Dir./Scr. Chantal Akerman
At very long last, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is receiving a commercial opening in New York. Andrew Sarris isn't reviewing this film, and I doubt that Pauline Kael will either. The New York Times, at least, has to see the movie, but it'll be most surprising if Time, Newsweek, or New York magazine bother to send anyone down to investigate Akerman's truly legendary 1975 feature.
Jeanne Dielman is — to put it baldly—a great movie and one that in film circles, at least, hardly languishes in obscurity. Made by Akerman (and an all-woman crew) when she was twenty-five, Jeanne Dielman has long been a touchstone for feminist film theorists.
The film, which runs nearly three and one-half hours, details a three-day stretch in the life of a compulsively organized, petit bourgeois Belgian widow (Delphine Seyrig) —a paradigm of efficiency who promptly scours the tub after bathing, finishes every morsel on her plate, doesn't even need a radio to keep her company, and turns one trick an afternoon to support herself and her teenage son. The operative word in the description is details: Akerman makes a spectacle unique in film history out of Seyrig's daily chores — cleaning, folding, straightening, cooking, shopping, and fucking. By the middle of the movie, her routine is so familiar we know something's amiss merely because she forgets to place the cover on the soup tureen where she keeps her earnings. And when she overcooks the potatoes, we're being primed for the narrative's lurid denouement. The static, often symmetrical compositions are invariably presented from Akerman's eye level, with the camera usually placed parallel to the wall. In other words, Akerman's geometry surpasses even the orderliness of her protagonist's life. Shots are orchestrated so that the setups slowly rotate around Seyrig as she progresses through her household tasks, which are characteristically rendered in real time.
Seyrig inhabits her role so absolutely—even to the clumsiness of her potato-peeling—that she more than justifies the deliberate pedantry of the film's full title. She appears in virtually every shot. This in a film that goes beyond Ozu in eliminating camera movement, background music, fades, or optical effects. There is very little dialogue, and, most extraordinarily, Akerman further eschews the classic rhythm of shot-countershot (reverse angles to show point of view) that French theorists say "sutures" the spectator to the screen.
Despite (and, of course, because of) its rigor, Jeanne Dielman is a supremely sensual film. Almost as much as it's about anything, this is a movie about the quality of recorded light and sound. Babette Mangolte's unlit cinematography is exceptionally fine, and Seyrig is forever walking in and out of rooms switching fixtures on and off while our eyes grow accustomed to savoring the same spaces as differently illuminated during the course of the day. At the same time, Akerman builds up the soundtrack into a little symphony of clicks, splashes, and slams. Jeanne Dielman is as monumental a formal film as Michael Snow's La Région Centrale; Akerman's landscape, however, is radically other. Seyrig's slow-motion breakdown, her leap into an abyss beyond the kitchen sink, packs an emotional wallop entirely different from the products of earlier (mainly male) avant-gardes.
The Belgian-born and based Akerman lived in New York in 1972, at the moment when "structural" film was at the height of its local prestige. The lessons of pre-Morrissey Warhol —the power of duration, the effect of monotony, the wonder of people simply "having," as the Hindus say, "their being" — had only recently been absorbed, while the impact of Wavelength's overdetermined narrative structure was still fresh and immediate. Assimilating Warhol and Snow, Akerman made their discoveries the vehicle for her own interests, using their formalism to produce one of the most absolutely lucid movies ever made.
Obviously, Jeanne Dielman has its European precursors as well. The best known is Straub-Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, but there's also the Hamburg-based avant-gardist Hellmuth Costard's Die Unterdrückung der Frau ist vor allem an dem Verhalten der Frauen selber zu erkennen ("The Oppression of Woman Is Primarily Evident in the Behavior of Women Themselves"), an hour-long film of a male hippie doing a housewife's chores. But whether Akerman was inspired, influenced, or just anticipated by Costard is moot. Jeanne Dielman is the film that changed the face of contemporary European cinema.
Akerman has always resisted characterization of Jeanne Dielman (or any of her other films) as "feminist." Yet no other movie in recent years has so bluntly hyperbolized Western woman's traditional lot. On the other hand, Jeanne Dielman is also a work that lends itself to a multiplicity of readings. Until its climax, for example, this is a film where sex is something that happens behind closed doors—in great measure, Jeanne Dielman is a movie about representing what can't be shown, what can't even be felt.
Then, too, the film is a lethal travesty of melodrama — a deadpan resurrection of the ultimate weepie plot—using a situation that was a chestnut when Mizoguchi (or even Ruth Chatterton) discovered it. In affect, Jeanne Dielman resembles late Hitchcock, but what Hitch uses to set the table, Akerman turns into virtually the entire film. As in Psycho or The Birds, Akerman reveals the sinister in the commonplace, but she does so to a far more astute social purpose. Finally, the movie's climax—which is that, literally—suggests something perhaps fundamental about the relation of narrative to both male and female sexuality. At once spectacle and antispectacle, Jeanne Dielman not only criticizes the dominant mode of representing women but challenges the dominant mode of representation itself.
