Moving in Time: Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit
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Moving in Time:
Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit

Chantal Akerman's 1982 film Toute une nuit1 is a cinematic ballet, a nocturnal symphony that captures the movements of attraction and repulsion between lovers2 over the course of a summer night in Brussels. Beginning at dusk as the calm of the evening quiets the city, and concluding the following morning with the deafening sounds of morning traffic, the film follows anonymous individuals as they meet and separate. The darkness of the urban evening provides a backdrop for the choreography of love, the melodramatic gestures of the actors materializing like luminous fireflies from the shadows. These gestures take center stage in this film, while the nameless characters and discontinuous mini-narratives function merely as props through which movement is realized. Akerman does not use narrative in the film in order to achieve continuity; rather, she creates continuity through constant affective change that endures throughout the film. In other words, the discontinuity of Akerman's collection of fragmented narratives, often abruptly cut and seemingly independent are fused in affect; the melody of a pop song carried across the city by the wind, the clacking of footsteps on city pavement, rustling leaves, slamming doors, and most importantly the poses and gestures of the actors' bodies merge in order to suggest affective change.

Given this preliminary description of the film as a collection of fragmented stories fused together by affective rather than narrative movement, it should already be evident that Toute une nuit requires a certain mental flexibility from the spectator, a willingness to move between the spatial mode of narrative and a more temporal mode of [End Page 1192] engagement. Akerman describes the communication between spectator and film as occurring on both a physical (or spatial) anda temporal plane: "I want the spectator to feel a physical experience through the time used in each shot; to make this a physical experience in which time unfolds in you, in which the time of the film enters into you" ["Je voudrais que le spectateur éprouve une expérience physique par le temps utilisé dans chaque plan. Faire cette expérience physique que le temps se déroule en vous, que le temps du film rentre en vous"] (Béghin 23, my translation). Akerman coerces her spectator to interact with the film externally or physically, and temporally, that is to say, internally, as affect and memory.

To analyze the syncopation between external and internal, spatial and temporal engagement in Toute une nuit we must turn to film theory in order to understand how space, time, and cinematographic subjectivity have been conceptualized. Film theorists such as Dudley Andrew and Vivian Sobchack have both commented on the limitations of semiotic, structuralist, and psychoanalytic approaches to film. In particular, they both acknowledge how the objective and scientific analysis of cinematic signification that has dominated film theory forecloses the opportunity to explore, in Andrew's words, the "'other-side of signification,' those realms of preformulation where sensory-data congeal into 'something that matters' and those realms of post-formulation where that 'something' is experienced as mattering" (Andrew 627). Similarly, Sobchack argues that this 'other-side' of signification neglected by film theory is precisely at the limits of objective analysis: ". . . both psychoanalytic and Marxist film theory in most of their current manifestations have obscured the dynamic, synoptic, and lived-body experience of both the spectator and the film—ironically, in this context, as they have respectively emphasized the sexual and material economy of the sign and signifying subject" (Sobchack xvi). The references to the absence of "lived-body experience" in cinema offer a clue as to the methodological approach Andrew and Sobchack seek to revitalize in film theory: phenomenology. Each offers well-founded arguments as to why film theory must be able to address the embodied act of viewing as a critical aspect of the cinematic experience, and both should be lauded for challenging film theory in this respect.3

Just five years after Andrew wrote "The Neglected Tradition of Phenomenology in Film Theory," and about seven years before Sobchack's The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience was published, Gilles Deleuze's first...