April 18, 2023

Nothing Personal, Love: On Toute une nuit

Dominiek Hoens

Still from Chantal Akerman, Toute une nuit (1982). 

La nuit tout est plus vrai.
—Marguerite Duras

It is not easy to depict what happens in Toute une nuit (1982), a film once counted among the hundred best in history.1 The emphatic unity of time (one sultry summer night) and place (the neighborhoods of Brussels) is not the framework of a coherent story, but of stories in rapid succession, populated by numerous characters, which at first glance have little to do with each other. In the opening images, we see alternately a woman and a man hastily walking, taking a streetcar, and disappearing into a pedestrian tunnel, only to reappear, somewhat surprisingly, together in a car driven by the woman, with the man resting his head on her shoulder. We do not see them again. In the next scene, a woman in a low-cut red dress calls someone and immediately hangs up at the allô on the other end of the line, only to mumble, “Je laime, je laime.” Thereupon she gets in a cab that takes her to, one may assume, the lover’s house; she watches him pace back and forth in a lit room, then leaves again. Another scene: a woman and a man sit silently, staring ahead, side by side at two adjacent tables. The palpably growing tension between them is broken when, almost simultaneously, they both leave some money on the tables and stand up. The man disappears from view only to return immediately afterwards, whereupon they embrace each other impetuously. People wait, sometimes fruitlessly, or miss each other by a hair, or are faced with the choice of going with one or the other and choose neither, or cannot fall asleep in bed. Long lasts the silence of one couple, which is finally broken by a breathtakingly fatal remark: “I don’t think we love each other anymore.” There are also mildly humorous scenes, such as when a woman returns to the conjugal bed after an adulterous outing, puts on her sleepwear, and pretends to wake up next to her still-sleeping other half. Or another woman who hastily packs her suitcase in a bedroom with yet another oversleeping husband. And so on and so forth.

That the film strings together and connects stories like a mosaic is not entirely accurate. “Stories” is not the right word here, because it suggests too much explicit narration, whereas what we are dealing with are short scenes that appear as if cut from longer narratives the viewer can only imagine. This makes Toute une nuit a film where one doesn’t so much sympathize with the vicissitudes of the characters, but experiences the film as a film. Such a tautology requires clarification. But the main question that needs to be addressed is why viewers, as Akerman said in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, “divide themselves into two camps: some say it is a very sad film, others find that it gives energy, that it makes you want to go out, that it produces a kind of cocaine effect. When I see it, I feel that too: it makes me want to live strongly [vivre fort].”2 In the same interview, Akerman states that “the film escapes on all sides,” evading reductive interpretations. At the same time, the film’s formalism, and its absence of any narrative, highlights an obscure, enigmatic drive, a force moving people to embrace, dance, commit adultery, abandon, stare into solitude, and wait expectantly. Therefore these notes are formulated from a psychoanalytic, not a psychological, point of view.

Still from Chantal Akerman, Toute une nuit (1982). 

Dark Is the Night

Toute une nuit is, unsurprisingly, a dark film: the petroleum-blue twilight, the nocturnal black, and finally the sallow gray dawn envelop every scene in a dimly awake, at-times-dreamlike haze. The nocturnal experience of fading visual impressions is enhanced by the sounds—cars, music, footsteps—placed prominently in the foreground, often before images allow one to identify their (human) source. These images, furthermore, are bathed in an ambiance that blurs even the contours of the characters. Like fireflies, they appear briefly and then, with a few exceptions, disappear forever. The momentary appearance of characters in the night—which Akerman states is “like a big studio”—reflects the cinematic experience of a dark room in which changeable, fleeting images are projected onto a screen. The film screening sometimes illuminates one part of the audience, then another, making it briefly light up in the darkness of the cinema room. As a result, it is as if the night of Toute une nuit, with its artificial light of lanterns, chandeliers, and car lamps, comes streaming out of the screen, forming a continuity with the dark space in which the viewer finds themself. At the same time, this night conversely draws the viewer into a universe in which characters of flesh and blood, with life stories that are undoubtedly as complex as they are fascinating, are reduced to shadows, to barely lit extras in a nocturnal darkness that is many times stronger and more vivid than those who it envelops. Viewing Toute une nuit temporarily dilutes personal existence into a persona (Greek for mask) capable only of dancing movements, abrupt gestures, encounters filled with sparse words, and the soundless expression of passionate love.

