Psychological or Not?: “La chambre” as a Room Scene

Margulies, in her 2006 article “La Chambre Akerman: The Captive as Creator,” considers Akerman’s “room scenes” or “Akerman-chambers” as sites of conflict between the artist’s creative autonomy and the everyday.  Margulies identifies room scenes as those “shallow-boxed” spaces in which people, most often women, perform simple, mundane tasks.  As isolating, confining, purposefully theatrical spaces, these rooms draw on anxieties of domesticity and an uncertainty that Margulies connects with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.  Because Margulies looks at many of Akerman’s films in various ways, I would like to focus my post on a few specific issues that I hope will be relevant for our discussion.

Though Margulies suggests that Akerman’s films are not deeply psychological[1], she relies heavily on the psychology of family and obsession-compulsion in her analysis of Akerman’s room scenes.  While arguing we are not meant to project on or connect to her characters, and even that Akerman might regard anything less than an opaque character as a manipulation of the spectator’s feelings in a way that is against her artistic vision, Margulies nonetheless offers a reading of the women in these rooms as mother figures and their repetitive actions as part of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In displaying both the mother and the artist’s everyday, Margulies believes Akerman attempts to extricate the artist from the mother—but reiterates that this is not a psychologically fraught scenario, despite its obvious psychological implications.  Calling on Freud, she turns to the repetitive and occasionally “manic” actions of these women as part of the “doubting dynamics of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.”  Doubt then becomes a key element of her argument, and she concludes by saying these films are Akerman’s depiction of the “obsessive’s doomed attempts to conquer uncertainty.”  I’m curious about how successful we feel Margulies is in making a deeply psychology-based argument while retaining her claim that Akerman’s films are not psychological.  I believe I understand that here she means overtly psychological, and that by presenting us with opaque characters she believes Akerman can avoid psychology and deal with it only referentially.  Do we buy this?

I also question how clearly Margulies makes the connection between her arguments about the room scene’s focus on the obsessive-compulsive’s doubt driving “doomed attempts to conquer uncertainty,” the point with which she concludes her article, and her initial aim to explore the enactment of artistic agency through the everyday.  While I can see a potential connection between the artist’s attempts to render their experience in art forms and the obsessive-compulsive’s drive to conquer their simultaneously chaotic and restrictive surroundings, I am not confident in saying this is the connection Margulies intends to draw, and it is certainly not made explicit.

Margulies draws from many of Akerman’s films, not only the piece we watched for Thursday’s class, but she does identify La chambre as a room scene, mentioning it as one in which the room-set takes over the entire film and acts as a separate, demarcated space for the self in which Akerman explores the conflict between artistic and obsessive autonomy.  The 360-degree room pan encircles and entraps, showing the boundaries of the domestic space.  However, she bases her arguments about room scenes primarily on Akerman’s longer, speaking films.  Several of the elements she mentions that seem to typify a room scene, or at least that become central evidence in her argument for the room scene’s purpose in Akerman’s films are missing from or not overt in La chambre.  Among these, the movement of the camera is smooth and unstopping, almost peaceful in that it refuses to let us settle on anything in the scene for too long, but moves over the objects in a way that becomes familiar.  This is in contrast to the other films Margulies considers, in which the “gestures” of the characters take priority both in narrative content and framing, and Margulies views them as part of the films’ neuroses.  While the woman in La chambre almost ritualistically holds, rubs, and eats the apple, it did not initially come across to me as obsessive-compulsive in the ways Margulies describes scenes from Akerman’s other films, which involve cleaning, counting, moving around the edges of the room, etc.  Keeping Margulies’s argument in mind, upon rewatching there is an urgency with which she eats the apple around 8:51 that could verge on the manic behavior Margulies is looking for, but the shot panning past her prevents me from focusing too much on anything obsessive-compulsive about her behavior.  Do we see mania or repetition here in a way that rings true with Margulies’s argument about the obsessive-compulsive’s doubt as central to Akerman’s exploration of artistic autonomy?

