La Flamme (2016). 7:00 minutes. Directed by Chachee Valentine.
On September 25, 2015, a woman returned to her Paris home after being hospitalized for depression—a visionary soul tortured in grief by her mother’s recent death and also feeling vulnerable because of her own mental illness. Ten days later, she was found dead; exterminated by her own hands. The suicide victim was identified as filmmaker Chantal Akerman. I use just the term “filmmaker” to describe her, rather than “feminist” filmmaker, or “Jewish” filmmaker, or “lesbian” filmmaker. Despite the rights of all these groups to lay claim to her art, I believe if Chantal Akerman had to identify herself as anything at all, she most likely would have chosen “daughter” over any other, so strong was her bond with her mother.
Her last work, No Home Movie, is an intimate account of her mother’s last months. An Auschwitz survivor, the senior could never, despite the intensely close relationship with her daughter, bring herself to speak about her experiences at the death camp. Making the film took a heavy emotional toll on Akerman who, just before taking her own life, told the New York Times in an interview, “I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have dared to do it.”
There would not be a trace of exaggeration in calling Akerman one of the most original and transforming filmmakers in the history of cinema. Her film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1975, the month before her twenty-fifth birthday. That is younger than Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane, younger than Jean-Luc Godard was when he made Breathless and, like the better-known two, her film is just as influential—using, for one of the first times in film, a gaze that was most definitively and most unapologetically female. This characterized a pattern in all her work (with a count of more than forty films), creating deeply intense portraits of women, in all their elation, all their suffering and their resilience, in their sexual pugnaciousness and experimentation, and above all, in their bare-naked honesty.
In the city of Chicago, more than four thousand one hundred and thirty miles away from Paris, video artist Chachee Valentine read about Akerman’s suicide. She read about an inspirational and tormented woman she had never met and will never be able to know. She read about a groundbreaking artist whom she had heard of but whose works she had never fully studied. She read about the death of a woman she barely knew and the voice of that dead woman rang inside her, haunted her. Her self-imposed exorcism of that voice compelled her to pick up her iPhone and start shooting, without a shot list but not aimlessly. She shot the leaves changing in season, the intimate rooms of her house, a blank white corner, seagulls flying over the cityscape, and tiny fairy lights not quite bright enough to illuminate rooms. These images struck a note in her, and the haunting voice inside her told her she must capture them.
Then she realized she had enough for a short film—a film beautiful and transfixing enough to win the Best International Short Experimental Film at the 2016 London International Short Film Festival. Each image in the seven minutes of the short film La Flamme obviously represents a feeling in Valentine’s heart, in her soul. Each shot is in homage to this woman she doesn’t know but with whom she feels a strong, artistic trans-Atlantic connection.
The film, and the women’s poignant stories behind them, made me think that perhaps what connects us as humans is not location, personality, or genetics but rather, pain. Pain is maybe the most deeply personal of emotions and without a word, can bond us together more profoundly than any other sensation. Perhaps that universal feeling of emotional torment is what unites us and perhaps the pain too unbearable for one woman, causing her to decide to end her presence on earth, helps another find a way to claw herself out of her own.
La Flamme is a composition in a series of discontinuous blocks strung together with the use of Akerman’s redolent French monologue. Like the fairy lights in many of the shots, the snapshots of this life are not quite bright enough to give it all away, but rather cleverly remain ambiguous, leaving unlit corners for us to unpack our own veiled darkness. Every viewer of the film will come away with an intensely personalized reaction to it in varying levels of sadness and distress and hope.
The only English words narrated by Akerman are in the final leg of the film when she says, “You have to believe in your instinct; it’s risky but you have to believe.” This acts as catalytic advice to Valentine, whose intuition is to focus her camera on everyday, seemingly mundane objects that we may walk past without so much as a blink, seeing them so often that we banish them to unnoticed ghosts in our world. Through her perspicacious lens, she makes these objects visible to us again, using them to give rise to the feelings in us we spent so much time burying deep down inside. She shot these objects and spaces as a response to her soul telling her what she needed to do, and that impetus breathes something so deeply personal into each image that the viewer has no other choice but to share their own sensibility into it, creating a bond with the filmmaker through their own shared pain.
Valentine invites us into her bedroom for sure, bathed in lights the scarlet red of danger, allowing us to breathe in the heaviness of her own depression as she returns to the comfort of her unkempt sheets. But even more intimately, she invites us into her kitchen. Her muse, Akerman, shot many of her protagonists in the kitchen, being one of the first filmmakers to use the kitchen as a verb, painting the kitchen as a struggle between femininity and domesticity; a self-confining prison of patriarchy.
Valentine, on the other hand, chooses to use the kitchen as a chakra of her own angst. Our protagonist anxiously paces across the cold tiles of the kitchen floor, her feet in varying socked and sockless states of dress, not knowing where to turn next; a decrepit cabinet door exhausted from battling its own rusted hinge lays lopsided when closed—winning the struggle to remain broken; there’s a haunting image of Valentine through the brown grease-spotted oven window, making it seem as if we are the oven, watching her with Plath-like intent, feeling frightened and helpless of what may be her next fateful move.
Moving outside, a shot of a lonely, rickety red and black lawn chair on a neglected porch littered with brown, dead leaves warns us that the inside is not a welcoming warm place, and images of wafting tree branches defying the harsh winter by fiercely holding on to their brightly colored leaves—the sunny yellow of which provides a bright respite of hope—are edited together with found footage of Akerman herself, on set with her camera and smoking a cigarette with European stoicism.
Valentine gives us just enough time with all the images for us to make up in our own minds their relationship and meaning to one another. She teaches us that in everything, no matter how seemingly mundane, there is a bit of pain, some art, and a glimmer of optimism—we just need to take the time to truly see them, as those attributes are more often than not hidden, fragmented, disorganized, and unassuming. She courageously takes on the challenge to discover, compose, and order them for us.
This director uses her camera to show us something we didn’t know we knew. She isn’t telling us what to feel, what to see or what to do. She lets us be. She offers a piece of her soul to each of us as viewers and lets us do with it what we want, boldly exposing to us everything she is feeling, allowing herself to bathe in the anxiety of that, as if her anxiety and pain provide her with sanctuary, protect her. This is inspiringly selfless filmmaking at its best, as through her pain Valentine is allowing us to release, to share, to meliorate, and, through her pain, we can finally see beauty.