This remarkable quality is the first aspect of a more encompassing impression of watching a film throughout the film, as if the film were saying about itself, “Look, I’m a film.” This impression is reinforced by the lack of story and therefore psychology. We are shown only snippets, and the motivations of the characters are not even sketchily portrayed. Nonetheless, almost every scene feels familiar because we know them from other films. What Akerman does with Toute une nuit can therefore be summed up as follows: recognizable scenes belonging to the paradigm of romantic cinema—waiting (for a lover or on the phone), sighing in solitude, the embrace, the estranged couple—are shown one after another, isolated from any narrative unity.3 In this way, the film recalls Roland Barthes’s book Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse (1977), in which the author paints a portrait—a “structural, not psychological” portrait, the reader is told on the very first page—of a lover speaking.4 As with Akerman, these are fragments that do not fit into the whole of a love story. More than that, a love story, according to Barthes, is like an adventure—with a beginning and an end, often containing a painfully acquired “moral of the story”—which the lover must share with the world, literally or not, to reconcile with the latter, meaning: to be able and allowed to belong to it. By contrast, being in love as such has no story, and however much it is directed toward the other, it is an individual, even solitary experience. This is not so much a feeling that cannot be put into words as a soliloquy composed of phrases, gestures, and figures that—and this is Barthes’s point—precede the individual as a discourse. This discourse is a collectively unconscious language, an “encyclopedia of affective culture” from which the lover draws in order to articulate their infatuation and all the accompanying emotions. Barthes refers to “verbal hallucinations,” but an even more powerful image is possibly that of the speech bubble, filled with stock phrases expressing jealousy, longing, rapture, and so on.5 What are perceived as the most personal thoughts repeat what an impersonal “one” has already said about feelings of love and longing. Toute une nuit presents a similar sampling of love and desire, not of a discursive, literary, and philosophical tradition, but of images, attitudes, and movements we recognize from countless romantic films.

It is thus fitting that Akerman frequently uses pop hits—except for Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and a haunting drone at the start and end of the film—that evoke the atmosphere of fairs, cafés, and summer parties, such as “Ma Révérence” by Véronique Sanson and “L’Amore Perdonera” by Gino Lorenzi. Don’t such tearjerkers succeed exceedingly well in revealing the most private within the most generic, qua lyrics, music, and audience? In his essay on pop songs, Rudi Laermans remarks that the paradox of the pop hit is that “its general, even quasi-generic character does not at all supersede the individual (as Adorno claims), but acts as an anonymous sound box, through which the personal can resonate in such a way that it seems to acquire an unmistakable voice.”6

There is a quote in Barthes’s book that is particularly applicable to the film. The sixteenth-century mystic Juan de la Cruz once described how “the night illuminated the night.” This statement may not lack for profundity, but it also flirts with meaninglessness. How can the night illuminate, and further, illuminate itself? The meaning becomes clearer when we apply Juan de la Cruz’s distinction between estar a oscuras (being in obscurity) and estar en tinieblas (being in darkness). The latter denotes a state of confusion, a desire attached to the disorder of the world and to certain objects. Human beings, like the nocturnal figures in Toute une nuit, can lose themselves in desire. “Being in obscurity,” on the other hand, does not abolish desire and its confusion, but it can bring peace, because it is accompanied by the insight that there is an origin of this desire, a cause. In the night, that time and space par excellence which arouses desire, one must discern another night that illuminates the first, that somehow clarifies what takes place in the first night. Using a contemporary term, we can call this second night—a night that illuminates another night—the unconscious.

Still from Chantal Akerman, Toute une nuit (1982). 

