In Defence of Akerman’s L’Enfant Aimé

L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971, 16mm, b&w, 35 minutes), was screened at the ICA by A Nos Amours,

Adam Roberts

27 Nov 2013

L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971, 16mm, b&w, 35 minutes), was screened at the ICA by A Nos Amours, in the opening programme of a complete retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s film work. This screening of L’Enfant aimé was presented for the first time anywhere with English subtitles. The film has been disparaged by Akerman herself, and so has been little discussed by commentators, but it opens up a project that finds fulfilment in later work, not least in Jeanne Dileman and Le 15/08 (screening at the ICA on Thursday 28 November).

A Nos Amours kicked off an exploration of Akerman’s film work with her first three shorts – Saute ma ville, L’Enfant aimé and Hotel Monterey. While her first and third films have been admired and much written about, L’Enfant aimé, her second, has not. The reason is perhaps that Chantal Akerman herself has been dismissive (“a failure” she says in her annotated filmography, cited below).

And yet, looking at this film, noting that it is the film she made almost immediately after the  Pierrot le fou-like antics of Satute ma ville, L’Enfant aimé  seems an odd, immediate departure for Akerman from the stylistics of that first film, a departure that I believe anticipates in several remarkable ways the work for which she is celebrated.

Akerman’s initial dismissal of L’Enfant aimé was made while describing her encounter with Jonas Mekas in New York. Akerman records his approval of  Saute ma ville (he called it her ‘Chaplin film’), but evidently he did not approve of her second. Akerman’s reasoning in regard to L’Enfant aimé is obscure – she made an annotated filmography for Nicole Brenez (http://www.lolajournal.com/2/pajama.html), marking it simply “A failure, lost.” Incidentally, Akerman has recently shown a part of the film as an installation work – a scene where a woman (the ‘young mother’) stands in front of a mirror and submits herself to self-scrutiny, naming body parts, evaluating body parts and making some critical assessment of herself.  There is repetition and circularity in the naming and wording. This stand-alone use of the scene does not include the vsisble presence of Akerman herself, which is such an important part of the full films. This re-use, in 2007, was titled In the Mirror, screened from DVD, and ran at 14’32”.

Her third film (Hotel Monterey), as she has often said, was made following Akerman’s encounter with the work of Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. Hotel Monterey is a mute series of shots inside and on the roof of a hotel in New York. It is a serene and poised affair, made according to strict structural principles. L’Enfant aimé stands apart from that film too, being in some ways narrative, including dialogue and scene-setting, thus pointing ahead to Le 15/8, the film she would make on her return to Europe,  and beyond that to Jeanne Dielman.

By the way, the fact that the kitchen locale of Saute ma ville is strikingly similar to the kitchen seen in Jeanne Dielman is, to me, a red herring.

Given that L’Enfant aimé – ou ou je joue à être une femme mariée has been so little seen, it seems wise to begin with some description of the film.

To begin with L’Enfant aimé  is shot b&w, with location sound recording of very variable quality and audibility. I don’t think this is a mistake, I think it is a material condition of the work, and serves interesting ends. The voice of the woman (the ‘young mother’, played by Claire Wauthion) that Akerman in this film spends time with (visibly so), is more or less audible, either because of the positioning of a microphone, or of the background noise that sometimes drowns her out. This, I take to be a decision because it is consistent with the approach to geography of the domestic space: exterior spaces (such as terraces, or back yards), outside of the strict confine of ‘home’, are situations where there is marked reduction of the clarity  - we can’t hear well and conversation is desultory and unclear. Outside, all is noise, din and confusion. Inside all is calm and voices audible. Purity and clarity (of course) are not necessarily virtues; mess can be a form of expression or resistance. The georgpahy, the relationshiop of the spaces, how the doors and corridors are laid out, is not easily envisaged, as in Jeanne Dielman. It takes a PhD study to produce a ground plan.

Strikingly Akerman herself is often in the frame, not as a performer, as in Saute ma ville, and not as behind the camera auteur, chooser of shots and framings, as in Hotel Monterey, but fully in the shot, attending closely to her friend’s talk and daily life. She is a curious presence: not participating in the scene, but nonetheless there before us. Akerman’s presence changes the nature of the gaze, dislocating the metaphysics and politics of looking. She is not in every shot, but she is so often there that even when she is not there, she is there by implication. The pattern of her presence and absence is structured, for me, in an analogous way to interior/exterior: Akerman’s presence provokes the young mother’s reflective remarks, when absent, the young mother becomes full of purpose, action and then overt expression of thoughts – albeit that she seems often driven by anxiety, with a tendency to repetition and circularity. For example, when Akerman is there, the conditions of married life can be talked of, calmly and dispassionately, but when she is absent, the woman’s own body becomes the focus of examination, description and a listing of merits and demerits (as in the mirror sequence mentioned above). Clothes and outfits are tried out.

Akerman being present in frame means that when she is not there, we are nonetheless very much aware that she might be so at any  moment.

The child of the title may not be the child we see in the film. Yes, that child is beloved (how tenderly she is treated!), but there are other senses of ‘child’ that spring to mind when watching this film. That the two women have been children themselves came to my mind: there is a tangible sense of play, of dressing up, of regarding one’s own body - in the way that children do - noticing change, noticing the individuality of a body, as if change had just been noticed. The relationship of the women suggested to me a sense of sisterly intimacy (I am avoiding the thought that they might be lovers, since the young mother talks constantly about her absent husband, and their sexual life together).