Here's something for the ads: if you see only one supposedly "difficult" movie — ach, make that only one movie — this year, see Jeanne Dielman. [J. Hoberman, 3/29/83]
This reviewer was a bit miffed last week to find himself listed on the front page of the Voice as the member of a de facto conspiracy against a French film entitled Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. (Try fitting that on a Main Street marquee sometime.)
Inasmuch as Hoberman has decided to taunt his colleagues for their insensitivity to great art, he is coy in the extreme in not revealing that he is assigned films such as Jeanne Dielman as a matter of editorial policy at the Voice. Also, Hoberman has attended enough Voice-sponsored "meet your advertisers" luncheons to understand that he and I are not covering the movie scene for the old Partisan Review. As it is, we both get considerable (and very welcome) leeway in our assignments. Still, it is generally understood that I get first crack at the turf north of 14th Street and he south of 14th Street. This is not to say that I never see movies that I happen not to review. To the contrary, I have been straining to catch Jeanne Dielman for eight years. Now, thanks to the very helpful Film Forum, Jeanne Dielman has found its ideal home in the arty precincts of Soho, and it is very much worth seeing, if only as an indication of where a certain sector of the cinematic avant-garde and a certain faction of radical feminists have been suspended for the past eight years. The Voice's own front-page splurge on Dielman seemed to be divided along these lines, with Hoberman self-consciously supplying the avant-garde hype and B. Ruby Rich the ultrafeminist hysterics. Ironically, Dielman strikes me as neither particularly avant-garde nor particularly feminist. Even Manny Farber and Pat Patterson, its most articulate and most eloquent champions, place it in a box-frame tradition with such noble precedents as the works of Bresson and Ozu. Chantal Akerman is certainly not a minimalist in the manner of early pre-Morrissey Warhol. Besides, minimalism has become a commonplace of the video scene. Nor is Jeanne Dielman at all monomaniacal in its technique in the manner of Michael Snow.
Indeed, nothing in the panegyrics of Hoberman and Rich prepared me for how pretty and how French Dielman is. The performers seem to have graduated from the Robert Bresson academy for nonacting. The bright colors evoke Godard, Delphine Seyrig's hauntingly abstracted expressions the Resnais of Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. And right next door to Jeanne Dielman is Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, another saga of petit bourgeois banality degenerating into homicidal madness.
What is more surprising still, at least from any feminist rationale, is the pinched, remarkably unsentimental characterization of Dielman herself. The Saturday afternoon Soho audience laughed on many occasions at rather than with Dielman's ridiculously excessive fastidiousness. The big trick of the film is the casting of the soft-voiced, soulful-looking Seyrig in a role that otherwise suggested a shrewish yenta. There is very little dialogue, not a smidgen of joyous conversation, and absolutely no chatter or patter. The eerie silences thus make the framed and sustained compositions seem even more painterly to the viewer's increasingly restless eye. Every article of furniture, every piece of bric-a-brac, every texture, every surface is scanned endlessly for clues to the glacial progression of the narrative.
Two brilliant sequences are alone worth the price of admission and
duration (three hours and eighteen minutes being close to two hours too long). In one of the film's bizarre "babysitting" episodes, Seyrig picks up a screaming infant, which seems terrified of her, and, as we have already had intimations of her impending breakdown, we are in turn terrified that she is going to retaliate against the infant in some gruesome way. Akerman's most brilliant coup of mise-en-scène occurs in a coffee-house tableau in which Seyrig, finding her favorite table occupied and her favorite waitress out, sulks at the adjacent table, on the edge of the frame, while an intellectual-looking older woman toils away on her notebook in the center of the frame. My hunch is that most of us identify more with this otherwise unknown woman than with the wretchedly trivial and apparently mindless protagonist.
Some feminists may get a rise out of Seyrig's murdering a "john" who may or may not have aroused her sexually. (Jeanne Dielman is the kind of movie in which viewers do not so much wonder about characters as wonder whether they should wonder.) Even at the end, however, Akerman shows less feeling for the broken-down petit bourgeois machine that Dielman has become than Kubrick displayed for the doomed HAL in 2001. In the final analysis, I respect Jeanne Dielman as a whole and even admire parts of it, but I do not feel that it breaks out of its formal shell into the realm of exquisite feeling that I have found over the years in the great works of Bresson, Godard, and Fassbinder.
There, Hoberman, I've seen Jeanne Dielman and taken a stab at commenting upon it. I do like difficult films, honest. Perhaps I wouldn't have been so sensitive about your supercilious comment if on that very week I had not been caught reviewing Tom Selleck in High Road to China, one of my more unrewarding, mainstream, white-bread assignments, while you and Rich were freaking out on art-house acid downtown. [Andrew Sarris, 4/5/83]
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