[1] Though she does not state this outright in reference to Akerman’s work at large, at several points in her analyses of Akerman’s films she describes Akerman’s technique as not “fraught with psychology,” “blocking psychological projection,” “not psychologically inflected,” a “non-psychological take,” and not “conducive to psychodrama.”

Leaving Solomon: Reading Patsey in the Context of bell hooks’ “Oppositional Gaze”

There are only two scenes in the entirety of 12 Years a Slave for which we leave Solomon’s perspective—one immediately after the first count of how much cotton each slave picked, when we see Patsey making cornhusk dolls while Solomon is beaten (58:14), and the second during her rape (1:13:00).  Solomon is “present” for both these scenes, being beaten in the background in the first one and awake inside during the second, but there is no way that he could have actually witnessed these events as we see them.  These scenes are particularly interesting in the context of bell hook’s chapter on black female spectatorship, since the only two deviations from Solomon’s point of view are for Patsey’s sake, and very distinctly involve “women’s” issues, the domestic and sexual assault.


The rape scene especially made me question why it was necessary to show Patsey’s torment in detail, when it is not directly part of Solomon’s experience.  To be clear, I am not questioning the scene’s necessity because it was graphic—graphic scenes certainly have a place and a purpose in a film of this nature.  I am questioning why this particular trauma, which Solomon did not witness first-hand, was necessary in a film intended to be shot from Solomon’s perspective (and based on a first-hand account which by necessity could not deviate from his perspective in such a way) and what purpose the scene serves, intentionally or unintentionally.  We certainly already had the impression that Patsey was being sexually abused prior to that scene, and we could have heard about the rape second-hand, or focused on watching Solomon while he listened to it, if he could hear them outside.  But instead we deviated from our protagonist to witness a graphic and brutal rape, even pausing a moment to focus on Patsey after Epps has left her alone.  I think this raises fascinating questions about where we are intended to place ourselves as viewers, and what power Solomon has to gaze in the film—and if Patsey has any power to gaze back.


If we are intended to identify with Solomon, and taking into account his feelings of personal responsibility for Patsey after refusing to assist her suicide, this could read as one of many rape scenes where we are intended to feel almost more or at least equal sympathy for Solomon as Patsey, a man forced to silently witness the sexual abuse of a woman for whom he is responsible.  We see these scenes in many different forms of media, incredibly problematic in their suggestion that men’s suffering trumps that of the women being abused.  This is in line with, I believe, hooks’ writing on the phallogocentric gaze of black men, which replicates racism even as it tries to rebel against it—but also privileges black men with the ability to gaze, which is withheld from or complicated for black women (683).  I wonder how we are meant to feel for Patsey, then.  Is she only the object of Solomon’s gaze?  Do we only feel Solomon’s responsibility for her and nothing else?  Do we only sympathize with her as far as Solomon does, as he refuses to assist her suicide, is forced to beat her, listens to (or is at least aware of) her rape, and is forced to leave her behind?  Or are we allowed to identify with her as a character in her own right, which seems only fair if we deviate from Solomon’s perspective for her sake?  In other words, do these scenes of deviation actually work towards understanding of or identification with Patsey, because we are given scenes of her independent from Solomon, or do they only work towards increasing sympathy/empathy for Solomon?  If we side with the latter, what does it mean that the purpose of Patsey’s rape, as one of only two scenes that separate us from Solomon, only serves to increase our connection to Solomon?


Also of note is the moment in which Solomon makes direct eye contact with the camera (1:59:35).  It is interesting because it is a moment where we lose the narrative temporarily.  We aren’t sure where exactly he is in time or space, and because it is a transition we lose any markers for how much time has passed.  Are we invited to see this as a “look back,” as per hooks’ act of resistance (682)?  If Solomon is looking at us, is he resisting our gaze as viewers?  His eyes fix on the camera almost incidentally, after staring off in several other directions first, and his expression is, in my opinion, one of desperation.  Clearly, breaking the fourth wall is purposeful, but the nature of the scene suggests a sort of helplessness or hopelessness in his gaze.  Can an act of resistance be hopeless?