The Night Within the Night

Toute une nuit is enchanting because, in addition to slow scenes bathed in loneliness or imminent separation, the fragments succeed one another with an almost demonic speed. The rushed pace at which one gripping, intense scene succeeds another has an undeniably trivializing effect on what are usually dramatic highlights in a film. At the same time, the film does not at all come across as a playful but ultimately superficial succession of aspects of romantic love, for the scenes themselves are often marked by haste. There is a sudden kiss, the reunion is impetuous, a woman rushes away, and so on. This merging of the brief and the rapid not only makes the scenes intense (and thus more than arid audiovisual quotations); it gives the impersonal a very personal twist. Precisely because we learn little or nothing about the private history of the characters, many of the fragments concentrate on moments, stolen from the chronological time of “the love story,” when something crucial is decided. While Akerman clearly ironizes, through her excised quotes, the tradition of romantic film and the “perversity” of cinema—which, according to Slavoj Žižek, consists in teaching us what and how to desire7—she simultaneously adds a dimension that eroticizes. We can locate this “eroticism” in the fragments themselves—what they show possibly arouses the viewer or reminds them of desire. At the same time, these fragments leave a lot unseen. In fact, there is so little to see when it comes to romantic desire that only the essential can appear—namely variations on the (un)succeessful encounter between two people.

Akerman provides neither context nor keys for interpretation and understanding. Consequently, the encounter appears not as “a moment in a story” but as a surplus, a surplus that adds itself to a given situation. In everyday life people meet with a certain desire for communication, friendship, or love, but the circle of desire and fulfillment is never quite complete. Instead of filling a deficiency, or a desire, the encounter generates an excess, which one does not immediately know what to do with. Thus there are encounters that give rise to a longing for the person one has met: “Before I met you I didn’t know what I was missing.” Through the encounter, then, something is added to a human life but, strangely, something is also taken away; how else to explain that a person suddenly misses something that was not missed before? The darkness of Toute une nuit, where people chase, embrace, or abandon each other like nameless shadows, where they are propelled as in a round dance, repeating time-honored, more-than-familiar movements—that impersonal night is illuminated by another night, the obscure and paradoxical event of the personal encounter. Viewed in this way, the film plays a masterful game with the personal and the impersonal, with the illuminating night of the private encounter in the dark night of generic repetition, with something that always threatens to disappear in a love story but thanks to Akerman’s genius can appear as an encounter in its almost speechless, incomprehensible “stupidity.”

To quote a passage from another of Barthes’s books: “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? … It is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself that seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-disappearance.”8 Toute une nuit is such an erotic body, a montage of “intermittences” that suspends the chronological time of the love story, interrupting it to allow, between the past of what preceded and the future of what is to come, the “gaping” encounter to appear, before giving it up again to the darkness of the night, to its passionate but no less flattened movements, and finally to the routine that expects us at the dawn of day. Put another way, Toute une nuit is a paean to the contingency of the encounter, of a contingency that—despite its emphasis on the predetermined, anonymous, and necessary course of love—happens as the accident of touching-together (con-tingent). In this sense, the whole night spoken of in the title is not only bounded by twilight and dawn, but opened up from within by the partiality of the fragments in which the particular encounter is explored in all its guises. In a tragicomic but above all moving scene, we see a woman chasing a man and asking him, “Why are you leaving?” He answers, “That’s how it is” (C’est comme ça). The woman responds by hugging him briefly, then goes back inside. The man stops and embraces her. “We can’t stand here like this for a whole night, can we?” asks the woman. “Yes,” replies the man. In this exchange, which takes less than half a minute, we hear the title of the film (toute une nuit) and also the ambiguity of the word “nuit”: of course the two cannot stand there all night—legs get tired, arms gets stiff, etc.—but in that nocturnal embrace is there not a “night” that lasts longer than any whole night? A “night” whose impression may be felt many nights later, and not without consequences? Love will forgive all, l’amore perdonera, the soundtrack sings to us repeatedly. Love forgives—thus the perfect excuse: “It was done out of love”—but does it not also irrecoverably mark us, in however fleeting or imperceptible a way, with the “night” of the night of love?

