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Our environment has more of an impact upon our decisions and daily lives than we may at first realise. Our regular interactions, chance meetings and new acquaintances can either help us feel comfortable and relaxed or can leave us frustrated and in search of answers. The work of Belgian filmic anthropologist Chantal Akerman helps us to navigate this confusing modern world, and explore the effects it has on our loves and relationships. A special retrospective at last year’s French Film Festival was an opportunity to see two of her films that are particularly exemplary in this regard, alongside other brilliant cinematic works from a bold and philosophical artist.
With a Parisian backdrop, Nuit et jour (Night and Day) (1991) follows Jack and Julie, a young couple who have just moved to the city. They never sleep. During the day they stay in the flat and make love. At night, Jack drives a cab round the city while Julie wanders the streets. Jack knows the streets as he drives around at night, while Julie recognises the city through her night-time wanderings. Theirs is a voyeuristic experience of Paris; they are always watching but never part of what is going on. Their love for each other is so intense when they are together that all they see is each other, disrupted only when Jack must go back to work.
The couple lead a relatively isolated existence. They don’t make friends with their neighbours. Their only interaction with family occurs when Jack’s parents spontaneously visit one afternoon. In this scene the four of them sit awkwardly on odd stools in a barely furnished room. Only just out of bed, Julie sits in a shirt and Jack in trousers, as if they only make a complete outfit when they’re together. The parents do not stay long or say much. When they ask what the couple do with themselves in the city, Julie simply replies, “We have time.”
Night follows day, follows night again. The dynamic begins to shift when Julie meets Joseph, a daytime cab driver, on her evening walks in the city. The two soon start having an affair. The film’s focus is entirely on these three characters, with Julie at the centre. She takes control of her relationships with Jack and Joseph. It is her choice to be with both of them, and she does not believe that there is anything wrong with the situation. She is so focused on living in the moment that she never considers what can happen next and how others feel. Whenever Jack pushes her into thinking of the future – of their relationship, their family – she diffuses the conversation by again casually responding, “We have time”. As Joseph’s jealously increases, Julie simply smiles and walks away.
As he begins to sense something has changed in their relationship, Jack’s surroundings become more important to him. He is concerned with making and controlling space by knocking down the living room wall. The couple fabricate a world for themselves indoors, a fortress away from the vibrant but unpredictable streets they used to love. No longer solely focused on each other, their lives change from here on in. They become domesticated; the two of them are seen decorating, with the neighbours they’ve never met offering a hand.
Jack and Julie’s intense love was as fleeting and precarious as the city from which they found each other. Because none of us can truly live forever in this transient state, we build things, spaces for ourselves. Simply put, Nuit et jour is an excellent example of young love and the realities of growing up. But Julie never sought stability in either of her relationships. Once their work in the flat is done and she and Jack are alone, Julie makes the significant decision to tell him all about her affair. Afterwards she leaves both Jack and Joseph and returns to the streets, slowly walking down the pavement, suitcase in hand. In this final scene Akerman’s camera focuses on Julie in the centre of the shot, while the city life bustles around her.
In a cosmopolitan city like the French capital you will find many different types of relationships and loves. Akerman’s films are similarly dynamic in their approach to this subject. Although they have been appropriately referred to as melancholy, at times they also recognise the comic, even the absurd element of human lives and interactions. Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move) (2004) focuses on Charlotte, (Sylvie Testud). In what is described as a Chaplinesque performance, she welcomes her mother, Catherine, (Aurore Clémen), into her duplex apartment following her father’s death, at a time when she is herself completing a commission for an erotic novel.
Fitting the lives of both women into a bohemian Parisian loft seems more than the four walls can bear. From the first scene there is tension; the camera holds focus on a baby grand piano as it hangs precariously in the air, with heaving gasping noises that betray anxiety to the piano’s fate. Once it is safely in position Catherine appears more relaxed, sitting and playing as Charlotte and the moving men continue shifting items around her, in a scene that suggests the significance of music in our chaotic lives.
