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Foreplays #12: Chantal Akerman's "The Man with the Suitcase"

How far can a director push an awkward premise? Akerman turns the premise of a man refusing to leave his friend's apartment into a goldmine.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Chantal Akerman's The Man with the Suitcase (1983) is free to watch below.
Chantal Akerman’s The Man with the Suitcase (1983) departs from a seemingly nonsensical premise. After a trip, the unnamed protagonist (played by the director herself) comes back home and finds that Henri (Jeffrey Kime), the friend to whom she had lent the apartment during her absence, is still there. Despite craving solitude, she’s unable to ask him to leave.
In cinema, a premise of this kind can give rise to very different generic approaches. Light comedies of complication often turn this type of situation into a springboard for a series of entanglements that keep piling on top of each other, tightening the knots of the plot. Dark comedies with a Kafkaesque touch also revel in such a premise as an absurdist device of entrapment: the more time passes, the more evident the problem becomes, but also the more impossible it is to put an end to it. Sometimes the premise is active (a lie, a substitution, a confusion willingly created), but at other times it’s passive (implying something that has not been said or done). So-called “intimacy thrillers” since the 1990s have turned this premise into a cliché, while rejoicing in the dichotomy it brings to the fore: the inner instinct that intuits another person’s evil nature, versus the social codes of politeness. By virtue of this premise, plots involving cohabitation with suspicious neighbors, roommates, or tenants turn into veritable nightmares, full of mind games, menacing instability, and death threats.
Akerman was undoubtedly aware of all these ramifications, because The Man with the Suitcase is an inventive merging of genres, executed in her own, very personal, low-key style. The heroine’s pathological inability to verbalize her feelings traps her in an inescapable cage, meanwhile prompting an array of comic situations that are a pure performance of this refusal that she can’t put into words. Her panic over cohabitation triggers a series of ludicrous survival tactics based on avoiding this “other.” And a phone call occurring at minute 36 serves as the crucial turning point: it tips the film into a swirl of vigilantly paranoiac and irrationally obsessive actions verging on psychosis.
How far can a filmmaker push an awkward premise? What situations and complications can be extracted from it? What surprises and transformations can divert the seemingly stable course of the plot? Despite its humble appearance as a minor work made for television, The Man with the Suitcase is not short on answers to these questions. The film (which Akerman also wrote) turns its premise into a goldmine, cruising the full range of possibilities: from verbal implosion to gestural explosion; from ignoring the man when he’s present, to fixating on him when he’s absent; from controlled order to engulfing chaos.
***
The Man with the Suitcase starts with the arrival of its heroine at home. After airing the rooms and inspecting the apartment, she prepares some tea and has a bath. In barely ten shots, Akerman offers us an unadorned but quite wonderful depiction of the pleasures of solitude, of the joy of living alone. Dressed in a bathrobe, she lies on the couch, smokes a cigarette, switches from the sound system to the television set. In the way these simple actions are carried out, we can sense her delight in recovering the comfort of her own space after having spent months away. But this happiness doesn’t last long: the very next day, she discovers that Henri hasn’t left the apartment yet. When she returns from buying a sheaf of paper, and the man’s extravagantly tall figure greets her at the door, we begin to smell trouble.
Akerman has a very particular sensibility attuned to creating comedic situations from small clashes and imbalances. In The Man with the Suitcase, the difference in height between the two characters is cleverly exploited: Henri is too large, forcing her to raise her eyes as if she were looking at some monumental statue; his figure constantly gets in the way as an obstacle that needs to be circumvented. Even when the man is not present at home, the trace of his tallness is felt in the altered arrangement of domestic supplies: the tea can, deposited by him on a high shelf and closed too tightly, will force the heroine to climb the kitchen furniture and wrestle with the can before she can start preparing her drink. Henri’s height is a constant source of framing jokes (his figure can’t be contained in the image, his head is cut out) that emphasize his not-belonging to the space.
Their first morning together is a veritable disaster. When our heroine wakes up and goes to the bathroom, Henri is already there, completely naked, perched on the bathtub. From the kitchen, she can still hear his whistling and singing, invading her space. As we watch her having breakfast at the living-room table, we instantly grasp that she likes to eat her toast slowly, still half-asleep and lost in her musings, while the smell of the hot tea fills the room and the sun begins to penetrate the crack of the curtains. But, sadly, those moments of bliss are over.
After his shower, jolly Henri takes a seat and unsuccessfully tries to chit-chat with her. Every movement he makes is accompanied by a noise: the clicking of the spoon as he gathers marmalade or removes his beverage, the clonk of cups and jar tops as he tosses them onto the table, the rustle of a paper bag in which he searches for a piece of bread… And his way of spreading butter on the toast! It sounds as if he is scraping dry paint with a palette knife! Are you perhaps reminded of Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017)? Well, let me add one last detail: Henri has the habit of serving tea just like Alma, performing the annoying gesture of lifting the pot and letting the liquid pour as if it was dropping like a Niagara waterfall.
