Reclaiming Small Spaces: Chantal Akerman's 'Saute ma ville' and the Art of Social Distancing
Chantal Akerman's 1968 short film Saute ma ville directly reflects our current state, serving as a meditative text on the art of staying home.
Jane Simon, Professor of Media Studies at Macquarie University, once wrote: "Chantal Akerman's films provide meticulous observations of the everyday, depicting in obsessive detail the activities that weave across daily life… they can be read together as a dynamic archive of gestures, habits and repetitions of domestic life." This assertion acutely captures the whole of Akerman's filmography, traceable through her earliest work and famously explored in her 1975 magnum opus Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
In Jeanne Dielman, Akerman reckons with objective and subjective time in her documentation of a housewife and sex worker (Delphine Seyrig) whose daily routine slowly unravels over the course of three days – for viewers, a lengthy 201 minutes still widely-debated by critics. Here, Akerman contends with narrative and spatial subtleties, particularly in the kitchen and the bedroom.
In her first film, the 13-minute short Saute ma ville (1968, literal translation: "blow up my town"), the filmmaker focuses solely on the kitchen as an inhabited space, and within that claustrophobic minefield, explodes subtlety into filmic shrapnel.
The film has been dubbed "a pungent and tragicomic critique of domestic life…the literal explosion of the so-called 'feminine universe'…supported by images constructed like a burlesque and the performance of an actress that seems to come straight out of a slapstick comedy". To assert Saute ma ville's efficacy as a radically feminist exploration of domestic subjugation underscores a wealth of necessary and well-researched scholarship concerning the artist's work. It also propagates the creation of an echo chamber that threatens to trap Saute ma ville (already overlooked in comparison to Akerman's ensuing filmography) in a kind of academic and cultural stasis, little more than a "niche" work of radicalism resultantly relegated to the corners of YouTube and Criterion Collection bonus feature lists.
After all, declaring Akerman a feminist pioneer of the cinema states the obvious – an important and rightful assertion, but no less immutable than calling Jean-Luc Godard the father of the French New Wave or Alfred Hitchcock the Master of Suspense. Such honorifics are sincere but implant their subjects in specific and unyielding temporalities.
Saute ma ville remains a root-and-branch manifesto, rebelliously exploring the kitchen and the feminine self (with Akerman working both in front of and behind the camera), positioned not-so-coincidentally at the rise of second-wave feminism. But like all of Akerman's filmography, and the filmography of all filmmakers (particularly those of oppressed communities, from which resistance narratives can effectively reveal ongoing inequities concealed by hegemonic ways of seeing), Saute ma ville should be viewed as a malleable and non-temporal artistic statement. It transcends historic moments and cultural contexts, true to its experimental and open-to-interpretation style. Viewing Akerman's short in this way helps to reaffirm its endurance – and durability – as a perpetual artwork and social statement.
Imagine what films Akerman might have been making amid the present coronavirus situation. Italy's nationwide lockdown, and public health professionals' advice that all Americans practice social distancing, may have provided creative inspiration for an artist as acutely aware of the self, in conjunction with the surrounding world, as Akerman. And yet, while it is possible that Akerman would have produced a new film in 2020 that engaged with the current milieu, one can still turn to Saute ma ville five decades on and find answers relevant to the present global health situation.
Of course, it is still reductive to overlook Saute ma ville's historic significance, which can provide an epistemological starting point for its current applicability. Charting a woman's descent into isolation as she barricades herself in her city apartment and goes about a dinner-making routine at once humorous, yet eventually destructive, Saute ma ville perfectly captures the defiant, existential gestalt of 1968 (and the decade at large).
As noted by Nicole Fernandez Ferrer in Senses of Cinema: "[Akerman's film] is tolling the boycott of the housewife and the destruction of the dutiful and 'gendered' feminine." A microcosm of the women globally who enacted a mass exodus out of their domestic prisons at the height of the counterculture era, it is, too, an autonomous act of artmaking. The film explores a tug-of-war with personal agency in a claustrophobic jail cell, whose history of subjugation is upheaved, reclaimed, "exploded" by its inmate.
Presently, we find ourselves retreating into that limiting space charted so tangibly, in a way so corporeal, in Akerman's debut film. With different areas of the world facing shuttered businesses and restaurants in the coming weeks, folx are being forced to contend with the homemaking apparatus in ways antithetical to our current mobility, populated by Ubereats, diner booths, and drive-thru windows. Calls for social distancing practices, and for some even self-quarantining, denotes a necessary yet unprecedented surge in personal isolation, and a return to the kitchen, specifically, within that solitude.
Thus, Saute ma ville allows for profound revelations in regards to our current context by directly reflecting our current state. As in the film we are stowing ourselves away in our homes to be left to our own devices. We are taping up the door, if you will, cooking pasta on the stove, reading the news (in the film, Le Soir specifically). Perhaps we're going mad; perhaps we're reclaiming a limited space and transforming it by our own will.
Reclamation is integral to understanding how Saute ma ville not only perfectly reflects our current state, but can also inspire the productivity necessary within it. While indicting the kitchen as an oppressive space, Akerman also shows how one can mobilize within that confined arena to subvert its restrictions outright. Particularly, her choice to flood the linoleum floor with soap and water, blacken her bare legs with shoe polish, smear condiments on her face, dance around the room, and fill the airwaves with non-synchronous foley and her voice as a soundtrack. Her laughing, singing, shrieking displays a "redefinition" of the spatial and behavioral rules of the home, and what is and is not allowed to function socially, "logically", within that space. She redefines and reclaims all of these elements, turning that infinitesimal realm into an open field of expression and imbuing every bit of herself into its core.
Mirrors also function symbolically, too. Akerman's body-length mirror, reflecting her own giddy, unkempt visage back at us, provides spatial entry into another dimension, doubling square footage in which she, herself, keeps existing. It is a familiar visual portal repurposed, recognizing Akerman's position within the kitchen's four walls, while imagining a world beyond that space that hasn't yet forgotten about her.
Revisited amid current world affairs, specifically, the lockdown measures underway to deescalate the transmission of COVID-19, Akerman shows her viewers in Saute ma ville how self-quarantining can become an autonomous exercise. She herself once described the film as being about "[a] person who doesn't need rules to govern her own life, [who] blows its rituals to bits." While present rules to practice social distancing may be essential to the health of the greater public, it should not act as a limiting or downtrodden force within our places of aloneness. If anything is to be learned from Saute ma ville, it is that small spaces do not as much shape the person within as the person within shapes the small space.
How do we move around within these spaces? How do we communicate with ourselves and others? How do we continue to perceive what is beyond our sensory realm, stuck, for the time being, between four walls? Do we mobilize and create? Do we withdraw into ourselves? Is destruction really all that destructive, when it forces us to take charge in the first place? Of course, answering these questions requires an examination of social distancing (and for some folx, self-quarantining) through an intersectional lens. We must take into account how one's positionality, abilities, access to resources, and socioeconomic background dialogue with these potentially life-altering practices.
Hopefully, Saute ma ville can provide some illumination amid the chaos: as a timeless feminist proclamation, an important work of avant-garde cinema, and for all of us in 2020, a meditative text on the art of staying home.
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