Director Chantal Akerman (left) on the set with actress Delphine Seyrig
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES A
France Belgium (201 mi) 1976 d Chantal Akerman
Sylvain: Well, if I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with.
Jeanne: How could you know? You’re not a woman.
Akerman was born in Brussels, the daughter of Jewish parents from Poland, where her mother Natalia (Nelly) survived Auschwitz, a place where her own father and mother were lost. It was a subject her mother refused to ever discuss, supposedly to keep her sanity intact, though from a young age, Chantal was extremely close to her mother, reading her letters in one of her films, NEWS FROM HOME (1977), while in 1998 she exhibited a video installation entitled Self-Portrait: Autobiography in Progress, comprised of six screens of images from her films, and a running text entitled A Family in Brussels (also the name of an Akerman novel), where Chantal narrates the story, interchanging her own voice with her mother’s, becoming a single indistinguishable identity. While her father owned a small factory in Brussels, she describes her family as “very poor,” though she could never please her father, who wanted her to marry a nice Jewish man, “But my mother thought I was marvelous. My mother was implicitly encouraging me.” As a child, the films she had seen were largely Disney films or war movies, where it never occurred to her that it was an art form until age 15 when she viewed Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU (1965), suddenly realizing cinema had an elevating capacity to become art. She dropped out of high school and enrolled in film school in Brussels, but quit after three months, “I thought we were going to make films, but we were studying chemistry, physics.” She sold $3 dollar shares on the Antwerp diamond exchange, raising $300 for her first film, a 13-minute short entitled Saute Ma Ville (1968), made in one night with no retakes, where she plays the central figure. Afterwards she moved to New York, working as a nude model in a sculpture class and a cashier at a pornographic theater, but regularly attended screenings at the Anthology Film Archives, home of independent and avant-garde film screenings, discovering the works of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, and Yvonne Rainer, which she claimed provided the inspiration and freedom to do what she wanted to do.
Made when she was just 25, shot in five weeks, Akerman made JEANNE DIELMAN on a $120,000 grant from the Belgian Government, described by the author as “a Greek tragedy based on nothing, almost nothing,” a very detailed portrait of domesticity, a movie that defies the notion that experimental filmmaking is a spontaneous, self-indulgent art form, as it has a carefully choreographed, almost mathematically precise shooting scheme, manifested in long takes and medium shots, with Jeanne nearly always in the frame, but wanders in and out, where the camera often begins and ends a shot in darkness as Jeanne habitually turns lights on and off, lighting only the room she is in. Nearly all of the film, with the exception of evening strolls after dinner and brief outdoor excursions running morning errands, occur in Jeanne’s one bedroom home, with a living room couch opening into a bed for her son, where the vast majority of the film is given to housework, much of it unfolding in real time, though it is compressed time, with the director looking at her watch while shooting and instructing her lead actress, “Now you sit for 25 seconds.” A portrait of feminine subjectivity expressed through extreme minimalism, showing the suffocating alienation implicit with the dull routines of housework, the film takes place over the course of three days, where every sequence and every gesture is meticulously written into a 90-page script that Akerman said read “like a novel.” The slow pace and extensive length are necessary for viewers to become intimately familiar with the daily rhythm and routine of the protagonist, Jeanne Dielman, played by Delphine Seyrig, from all the glamorous costumes in Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) (1961), and Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972) to an unpretentious Belgian housewife in Brussels whose exact movements are carefully dissected over the course of the film, revealing a repetitious and banal routine, where a woman’s life consists of shopping, running errands, cooking, cleaning, washing, scrubbing (with Ajax!), knitting, even humming to music being played on the radio, all routines that she repeats over the course of three days, where the overwhelming familiarity with the tasks at hand begin to consume her life, and that of the audience, where repression has never been revealed with such exquisite precision, where a “huge” moment in this film takes place when Ms. Dielman drops a spoon or forgets to button a button. Perhaps in a nod to Buñuel’s BELLE DU JOUR (1967), Jeanne also consorts with men in the late afternoons for paid sex, scheduled weekly though seeing only a discreet one client per day during the week while her older son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) is at school, with each visit planned with the same painstaking detail as the evening menu.
