Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, a mesmerizing study of stasis and containment, time and domestic anxiety. Stretching its title character’s daily household routine in long, stark takes, Akerman’s film simultaneously allows viewers to experience the materiality of cinema, its literal duration, and gives concrete meaning to a woman’s work. We watch, for three hours and twenty-one minutes, as Jeanne cooks, takes a bath, has dinner with her adolescent son, shops for groceries, and looks for a missing button. Each gesture and sound becomes imprinted in our mind, and as we are lulled by familiar rhythms and expected behavior, we become complicit with Jeanne’s desire for order. The perfect parity between Jeanne’s predictable schedule and Akerman’s minimalist precision deflects our attention from the fleeting signs of Jeanne’s afternoon prostitution. They nevertheless loom at the edge of our mind, gradually building unease. Jeanne Dielman constitutes a radical experiment with being undramatic, and paradoxically with the absolute necessity of drama.
Made in 1975, when the artist was only twenty-five years old, the film upped the ante on neorealism’s mandate of “social attention.” Akerman’s real-time, matter-of-fact presentation of a woman’s everyday seemed to mock the timidity of the neorealist demand for “a ninety-minute film showing the life of a man to whom nothing happens.” In postwar film and video, banal kitchen scenes (in Umberto D., 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Semiotics of the Kitchen) are signs of an inclusive realism, a new politicized energy. Akerman’s “images between images,” those scenes neglected in conventional representation, gave this impulse a strong feminist accent. But more than a corrective to traditional cinema, Jeanne Dielman is a lesson in structural economy: the full visibility given to daily tasks exacts, as its cost, the more sensational scenes of Jeanne’s prostitution. These encounters last the time it takes to cook dinner.
Akerman told an interviewer that one night, after having worked on her script for some time, she “saw” the entire film in its “final” form. She then decided to eliminate subplots and subsidiary characters, focusing intensely on Jeanne in her apartment. Aunt Fernande, Jeanne’s sister, living in Canada, only appears in the form of a letter, read in litanylike monotone by Jeanne to her son; the neighbor, heard by the door (and played by Akerman herself), describes how, shopping for her husband’s dinner, and still undecided, she ended up getting the same expensive cut of meat as the person in front of her on line. Never casual, each of the film’s uniquely strange and long-winded monologues expresses some form of gendered pressure: they refer to Jeanne’s marriage, the son’s Oedipal thoughts, each breathing a sexual anxiety, each a drawn-out, wordy attempt to mitigate the “other scene” we never see, the elided afternoon trysts.
These were impressively mature themes and stylistic strategies for such a young director, and it was not the first time she had worked with them. The entropic contamination of domesticity and tragedy, order and disorder, was a central Akerman idea from her very first film, Saute ma ville (1968), in which a deadpan, eighteen-year-old Akerman herself performs in a tight kitchen space, cleaning, making a mess, cooking, sealing the door and window—a compressed, chaotic Jeanne Dielman and a precocious, explosive debut. Born in Belgium in 1950, of Jewish parents who left Poland to escape Nazism, Akerman was an autodidact who quickly abandoned film school and worked selling diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange to raise money to make Saute ma ville. New York, where she lived from 1971 to 1972, was a formative experience. She frequented Anthology Film Archives, was exposed to minimalist dance, Andy Warhol’s long-duration films, Jonas Mekas’s diary films, and other structural filmmakers. She has mentioned being particularly impressed with Michael Snow’s La région centrale, a film whose random camera movements over a humanless landscape “opened [my] mind to the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film.” In 1972, while in New York, she initiated her long collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Babette Mangolte, with whom she made La chambre (1972), Hôtel Monterey (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973), and News from Home (1977). In these films, Akerman’s fixed camera provokes unexpected performances. In La chambre, the camera makes a 360-degree pan around a small studio, meeting with equal interest a chair, a bed, Chantal eating an apple, rocking under the covers. Under the camera’s long stare, even the empty corridor in Hôtel Monterey starts to “perform”—it will be seen in depth as a corridor, or in foreground as a surface of lines and masses. A room with a door ajar lets us see a pregnant woman sitting, hinting at a story. What Akerman learned from Hôtel Monterey was that the shot duration changes the equation between the concrete and the abstract, between drama and descriptive detail.
