Downtown With Jeanne Dielman

Conventional wisdom once held that any European film worth seeing passed through the New York Film Festival. Still, when I first began reviewing movies for the Village Voice in the late seventies, there were some legendary exceptions: Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Godard’s Numéro deux, Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany, and most notoriously, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The last absence was additionally frustrating in that Akerman had lived in New York in the early seventies, 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. The impact of Wavelength’s overdetermined narrative structure was still fresh. Jeanne Dielman has its European (and Asian) precursors, but to me it seemed that Akerman had encountered Snow, Frampton, Gehr, et al. at an impressionable age and put a capstone on their movement.

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(another brilliant assimilation of structuralist cinema, shot by Akerman during her New York stay) was one of the first movies I reviewed for the Voice (splitting the column with Stan Brakhage’s eccentric exercise in political film verité The Governor). Akerman’s film had but a single show at the old Bleecker Street; I insisted on writing it up, even though my editors complained that no one could see it, in part because I hoped that it would spur interest in Jeanne Dielman. Soon after, Akerman’s magnum opus did have its first public screening in New York, also a single show at the Bleecker Street. I reviewed that, too, comparing myself to one of Kafka’s messengers. That Akerman’s subsequent feature, Les rendez-vous d’Anna, was included in the next year’s New Directors/New Films seemed to effectively close the door on her earlier works.

Then, seven years after its European festival showings, in the spring of 1983, Jeanne Dielman opened at Film Forum. I persuaded the Voice film editor, Karen Durbin, that this was a Really Big Deal—the great unknown movie of the past decade! Karen appreciated the journalistic hyperbole, not to mention Jeanne Dielman’s violent femme premise, and assigned an accompanying profile by B. Ruby Rich. Both of our pieces began on the Voice cover, which was otherwise devoted to a huge head shot of the filmmaker. It was the biggest play the Voice had ever given any movie and its first film cover in the three years since Andrew Sarris used the publication of When the Lights Go Down as a means to spank Pauline Kael.

I can’t say that I didn’t have a film-historical agenda—I wanted to introduce Jeanne Dielman as the culminating masterpiece of the structural film, as monumental a composition in space and time as Snow’s La région centrale, and I also wanted to position it as a cause célèbre. With strategic belligerence, I named the mainstream critics who failed to attend the Film Forum press screenings—including Kael and Sarris. Voice writers used to regularly attack each other in the paper but, even so, Andy was understandably incensed. The following week, he devoted his column to an irate rejoinder. (Dennis Lim included both of our pieces in The Village Voice Film Guide.)

Intimations of turf war: Sarris pointed out that whereas he reviewed movies north of Fourteenth Street, my beat was south of Fourteenth Street. This wasn’t altogether true, but it obliquely addressed my assertion that my senior colleague should have at least wanted to review Jeanne Dielman—even though I would have been miserable had he preempted my review. The Sarris rejoinder had a classic closer. In the final graph, he pretended to bemoan the “unrewarding, mainstream, white-bread assignment” he’d been given, while Ruby and I enjoyed the pleasure of “freaking out on art-house acid.” (Those were the days!) It would never have occurred to me to position Jeanne Dielman as a head trip—the 2001 of 1983. But after the movie’s tremendous second week at Film Forum, I had to wonder if Andy’s hipster characterization wasn’t responsible.

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