There's been all manner of debate going at the New York Times these past few weeks (see here, and here, and most recently here--this thing just will not die, it seems) about "cultural vegetables" and movies that some people complain are "slow and boring" and so forth. I like to think of myself as having catholic film-viewing tastes; I'm a life-long horror fan, but Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, a film that apparently bored the hell out of a lot of people (see here), was also one of my favorites of last year. (My boyfriend joked that Coppola's next movie will be about two people sitting in a room not speaking. Clearly I need to make him watch some Chantal Akerman.)
And that brings us to today's film. All of this discussion of "slow and boring" movies coincides nicely with the latest entry in my chronological film-viewing project, in which I screen at least one new-to-me film from every year. Chantal Akerman's Je Tu Il Elle (1975) is a nice, modest entree into slow-and-boring cinema. It's only 85 minutes, so it's not as daunting as Akerman's three-hour minimalist epic Jeanne Dielman (in which the title character famously peels potatoes and makes meatloaf on-screen in real time), but it still has plenty of long takes and silence and general "inactivity." (It also sports one of the most prolonged lesbian sex scenes outside of hardcore porn.)
The first twenty minutes are rough going. A woman (played by Akerman) sits silently in a room; she looks out of the window; she writes on some pieces of paper and spreads them out on the floor; etc. At first I was fidgety and anxious, but gradually I settled in to the film and stopped fighting it. I began to let myself live in real time along with the woman on the screen. I started paying attention to the infinite gradations of light and shadow that fall across her body, the seemingly imperceptible shifts in expression that play on her face. Watching a film like this requires slowing down the part of your brain that has gotten used to the immediate gratification of plot-driven films and shifting into a more meditative head-space. The pleasures of this kind of movie are different from those afforded by Hollywood cinema, but they're there nonetheless--if you're willing to spend time looking for them.
Things also get infinitely more compelling at the thirty-minute mark, when we're suddenly confronted with a second character--a truck driver with whom the main character hitchhikes. The film is still remarkably spare by most standards, but the small details Akerman gives us are suggestive and quietly fascinating; his nine-minute-long monologue, from which the screen-grab above is taken, is extraordinary. Like a modernist novel, Akerman's film speaks volumes, but it does so through ambiguity and indirection, absences and silences. Akerman's films make us aware of what we're used to seeing when we watch movies and the discomfort we feel when those things are taken away.