Sunday Morning! “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”
After a certain point, you realize that the true medium of cinema is time: film composition compresses, stretches, warps, and manipulates the passage of time in life in a way that recalls musical composition more than it does the theater, which is often taken as the precursor of film. But this doesn’t quite work. You might recall the great Robert Bresson argued that comparisons between theatrical drama and cinema are simply wrong; it’s worth noting, too, how most attempts to “film plays” are quasi failures. The model for plays is “real life”- many take place in “real time”- and this seems entirely too static on film. The real model for cinema is dreams, which are compressed and chopped up, that is to say the unconscious.
And, then, we have a film like Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles that plays with our notions of “drama” and “duration” in film and utterly succeeds where it maybe shouldn’t. It’s basically a tedious nail biter, an “action film” made of the most quotidian rituals. One could describe it, accurately, as a three-and-a-half-hour movie made up chiefly of very long shots in which a bourgeois widow carries out her housework tasks to completion. One could also describe it as the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema”. Both are accurate.
My current roommate considers it to be a masterpiece. I finally watched Jeanne Dielman this week after years of hemming and hawing. I was familiar with the director. Chantal Akerman was one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century and her death in 2015 was an absolute tragedy for the culture; the relative lack of media attention was another. I had seen her film News from Home, which is the closest thing to a time machine I’ve ever experienced; made up of static shots from New York street corners in the mid-70s, it feels like you’ve stepped back into that time and place that Akerman once occupied, while the soundtrack narration comes letters written by Akerman’s own mother detailing sometimes mundane domestic concerns back home in Brussels.
Akerman and her mother were extremely close, something that must be borne in mind when considering her films. Her mother had survived Auschwitz, where her own parents were killed, and Akerman was fascinated with the ways that domestic rituals had replaced old religious rituals among a more secular generation of Jews, while serving many of the same functions. The most ordinary daily activities are political in this constricted way of life.
Her work is thus “feminist” in a way that forces even those viewers who might consider themselves staunch feminists to examine their own reactions. She does not organize events around any artificial type of “plot”. Her 1974 film Je, Tu, Il, Elle has been called a “cinematic Rosetta Stone of female sexuality”. I can say, personally, that the film- which consists of Akerman wandering around her bedroom naked, flirting with exhibitionism, having a random encounter with a truck driver, and somewhat impersonal sex with an old female lover- made me uncomfortable for reasons that I can’t fully understand. It was hard to know where to go next in her oeuvre.
So, I finally sat down and watched her follow up, the 1975 Jeanne Dielman. It’s one of those movies that you have to watch in one sitting, in spite of the length. The film details the daily routine of a mother and housewife whose husband has (recently, we assume) died. She gets up, she makes food for the teenage son who lives with her, makes the beds, goes shopping, does the dishes, prepares the dinner, and turns the occasional trick for money. The camera takes in all of these activities at length; except for the sex, which is brusquely cut out.
And, at first, it’s boring viewing. We don’t like watching her make her bed or dust the furnishings. Which makes us ask ourselves why it is that we find these minor tasks, often classified as “women’s work” to be so tedious in the first place. Certainly, a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino can make aesthetic poetry out of eating food; so, why do our eyes glaze over when watching a woman preparing food? Why do we feel like nothing important is going on? The entire film is an argument to the contrary- Akerman sets out to convince us that making a meatloaf is critical to the story. She puts back in everything that is usually left out and makes us find the meaning in the mundane.
What Akerman is playing with here is an unwritten rule of drama that is so basic it’s been given names like the “buttered scones” problem. It’s more of an issue in plays, in which the action often unfolds in “real time”. So, if two characters are having a heated discussion over tea and buttered scones, we have to watch them butter the scones, which can be fairly dull. In films, we just use a cooking montage (a la Goodfellows) or never show the food being prepared at all. Again, time is compressed. Akerman’s film takes place over three days, each of which is reduced to about one hour of screen time. And, yet, the director shows us the entire work of preparing a meatloaf. So, we wonder at first just what the hell is going on here?!
But then we settle into the rhythm of the film and it becomes hypnotic and intriguing to watch this lonely housewife go about her daily tasks. Everything is subdued and emotionally muted. Her life is so ritualized that it feels automatic. And, for most of us, life really seems to take place in two separate timeframes, running like parallel tracks: the unthinking daily routine, which is underlaid by those gradual events in our inner lives that take place over longer duration. Because the cinema cannot reveal the inner monologue of a character without voice-overs, we can only surmise what’s happening in this woman’s psyche from the smallest details of her behavior. We have to pay attention and bear witness.
Akerman also plays with our assumptions in her casting: Delphine Seyrig is a little too beautiful to play a convincing domestic drudge, and this puts us slightly on edge. And the director knows this. Something feels a bit off about it all, even beyond the men who visit this widow for what we can only assume is automatic sex. There are untold depths to her grief, which she can reveal to no one; not even her son.
And then, she screws up the potatoes! Holy Moses, dear readers, is the scene in which Jeanne screws up the potatoes that she’s making for dinner is completely jarring. Taken out of context, I’m not even sure her screw up registers; but after something like two hours of her daily routine, it’s clear that something is horribly wrong. The train has jumped the track. And the rest of the film consists of Jeanne trying to go about her daily routine, while we sense that things are headed towards a tragic and horrific conclusion. It is dramaturgy of the sort I’ve never seen. I’m not kidding when I say that I had to stop the film at a few points in order to calm my nerves before I could return to watching Seyrig finish making the bed!
Somehow, Akerman succeeds in turning a clinical depiction of a domestic woman going through her mind-numbing daily routine of housework into a Hitchcockian thriller. The film was recognized upon its release as a landmark and Akerman as a great filmmaker. It has since been recognized as one of the most significant films of the century. When she made it, Akerman was 25 years old. I have no idea how she did it.
Knowing this, it’s harder to watch the film because, from our timeframe, we know that it’s about the secret life of a woman, of a mother, and about grief and suffering. And, then, we remember how deeply Akerman’s own mother influenced and informed her work. Her last film, No Home Movie, was a series of conversations with her mother shortly before her death. After her mother’s death, Akerman felt lost and rootless, disconnected; the train had jumped the track. The last film was a response to that death; so too was Akerman’s suicide later that year. She was 65.
Family and cinema are both ways that we bear witness to each others’ lives. Chantal Akerman’s films are a mitzva. I wish there were more to come.
So, what are YOU watching, playing, pondering, or making this weekend?