In Saute ma ville, Akerman’s first film, a sprightly Chantal bounds up the steps leading to a tiny studio apartment, mostly taken up by a kitchen. Her determination and precision are evident, but the tasks follow a not altogether clear pattern. As she energetically polishes her shoes, Akerman keeps going with the same obsessive gesture – until she has also brushed her legs and stained the floor around it black. The same gesture seems to produce at once disarray and tidiness. For a while, it is enthralling to try to sort out one from the other. The pleasure derived from witnessing these fully finished actions follows from the rapidity with which mess and neatness (contrasting sharply with each other) are reciprocally wiped out. The framing of these unexplained gestures can be likened, in its reduction of focus, to the single-shot frame of minimalist films trained on a single action carried to completion. But while the action in Richard Serra’s Hands Scraping (1971) comes to a close on a blank, clean screen, Akerman’s space is not neutral. The kitchen immediately defines a domestic space, and other social indices are marginally present.
With the kitchen fully in order, Chantal eats spaghetti, spills wine and food over herself. She then she leans her head on the stove and lights a match. The explosion happens over a freeze frame, in sound only. Here, she presents us with the literal image of a compression chamber, the implicit consequence of the mad chemistry she performs in every one of her boxed-in spaces. Saute ma ville announces, literally and with a bang, Akerman’s entry into artistic adulthood. It is well known that suicide is a favorite subject of adolescents’ first films. Indeed, it would be interesting to check if those who go on to live creatively declare so loudly, as Akerman does in this filmic rite of passage, their future tools, elements, genres. Brushes, spaghetti, water and soap dance animistically with Akerman. In this first film-room, droll humor and tragedy, slapstick and rigorously concerted process alternate in disturbing in-distinction. Saute ma ville presents in swift succession – as if they all pertained to the same order of events – cleaning, cooking and committing suicide. This perversion of categories, of banal and dramatic, of the literally performed action taken to the point of a suggested death, is frontally presented, enhancing these actions’ paradoxical equivalence.
With Jeanne Dielman comes the structural lesson: the stark separation between the scene and the obscene defines how an excessively dutiful domestic concern replaces the desire relegated to the elided room. In Akerman, every single space stared at for too long will bear witness to the cost of this economy. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, the frame remains the same whether a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, or a shoebrush drops. This intrusion of objects moving on their own gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that obsessive-compulsive characters attempt to suppress.
Excessive doubting is the most common feature of this condition. In Monomania: the Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, Marina Van Zuylen brilliantly explores how the panic of the mutable engenders the idée fixe and obsessive behavior. (10) Even though rituals are an important part of day-to-day life, and normal people use concentration to keep away what is irrelevant, the obsessive-compulsive finds the manifestation of ambivalence unbearable. A submission to external orders and schedules always feels better than having to decide for oneself. Manic activity is an attempt to bypass a depressed sense of autonomy through a minute, circumscribed competence. The escape from situations felt as being too contingent, too confusing to bear, is performed through invented orders, made-up series and a reasoning that is mostly lacking in logic.
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