Akerman’s controlled, formal style perfectly mirrors the inner feelings of her character, never showing an ounce of emotion as she dutifully and perhaps even robotically performs each mindnumbing daily task at hand with no wasted time or motion, where the efficient rhythm of the film unfolds like clockwork, where for large stretches of time she’s by herself alone and speaks to no one, seemingly on autopilot, where it’s difficult to perceive under her skin, something Akerman herself has not been forthcoming about, leaving her an opaque figure of study, never breaking from the surface, always filmed with the same fixed camera position. The film is not simply concerned with the monotonous drudgery of housework, or making a radical political statement, but seems more interested in the amount of time in our lives spent performing mindless activities, especially when you consider how this repetition accumulates over a lifetime, where what’s particularly noteworthy or artistically unique is how she chooses to involve the audience, as they’re in it for the duration and can actually “feel” the accumulative effects of disaffected hours doing little to nothing that is intellectually curious or challenging. What is presented onscreen has complete documentary integrity, as we witness the entire process of Jeanne making a meatloaf, peeling potatoes, scrubbing the bathtub, making the bed, washing dishes, etc. This is a difficult experience and quickly wears on the audience, producing many walk-outs, though not nearly as many as D’EST (1993), though both are among Akerman’s best films, perhaps because they are so challenging to viewers. Over the extended time, there is ample opportunity to analyze and fall deeper into thought, searching for the more potent hidden meaning underneath the emotionless veneer of ordinary everyday existence. Because the film is so acutely exact, visual comparisons are inevitable as Jeanne moves from day one to day two, and so on, where there are clues left behind when things are not exactly the same, when Jeanne does things in a different manner, where initially it’s a stretch to think there’s anything to it, but as we enter day three, the film seems to accentuate these differences, where they literally “become” the story, adding anxiety and suspense, until eventually everything’s out of whack, becoming something of an intense psychological thriller with extreme consequences, where by the end, we’re not nearly in the same place as when we began the journey. In this way, Akerman adds little jolts to the senses, like alarms going off in her head, where something is mysteriously out of balance. What’s intriguing is that there’s no definitive cause, no single culprit, as it could be a variety of circumstances that lead to the same end, but unlike police procedurals or crime capers, the film remains ambiguous about the cause, leaving it in the hands of the viewers.
The film is nothing like the extreme depths of emotional repression found in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), in particular the Mary Tyler Moore character, who refuses to even discuss the death of her oldest son, but carries on as if nothing has happened, putting it all in the past, despite the emotional anguish and family dysfunction this causes, but both films are similar in that there are no easy answers at the end, no happy ending, no easy road to recovery. JEANNE DIELMAN doesn’t even concern itself with the future, but is instead a microscopic examination of one woman’s life, modestly dressed, wordlessly going about her business, as it all feels so contextually anonymous and bare-bones, yet just as contemporary today as it was when it was released. JEANNE DIELMAN premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1975 as part of the Directors’ Fortnight, where there were plenty of walk-outs, yet overnight it became her breakthrough work, but wasn’t released in the United States until eight years later in March of 1983, greeted favorably by feminist critics at the time, calling it a feminist manifesto, while Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman described the film as “truly legendary… a movie of tremendous force and originality,” becoming one of the seminal films of the 1970’s. From Akerman’s point of view, the visual content of the film is significant, “I do think it’s a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little.”
So the very things that contribute to a devaluation of women, relegating them to the home, out of the workplace or positions of power, restricting their access so they have diminished social influence, is then reconfigured by this director, where a housewife takes ownership of her duties and responsibilities, reflecting instead a position of empowerment and free will, obliterating all pre-conceived negative stereotypes, where the style and formal precision of the film itself at least leads to an end result, a new appraisal of women in the home, where the naturalism of their daily activities takes on new meanings, where worth accompanies those seemingly banal activities, which at least in the eyes of the viewers, have been significantly elevated. There’s a fascinating comparison of the film with John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970) by Dave Kehr, Men Carouse; Women Clean - The New York Times, which sounds downright hilarious, as the men in Cassavetes’ film barely set foot in their own homes, instead they are freewheeling guys out of Kerouac’s On the Road, where every day they’re off on a new liberating adventure, moving from one to the next, before finally, at the end of a lengthy weekend spree, returning home to their wives in suburbia, while Jeanne is forever caught, like a rat in a maze, with no escape from the repetitious and banal routine, where a woman’s life is consumed by the ordinary details of mundane life, where the overfamiliarity with the tasks at hand begin to consume her life, literally suffocating the life right out of her, leaving her spiritually drained and emptied, with few reserves to call upon, so by the end she is truly emptied of whatever’s left of her spirit. One is a spontaneous free-for-all where guys do whatever they please, all but ignoring their wives and children, while the other is a meticulous clinical analysis of female alienation and social detachment.
