In her provocative first feature, Chantal Akerman stars as an aimless young woman who leaves self-imposed isolation to embark on a road trip that leads to lonely love affairs with a male truck driver and a former girlfriend. With its famous real-time carnal encounter and its daring minimalism, Je tu il elle is Akerman’s most sexually audacious film.
Michael Koresky wrote:
JE TU IL ELLE: FORM FOLLOWS DYSFUNCTION
After her fruitful early sojourn in New York, Chantal Akerman returned to Brussels in 1973, full of renewed creative energy. That year, at age twenty-three, she embarked on her first narrative feature; of course, informed by the experimental films she had seen and created in New York, this would hardly be a typical narrative. Shot on 16 mm in little more than a week, on a very small budget (part of which she raised by working as a typist for several months), Je tu il elle (1975) was Akerman’s most character-based film yet. Like her earlier movies, it was about estrangement, only this time depicted not through the absence of the physical and the sexual, faces and bodies, but through an emphasis on them.
With an obsessive focus on routine and repetition—which Akerman’s next feature, the epochal Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, would expand to mesmerizing lengths—Je tu il elle dramatizes a woman’s desperation to control her own life. Yet rather than remain a prisoner of the stifling rhythms and spaces of the home, this protagonist ultimately refuses confinement. As in her debut short, Saute ma ville, also about a young woman who rejects domesticity, Akerman herself stars, this time as Julie, a shiftless creature who craves independence and isolation. But as the film continues, we gradually glean, through her voice-over—which might come from letters we see her writing to an unknown party, possibly the “tu” (you) of the title—and her interactions, that the life she is fashioning for herself is leaving her adrift and emotionally dissatisfied.
In the first section of the film, Julie is alone in an anonymous, sparsely decorated, ground-floor apartment for days on end; she is anxious, compulsively rearranging furniture, scribbling letters and placing them on the floor in an order known only to her, and, most disconcerting, shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into her mouth. Julie’s repetitive behavior is captured in maddeningly long takes that emphasize its unbreakable irrationality. Her simultaneous desire for freedom and need for order make for a decidedly odd character, and make Je tu il elle a particularly strange, purposefully alienating experience. The overall disjunction Julie creates finds echoes in her voice-over, which often contradicts what we are seeing on-screen: “I lie motionless and alert on my mattress,” she says over the opening shot, though she sits in a chair; “When I looked up suddenly, there were people walking in the street,” she says as she looks down at the bag of sugar.
In the film’s second and third acts, Julie abandons her self-imposed isolation and has two sexual encounters, one with a truck driver, the film’s “il,” and the other with “elle,” her ex-girlfriend. The sex acts in both cases are drained of conventional eroticism—the former an impersonal hand job from the passenger seat, the latter a prolonged nude bedroom session that lasts for ten minutes of screen time over the course of only three shots. In both scenes, Akerman severely complicates our voyeuristic impulse through flat, detached compositions. The distance we feel from Julie is compounded by the inky black and white Akerman uses to further obscure her throughout. The film’s lasting impression is one of complete dissociation, from narrative, from body, from life.