Monday, August 31, 2020
Chantal Akerman | Saute ma ville
a letter that denies its own significance
by Douglas Messerli
Chantal Akerman (writer and director) Saute ma ville / 1968
What is amazing about Chantal Akerman’s first film from 1968, Saute ma ville (which I’ll translate as Burn Down My Town), is that she was only 18 at the time of its creation. And yet the statement she makes in this short work is so profound that you might think she had an entire career behind it.
A young woman (Akerman) arrives home to her apartment building, flowers in hand, quickly checking the mail before she pushes the elevator. Immediately determining to outrun it by tripping up the stairs for several levels, she inexplicably checks on the progress of the elevator as she moves upward, all the time humming a sharp pitched noise as if she were almost attempting to irritate the viewer—which, in fact, she may well be attempting to accomplish.
As critic Felicity Chaplin describes these opening sequences:
Saute ma ville is supported by images constructed like a burlesque and the performance of an actress that seems to come straight out of a slapstick comedy. This exuberant character is played by the filmmaker herself, who literally bursts in front of a large building (the sounds of the city being omnipresent there), flowers in hand, to get back to her apartment. Akerman’s humming adds an enthusiastic and light touch to this jaunty entrance.
Finally reaching her door, she enters, throwing most of her purchases upon the kitchen counter before tacking the now-opened letter she has received to the cabinet, soon after cooking up a meal of pasta which she will chow down with a rapidity that is spell-binding before leaping up, seemingly driven by an inner voice repeating the word “Scotch.”
Even prior are awareness, she has pulled out a role of thick scotch tape and begun to thoroughly seal up the door of her kitchen, stopping only briefly to pick up her cat, pet it for a moment, open a nearby window, and send the poor beast, presumably, on its way through a long fall unto the street to die.
While munching on an apple, she quickly dons a raincoat and a scarf while picking up a sponge mop and tossing all the contents of a lower cabinet to the floor. Showering some water upon the mess, she shoves the various mixers, blenders, and whatever else she has kept there, with the mop toward to door.
A moment later she has decided to shine her shoes, leaving a heavy later of the black she paste on her legs and hands. She reaches for a copy of the newspaper Le Soir and, as if speed-reading way through its pages, sets it aside to continue taping up a nearby window.
Had she performed these same tasks in a more normative pattern, we realize, she might have reminded us of the actions of any housewife or single woman caught up in doing her daily chores. But this 18-year old is more like Raymond Queneau’s Zazie (of Zazie dans le Métro) rather than an adult setting out to accomplish the routine requirements of keeping a good house.
If there had been any question, at first, of what this young apartment- dweller was up to, we now know that in her chaotic accomplishment of these meaningless tasks she is decentering and revolting against any of the so-called necessities of good home-making.
From one of her cabinets she takes us a white substance which may be anything from a mix of flour to mayonnaise and applies it to her face as if were a beauty lotion, appealing to her mirror for approval of her attempts to properly take care of her body.
Denying even the rationality of these acts, this seemingly crazed teenager is a bit like a robotized version of “the good housewife,” undoing the very methodical patterns demanded by a hegemonic society, particularly a patriarchal one.
Having focused explicitly on the domain of the woman, the kitchen and all it represents, the girl somewhat madly giggles and laughs, repeating the words “Bang, Bang!” while lighting the stove. We hear the hiss the gas only as we watch her through the mirror, one hand over head, the other holding the flowers she has brought with her before the final explosion results in the screen going black.
The only narrative explanation of her acts might have existed in the letter upon which the camera has focused several times and to which Akerman herself has given a special credence of place. But to create any imaginary narrative from that letter’s contents—a statement of love abandoned or lost, a diaristic explanation of what has led her to destroy her artificed world, or even a simple list of instructions of how to “blow her city up”—would only make her revolutionary denial of all societal definitions of what it means to be female meaningless. The letter itself, I would argue, denies any narrational logic.
Unlike Scheherazade desperately trying to appease her master with just one more nightly story, Akerman has openly refused to allow any more attempts of explanation or myth-making. She has shattered all conventions, including the actions represented in her film. She has blown up not just the town, but her own recreation of a self.
Los Angeles, August 31, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).