JE, TU, IL, ELLE (Chantal Äkerman, 1976)

The occasion of Belgian-born Chantal Äkerman’s “I, You, He, She,” made when Äkerman was in her mid-twenties, is a romantic breakup that has left Julie, played by Äkerman herself, in a state of emotional chaos. However, Äkerman’s voiceover locates the images sometime in the past; in the present, Äkerman/Julie’s voice is calm, low-keyed and deliberate, and the discrepancy between the images and the sound of her voice suggests a subtle conflict of realities with which most of us can readily identify: our attempts to impose order on past experience by imputing to the time of crisis already a sense of order that may not have existed at that time. We delude ourselves into an ongoing sense of control by projecting our current sense of it backward in time, revising our autobiography in the direction of an image of ourselves that we wish to maintain—an image of ourselves that may help to stabilize us in the present. We counteract by refuting contrary evidence of what we dread: our vulnerability; a lack of control over our own lives and, indeed, over the universe. What we see in Äkerman’s remarkable black-and-white film is the reality that Julie is working over in her mind.
     What that we see, then, is this young woman doing? Moving about what no longer is a bed that she is sharing with someone—and, in the process, eventually removing the offending mattress and sleeping instead on the hard floor. Painting (she tells us) her bedroom green, perhaps creating, as it were, new growth. Copying six times a love letter she has written to create an orderly week’s calendar—an imaginative attempt to reverse the breakup of her routine. Eating—whether it is flour or sugar, compulsively munching on something out of a small, crumpled paper bag, just to occupy as well as feed herself.
     Other characters enter into the action, and we see, nearly whited out, feverishly energetic sex between Julie and another woman—like most sex, somewhere betwixt reality and regions of spirit and the imagination.
      Äkerman, Eric De Kuyper and Paul Paquay wrote the script. Whether shut-in or on the road, the film is dreamily cinematographed by Bénédicte Delesalle,Renelde Dupont and Charlotte Szlovak. Phenomenal: in the dark at night, when Julie, alone indoors, is dogged by her shadow, we see, or think we see, the two of her—woman and shadow—come together, commune, face-to-face, lips-to-lips, each passing into the other. The heart pauses at the silent beauty of it all.

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