Her narrative films apply this structuralist lesson, fashioning expectation out of a series of real-time, nondramatic shots. In terms of performance, she is indebted to Bresson’s flat models and Dreyer’s nonpsychological austerity: her characters speak in recitative monologues intercut by long silences. Channeling the memory of chants heard at the synagogue into her modernist art, Akerman has said that what “interests me in dialogue is that it rounds up with rhythm, a psalmody where the sentences don’t make sense.” Infused with her fondness for rituals—domestic, Jewish—her lines accrue meaning nevertheless.
Akerman met her actress for Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig (the star of Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and India Song), in 1974, at the Nancy Theatre Festival, where Hôtel Monterey was being shown. That same year, she made Je, tu, il, elle, a film that importantly precedes Jeanne Dielman’s provocative crossing of the line between literal and acted scenes. Akerman boldly decided to appear in this film, using her own malaise to cut against what she felt was her overrigid form. Closer to performance art than to cinema, her obsessive gestures corrode the lines between acting, living, and creating. The film ends with an explicit yet stylized sex scene between two women. Amplified sounds and high-definition images would become a trademark of Akerman’s starkly presentational mise-en-scène (she shares with fellow seventies directors Fassbinder and Oshima a frontal, heightened approach to filming bodies).
In Jeanne Dielman, the camera is fixed and low (matching the filmmaker’s short height), and the frame composition is frontal and symmetrical. Akerman does not use close-ups, reverse angles, or point-of-view shots. She avoids cutting “this woman in pieces” and is “never voyeuristic,” she has explained, addressing the more feminist aspects of her project; one “always knows where I am.” Mangolte’s precise re-creation of light traversing an apartment through the day, and Seyrig’s contained portrayal, complement the director’s formal clarity.
Almost classical in its construction, Jeanne Dielman works like a time bomb. The Flemish color palette of Akerman’s interiors, the linearity of the story, with the first-, second-, and third-day intertitles, all work to associate her with the mild disjunctions of European art cinema. And yet the acuity and amplified concreteness of her images creates a visible instability: as the shot goes on, the viewer becomes aware of his/her own body, restless and then again interested. After “reading” the image of a woman washing dishes, one’s attention starts to wander to tiles, to colors, to a rag.
This perceptual oscillation adds to the film’s pervasive disquiet. Jeanne’s need for control, exemplified by her fixed schedule and menu, covers an anxious dread of autonomy, with clear sexual undertones. In its structural delineation of a link between two prescribed female roles—domestic and sexual, the mother and the whore—the film engages broadly with a feminist problematic, one that takes into account also a woman’s alienation, her labor, and her dormant violence. Jeanne’s son, for instance, the only “man” in the house besides her clients, expects to be served and controls his mother: “You missed a button,” he says at one point. And yet Akerman’s unerring sensibility for behavior pushes the film beyond a thesislike statement. When Jeanne sits on the mustard armchair, not knowing how to fill up her time, the anxiety is palpable. She briefly touches her chest, her heart. She compulsively, thriftily turns off lights before leaving a room, and with this simple gesture she separates one domestic space from the other, kitchen from bedroom. It is with this delicate attention to detail, in the restricted sphere of a woman’s domain (the address announced in the title), that Akerman tells her tale about displaced sexuality.
What is familiar and domestic, the film reveals as strange. In public appearances, the filmmaker has often discarded any direct equation of Jeanne’s quotidian chores with “a woman’s repression under patriarchy,” explaining that these were the loving gestures she was familiar with as she observed intently her mother and aunt making a bed, preparing food. Despite this statement, protective of her own familiar memories, in the film Akerman insists on a haunting contamination of scene by ob-scene.
Halfway into the film, at the end of the second day, when we have become used to Jeanne’s (and Akerman’s) routine, something happens. Perhaps it is when Jeanne places the money the john gave her into the tureen and forgets to cover it with the lid. At any rate, some spectators might notice Jeanne’s disheveled hair, while others might notice, as she does, that the potatoes have overcooked. We see Jeanne from the kitchen as she appears by its door, and this first shift in the camera’s habitual position announces the character’s unraveling. In one of the funniest choreographies ever of domestic terror, Jeanne carries the pot around the house, not knowing what to do with this evidence of mistiming. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, Akerman’s frame remains the same when a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, and a shoe brush drops. No cutaway or musical score highlights the disturbance. This intrusion of objects “moving on their own” gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that Jeanne, an obsessive-compulsive, attempts to suppress. Time is clearly the culprit. See the wonderful scene in which Jeanne’s coffee tastes bad. She will try all possible remedies: She changes the milk, and even caps the process with a ritual of symmetry, combining two lumps of sugar into a rectangle. She pours the coffee into the Melitta filter and waits. Still, shaped like an irreversible hourglass, the filter will not correct what has gone wrong.
