Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

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The most seismic event in cinema in 2015 was not Star Wars. We all knew that The Force Awakens was going to be a glorified New Hope retread, made by Disney for an easy billion, and somehow, we were all too happy to fork over the cash and confirm the contemptible belief of Hollywood at large that the populace cares nothing for art and everything for regurgitated franchises, so why bother with art? That was all predictable. What no film buff saw coming was the death—on October 5, by apparent suicide—of Chantal Akerman, the French-Belgian daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who broke ground in 1975, when she was 25 (almost the same age as Orson Welles circa Citizen Kane), with her minimalist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This film is just under three and a half hours long, and it concerns itself entirely with the title character in her apartment, making meals, cleaning up, spending leisure time with her teenage son Sylvain, prostituting herself in the most drab and unsexy way possible, and doing other tasks. And somehow, it is as infinitely, compulsively watchable as the best of the early Star Wars trilogy, if not more than—and for this alone, it is an uncanny masterpiece. I’ve only seen two Akerman films to date—this and Je, Tu, Il, Elle—yet her death was as tough a blow for me as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. I’m almost 23. In the young, creative, brazen Akerman—her brunette hair fashionably shorn off at the chin—I see a lot of myself. She is already one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

Jeanne Dielman is often named among the first great feminist films—which Akerman considered a narrow label, stemming from the fact that female cineastes like her were (and remain) scarce, as were (are) films about women, or even about one sole woman. This may be a feminist statement by virtue of its very existence, true, and it certainly functions in a feminine register, but to imply that that is its primary significance is insulting. Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay identifies domesticity, maternity and the duties inherent in them as the film’s primary themes. I think the film’s central theme is something more abstract—focus. Let’s be honest: most movies don’t demand your attention, much less your thought. Not the case here. There’s a reason Jeanne’s address is in the title alongside her name: her apartment is just as much a character in this film as her, and it may as well be perceived as her fellow co-protagonist. Her place of residence is latched onto her identity aesthetically as it is socially and politically. By my count, the film contains 218 takes (estimates on Cinemetrics are slightly greater) in 201 minutes, yielding an average shot length just under a minute. All of the shots are static, with zero pans, and quite a few stretch to five minutes—not as long as the typical artsy shots of Tarr, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, but still rather long, thus striking a steady balance between pacing and duration. Akerman and her great DP, Babette Mangolte, construct the interior shots so that they are often at table-height, above a seat directly across from where Jeanne may be cooking, eating, etc., dropping the spectator right into her world. Even more vitally and innovatively, all but a few of the film’s shots (and I will discuss those critical few) are rectilinear, head-on, flat-planed, never straying from the four cardinal directions—north, west, south, east. They are inscribed by the apartment’s rigid right angles and thus by its sphere of domesticity. Hence, they are extremely focused. If we focus along with the camera, by film’s end, we will have a total knowledge of the apartment’s layout, and also of Jeanne’s personality as reflected by it. Indeed, focus is Jeanne’s definitive quality—focused as she is on her daily chores. It is when her focus is distracted that the film’s conflict brews.

The film opens in medias res, as Jeanne is turning to grab some garnish (or so it looks) to add to a pot. For a couple of minutes, she prepares dinner. That’s the first shot. Second shot: we look down the apartment’s main hallway. She invites a man in, takes his coat, and guides him to her bedroom. Third shot: same angle, with a light change to indicate the time change. They exit the bedroom as clothed as they were when they walked in. Fourth shot: at the door. The man hands her some cash, says he’ll return, and exits. This is all we’re given and all we need to determine Jeanne’s profession, and where lesser filmmakers would have loaded the encounter with cynicism and detached superiority, Akerman settles for a Bressonian mix of simplicity and objectivity. Fifth shot: She moves the cash into a blue-white tureen in her dining room. Sixth shot: She resumes cooking potatoes in the kitchen. To Jeanne Dielman, prostitution is just another chore that has to be done to keep up the household—just another step in the recipe. As the opening minutes proceed, her character starts to take shape. She turns on the lights when she enters a room and turns them off when she exits it, which we can take to mean she’s frugal and doesn’t have much to pay for electricity. When she bathes, she does so thoroughly, not with troubled urgency but with casual duty—as if to say, this is part and parcel of being a courtesan—with no more grace and no less stoicism than she washes dishes in her kitchen sink. The gewgaws in her dining room cabinet are curious; there’s a dog figurine, but no dog to speak of. Akerman films most of this with zero dialogue. That is a true test of a filmmaker’s talent—to harness film’s potential by communicating purely through imagery, to an international audience. You could afford to watch this film with the subtitles off.

