over the breakdown of a relationship. She rejects society and rebuilds it in her own image over the course of a month or so (for once, time is lost, contrasting neatly with Akerman’s later work), eating only caster sugar for nourishment, before eventually fleeing the scene and hitchhiking her way to her lovers abode. En route she meets a trucker.
Whilst with the trucker Akerman, who goes by the name of Julie, the ‘Je’ of Je, Tu, Il, Elle, comes to a number of philosophical and psychological conclusions. There’s even a moment of Hollywood aping romantic epiphany, as the camera, fixed and presenting Julie’s gaze, stares unblinkingly at the face of the trucker, the vehicle’s radio flicking between channels, some seemingly real, others not. She later stimulates him sexually to gratification, the point of which from which he is finally heard to speak. He too appears to have rejected the world around him. He has a family, whom he appears to resent, referring to his infant daughter as “snivelling”, and confesses to regularly picking up girls while on the road. This is countered by a lengthy sapphic sex scene, between Julie and her former girlfriend, in to the arms of whom she has finally returned to. Akerman’s cinema at this stage of her career feels so personal that there’s a sparse sense of involvement of others in the production of the work, with the intimacy of this moment carrying with it a sense of technical invisibility, of the actors, one of whom being the director herself, playing for no one, not even a cameraman*.
Neither one of these sex acts are reproduction, echoing the early notes of anti-creation of the opening bars of the movie.
It’s in the caster sugar that forms her diet for the first portion of the movie that the film’s most concise metaphor for itself can be found: it’s pure stimulant, thrilling, unique and unusual cinema. Akerman’s work is like nothing else. It exists on its own terms.
*Indeed, the film was shot by three different cinematographers, none of whom would work in the field again.