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A still from Chantal Akerman’s “Je tu il elle” (1975) (courtesy the Criterion Collection)

Chantal Akerman’s death by suicide in October 2015, led me to revisit many of her films and to watch new ones, among them Je tu il elle of 1975. This film begins with a kind of reverse creation myth, as the filmed figure and narrator (Akerman herself) describes her activities for six days, as she pulls her furniture out of the small, narrow apartment she has apparently just moved into, writes a long letter — presumably to the “tu” (perhaps the film viewers themselves) of the film’s title— after which she crosses much of it out, lays her manuscript in an inexplicable manner across the floor, and almost manically spoons from a bag of sugar. At times, the narrative voice runs ahead of the visual actions; at other moments it lags behind, creating tension. As she lies on the mattress nude for days at a time, that first week gradually expanding to nearly a month, what becomes apparent is that this woman is completely self-destructive. She waits, so the narrative voice proclaims, for something to happen which, except for a passerby staring into her window, never comes.

Finally, completely disenchanted with the life she has chosen — one presumably of freedom and independence — the character, Julie, abandons her cramped space and takes to the road, catching a ride with a lonely trucker with red hair, but is otherwise nearly a Marlon Brando look-alike (Niels Arestrup).

He says very little, but suggests she may want to take a nap in his bunk. Later they visit a local bar where a TV set blares out American series’ such as Cannon, whose characters, strangely, spout aphorisms such as “a child of fear is the father of evil.”

The two continue of their voyage in silence, stopping by another truckstop for dinner. Back in the truck he instructs her with quite specific details on how to jack him off, which she does successfully. He opens up to her and tells a sad tale of how, with children and the long hours of his job, his sex life with his wife has waned, leaving him with nothing but quick pick-ups along his route and endless yearnings.

In short, the truck driver relates his own anti-creation tale, one that shall surely lead, like Julie’s own apartment isolation, to disappointment. Certainly, this man’s idea of sexual gratification — entirely self-centered — offers nothing to the world. Akerman frames the encounter so that we do not even see Julie while she is pleasuring him.

In the third act of this film, Julie returns to her lesbian lover (Claire Wauthion), who tells her that she cannot spend the night, yet she feeds Julie who is now ravenously hungry and thirsty, clearly suggesting her sexual desires as well. Critic Michael Koresky, writing for the Criterion DVD, argues that their following ten-minute engagement in sex is nearly sexless, representing a “complete dissociation, from narrative, from body, from life.” The New York Times critic Janet Maslin — in what has to be one of the most disinterested reviews ever written — describes it as an athletic tussle.

I found the long act to be one of the most graphically loving sex scenes I have ever witnessed; the women seemed to me to be passionate in each other’s embrace, this last scene representing a true fulfillment of the hunger and thirst that Julie had imposed upon herself. Presumably she will remain with the woman she had mistakenly left. It is clear that, at last, Julie has returned home to someone with whom she can create a life.

The closing score reconfirms this with a lovely French song, suggesting one should “kiss whom you please.”

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Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press,...

3 replies on “Hunger and Thirst: Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je tu il elle’”

  1. Overly simplistic interpretation, although I must agree, the ending love scene is exceptionally powerful. The strange rhythm of the love-making could be misinterpreted as an “athletic tussle.” But, how the critic, Janet Maslin, could find the film “soporific” is more a testament to her lack of resonance with Akerman’s fascination with the pictorial (versus theatrical) than to any sleep inducing qualities in the film itself. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a sex-scene like the one that ends this movie. By allowing the simple aesthetic visual pleasure of two entwined female figures (Weston-like nudes in motion) to speak for themselves, this unembellished description of passion, reveals the same Truth and Beauty sought by sculptors and painters in much more glorified and over-stated Classic and Renaissance works.

    Nevertheless, I must differ from Mr. Messerli’s final assessment that the film is merely a tale of a Lesbian gone astray from her true sexual nature. Another incredible “love scene” occurs midway in the film and is devoid of touching, let alone sex. Both characters are seated across from one another at a table in a bar, smoking and drinking, and wordlessly exchanging glances. It expresses the early fleeting feelings a dating couple may be experiencing as they check each other out in a mating ritual to rival that of any other species. Is it merely lust, intrigue, admiration or the desire to be admired? But clearly, these are nascent love feelings that Chantal’s character feels for the truck driver, and which may very well be reciprocated, at least for brief moments, when he glances at her in a nuanced manner suggesting he may see more in her than an accidental road companion. It is as unique and intriguing a pantomime as any done by Marcel Marceau and is a great tribute to the 25 year old Akerman’s directorial genius.

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