Space, body/voice and the everyday in Akerman’s La chambre

As La chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972) is under 11 minutes in duration, I would like to examine the film in its entirety, but the moment (~1:40) in which we first see that there is a human subject in the room will be my point of departure. Why this moment? Two reasons: first, it brings us back to last week’s conversation about the privileging of the human subject over nature/animal/environment in documentary (though I do not argue that La chambre is documentary), and second, it creates an interesting contrast with the scene in Y tu mamá también where the camera sweeps Luisa’s empty apartment. I will return to these ideas after a brief discussion of the film as a whole.

I begin with a question of nomenclature. After reading Sitney, what do we call this film? Experimental, a “film poem”, avant-garde, structural (the never-ending circles created by the constant panning are a relatively important shape), or even formal? Criterion Collection refers to La chambre as a “breakthrough formal experiment” and notes that it was inspired by the structural films (Snow, Warhol, etc) that Akerman saw on a trip to New York, the same which Sitney outlines in his chapter.[1] Akerman’s film is both formally and structurally radical – the 360-degree pan in a single take is the only camera movement and it violates all kinds of classical Hollywood’s editing and narrative norms. Despite this exploration of camera, there is no direct acknowledgment of the camera (i.e. lens flares or meta-awareness of filmic medium, like we see in Mothlight), except when the gaze of the human subject breaks the fourth wall. I tend to think that La chambre could be called a “film poem,” because its repeating structure reminds me of the rhythmic nature of poetry, but also due to the types of metaphors that it produces.

Sitney writes that Warhol’s work opened up “a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing, or rather the perceiving, experience” (373). In La chambre, Akerman draws from a “discourse of the everyday” in order to create a series of ultimately ambiguous contrasts and metaphors.[2] The camera literally spins in circles, gesturing to the patriarchal entrapment of a woman in the domestic space; it is repetitive, there is no escape. But this movement is simultaneously peaceful, quotidian and quiet, not frantic. Though the room seems like a prison for the human subject, the constant movement of the camera makes the space seem larger than it actually is, as if the space never ends. Here, La chambre plays with stasis and dynamism. The space is still and it is only the woman who changes and evolves. Is this about the banality or meaningfulness of everyday life? Is this more about the human or the space? Criterion Collection calls this film a “moving still life,” yet another entry point into a discussion on film and other artistic mediums.

This notion of a still life intrigues me because the contents of this still life are not completely still. I am referring, of course, to the human subject (Akerman, herself, actually[3]) that continues to change positions each time the camera passes her bed. There is a certain privilege and priority of the human subject, as the camera reverses its pan to allow us more time to view the subject. For me, the woman is the strongest place marker in the space because with each revolution, I kept waiting to see what she would do next. Maybe this is a feminist push – this female subject of the still life is not still, she is the feminine object of the gaze that gazes back. Regardless of ideological thrust, this slow pan across the room demonstrates “Akerman’s mastery of the mise en scène” – which, according to Margulies, is apparent across her films. The apples – first seen at the table – later become the object that fuses together the various spaces of the room as Akerman crunches (soundlessly) on an apple in bed.[4]

To conclude, I want to touch upon the comparison of La chambre to Luisa’s empty apartment in Y tu mamá también. Both moments privilege interior space, and by extension, the interiority of the woman we know to inhabit said space. While in La chambre we are given a female body with no voice, but in the other scene we are given Luisa’s voice with no body. This ghostly (ghastly?) presence in Luisa and Jano’s now-empty apartment implies a body, maybe even hinting towards Luisa’s dying body that will soon cease to exist. On the other hand, we see Akerman’s healthy body in La chambre, so does this necessarily imply a voice? A healthy voice that has been silenced? In juxtaposing domestic living space / body / voice, the two films seem to gesture towards the depth and weight of female interiority that is often dismissed in cinema. Paradoxically, perhaps re-reading Doane’s “The Voice in Cinema” could shed some new light on the silent La chambre



[2] Margulies, Ivone. “La Chambre Akerman – The Captive as Creator.”

[3] Akerman was only 22 when she made this film. She actually made her first film at age 18 after dropping out of film-school.

[4] Somewhat obvious, but the allusion to biblical Eve eating the apple could (should?) play into the interpretation of the film’s metaphor(s).

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