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The dialogue and subtitles that are there, on the contrary, provide some useful background. Jeanne is a widow; her husband has been dead for six years. She has a sister, Aunt Fernande, in Canada, who informs her by letter of her isolation (comparable, as Margulies implies, to Jeanne’s economic constraints) amidst that country’s wild blizzards. Sylvain attends a Flemish school, and is starting to develop a Flemish accent. Some background on Belgium: it’s sort of a mistake of a nation, cobbled together from leftover pieces of France and the Netherlands, and there’s been a mild linguistic apartheid between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish throughout its history. (Not to mention, it’s been exploited for battlegrounds in too many wars. World War II is still fresh in Jeanne’s mind, as we’ll discuss later.) Sylvain’s scarf is a curious costume choice in this regard. It’s a grey scarf, with two red stripes flanking two blue stripes from a distance. If we may call white a substitute for grey, then this scarf basically puts the French and Dutch flags (same tricolor pattern, different orientations) side by side, succinctly summating Belgium’s fractured national identity, and underscoring the growing distance between him and his mother. For his age, Sylvain is very sexually naïve and has no goddamn clue about his mother’s profession. “If I were a woman,” he quips, “I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with”—to which Jeanne deadpans, “How could you know? You’re not a woman.” Jeanne’s kin network is hence very scattered and very unfocused; one wonders if the prostitution is meant to fill the husband’s vacancy, or if it is merely a concern of Commerce—of the basic economics of making a damn living while remaining within one’s own secure domestic sphere. This push-and-pull between aesthetic/personal concerns and capitalism is just as foundational to cinema, and thus best depicted in the realm of cinema.

In aligning with the apartment’s urban geometry, Mangolte’s camera convinces the audience to reciprocate by constructing the apartment in their own minds. One of the ways the cinematography lulls us into Jeanne’s sense of routine is by initially restricting the number of angles from which each location is shot. In the film’s first half, for the most part, we only see the kitchen from two angles: east, from the doorway, pointing to the porch door; and north, across the table, towards the counter and stove. Same with the dining room: east, across the table, looking into the main hallway; and north, gazing into the living room. (I operate under the convenient assumption that the hallway points north to the bedroom.) The bedroom is seen from three angles: east and west, across the bed; and south, on the corner of the room where Jeanne gets dressed. The exceptions occur to signal either a shift in perspective or a jolt in Jeanne’s concentration, or both. Whenever we see the dining/living room from the south, for instance, it is to reflect Sylvain’s point-of-view. This first occurs when Jeanne helps Sylvain recite Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” by memory—a very gendered moment, as while Sylvain’s male privilege gives him greater access to artistic/literary leisure, Jeanne’s interactions with language are reduced to regurgitating the contents of Aunt Fernande’s letter, which serves to make Akerman’s prolix cadences and ellipses of silence even more sexually fraught. The disconnect between mother and son is strong. Jeanne instructs Sylvain twice, “Don’t read while you eat,” yet they don’t have any productive discussions during—nor after—dinner. After, Sylvain puts his textbooks on the dinner table to study only to be forced to remove them so that Jeanne can wipe the table down. Then, when Sylvain is tucked into bed (his mattress folding out from a boxy couch in the living room), as if to make up for lost time, he blurts out all his insecure feelings about sex, which his mother has neither the patience nor the stamina to respond to efficiently.

We adapt to these regimented perspectives insomuch that when—in the second half—we view familiar rooms from new orientations, the effect is jarring. It is an immense credit to Akerman and to editor Patricia Canino that by film’s end, we’d feel very cozy in this apartment, but the journey to that end is frequently disorienting. (I’d forgotten until my second viewing that the kitchen is across from, not next to, the dining room.) For one, we’re tricked into thinking that the film is divided into three chapters for three days, when it is best viewed as a two-chapter story—each half covering an evening routine, followed by a morning routine, with the encounter between Jeanne and her third john providing a climactic coda. (In a humorous touch, it is implied that Jeanne has one john assigned to each day of the week, as with her dinner meals, hence three johns in the film.) Also, the first time the camera looks west on the kitchen—i.e. towards the hall—it indicates Jeanne’s remembering that she made the rare mistake of forgetting to turn the bathroom light off. Later that night, the east-facing camera is placed uniquely on the threshold between dining and living room—Sylvain in the latter, Jeanne in the former—to presage Sylvain reminding Jeanne to turn on the radio as she does all nights. And what to make of the fact that Jeanne sleeps facing away from the bedroom door, but has sex facing towards it?! Spaces we thought we knew are given new dimensions through such montages. Jeanne Dielman is a film better experienced than written about; it contains some of the subtlest and most effective smash cuts in all of cinema.

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As you may have gleaned by now, this is a film that accumulates its momentum from the smallest possible vicissitudes—the minor irritations that distract Jeanne from and frustrate her routine, and that build up to a catastrophe. The crack in her focus begins, I think, when she is preparing for her second john and notices a hair out of place on her rounded coiffure, which she struggles to get back into place. She never really recovers from that. From that point further, she becomes lax with her apartment’s lighting, drops objects, overcooks and runs out of food, arrives at places outside of her apartment too early and too late, neglects to put the lid on her tureen full of illicit earnings (!), makes errors in her wardrobe, etc. For all his naïveté, Sylvain’s focus starts to eclipse hers; it is he who notices in one scene that she missed a button, to her veiled chagrin. The simplest way to contextualize this shift in atmosphere is to recognize, as many critics remind us, that Akerman’s mother and aunts—the models for Jeanne—were Holocaust survivors. Is Jeanne Jewish? (There has to be some way of telling whether the meals she makes in this visual cookbook of a movie are kosher.) Was she targeted for genocide and thus traumatized by WWII? Are her isolationism, her insularity and her routines constructed to stave off and shelter herself from her trauma, and to give herself a domestic sphere of sovereignty, if not power? Is her gradual loss of focus due to the inexorable return of trauma to her consciousness, or is the trauma simply filling the vacancies in her thoughts caused by her various miniature accidents? Jeanne Dielman is in that rare tradition of postwar films (Harold and Maude is another) that manage to keep their central conflict completely latent and nuanced. It is from the total abstraction of Jeanne’s prior sufferings that it gains much of its energy.