Catherine indeed brings chaos into Charlotte’s flat, physically and emotionally. She fills the flat with all sorts of household furniture; there are numerous chairs, beds, cushions and lampshades. The notion of relationships and baggage is prominent in these opening scenes. Catherine has a lot to cope with, particularly the death of her husband. She can’t fall asleep without the old suitcase that contains a few of his daily items. Even after her flat has been turned upside-down, Charlotte is a dutiful daughter and does not let her frustrations grow, but her new surroundings appear to have a negative impact on her erotic writing. As her mother interrupts, asking questions and vacuuming at unhelpful times, Charlotte’s focus is disturbed, leading her to type sentences about limp vacuuming and blown fuses.
It would seem that familial love is imposing on Charlotte’s erotic life. But in an attempt to pursue with her novel, she follows her mother’s advice, “Look around you, everything’s erotic.” She sets about seeking the erotic in the everyday, turning any phrase her mother utters into something sensual in order to finish her book. Akerman demonstrates her flair for innuendo when a commonplace discussion about chicken – the cooking, the flavours, thyme as seasoning – becomes a euphemism for sex and happiness. Catherine wistfully reminisces about her marriage as they eat their way though a roasted chicken, thinking how lucky it was that her husband wasn’t into legs, as she wasn’t into breast.
Bound together, the tension between mother and daughter increases and recedes by degrees. Catherine, now living without romantic love, struggles to adjust to her new familial environment. They decide to move, although when Charlotte requests that her mother sleep in her own bed in the new place, the hassle of moving seems like it may be futile. The dynamic finally changes when people come to view the flat, introducing three new couples and characters to the plot. The simple act of meeting and talking to strangers, and striking up new friendships offers new meaning to both their lives.
But now Charlotte is faced with another challenge to her novel. In a comical scene of to-ing and fro-ing amongst the characters, conversations freely fall around the subjects of love, sex and relationships. Charlotte becomes everyone’s confidant. Mme Delacre declares she loves her husband against her better judgement, Mr Delacre claims he doesn’t love her but won’t leave her for fear of being alone, a young pregnant lady talks to Charlotte about her sex life with her husband who she doesn’t love but wants to have more children. Charlotte now has plenty of material for her book but her notes are have become disjointed. It is only with help from her friend Michelle in their shared studio that the text finds the clarity it needs; she finds someone who sees the erotic and can write it.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for declaring hell to be other people. Akerman’s equally existentialist work explores the highs and lows of living with others. The characters in Demain on déménage appear to have too much baggage (literally), too many things and too many people in their lives. To start afresh everyone must shed something. To clear out the flat, Charlotte and Catherine pile up the old furniture in the streets under the concealment of a dark wet night. It isn’t until Catherine is separated from her deceased husband’s suitcase that she is able to move on with a new man. Living in separate homes is the best ending for mother and daughter, her mother with Samuel while Charlotte remains on her own in the duplex, now relieved of the piano and furniture and finding peace in her mother’s absence. Once again, we see the young female protagonist choosing to live an independent life.
Peppered with witty dialogues, Akerman’s Demain on déménage is a triumph. The film deals with heavy issues of loss and death, but is also an exemplary offering of her excellent visual innuendo, metaphors and comedic timing. Both Nuit et jour and Demain on déménage consider the dynamic relationships we all experience in our lives. At once meloncholy and celebratory, whatever kind of love it may be, Akerman reminds us that although it may not last, it is wonderful. In Nuit et jour, Jack and Julie experienced a passionate young love for each other that fractured when it came in contact with outside forces. For many of the couples and families in Demain on déménage, romantic love has faded and another love persists, even when it becomes a burden. Although love ends, it also renews itself, and we can discover new friendships and lovers in unexpected places and situations. So when walking around where you live and meeting new people, take the time to consider your surroundings, physical and emotional. You too may find the erotic in everything, at home or out on the streets, in life itself. That is, if like Charlotte, you’ve missed it up until now.