Bechdel Test Canon: Je tu il elle
Miranda July recently discussed using film to explore sexuality with The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray. In the interview, she relays an ex-boyfriend’s observation that it’s rare for a woman to write and participate in a sex scene for a movie she’s directing. This reflection motivated me to find other instances where female writer-directors star in their films’ sex scenes. I’m proud to say that, at this point in the series, two entries can claim this distinction.
Notably, both films were made by queer directors—Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 The Watermelon Woman and Chantal Akerman’s 1974 Je tu il elle. They also represent queer sex very differently. Dunye’s scene with Guinevere Turner is heightened in a way befitting the period, with lots of cutting and a gritty rock soundtrack. Akerman attempts to depict sex in a more realistic manner, using long takes and static framing as well as dispensing with score altogether to focus on the sounds produced by the actors and their environment. While I would argue that the results are no less stylized, Je tu il elle acknowledges Akerman’s bisexuality (the title references her two partners) and makes some startling, radical pronouncements about female sexuality.
Akerman’s reputation precedes her. Much of this can be attributed to the acclaim and infamy the Belgian director received for her masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Starring Delphine Seyrig as the titular middle-class housewife, the film is a meditation on the nature of sex and domestic labor and clocks in at nearly 3 ½ hours. Jeanne Dielman is beloved by a number of feminist film scholars like Ivone Marguiles and Geetha Ramanathan. It was made by an all-female production crew including cinematographer Babette Mangolte, one of Akerman’s frequent collaborators. Perhaps most astonishing, Akerman was only 25 upon its release.
Frankly, Jeanne Dielman is a bit daunting and I have yet to watch it. Like Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me, I’m going to need devote some time to it and offer it my full attention. I plan on watching it after I complete my first year of grad school. Rest assured, I won’t be commemorating the event with a meat loaf. Akerman's most recent film, Almayer’s Folly, came out last year. But there is renewed interest in her groundbreaking early work following the release of Jeanne Dielman and her 70s-era output on Criterion. There may be more than a bit of romanticizing as well, particularly over her decision to drop out of film school, move to New York, and work several odd jobs to finance her films.
Ultimately a film about a young woman attempting to escape societal convention and control her own life, Je tu il elle is perplexing. Divided into three sections with an 86-minute running time, the film’s slow pace requires adjustment (and anticipates how Jeanne Dielman tries at viewers’ patience). The first part of the film, where Akerman addresses the title’s je (Julie, played by Akerman) and tu (most likely the person to whom Julie is writing and rewriting an epic letter, which we hear excerpts of in voiceover), is about the dynamic passage of time. Julie spends nearly a month in her flat rearranging and repainting furniture, sleeping, eating sugar, writing a letter, and deciding whether she needs to put on clothes for any of this. Is she mourning a breakup or trying to revolutionize the act of dwelling?
She decides exploring this question further is a lost cause, puts on a pair of pants, and hitches a ride with a burly truck driver (Niels Arestrup) who seems vaguely threatening. He confirms as much—and also suggests that he’s a chatty Cathy after sex—when he reveals his disdain for his wife and his burgeoning attraction toward his pubescent daughter. His casual misogyny and withering attitude toward sex flows forth unfiltered after Julie gives him a hand job. He also narrates the act in a mordantly comic scene that plays to me as feminist commentary. Bringing to mind Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, the camera discretely obscures Julie’s action or his member and focuses on his face instead.
Finally, Julie arrives at her destination. While the film keeps ambiguous whether the letter Julie wrote is for her ex-girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), it is abundantly clear that there is unfinished business between them when Julie shows up at her doorstep. The film doesn’t provide dialogue to explain why they broke up or why Julie can’t stick around in the morning, but there is a familiarity and a tenderness between them that’s beautiful and sad. Her ex sits with her and makes her toast. Then they fuck.
B. Ruby Rich argues that the sex in Je tu il elle denies pleasure. I’m not entirely with her about that in the truck. And Akerman and Wauthion’s ten-minute sex scene is shockingly erotic. It’s sex as a wrestling match. It’s sex as an argument. It’s sex as flesh. It’s sex as “fuck you” and “yes, please” at the same time. It doesn’t shy away from the clumsiness that can result from braiding naked bodies together. The scene allows for voyeurism, as the camera holds us at a remove while Wauthion pries Akerman’s legs apart without providing a POV shot to clue us into characters’ subjectivity.
Yet at the same time, I love Akerman’s refusal to objectify the characters by reducing them to body parts and positions. Her commitment to unfolding this scene in real time at medium distance gives equal treatment to both bodies and suggests that what they are doing is consensual and mutually beneficial. Depicting sex in this way is a choice, and to me a radically feminist decision when compared to a number of films with close-up shots of jiggling breasts that don’t represent the woman who owns them or acknowledge that sex is an action she is taking with someone. Julie departs soon after, content to leave what happened behind in search of something new and unknown. These are two words I’d use to describe Akerman’s work. Je tu il elle illustrates why the enthusiastic fandom and hushed reverence it receives it feels earned.
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