The sense that time is passing, sometimes slowly, sometimes as if there is not enough of it (the pacing changes sharply several times) is inescapable throughout the film. If toys must be tidied away, we see all of that task; if a window must be shut, we see all of the journey to that room and that action; if dinner must be cooked, we are not spared the washing up.

Akerman’s patient observation of detail, of the flurries of activity without obvious cause, and the confusion in my mind about the geography of the apartment,  suggests to me that for that young mother control and mastery of an environment is not possible. It would seem that the adult woman is not at ease in herself – perhaps in the way  a girl-child self-consciously plays at mother, wife, householder. The performance of being a woman, so poignant when attempted by a child, is no less so when undertaken by an adult woman – the isolation of days spent waiting for a husband, of attempting to come to terms with the decline of first love, of the realisation that the husband is in need of “mothering”, or the limits of sexual pleasure in this situation. For this condition, the condition of ‘young mother’, in that place, in that life, all that can be worked with is pace. And love of a child.

There are no men here. Men are talked of, never seen. The man’s clothes are of course touched and tidied – the objects given reverential handling. In the absence of the man, the tactile quality of fabric is a thing in itself.

Akerman on screen listens. Does she listen for herself, for us, or for the women she listens to? That she is sometimes close enough to her friend to hear clearly, when we the film audience cannot quite hear what is being said, is interesting. Moreover, Akerman is presumably privy to her friend’s life and situation outside the film. Importantly,  Akerman does not respond. She is attentive, but she does not (as people who talk often do) mirror her friends physical attitudes or emotional outpourings. Her listening is a remarkable feat – active always, never passive and never indifferently. Her lively bodily movements as she follows or adjusts herself to better hear and better attend is part of the mystery and formal invention of this film. I know of no precedent.

The sound work is percussive. The heels of the woman drum on the parquet flooring, doors shut hard, furniture is dragged without thinking of the neighbours, cooking implements are used noisily. The sounds are orchestrated, laid out as if in a score. The sound levels in compressed 16mm optical sound are generally unmerciful and without subtlety. Sounds are placed, not adjusted. The pattern of the edit is mirrored by the patterning of the sound world. This is a constructed edifice – no less so than a brutalist building. The interiors are all hard surfaces and the location sound recording cannot disguise the sharp reverberations of the sound world. This is how enclosure, interiority,  confinement sounds. The habitual life of meal times, of cleaning, of putting things into order, has this very sound track. Anyone who has lived it knows it; anyone who hasn’t will feel like they always did.

What is narrated? Ostensibly, the woman and her child live ordered life, and that is the narrative. The child must be cared for, the cooking, cleaning, and making all ready of the return of her husband have to be done, and in good time.

The ‘young mother’ talks of her sex life, of the diminishing of her married sex life, of the childish emotional needs of her husband (“he’s such a baby!”). She talks of her sense of confinement , and yet when she is out on her errands she meets no-one and talks to no-one. She is in control of the openings to her home: the window can be closed, the exterior and interior doors shut and locked, stuff can be put away tidily, objects may be rearranged.

What of the mirror in her bedroom? This is, naturally, a thing that reflects, not the reflection that comes from talking with another (her friend Chantal for example), but a means to examine the image of herself at play with her daughter, of herself trying out various outfits, in various combinations, or without clothes subjecting herself to a critique. If there is to be thought, a mirror helps, at least in order to make possible reflexivity: this is me, pointing at the other.

These are the material conditions of this film, and so much of it seem so arresting, so eloquent. This is no failure, but a moment of creation of strategies that have no precedent.

I would like to emphasise the percussive sound world, the deliberate obfuscation of the internal geography of the apartment, the compartmentalisation of life lived in rooms, each with specific kinds of activity reserved for them, the careful opening and closing of doors that serve as valves between these rooms, and variation of bodily pace and movement as if anxiety must from time to time be eluded.

Le 15/08 is another rarely seen film. In it, Akerman presents a stream-of-consciousness  in voice-over, that of a young Danish woman in Paris. She is there looking for work, in an apartment that is not her own. Time passes, and her thoughts are heard, in seamless flow, evoking for some the world of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  But in Le 15/8, there is no party to prepare for: instead the contents of a hand bag are the subject of her preoccupation, as are any number of other commonplaces.  But there is also judgment and taking issue with and criticise the women’s one’s own body, but since presented in voice over,  it is s if the locus of criticism lies outside her own self, a trope that seems to me to emerge directly from the mirror sequence of L’Enfant aimé.

What Le 15/08 and Jeanne Dielman also share with L’Enfant aimé is above all a sense of domestic spaces shown as a series of interconnected ventricles, in which life is represented as a rhythmical process, with pulse, form and function of all the parts made very clear. Function and physical limit define the form of life, this all too recognisable form of life. It must be lived as best it can.

We can only hope that L’Enfant aimé – ou ou je joue à être une femme mariée will enjoy restoration and further screenings and other eyes.

Adam Roberts, 2013

A Nos Amours: Chantal Akerman 2, Thursday 28 November, 7pm

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Tagged with: Chantal Ackerman, Adam Roberts, A Nos Amours