This article was written on 21 Dec 2017, and is filled under Sexualities.

I you he she: Pronoun-ced Wisdom

Still from "Je tu il elle" (1975)

Still from “Je tu il elle” (1975)


I encountered Chantal Akerman’s films the year of her death, 2015. My breath got caught throughout as I sat in a dark room among others and watched some of the most striking/ly queer scenes I have ever seen (Divine notwithstanding). I begin with my own encounter for queer reasons, a word that will be used in what follows to indicate the intersection of the weird and the sexually minoritized and thereby can also resist definition. In interviews and elsewhere, Akerman repeatedly insists on the significance of her specific lens (as a short woman who loves women— which is not to say does not love men—with specific parents and relationships to them, a history, etc.) structuring her work.

I take this occasion to offer some methodological considerations on queer performativity through Chantal’s “I you he she,” which struck me as sharing intense formal, stylistic and temporal affinity with a transdisciplinary performative framework bandied about for some time in certain feminist circles without receiving extensive elaboration. Hence, we may have occasion to cross some disciplinary boundaries while deferring deconstruction, as I hope you’ll see. With this in mind, I want to offer a glimpse of a film certainly worth seeing (perhaps the only certainty), which on its 40th anniversary remains as poignant, relevant, provocative, enticing and pregnant as the day it was made. If you have not seen it, dear reader, stop and watch unless you pay no mind to the (cliché) “spoiler alerts” of western spectacles, since the following discussion intends to expose the meat and structure of the film.

Akerman made “je tu il elle” in 1975 when she was 25. It can be described as a triptych among whose glaring parts a dialogue unfolds with weighty implications; although, of course, the first time one sees the film, one does not know the impending swerves that radically alter in retrospect what has passed before. I will pick up on this play with expectations later to underscore queer performativity’s oft-misunderstood transformational character. The first part of the film, which takes up 33 of 86 minutes, portrays one protagonist (excepting one passerby): Akerman herself. Or rather, a figure portrayed by Akerman. Although confusing the author with the character in fictional work constitutes a classic error, the voice-over can be understood as pointedly inviting an irreducible ambiguity of identity as well as genre. Narrated by Akerman’s voice using the pronoun “I,” which corresponds to the first pronoun of the title, the voice-over relentlessly announces the actions just before they happen, ever so slightly afield from what actually takes place. Thus, for instance, Akerman says: “I stripped naked and lay on the bed.” The viewer sees her laying on the bed first and then stripping slowly and awkwardly while laying down.

The first time I saw the film in a makeshift theater in the midst of others, I experienced the duration of the first 33 minutes as excruciating and exquisite due to its exceeding slowness. Time itself enters the shots portraying the solitary “I” doing seemingly ordinary things which resist forming not only a conventional narrative but any coherent narrative at all. The “I” eats sugar from a paper bag for a long stretch, undresses and dresses again, moves the furniture, writes a letter and spills the sugar. These minimal actions take up more than the first third of the film. Between the stretched actions, seemingly infinite gestures evoke a multitude of nuances. The absence of a coherent narrative invites the viewers to immerse themselves in the visual and audio-textual details. The duration of the shots together with the seeming ordinariness of the actions eventually point to time and space in their relation to specificity and abstraction, along with considerations of the director’s choices and possible themes (although the deferral of coherence and consequent bordering on nonsense do not allow any thematic resolution). Thus the viewers become aware of their position as invited guests in a world resonant with their own yet not of their making. This underscores Akerman’s oft-lauded rejection of the voyeuristic gaze (employed in conventional film-making where the camera positions the viewer as a hidden quasi-disembodied spectator) and instead highlights the specificity of the camera angle and its role in staging the scenes.

The markedly staged character of the scenes, the ambivalent identity of the figures as well as the camera angles can be described performatively as exceeding the screen. As queer feminist scholars have proposed from several interdisciplinary approaches, reality “itself”— the everyday passage of time in space with its mundane or other details—can be perceived and experienced as something more or less accounted for, more or less staged, ambivalent and unstable, not least in regard to identity. Like Akerman’s other films yet singularly so, “je tu il elle” points to and displays these existing performative elements. Moreover, the attention to the camera, and through it, to the audience, underscores the responsibility and agency in staging scenes in a particular way rather than another—apart from mastery or certainty. In other words, the staging actively participates in the scene and conditions it without thereby having or pretending at total control. This distance from forces of mastery is repeatedly indicated by the indefatigable focus on details, the non-correspondences of the visual and the audio-textual, and the hesitations of coherence and figural ambivalences that structure “I you he she.”

The viewer struggles with the overwhelming slowness of the images and the daunting narrative interiority. Just when s_he feels on the cusp of giving in to the languid queer rhythm of the shots and reaching a rare stage of meditation, abruptly, “I” leaves the room that had become the world on screen and everything changes. It is the 1970’s. The woman hitchhikes, a miniature figure on a looming highway, hand outstretched. Expectations flood the viewer. “I” is picked up by a truck driver, a seeming stereotype of one, who remains conspicuously silent for the next 14 minutes of the film except for telling “I” to lie down as she gets in the truck. Even these words are not audible to the viewer but are narrated by the main figure indirectly: “he told me to lie down since I must be tired.” What is the status or the implications, if you will, of bracing oneself for this scenario? I repeatedly asked myself, frustrated by the sudden turn toward distrust the film seemed to have taken. (The ever-present/absent “you” of the title reminds us that the “I” is never alone on the screen.)