What’s curiously ironic about this film? Without the revealing title identifying the lead character, even after spending more than three-hours immersed into the meticulously compartmentalized world of this woman, we wouldn’t even know her name, as it’s never mentioned and there’s no reference to it in the film (although it may be mentioned in the letter from her sister in Canada), instead she remains completely anonymous and off the radar. Reminiscent of an earlier Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK? (1969), this is much more extended than the Fassbinder film, which runs less than 90 minutes, but both resort to long takes, with subjects named in the title that apparently go unnoticed and are largely ignored, examining the accumulating psychological effects of unbearable tedium and banality, where each leads lives of quiet desperation that leads to explosive results. According to American writer and director Jayne Loader, “Akerman’s cinema focuses our attention on her smallest gestures, gestures that reveal character but would be lost in a more flamboyant film: a knife that almost slips when a potato is peeled, a light turned off unnecessarily, a facial expression of disquiet or of frustration, the curious act of making coffee in a thermos in the morning for drinking at lunchtime. The effect of such details, repeated and ritualized, is cumulative. Slowly the portrait is pieced together.” Akerman has suggested much of the visualized imagery came from lovingly watching her own mother in the kitchen, where she became intimately familiar with the meticulous nature of each movement and activity. In a 2009 video interview for the Criterion Collection, Chantal Akerman on JEANNE DIELMAN - YouTube (6:33), Akerman describes Jeanne’s daily activities as formal rituals that replaced abandoned Jewish rituals in households throughout Eastern Europe, “where practically every activity of the day is ritualized,” which eerily suggests there is a hidden Holocaust connection. It’s interesting that 80% of the film crew was comprised of women, assuming positions that had only been staffed by men, behind the camera and in lighting, for instance, where Akerman was one of the first to break down these barriers that presumed women were not capable, which was the standard mindset in the era of the 70’s. Remember, this is a full decade or more before the arrival of Jane Campion in the 80’s and 90’s, who did the same thing, and still remains the only female director to win a Palme d’Or prize at Cannes, where every year we hear the same cry of a lack of diversity.
Akerman herself provides the voice of the neighbor dropping off her baby for Jeanne to look after, sequences that actually provide the biggest laughs in the film, first where Jeanne politely listens to the neighbor ramble on at length in the hallway about her own dull life, where it’s clear Jeanne has her hands full dealing with her own monotony, and again when Jeanne, displaying absolutely no maternal skills, cannot stop the inconsolable child from crying, where Jeanne may as well be the anti-Christ, as the baby bawls even louder anytime she comes near. Some of the best shots are the scenes of Jeanne riding the elevator, like she’s stuck inside a space capsule, only this elevator moves so slowly, it’s almost in another time dimension. Like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Ms. Dielman is certainly stuck inside her own time capsule. While some were heard exclaiming “I’ve never seen a film like this,” one does think of Virginie Ledoyen in A SINGLE GIRL (1995), as so much of both films play out in real time. Without getting too technical, one theory advanced by Ivone Margulies in her August 18, 2009 Criterion essay, more than thirty years after the release of the film, A Matter of Time: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles, deals with Jeanne’s sexual repression, namely her frigidity, where her detachment is a defense mechanism used against having any distinct interest in men, allowing her full control. Supposedly, what changed, out of the viewer’s eyes, was an orgasm on the gentleman’s visit on Day 2, which caused all her interior wiring to go haywire. Things immediately start to go wrong, she forgets to put the lid on the porcelain container holding the money, she overcooks the potatoes, walking in circles afterwards wondering where to put the pot, carrying it from room to room, having to go out and buy more, causing dinner to be delayed, where Sylvain points out her hair is disheveled, getting up an hour earlier the next morning, where all the stores are still closed when she makes her morning rounds, while later the coffee goes bad, absurdly trying all manner of corrective measures, none of which work, and bit by bit, things steadily unravel, leading to the precipitous event, namely the next visit by a gentleman, where the same thing ocurrs, which is apparently more than she could bear. An orgasm simply opens the floodgates, where she has to restore order and balance. Turning on a dime, this is among the better endings, a truly provocative film, perhaps only Virginia Woolf writes about such things where the mundane is turned on its head and becomes so dramatic and powerful.