From this a duality can be deduced, two sets of notions that look as follows: night1–quotation–repetition (of the cliché)–impersonal; and night2–intermittence–occurrence (of the encounter)–personal. Despite the contrast, these two sequences are not opposed to each other; rather the second nestles into the first, complements it and makes it more complex. This is most evident with the notion of “night,” which involves a night in the night; but the other terms do not relate to each other as dialectical opposites either. Thus Akerman’s staging of quotations from film history allows us to discern in them an intermittence, vibrating with life. Meanwhile, her repetition evokes both determinacy—there’s “no escape from it,” “everyone does the same thing over and over again”—and its fleeting exception, the glitch of the encounter. Therefore, the last terms in these sequences, “impersonal” and “personal,” may not seem appropriate, for they are too diametrically opposed; the “im-” is too harsh a negation. This raises the question of whether these terms were well chosen. Concerning “impersonal” there can be little discussion: Toute une nuit consists of nameless characters blindly repeating what has been done and seen many times elsewhere. They have hardly any psychology or history, and their actions seem the result of an obscure passion rather than of an enlightened will. Consequently, it is the term “personal” that must be examined more closely. Is the encounter really that personal? It’s certainly intimate, possibly overwhelming, but it also and above all has to do with the other. The romantic encounter has a ravishing quality that is startling, snatching a person from their familiar, more-or-less-fixed place. Even though today love is understood primarily in terms of a love relationship, as shared emotions, experiences, and history between two people—with an associated proliferation of podcasts, books, scholarly articles, dating sites that guarantee a match, and relationship counseling—it can be enlightening to considering the following admittedly difficult passage from Jacques Lacan:

We mourn but for she of whom we can say I was her lack. We mourn people that we have treated either well or badly, but with respect to whom we did not know that we fulfilled the function of being in the place of their lack. What we give in love is essentially what we do not have, and when that which we do not have comes back at us, there is … a revelation of the way in which we fell short of representing for her this lack. But here, given the irreducible character of the misrecognition of this lack, this misrecognition simply switches around, namely, we believe we can translate our function of being her lack into us having fallen short—even when it was in this respect that we were precious and indispensable for her.9

Lacan’s famous statement, repeated in this quote, that to love is to give what one does not have, boils down to the idea that in love we give our desire, namely that which we ourselves lack. This is the basic axiom of Lacanian psychoanalysis, that desire is based on a structural, irreparable lack. In love we do not give something, such as attention, care, and so on; we give nothing, we give ourselves as desire, as a being marked by lack. The difficult issue here is that this other is also desiring, which raises the question: What am I, or what have I been, for that other? This comes to the fore, Lacan says, during the mourning process. Surprisingly, Lacan does not refer here to the obvious fact that in mourning we miss the other, but argues that we experience ourselves as having been her lack, that which she missed. We think we have fallen short—and feel remorse because we can no longer make up for it—but this misses the point that on a more fundamental, unconscious level we are no longer the object of the other’s desire. The other gave us her desire because we incarnated the object that both provoked and phantasmatically fulfilled this desire. Phantasmatically, because this desire was not really fulfilled—this would amount to a pure, perverse reduction to an object, as well as the dissolution of what the other is and gives in love (namely desire). But apparently there was something in me to which that other could attach herself in a desiring way. This Lacan describes as “representing the other’s lack,” indicating that we, as objects of desire, give a certain substance or consistency to that desire. Of course, love, and certainly love relationships, are about more than that. But the basic structure that Lacan sketches, of desiring the other on the unconscious ground of being the object of the other’s desire, indicates how even the most personally felt and contemplated love revolves around a shadowy, radically unconscious object that, in the first and last instance, we will have been for the other.

In Toute une nuit, the impersonality of passion is complemented not by a personal detail, a biographical idiosyncrasy, or a slice of a love story, but by another who equally impersonally incarnates the object that ignites passionate love. The latter can be illustrated by the final scene of the film. In it, the woman we heard sighing “Je laime earlier on the phone returns. She wonders aloud, dancing with one man—on yet another lamore perdonera—why she loves another, absent man. She claims to have never loved anyone like that before. Why? Is it his mouth, his hair, his chin, his way of speaking or looking? There’s no answer, though she adds that “sometimes I even forget him.” Elusive and nameless is the object of desire.

Still from Chantal Akerman, Toute une nuit (1982). 