While all this happens, the heroine—seated in profile, next to the man—starts shrinking, turning toward us, as if trying to sneak away from the sight of this man who annoys her so deeply. It is one of the many wonderful gestures of detachment performed by Akerman in the film. At some point, she can’t take it anymore and explodes: throwing her unfinished toast on the plate, she stands up, knocks the chair to the floor, and walks away upset. No words to communicate her anger, just an arid, staccato string of sounds that respond to the rude myriad of noises made by Henri. Surely, she doesn’t like to start the day with a confrontation. 
Rhythm is another Akermanian source of comedy par excellence. In this sense, the heroine of The Man with the Suitcase is not far away from Charlotte, the writer played by Sylvie Testud in Tomorrow We Move (2004). Both characters are extremely sensitive to rhythm. Charlotte’s writing is constantly short-circuited and re-routed by the music coming from another room, her thoughts crossed by a melody, her fingers carried away by the notes. In The Man with the Suitcase, the heroine also feels this invasive interference: her attention is swamped by Henri’s noises that cause her to go silent, diverting her actions, speeding or slowing the tempo of her movements. Akerman is one of the few directors who has nailed down the problem of conviviality by depicting, often with great humor, the luminous synchronies and hellish asynchronies of different people’s rhythms.
It’s difficult to imagine The Man with the Suitcase without Chantal’s own presence on-screen, even if her inclusion as lead performer was apparently a last-minute production decision. As often happens when Akerman acts in her own films, reality and fiction contaminate each other. In this case, the only information we have about the character is that she’s returned from a trip to work on what seems to be a script for her next project. One of the funniest moments of the film happens when the heroine tries to write in the living room, taking advantage of the time Henri spends washing himself in the bathroom; she leaves her notes aside and turns on the radio. Suddenly, she realizes there’s only a short time left before Henri reappears in the living room. And, magically, the music of what will become, indeed, a future Akerman project—the musical Golden Eighties (1986)—serves as the soundtrack that accompanies her rushed breakfast completion.
Akerman’s movements and gestures have a delicious mix of clumsiness and boldness, the impulsiveness of a child, a definite Chaplinesque touch: qualities that fit perfectly with a character who goes against every social rule, every principle of measure, every code of common sense. In this film, everything to do with manners and habits is turned upside down. On the one hand, the most quotidian acts—making tea, preparing a bath, brushing teeth—always imply complications, fuss, some level of weirdness or extravagance. On the other hand, the most outrageous actions are performed by Akerman with an incredible naturalness. From time to time, she picks something (an object, a piece of food, an article of clothing) and uses the window as a magical rubbish bin, disposing the item without even looking out for possible casualties. At one point, she forgets her key and, instead of using the door bell and letting Henri open the door for her, she takes off her shoes, creeps along the facade, and accesses the apartment through the kitchen window—all done while the man stands there cooking.
Henri, who is a stranger in the house, inhabits it as if it was his own: he moves freely from room to room, enjoying the comforts of the apartment, but also fulfilling the obligations it demands (his bed is always made, his clothes well arranged, the dishes clean). By contrast, she, who is incredibly rude and unfriendly toward him, digs a trench in her bedroom and moves through the house like an intruder: running awkwardly through the corridor in silence so as not to be seen or heard, sticking to the walls, and inspecting the rooms in search of signs of the man. By subverting the roles of host and guest, The Man with the Suitcase dynamites the standards of what is proper and acceptable in terms of conviviality, turning the house into a site of anarchy and rebellion against the established social order.
***
Like various other works by Akerman, The Man with the Suitcase is a powerful film about the necessity of a routine. Routine can be very strict—as in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)—or looser, as in Night and Day (1991) and Tomorrow We Move. But it always involves a series of tasks or encounters that happen at concrete places, at specific hours of the day or night.
Despite the evident fact that these heroines’ obsessions with their pre-planned schedules often mask other, subterranean issues, routine is portrayed by Akerman (and in this she’s very unique) as an essentially positive thing. Routine is a self-imposed habit that gives the characters a sense of grounding and equilibrium. It is something desired, something that gives them pleasure. When they can’t carry out their routines as planned, something breaks, letting loose all the phantoms it conceals. In Akerman’s cinema, any obstruction of the routine has the devastating power of a tropical storm, capable of disintegrating the entire landscape. That’s precisely what happens in The Man with the Suitcase within the space of the house.
The layout of the apartment where all the action takes place is simple. Two neighboring doors in a corridor give access to bathroom and kitchen. At one end of that corridor, we find a large living room with blue walls—this is the place where Henri sleeps. At the other end, we find the woman’s bedroom painted in apricot. As the film advances and the situation tightens, we see how this space is subjected to small and large transformations, mutating like a war zone under attack.