Jeanne Dielman’s double ending represents the link between containment and excess, between sexual repression and violence. With impeccable narrative logic, we see for the first time what has been kept offscreen. After having an orgasm with a client, Jeanne gets dressed, tucks her shirt into her skirt, picks up a pair of scissors, and stabs the man. With this downplayed “climax,” Akerman equates the banal and the dramatic, the literal and the fictional—dressing and killing. “When she bangs the glass on the table and you think the milk might spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder,” stated Akerman. The film’s last seven minutes show Jeanne sitting at the dinner table, a flickering neon light striating her face. This unforgettable image of the character/the actress breathing, simply existing, resumes the filmmaker’s contract with her character’s desire for stasis.
When it came out, Jeanne Dielman was fully in tune with the European women’s movement—“Peeling Potatoes” was one of the articles in an issue of Les temps modernes edited by Simone de Beauvoir, and in Belgium the working rights of prostitutes were the subject of lively debate. The film’s rigorous alignment of sexual/gender politics with a formal economy—showing cooking and hiding sex—was hailed by feminist critics as an impressive alternative to well-intentioned but conventional political documentaries and features. And many in the avant-garde felt vindicated that this narrative topically addressing women’s issues was so plainly indebted to pure experiments with duration and series. Akerman’s representation of a concrete, defamiliarized everyday was a defining feat.
Despite their apparent simplicity, Akerman’s assured framing and narrative, built out of blocks of real time intercut by radical ellipses, are not easily replicated. Rather, the film’s impact is indirectly evident in the emergence of a new phenomenological sensibility and approach to observation and the weight of time in the work of contemporary filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami, Gus van Sant, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Todd Haynes, Jia Zhangke, and Tsai Ming-liang.
After Jeanne Dielman, Akerman has said, she felt she had to escape her own mastery, to avoid repeating herself. In the eighties, as a natural outgrowth of her interest in the rhythm of gesture and dialogue, she turned to farces, musicals, and comedies as pretexts for more exuberant and fast-paced tempos: Toute une nuit (1982), The Eighties (1983), I’m Hungry, I’m Cold (1984), Window Shopping (1986), Night and Day (1991). Her unclassifiable narratives News from Home and American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1988) layer minor literary forms—her mother’s letters, immigrant letters, Jewish jokes—over a redesigned promised land, New York. Still other films haunt us with their characters’ opaque resistance to being possessed or pinned down. In two of her features, Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) and La captive (2000), the female protagonists express their singularity by their amateur, “out-of-tune” singing. Across a wide range of modes and media, Akerman’s most remarkable gift lies in her work’s elastic and transformative temporality: an overextended scene turns boredom into obstinate passion; watched for long enough, her documentary landscapes yield uncanny feelings of déjà vu; compressed and rhythmic, her language turns in on itself, funny, musical; everyday gestures are redesigned, attaining a ceremonial, memorable intensity.
We get a glimpse of the quality of Akerman’s attentiveness and patience in Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” a behind-the-scenes video by actor Sami Frey. Seyrig discusses her character’s feelings with Akerman, who firmly insists she does not want a performance based on psychology. Brushing one’s hair, making a meat loaf, and anxiety are all submitted to Akerman’s detailed script and exacting vision. Small and precise movements are the norm. Mangolte suggests the camera stay on the “empty scene” so that Jeanne’s actions out of frame—going to check the time, placing something in the refrigerator—actually happen. Amid practical deliberations, such as how many eggs go into a meat loaf, the secret of Akerman’s timing is stunningly revealed in a simple rehearsal moment. Seyrig sits in profile by the kitchen table while Akerman, script and watch in hand, describes Jeanne’s moves. Seyrig follows the directions. “You wait for a minute, you stand up, go to the balcony, wait for twenty-five seconds, come back, pick up the broom, and sit back down. You skim the stock and sit.” Seyrig sits. Mirroring her, elbow at the table, Akerman sits and waits. For the longest minute, the director lets Seyrig and Jeanne’s time pass through her own body. It is this experience she relays to us, gently and surely.
Ivone Margulies is the author of Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. She teaches in the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York. A film scholar and critic, she writes on realism, performance, and theatricality in cinema.