“Chantal Akerman: From the Other Side” at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris presents two of the inimitable artist’s most reputed films as multichannel video-art installations. Faithful to the auteur’s notorious resistance to easy categorizations – Akerman assumed a dizzying expanse of genres, media, and varying aesthetic styles up until her death in 2015 – the show permits refracted, lateral, and decentered perspectives on the now-iconic 1974 narrative feature Je tu il elle and the 2002 documentary De l’autre côté. What emerges are new paths through the Chantal Akerman story, too often confined to the daunting critical success of Jeanne Dielman (1975) or to the catch-all genre of “slow cinema.”
On first visit, the partnering of Je tu il elle – a voluptuous study in depression, heartbreak, and the shifting slipstreams of identity – with De l’autre côté – a haunting meditation on illegal immigration between Mexico and the United States at the turn of the millennium – might appear unseemly. Yet both projects overlap in their interest in slippages between established states. Je tu il elle exults in the volatile boundaries between “given” sexed and gendered orientations, and De l’autre côté exposes the contamination between “fictional” and “factual” accounts, and moral binaries like “bad” and “good.” To present an equitable or, in Griselda Pollock’s words, “agnostic” portrait of both sides of the immigration question – with footage taken on both sides of the growing wall – was always Akerman’s objective with De l’autre côté.  Her patient yet searingly poetic portrait of the many “ghosts,” in her words, vanished to the sprawling desert space between two nation-states foreshadows the darkly Trumpian “Build a wall!” chapter of US history. It also functions as a demonstration that such policies have long been embedded in the roiling American psyche. 
De l’autre côté, originally adapted for 2002’s Documenta 11 in Kassel and edited astutely by Claire Atherton, forms part of what Akerman christened her “documentarian trilogy,” also comprising the 1993 D’Est and 1999 Sud. At Marian Goodman, De l’autre côté is split into three parts: one room furnished with one monitor, a second room hosting 18 monitors, and one projection looping the final six-minute sequence of the initial feature, separately titled A Voice in the Desert. This breaking up of the original 103-minute feature might register as a departure from Akerman’s cinematic ethos: in short, to refuse the distracting “illusions” of conventional narrative cinema and to instead make the viewer rigorously “feel time” in all its heft and embodied weight.  And yet, in 2021, the installation version’s more fragmented, interruptive, and vacillating presentation – requiring the viewer to move haltingly through rooms – aptly distills the drifting alienation of neoliberal bureaucracy: the suspended atomization that seeks to efface compassionate humanity at the expense of capitalist profit.
In the second room, a multiplicity of screens arranged as a bank of monitors looming before the spectator reinforces Akerman’s intention to expand and multiply the range of opinions on the crisis. Uninterested in presenting a definitive thesis, she instead seeks to collect testimonies – as in her earlier 1989 feature Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family and Philosophy – and to display visual evidence from both sides of the border with unsentimental compassion. At the same time, Akerman resists totally effacing her own history or unique artistic signature from the production. Having shown her mother an early cut of the documentary, she reportedly asked the older woman – a survivor of the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz – what the stark boundary in the sand reminded her of. Natalia Akerman apparently replied, “You know what.” 
“From the Other Side,” like many Akerman creations, oscillates between the uncomfortably concrete and the mysteriously abstract, occasionally shifting into long tracking shots of the freeway or the desert that defer the viewer’s desire for explicit narrative “events” in favor of more speculative visual signifiers. Indeed, as in Jeanne Dielman, where Jeanne’s afternoon encounters with male clients that make up her side existence as a sex worker are never shown to the spectator, in De l’autre côté, we never see the outright moment of the US border being “crossed.” To represent such a transition would be, in Akerman’s ideology, crude, even profane: a defacement of the Jewish prohibition on making graven images, which she internalized from a young age. 