When the heroine encounters Henri at the apartment’s door for the first time, she forgets her sheaf of paper at the entrance, and marches decisively toward her own room. Once there, she starts rearranging the space in a frenzy. First, she changes the direction of the mattress; afterwards, she puts the nightstand against the window; finally, she transports her working desk from the living room to the bedroom. With the passing of days, this bedroom—which looked perfectly tidy at the start of the film—begins to appear more and more cluttered: a green quilt hangs from the door to soften the sounds made by Henri; a lamp sits on the nightstand, preventing the window from being opened; the telephone is oddly positioned in an open drawer of the nightstand; and, on the writing desk, the typewriter is covered by a huge sheet of paper, the little free space left taken up by cups, dishes, and teapots.
Routine has pharmacological properties: it comes with both cures and perils. On the fourth day, the protagonist decides to make arrangements to never meet Henri. She starts tracking his schedule, annotating his entries and exits, his times of eating, using the bathroom, or writing. She doesn’t pine anymore for her lost solitude. She’s too busy. Now, each day has a new purpose: boiling down Henri’s every move, every step, every action. By studying and mastering Henri’s timetable, she anticipates that she can “dribble” it as in sport, rebuilding a new routine at the margins of his.
But, on the sixth day, just after he announces his intention to stay in the house for six months, the fatal phone call happens. We can sense a hint of betrayal in the way that Akerman repeats: “He called Odile, my friend Odile.” But what is at play here is less straightforward than plain jealousy: this phone call dismantles Henri’s routine, the routine that she has been establishing so fastidiously. The man’s behavior becomes erratic, unpredictable. That night he doesn’t sleep at home—and, therefore, she can’t sleep either. At three o’clock, distressed, she wakes up and lights a cigarette. Henri returns the morning after, but leaves several hours later. This time, he’ll be away for several nights.
On the ninth day, her obsession starts taking a bizarre turn: after he goes out, she sets up a camera at the living room window, facing the street. This way she can control his entries and exits. She spends her days waiting for the man she doesn’t dare speak with. In combating the loss of her routine, she has grown attached to, and dependent on, his. And, now, the remedy has become poisonous.
By day eleven, her bedroom has turned into a fortress. She makes a phone call to order provisions and, in the next shot, we see her lying in bed, smoking, glancing through a newspaper, and sulkily eating salad (yes, all at the same time). On the mattress, next to her, a slightly tilted television set—adorned with cans of film reels—reproduces the street view recorded by the camera. In the foreground, some feet away from the mattress, there’s a small camping gas stove heating a pot containing god knows what (she never seems to turn it off). Control center, desolation row, bunker box: this is an extreme version—smaller in size, but messier and more cluttered—of the room containing everything seen in Akerman’s early short, La chambre (1972).
The Man with the Suitcase unfolds over a period of four weeks. Each day is dutifully introduced by a text that serves as a diary annotation. But, after day 11, we suddenly jump to day 26. What has happened here? It’s Henri’s absence, punching a two-week hole in the film. Henri, this annoying guest, this unwanted presence, this nuisance, has become the nucleus around which the film’s clock turns. Now, his absence even has the power to alter the film’s own routine.
***
In Akerman’s film, the camera doesn’t move even once. Composed only of fixed shots, each from a similar, slightly low angle, The Man with the Suitcase works through a reduced number of camera set-ups. This has a strong impact on our perception of the space: faced with the same framings, with the same portions of the apartment, we can appreciate better how, day after day, the image registers every transformation of the place, every modification of the relations between figure and space. Akerman’s rigorous formal dispositif—which, in part, may have been prompted by the constraints of the space itself and by the will to facilitate her double role as director-performer—can also be seen as a response to the anxiety brought on by the fleeting figure of the man with a suitcase.
Is there a better image of ephemerality than the one evoked by the film’s title? Always in transit, always in-between, never completely in or out of the house, this man with a suitcase disables routine. He does it upon his arrival and also upon his exit. He also does it in the meantime, because nothing permanent, nothing durable can be built in relation to him. He’s an emotionally devastating figure, a paradox. His movement is always out of sync with yours: he appears by surprise and leaves without notice; when you’ve adapted to his presence, he’s already absent.
At the start of the film, only the heroine’s travel bag lies in the apartment’s corridor, after she’s left it there upon her arrival. But, on the second day, when Henri greets her at the door, we can already see, in that same corridor, his suitcase, his boots, and a pair of hanging jackets. From that point onward, a full or partial view of these three items will appear in a total of twenty-five shots (the whole film is composed of less than one hundred shots). When, by day 28, the heroine leaves her room and walks in sadness along the now empty corridor, we know that the film is over. The final shot of The Man with the Suitcase celebrates the heroine’s ecstatic return to work, as the typewriter, liberated, rattles like a train.

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