Do not read the next paragraph unless you have seen the film. You do not want this particular film’s ending spoiled.

It is in that regard that the film’s few diagonal camera angles become salient. I counted nine diagonals total, in this film of 218 shots. Two of them are on Jeanne and her first two clients as they return to the apartment’s front door post-coitus, exchange cash, and say their goodbyes. They may indicate Jeanne’s essential autonomy as a woman to decide the parameters of her sexual relations—in particular, when they end—which liberate her just slightly enough from her rigid urban confines. Three diagonals are set on a mirror image of Jeanne as she rides the elevator in her apartment building. Mirrors of course provide Jeanne a conduit of self-reflection, which foreshadows the cataclysmic decision she makes in the film’s final four shots, all of which are oblique. In the fourth-to-last shot, Jeanne removes her clothes in front of a mirror and a framed photo of her with her husband—past and present dichotomized—while off-screen, the third john coughs. The third-to-last, which shows him and her having sex on the bed, is the film’s only downward angle; Jeanne’s body is brought to orgasm but she does not appear to enjoy it. The penultimate shot, in which all the main action is viewed through said mirror, is the film’s payoff. Where her other clients left politely, Jeanne’s third man resumes reclining on the bed, perhaps expecting more. Seeing this through the mirror, Jeanne spots a pair of scissors she left on her desk next to her husband’s photo, which she earlier used to open a gift that Fernande had promised to send her in her letter. (The gift is an ugly pink shirt that does not jibe with the deep whites, yellows and blue-greens of Jeanne’s—and Akerman’s—preference.) What happens next transforms that gift into a perfectly deployed Chekhov’s gun—a deft twist in the narrative of a seemingly uneventful film: on a whim, Jeanne grabs the scissors, and fatally stabs the third john in the neck. Coming after over three hours calculated to avoid all forms of sensationalism, this simple murder produces a staggering magnitude. Jeanne’s apartment has failed to keep her safe from the oppressions and agonies of the world beyond, and to restore her much-damaged senses of focus and security, she lashes out against the intrusive force of the john. The final, five-minute shot is of her in her dining room, alone, her clothes bloodied, breathing in and out, eyes opening and closing, head lolling once or twice, listening to the outside noises of terrain and honking, recovering from her deed. (This shot is only barely jagged; pay attention to the dresser behind her.) She has the capacity, I imagine, to complete the mundane task of covering up the murder. Then again, Sylvain is more than likely about to arrive home…

How did Chantal Akerman pull this off? These three and a half hours of a woman doing chores are seriously accessible, never boring, always gripping, and paced perfectly. Much of it is still a mystery to me—even while whatever is in this film that may be called technique is about as straightforward as Mangolte’s camera. It should not go with my saying that credit is due to Delphine Seyrig, the late, legendary Lebanese-born actress who commands almost every frame of this film playing Jeanne. Her performance does not for one second rely on anything overt to seize our attention and ease the narrative’s formalist difficulty. She works entirely within Akerman’s minimalism, channeling and creating her entire character with the quietest of gestures, interacting with the household as a narrative agent in its own right, and allowing the aura of tension around her to build up in increments. Every acting choice she makes is deliberate but never forced. This is one of cinema’s greatest performances, as well as one of its best marriages of actress and director. Jan Decorte, as Sylvain, matches Seyrig in all his scenes, bringing an appropriate note of leery, pasty-faced, smug sexual anxiety to the proceedings that in effect make him an efficient Oedipal foil to his mother and her johns. (This is Decorte’s only noteworthy film role; he has done most of his work in theatre and has also been involved in Belgian politics.) Whoever did the sound design also deserves citation; all of this film’s aural cues—from the radiator hums and exterior street sounds to the baby who only cries when Jeanne is nearby—are intentional, percussive, and immaculate. All things considered, though, the true star here is and will always be Akerman. With Jeanne Dielman, she gave herself a strict experimental challenge and executed it flawlessly, with aplomb—and that is enough for a masterpiece. As much as we crave the spectacle and bombast of franchise films, I think we underestimate our capacity to appreciate when film reflects back to us our lives as we live them, with all their blunt monotony and banal distractions. This is what makes Jeanne Dielman significant. We can neither ignore nor neglect her, because we are her. Something tells me that overall, women would understand that better than men.

In memory of Chantal Akerman, and the victims of terrorism in Brussels, the Middle East, and all over.

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Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

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