Akerman herself noted how the Monteverdi cello motif used throughout De l’autre côté functions as an attempt to “broaden” the documentary’s historical and geographical reach.  The play between delocalization and intense, almost unbearable proximity and intimacy inflects the third projected part of De l’autre côté: “A Voice in the Desert.” Here, Akerman herself reads testimony from a man – named only David – regarding his mother’s disappearance from her Los Angeles lodgings in French, English, and Spanish as somber shots of the nocturnal LA freeway eddy past. The trilingual litany, intoned hypnotically in Akerman’s smoke-ravaged timbre, further expands the piece’s resonance beyond Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Mexico. At the same time, the sporadic aerial shots of infrared helicopter cameras cruelly targeting blurred shapes in the desert prevent the sequence from becoming too abstract. These images indeed evoke the inspiration behind De l’autre côté: Akerman’s reported reading of a news article about American ranch-owners who liked to wear night-vision goggles to hunt illegal immigrants.
An experience of sensory overload also infuses the spectator’s experience of Je tu il elle, first excerpted for installation purposes in 2007 and, in this iteration, encountered on three screens in simultaneity. This tripartite presentation successfully underscores the cyclical, nonlinear temporality of the original feature: the first line, “And I left,” forms a circle with the film’s final sequence, where the protagonist, Julie – played to dazzling effect by Akerman herself – leaves the apartment of her ex-girlfriend early in the morning.
Je tu il elle was shot on a tight budget over just one week in 1974. It was reportedly produced quickly so that Akerman would be eligible for various grants from the Belgian government, yet it was released only in 1976, after the unstoppable success of Jeanne Dielman in 1975. At Marian Goodman, encountering Je tu il elle as an installation recalls the story’s embryonic sense of psychic splitting and divided subjectivity. Its zigzagging temporality highlights Je tu il elle’s nomadism, its streaking between spaces and objects of desire, rather than the original’s sense of deep immersion, its lush ambiance of refuge and retreat. The original film, with its final fierce sex scene between the reunited lovers, is perhaps best known as one of the first in cinematic history to depict lesbian sexuality in a non-pornographic or objectifying way. As an installation, this non-climactic “climax” (since neither woman reaches orgasm) appears to brush up against the “straighter” scenes between Julie and a male trucker in his van. This simultaneity thickens the already rich texture of Je tu il elle. It avoids our reading its narrative arc as a “simple” progression from egoic solipsism (the “je” writing letters in her flat and eating sugar from the bag) to ill-advised heterosexuality (the section with the trucker) to any final “salvation” of lesbian desire.
When someone dies, euphemistic language traffics in saying how they have “passed to the other side.” Chantal Akerman, even before her much mediatized death, was always committed to the other side of visual representation or to reaching new planes of artistic expression while being, nonetheless, firmly rooted in this world. As she herself phrased it in her autofictional self-portrait, the task is to “move icons out of the way so that a new view of things might emerge.”  “Chantal Akerman: From the Other Side” unsettles the iconic so that new things can take shape and bloom.
“Chantal Akerman: From the Other Side,” Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, December 9, 2021–February 5, 2022.
Alice Blackhurst is a writer and art critic currently teaching French literature and film at St John’s College, Oxford.
Image credit: Courtesy of Chantal Akerman Foundation and Marian Goodman Gallery, photos: Rebecca Fanuele
|||Griselda Pollock, “The Long Journey: Maternal Trauma, Tears and Kisses in a Work by Chantal Akerman,” Studies in the Maternal 2, no. 1 (2010): 5.|
|||As Daniel Denvir has recently demonstrated, the US Border Control in fact began erecting fencing along a mile of the Tijuana River as early as 1990. See Daniel Denvir, “Border Crises,” n+1, December 13, 2021, https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/border-crises/.|
|||Quoted in Chris Dercon, “An Interview with Chantal Akerman about Too Much and Not Enough Cinema,” Contour 2nd Biennial for Video Art website (2005), http://www.contour2005.be/UK/ca.htm.|
|||Quoted in Chantal Akerman, Autoportrait en cinéaste (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2004), n.p.|
|||Chantal Akerman, “Face à l’Image” , in Chantal Akerman: Passages, ed. Marente Bloemhoevel and Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2020), 57.|
|||Akerman, Autoportrait en cinéaste, n.p.|