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).

The Politics of Sound – Creating the Uncanny in M?

In “The Voice in the Cinema,” Mary Ann Doane articulates a relationship between sound-voice-body-space in the framework of cinema. She begins with a contrast: whereas silent films created a disjuncture between voice and body using intertitles (resulting in an “uncanny” effect), sound cinema creates the “phantasmatic body” or the “body reconstituted by the technology and practices of cinema” (318-9). This phantasmatic body is maintained through two properties: unity and presence-to-itself (conceptually related to Benjamin’s aura), both of which add to a fuller representation of reality through synchronization. Doane gestures to other technological advances that sought to conceal the apparatus, “reducing the distance perceived between the object and its representation” (320). Just as continuity editing reduces the spectator’s recognition of cinema as medium, synchronization, the creation of the phantasmatic body and the prioritization of dialogue in the hierarchy of sound contribute to sound’s ability to close the gap between spectator and diegesis, as well as to sustain the cinematic illusion.[1] Sound and dialogue spatialize bodies/voices and define a depth within cinema (even through the physical placement of the apparatus) to create “the consistency of the real” for the spectator (321).

Doane theorizes the voice-off and the voiceover as sounds that contribute to the lateral dimension within cinema. Voice-off signifies moments when a character’s voice can be heard but their body is outside of the frame. The voice-off is traditionally used to deny the limits of the frame and affirm “the unity and the homogeneity of the depicted space,” thus, the phantasmatic body remains whole (321). Doane argues that despite the fact that sound is typically analyzed in conjunction with the visual, sound is not “subordinate” to the image (322). In fact, because sound occurs continuously (homogenously) throughout dominant narrative cinema, a lack of sound is even a taboo. Space – not sound or image – is therefore the most productive means of considering the heterogeneity of cinema and Doane reaches the conclusion that the voice-off not only “deepens the diegesis,” but functions in the “service of the film’s construction of space” (323). Doane mentions the potential risk in the voice-off, namely that “there is always something uncanny about a voice which emanates from a source outside the frame” (323). Separating body and voice is construed as unnatural and for this reason, returning the voice to the body is a common device used to signify narrative closure.[2] On the other hand, voiceover[3] is a completely disembodied voice that – for Doane – only occurs in the mode of documentary. This disconnect between voice and body imbues the voice with a rather gendered authority and unquestioned power due to “its irreducibility to the spatiotemporal limitations of the body” (325).[4]

In “The Pleasure of Hearing,” Doane treats sound, space and the spectator through the framework of psychoanalysis. She posits that the voiceover and/or interior monologue communicates directly with the spectator, but the synchronous dialogue or the voice-off imagines a spectator who overhears, paralleling voyeurism and the visual (325). True to form, Doane’s psychoanalytic analysis looks back to childhood development and she concludes that “the use of the voice in cinema appeals to a spectator’s desire to hear” (325). Doane compares the child and the spectator, suggesting that they attain pleasure within the “sonorous envelope” of the theater from the unity, singularity and presence of the voice (327). Near the end of this section, Doane explains that the voice’s “potential aggressivity” is managed in two ways: 1) through dialogue in narrative cinema or 2) through a juxtaposition with the visual in documentary. Newer forms of documentary reject the all-knowing (aggressive) power of the voiceover and allow the images presented to create their own story, masking the constructive nature of cinema.[5]

Doane ends with a discussion of the possible politics/erotics of the voice-off. She notes that conceptualizing an erotics of the voice-off does not aptly confront the epistemological issue of “mind/body dualism” and only furthers this separation (329). Doane then expresses concerns that a sole focus on politicizing the voice will be reductive because “a film is not a simple juxtaposition of sensory elements but a discourse, an enunciation” (329). She finally considers the feminist “double bind”: it is risky to politicize the body because it has always been the site of feminine oppression, but the body simultaneously opens up new possibilities of “gain” because it has been a site of said oppression (329-30).

Dialoguing M with Doane’s article raises some important questions with regards to the film and Doane’s theorizing. It seems that Doane’s notion of voice as interiority is reaching towards subjectivity, a more popular theoretical framework today than psychoanalysis. Beckert’s monologue at the end of the film is not interior, but his the quality of his voice expresses his terrifying interior life and the suffering he has endured. In this way, his voice “displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible” and communicates to the spectator “the ‘inner life’ of the character” (324). Can a monologue that is audible within the diegesis also have the qualities of an interior monologue that is shared only with the spectator?

Silences and whistles are additional aspects of M that require further attention. Doane occasionally mentions silences, even conceding that “the voice is even more powerful in silence,” but does not fully elaborate this power (327). Does Beckert achieve some kind of power (or terror) in his silence? The scene that portrays the first big search for Beckert plays with sounds and silences; the car pulls up (makes no sound), men get out (no sound), the street is quiet until – tweeeeeeeeeeet – a high-pitched whistle breaks the silence. This order-signaling, disciplinary whistle contrasts with Beckert’s uncanny whistling of the Hall of the Mountain King. How can we compare this whistling with Doane’s conception of the voice? Does it similarly express interiority? Overall, is Lang trying to use sound to conceal the constructed nature of the film or draw our attention to it? Do we get closer to the “consistency of the real” in M than we do in a film like Boyhood, which does not play with sound (ie: there is a fairly consistent soundtrack, no obvious lack of sound and dialogue is at the top of the hierarchy), or is it reversed?


[1] When the hierarchy is broken, it is indeed jarring – think back to the very end of Lost in Translation when the sounds of the street overtake the whispered goodbyes between Charlotte and Bob.

[2] In relation to M, the voice-off is a particularly relevant concept, but interestingly, Lang seems to use it to purposefully invoke the uncanny and rupture the phantasmatic body. The first time we hear Beckert (Peter Lorre, the murderer) speak in M, he appears as a shadow, outside yet inside the frame simultaneously. Lang uses the voice-off in a way that Doane does not theorize by creating a sense of the ominous through this disjunction of voice and body. Beckert’s voice is silenced throughout the film – we get most of his interiority through facial expression, more like a silent film – and his voice only reunites with his body at the very end during his monologue.

[3] In Doane’s translation of Bonitzer’s quotation, she explains that Bonitzer uses “voice-off” to mean both voice-off and voiceover (in French). In Spanish, the same holds true. The term voz en off (literally voice on off) implies voiceover narration, not Doane’s “voice-off.”

[4] It is interesting to note that Lang considered M to be a documentary (Kaes 9), which certainly raises some questions about his use of voice. While M does not have an omniscient narrator, we could interpret Inspector Lohmann’s phone call detailing the search efforts as a disembodied voice with absolute knowledge. Although Lohmann’s body technically has spatiotemporal limitations (established by the scenes of his body present in his office), his voice seems to travel effortlessly through the images of everything he is describing, leaping beyond limitations of time and space.

[5] Where does Lang’s “documentary” fall into this? Is there a “voice without a subject” that is present in M (327)?