Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us one of Chantal Akerman’s earliest short films, La Chambre, in which she meditates on a room, some furniture, a few apples, and a bedridden woman.
A simple idea becomes a rumination on sex, media, and solitary confinement in the hands of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. A constantly rotating camera gives the viewer a 360 degree view of a small room and its accoutrements. As it makes its rounds we find ourselves involved in the actions of a female “protagonist” who stares at us, shuffles in bed, and devours an apple.
Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre is exactly the sort of film that inspires the phrase, “it’s not for everyone.” At ten minutes long it has to be among the longest single shots of one room – sans characters, dialogue, etc. – ever put to film. Now, admittedly the camera does not remain static – it does pan around the room several times, but still… how many times do we really need to see that upholstered chair, teakettle, or sink? It’s enough to make one think the copy he or she is watching is flawed, somehow stuck on this one scene. Yet not stuck… Hmmm.
La Chambre seems to be set in an old apartment, though not in Akerman’s native Belgium. The brief appearance of a sign labeled, in English, “additional wash basins…” suggests it takes place in an English speaking country (according to Criterion it was shot in New York). The star players are mostly various household fixtures and the mood of the piece is entirely lackadaisical. As you might expect, given the plotless nature of this film and lack of (well-defined) characters, this is a silent piece.
The camera starts on an old upholstered chair. From there it pans counterclockwise to the various objects you’d expect to find in a room: a table covered with apples and oranges, cups, and what appears to be a piece of bread. In other words, breakfast. Next we see a teakettle on a diminutive stovetop, a refrigerator, and a beautiful old wooden chest of drawers. Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, the panning camera reveals a person – a woman – in bed and still partially under her covers, gazing directly at us. To her left sits a table with several shiny red apples on top. The sun shines into her room – confirming the morning hour – directly onto her, and she appears to have just woken up. Whether by the sun or her visitor, who’s to say? Next we see clutter – a spinning wheel and well-used desk covered with an array of trinkets. Then some homey items: a dish rack, some hanging clothing, and the very bottom row of a calendar just barely appearing in frame. A sink sits just below the English sign and to the right of this, a very old and filthy door lies ajar. The camera is now back to its point of origin, the chair, and here begins its second orbit.
Now we get our first indication that a human is running the camera: it begins to speed up a bit, then slows down on Akerman as she rocks back and forth in bed. The camera again speeds up until we reach her a third time. She continues to stare directly at us while leaning on her shoulder and fondling one of the apples. This time however, after the third time around, the camera goes only as far as the desk before returning directly to Akerman, now rubbing the apple against her lips. The camera goes in the other direction only as far as the dresser then returns to Akerman, who is now eating the apple. The camera again goes just up to the desk then returns. In what constitutes the only real action of the film, Akerman is now furiously eating the apple, and consistent with this the camera does not slow down as it pans across her. For this last time the camera goes to the end of the dresser then slows down considerably as it returns. Akerman is now rubbing her eyes, and looks as if she’s ready to get up and face the world… before she lies down again. The camera goes further this time, making it all the way to the very shadow of the hanging clothing before it loses interest and the film ends.
What does it all mean? Consider this statement Akerman made after first seeing experimental filmmaker Michael Snow’s work in New York City: “It was a revelation for me, that you could make a film without telling a story. And yet the tracking shots of <——–> (Back and Forth, 1969) in the classroom, with movements that are purely spatial while nothing is happening, produce a state of suspense as tense as anything in Hitchcock. I learned from them that a camera movement, just a movement of the camera, could trigger an emotional response as strong as from any narrative.”
About La Chambre specifically, she had this to say: “I can breathe but stay in bed. It was done the day after I finished Monterey.” Though the director seems reticent about discussing this film, like all experimental works of art there are many ways in which La Chambre might be read. Akerman herself claims that all of her films are set in a prison of some kind, a direct reference to her mother’s experience in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Sure enough, the room looks to be of prison cell size, with no sign of an adjoining room other than an open door which reveals nothing. The walls appear cold and dank, and the furnishings old and shabby. The only indication that this could not be a prison cell arrives in the form of those rays of sun streaming through her barless window. In this interpretation Akerman is an inmate in her own living space, though there’s nothing to indicate if this is by choice or not.
There is also a clear feminist angle to La Chambre, beginning with the very name, which translates as “The Room.” Historically, this would be where the respectable Western woman was confined. As a fixture herself, it’s no surprise that she’s seen among the other fixtures of the home: desk, dresser, bed. Woman. And of course there’s the hanging laundry, cooking appliances, and breakfast all laid out and perfectly representative of domesticity. The typical woman’s life was one of servitude, loneliness, and boredom, her sole purpose to remain at home doting upon her man. However, as you might expect, Akerman is up to something here. In a possible allusion to history’s first recorded femme fatale she seductively eats an apple while laid out in bed. There is something strangely but decidedly punk rock about all this. I couldn’t help but hear X-Ray Spec’s Poly Styrene shrieking “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” as I watched. The attitude, anyway, is all right there onscreen.
In another sense, this film could be seen as an inversion of the viewing experience. It’s Chantal who lies in bed watching us as we go about our lives. While doing this she does the same sorts of things we do when watching films or TV in the comfort of our homes: she lies, eats, and struggles to stay awake, all while watching us looking around her room. There’s something discomforting in the way she seems to look through us: she is somehow in a position of power here. It’s almost as if she’s the one with the remote; the one with the ability to turn us on and off at will. (Are we boring her?) While we know intellectually that she can’t possibly see us, there is something knowing in her look that suggests otherwise.
Watch La Chambre on Vimeo.