Into the Night

Toute une nuit can hardly be boring thanks to its skillful editing and the speed with which one scene follows another. At the same time, for those expecting a story, or some kind of ambiguous moral or life lesson, it is a rather frustrating film. The film knows much, if not everything, about love; it’s an encyclopedia of “all” romantic situations. But it teaches the viewer little. The film rather saddles you with a feeling of dejection or elation or a bittersweet combination of both. There does lurk a certain tragedy in the repetitive and passionate longing with which one character blindly loves another. Virtually every embrace takes place against the background of its absence, of the possibility of its not having taken place; every first encounter has the enthusiasm of a reunion. This structure of “presence by virtue of a prior absence” recalls Freud’s assertion that “the finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.”10 The simultaneity of finding and refinding entails a complex operation: paradoxically, finding the object installs the loss on the basis of which one can only consider the object as found again. This is the effect the film produces: to experience in the proximity of lovers touching a “mis-touching,” whereby the inevitable future loss or farewell seems to precede the very moment of the encounter.

And yet, the film inspires one to live “strongly,” as Akerman put it. This has to do with the unconditional “yes” with which one dances, embraces, kisses, and, not insignificantly, ventures outside, elsewhere. The film ends with the scene cited above in which the woman dances and wonders why she loves her lover. That dance is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone. The woman answers and, intermittently, says “yes” eight times to questions, suggestions, or simple assertions that cannot be heard. Involuntarily, we are reminded again of Juan de la Cruz. He found no mystical union with God in his ascent of Mount Carmel, and expressed this by writing nada seven times: there is nothing, God and all the rest, everything is nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and again, nothing. In Toute une nuit, a “yes” is finally said, affirming something rather than nothing, in response to a desire, to that encounter whose damage can only be retrospectively measured in a text like this one.11


The 100 Best Films of the World: A Journey Through a Century of Motion-Picture History, ed. Manfred Leier (Rebo International, 2008). For the chapter on Toute une nuit, entitled “Silent Passions,” see 106–7.


Alain Philippon, “Entretien avec Chantal Akerman: Fragments bruxellois,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 341 (1982): 22.


The so-called lack of narrative unity must be qualified, firstly by pointing out, following Akerman herself, that the film consists first of intense fragments (the night), then of quieter scenes in which people sleep or are silent (the dawn that begins with a thunderstorm), and then ends with the return to everyday life (the morning). The film thus traces a minimal narrative arc (see “Toute une nuit,” Versus, no. 1, 1983). Secondly, there is a “transport” of affects between fragments: elements from one scene affect the perception of other scenes. The latter is discussed in detail using Deleuze and Bergson in Darlene Pursley, “Moving in Time: Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit,” MLN 120, no. 5 (2005).


Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. R. Howard (Hill and Wang, 2001). The connection between Toute une nuit and Barthes’s book has been made before; see Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akermans Hyperrealist Everyday (Duke University Press, 1996), 178. There still seems to be much reason and space for a thorough comparison between the book and Akerman’s film. In addition to what is pointed out in this text, there is the deliberately chosen yet disorderly looking fragmentation across short, almost unconnected segments. The figure of the mother is also present in both the book and the film, in an indirect yet meaningful way.


This, of course, recalls the famous maxim of La Rochefoucauld (1613–80): “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.”


Rudi Laermans, “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Rekto:verso, 2017 (in Dutch). A related idea is aptly stated by Federico Fellini, quoted in Laermans’s article: “I am convinced that if at the end of our lives we were given the chance to say something and we were also really honest, we would sing a tune as a summary of a whole existence” (my translation).


The Perverts Guide to Cinema: Presented by Slavoj Žižek, directed by Sophie Fiennes (Lone Star, 2006), DVD.


Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (Hill and Wang, 1998), 9–10.


Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book X: Anxiety, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. A. R. Price (Polity Press, 2014), 141. Translation modified; the original French can also be read “him/his” where “she/her” was chosen.


Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey, vol. 7 (Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis), 222.


In 2022 the Fondation Chantal Akerman completed work on a 2K restoration of Toute une nuit, with color-grading overseen by the original director of photography, Caroline Champetier.

Film, Psychology & Psychoanalysis

Dominiek Hoens teaches philosophy at RITCS (Brussels), where he also does research under the heading “Capital owes you nothing.” Recent publications include an edited collection on Marguerite Duras, chapters on Jacques Lacan in Handbook of Psychoanalytic Political Theory (Routledge, 2020), Reading Lacan’s Ecrits (Routledge, 2022) and The Marx Through Lacan Vocabulary (Routledge, 2022), and several articles on Blaise Pascal.

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