Friday, September 11, 2009

Saute Ma Ville

Like its more famous offspring, Jeanne Dielman’s precursor, the 1968 short Saute Ma Ville, locates a species of madness in the domestic rituals of female life. But whereas the eponymous heroine of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece at least initially seems to thrive on the order that these rituals provide, the younger heroine of the earlier film (as Akerman points out in an interview included, like Saute Ma Vie itself, on Criterion’s new DVD issue of Jeanne Dielman) seems determined from the start to smash them to bits. And yet the pattern in both films is the same: we see a woman go about the ordinary routines of domesticity, only to eventually detect cracks in the armor and to witness a final descent into violent aberration. That these fissures become apparent much quicker in Saute Ma Ville than Dielman is a tribute to the earlier film’s astonishing compression – 13 tightly packed minutes rather than the 3 1/2 equally necessary hours of the later work.

Actually for those familiar with Dielman, the differences to be encountered in Saute Ma Ville are apparent from the start. Beginning with several seconds of black leader over which we hear a few indecipherable rumblings in a high-pitched female voice, the film then opens on a rough black-and-white image of two drab high-rise apartments situated at the edge of a work zone. Panning across the rubble, DP René Fruchter then picks out another high-rise, this time much closer to the camera and tilts up the building. After a couple of more equally brief establishing shots, the rumblings return to the soundtrack, this time identifiable as the slightly cracked monosyllabic singing (“la la la la”) of a woman. Soon we see the woman herself (played by Akerman), a young brunette wearing a white hat, carrying a bundle of flowers and giddily entering one of the high-rise buildings.

Whereas for much of Dielman’s running time, everything in the daily life of its heroine is, at least superficially, structured and stable, in Saute Ma Ville, a certain sense of disorder is immediately registered. The 1975 film consists almost entirely of long, fixed shots that pin its characters to walls, parallel to the camera axis. By contrast, the 1968 short offers a much looser aesthetic, favoring a frequently moving hand-held camera, quick cuts and angled compositions to suggest a greater freedom of movement for its heroine. The disembodied voice on the soundtrack, which continues its singing intermittently throughout the film and which, although never identified as such, is easily taken to belong to the woman on-screen, hints from the beginning at a latent madness in the character, both through the maniacal quality of the vocalizing and through the dissociation of personality suggested by the audio/visual split.

Still if Saute Ma Ville’s aesthetic looseness (vis-à-vis Dielman) implies a greater mobility for its heroine, it’s more an emotional/spiritual freedom than a physical one. Although we’re granted a far less comprehensive understanding of her daily life, and although she’s not saddled (as far as we can tell) with a son and a part-time prostitution gig, the scope and constitutive activities of her existence seem nearly identical to that of Jeanne Dielman. In short, she’s confined for almost the entirely of the film’s running time to her kitchen. She cooks spaghetti, eats, makes tea, prepares to clean the floor. But even as we get a sense of her daily routine, we already notice signs of trouble.

At first, she seems merely eccentric – an impression created by the picture of a smurf saying “go home” hanging on her kitchen door and her obsessive lining of that door’s cracks with duct tape. But after dinner, things quickly disintegrate. She pulls a rain slicker from under the sink, puts it on and spills soapy water all over her floor in an odd, but still functional effort to clean the kitchen. Then she begins polishing her shoe; in her zealotry, the polishing extends to her socks and legs. Finally she squirts hand lotion onto her face – a mock cum-shot perhaps suggestive of some desire for sexual humiliation – and, starting a fire in the kitchen and turning on the stove to fan the flames, lays down her head and prepares for death.

This last section of the film makes increasing use of Akerman’s frenzied vocalizing on the soundtrack, culminating in a loud shout of “bang” as she effects her final preparations. Similarly, as the woman’s mental stability further disintegrates, the director films an increasing number of shots in mirrored reflection, culminating in the final “death” sequence which is seen entirely through the reversing prism of the kitchen mirror. Taken together, these two aesthetic touches (dissociated voice, mirror imaging) make palpable the heroine’s fatal displacement of personality. Demanding an explicit cause of such a dissociation is, in this limited instance, too much of a burden to place on so short a work. But, given the film’s inescapable association of its character with domestic routine, there’s plenty of room for speculation. This speculative freedom would continue seven years later, everywhere present in the director’s masterpiece, even as that film, much more so than Saute Ma Ville, situates itself explicitly outside its troubled heroine’s fractured headspace.

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