by Noah Rosenberg
A 16mm camera moves slowly across a sun-filled one-room apartment from the not-too-distant past. The colors are vibrant, we see a bright red velvet chair against a light-worn wooden wall. Breakfast is laid out on a circular table, half-finished and enticing. The room is humble, simple, and undeniably lived-in. Time is marked by the camera’s slow 360 movement across the room, and the stream of celluloid, passing like a vertical river, pulses an irreducible beat. Some objects that stand out to me as the camera moves; the apples on the breakfast table, the color of coffee, a dark knife-like kitchen tool against a tan wall, the wall textures in-between objects, the empty surface of her bedside table, the oversized metal kettle sitting on a small gas stove, the curtains full of light draped onto a wooden bed frame. There is an Old World feeling to this room. Elements like metal, wood, fruit, and cloth lie unencumbered by bright, plastic, cheap objects of contemporary culture.
The mere fact that Akerman’s bedside table does not have an iPhone lying on it grants me a sigh of relief, the yearning for a time when you could wake up without the attack of digital culture. This makes me think of the physicality of celluloid. No visible electricity passes through the room as the hand cranked motor of the camera spins, inscribing precious moments of morning onto film. This also makes me think of the passing of time, and how the objects we surround ourselves with affect our sense of time. Most people today wake up with an inundation of digital media, we all reach unconsciously for our phones to check messages, updates. Endless podcasts and articles are at the tips of our fingers to provide stimulation, and because of this speed, our culture has changed pace. We rely on constant stimulation to satisfy our desires and anxieties, and become drastically unsettled by moments of stillness, quietude. We are unable to enjoy or be in slower permeations of time, to sit in a park and watch the trees exist in a much slower, but perhaps more powerful reality. We no longer wake and take the time to gaze at the rising morning light passing through the curtains, we are becoming less comfortable with silence.
Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre is silent, and its silence cannot be understated. Silence is an integral part of this film because not only is La Chambre silent, it is visually stunning. The silence is not meant to quiet our eyes or our thoughts, but to illuminate our visual field. From the very first frame – the bright red velvet chair, to the alluring shots of Akerman in her bed, the imagery gains depth as it requires our patience. To say that a piece of art ‘requires’ anything can be problematic, as I do not mean to imply that one cannot appreciate it without that something. There is no right or wrong way to look or feel, and a piece of art is not successful if you can only love it while in a specific headspace. However, I do think a piece of art speaks when it allows us to access an appreciation that has the ability to deepen, which often requires work from the viewer. La Chambre seems to open up this dialogue – it calls on us to do some digging: to navigate our own silence and re-examine what we see. Akerman’s film does not attach itself to a genre, to a narrative, or any other film. It exists in-between a self-portrait, and portrait of a place, and through its slow unfolding, echos film’s foundation in still images. It is slow enough to allow the viewer to dwell on each frame: to allow one’s eye to trace, like in a photograph or painting, the lines of composition, and then just when you forget that it is a moving picture, a new frame reveals more of the world, causing the previous composition to reverberate in the walls of the new. To be clear, the camera is never still, it is moving at a consistent pace. Perhaps this movement gives the film a fluidity, which makes you forget that it is moving through time. All of these factors speak to La Chamre as a work that breaks open boundaries of medium and genre, a work discovering a new way to make a portrait. To portrait one’s room is a highly intimate endeavor. I believe the spaces we surround ourselves with speak greatly to a collective psychology, and reflect the state of things. As Bachelard writes,
“Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are “housed.” Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house image moves in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them…” -Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The walls, doors, and spaces in-between objects can often tell us more than the objects themselves. These are the negative spaces of recognizable objects, which cannot immediately be placed and categorized for their utility. They are often abstract, and not paid attention to.
Above all what blows me away about Chantal Akerman is the vibe I feel from her, as an actress and director. While she has an amazing ability to expand the possibilities of film and open up discussion, this comes second to her intimate, humorous, and improvisational self. She pushes the boundaries by being present, funny, and never feeling limited or pressured to achieve some goal or message. She is of the world: in all its awkwardness, beauty, abstractions, humor, and curiosities.