Deferring all expectations of violence, the viewers are offered ordinary gestures in a familiar yet estranged context. Meanwhile the voice-over that apparently belongs to the “I” develops appreciation and desire for the driver, upsetting the ominous situation. Throughout three stops for food and drink we hear nothing from the driver. During the second stop he seems to speak five or six words to his passenger but they are tuned out by bar noise. She, too, becomes silent and besides the driving and eating sounds, we hear a radio, all of whose channels are mysteriously in English in an apparently French-speaking region. After the initial and seemingly ever-lasting fourteen minutes of silence, he places her hand on his crotch and begins a torrential speech with: “You see, this is what matters.” Finally fulfilling heteronormative sexual expectation, he gets jerked off. From this moment onward, he speaks without pause. What he says is ordinary to a fault, or, rather, fulfills every un/conscious expectation except the expectation not to announce one’s thoughts and feelings in this illicit situation. He begins by giving her—that is the “I,” not to be confused with the yet to emerge “she” of the title—instructions in short and simple phrases on how to give him a hand-job, the rhythm, and continues with speculations about her fear and desire. Thereafter he narrates everything one might suspect and not exactly expect about his life: his passionate marriage at a young age, his children and the waning of his marital passion, frequent transient affairs on the road that mean nothing, he insists, “nothing,” the association of driving and desire and singing.

His words are strikingly plain and direct, devoid of attempts at justification because without guilt. This very directness seems empty of judgment and hence makes space for responsibility, articulating an active role that replaces the drive for control in the narrated life with tenuous navigation of it. In the same voice he explains his sexualized attraction to his barely teenage daughter and its insignificance. The focus shifts to the subject of work, his own exhaustion but also his cousin who married for money and then cared only about that: “He’s a jerk but everyone’s thrilled.” And his brother who “used to be a looser,” and then suddenly got his life together, became a boss and now really loves yelling at people. “It’s funny,” he says, and the smile on his face has nothing to do with a smirk. The comments in no way resembling judgments become insights. The ”I,” saying nothing, returns the smile repeatedly, listening. There is a short final scene with her listening and looking at him intensely, attentively, perhaps lovingly or perhaps identifying with him. And then the second part ends, as abruptly as had the first, as the “I” suddenly knocks on a door.

The last episode is the shortest at 23 minutes and suggests a prolonged climactic denouement. Here we meet the third (yet last in the title) pronominal figure of the film, “she.” The initial muted interaction around rejection and need is followed by a 10 minute sex scene, often labeled lesbian, which may be so as long as we understand lesbian in conjunction and overlap with queerness. In fact, everything about the scene seems to play with queerness qua strangeness, estrangement, difference, and minoritized sexuality. Penetration can be said not to exist in the world staged here. It is not simply absent but there is also no trace or hint at its possibility, which is not to say it is impossible. On the contrary, it may be perfectly possible anywhere else. But on the bed in the room on the screen what takes place has no relation to penetration and hence does not partake in any dichotomy that might set off a deconstructive reading.

I emphasize this point to underscore that the film’s queerness is not articulated through opposition (to penetration, for instance) but rather engages an irreducibly other set of moves and pleasures. Irreducible difference can thus be distinguished through the queer performative lens at work in the film from categorical difference in so far as the latter is constructed through mutual exclusion, whereas the former engages another trajectory without relation—even that of exclusion—to that from which it differs. This non-oppositional distinction between the queer sex scene Akerman portrays and heteronormativity is reinforced by the trajectory of the film, which instead of refusing heterosexuality veers off from heteronormativity, disengaging from its course. In this vein, it can be argued that the encounter between the “I” and the “he” in part 2, while coded as heterosexual by the man’s explanations of his own sexuality, is queered through the narrator’s steady silent non/participation in those terms. In other words, the “I” does not reject the heterosexual terms he voices but participates without forming a complement to his story thereby indicating the unfolding of an irreducibly different narrative.

Through Chantal Akerman’s rapturous early film, I hope to have offered an image of queer performativity as more than a transdisciplinary methodology, which articulates an approach to time and agency that takes responsibility for participation and conditioning of scenes without pretending at total control. Therefore, contrary to many misunderstandings and related misapprehensions, the emphasis of queer performativity can be seen as transformational, that is, at once attuned to ongoing transformations and intervening in them. One could go on to say that the figures in these scenes are not philosophical subjects in the conventional sense, in so far as their identities and agency remain provisional, not definitive; nevertheless neither their agency nor identity are entirely erased. If the “I” played and narrated by the director is more than a character, Chantal Akerman—who plays the narrator/ main character as “I”—is still not acting, she is being…vulnerable?

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