Last weekend, LACMA screened the new print of Chantal Akerman’s riveting portrait of life as a series of imprisoning rituals, Jeanne Dielman: 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a film that charts the actions of a matronly widow (Delphine Seyrig)–and covert prostitute–as she performs house chores and errands over a three day period. Comprised of lingering, static shots of Dielman in her apartment and around town, and clocking in well over three hours, its uncompromising and provocative vision has long been an inspiration to those lucky enough to see it. It’s never been released on video in the US, but Janus is distributing the new print, so a Criterion DVD should be in the works. In the meantime, the film is included in a Belgian box set of Akerman titles.
The film is often described as an ultimately chilly perspective of a woman defined–by others as well as herself–by her utilitarian value, but for much of the film’s running time, its appealing actress, motionless camera, and precise treatment of space facilitate a deliciously ambiguous experience for the viewer. Is the camera’s obsessive gaze a tribute or a lament? As Psycho (1960) commentators often point out, when Norman Bates disposes of Marion Crane’s body and meticulously cleans up the murder scene, viewers often sympathize with Bates in spite of his actions because of a universal admiration for a job well done. Film has the power to pictorialize and highlight even the most mundane actions and invest them with a kind of dramatic intensity with their own setup, conflict, and resolution; each of Dielman’s chores constitutes a mini-narrative within a larger effort to maintain a pristine order that borders on the metaphysical.
I haven’t heard of the film described in musical terms, but Seyrig’s stunning physical performance recorded in long takes–methodically washing dishes, shining shoes, peeling potatoes, flouring veal, serving dinner, scrubbing the bathtub–features organized and fluid movements that could make a dancer blush. For the first 90 minutes or so, Dielman seems like a manifest professional. It’s only when her routine begins to crumble that the lack of a person inside it becomes evident. This shift arises in tiny, almost innocuous ways, but in the context of Akerman and Seyrig’s established, all-enveloping rhythm, the slip registers as a shock wave.
The film’s representation of space is equally fascinating: virtually every shot in the movie is composed with the camera at a 90-degree angle toward a wall or pointed down tunnel-like hallways or receding sidewalks. Figures turn to the left or the right and disappear into the next shot, creating a narrow field of action. Rooms in Dielman’s apartment are never connected by a camera movement, nor are they shot from a corner angle, but are always depicted from positions that directly face the carefully arranged display cabinets or repetitive wallpaper, and utilize lenses that emphasize the perfect, grid-like patterns of the floor and wall tiles; it’s a highly ordered world alternating between impasse and predetermination, colored in subdued hues of muted browns and pale, sickly greens.
Like Agnes Varda’s brilliant Le Bonheur (1965), the film’s pleasant (though spare) conversations merely emphasize the emotional disconnect that pervades its characters. Dialogues are virtually monologues, whether they feature a neighbor’s breathless description of her thought process planning dinner, a letter read out loud without response, or Dielman’s teenaged son confessing to Freudian secrets like he’s summarizing a sitcom. An hour into the film, a shoemaker asks Dielman if her terminally bored and unresponsive son listens well, and she replies, “I’d be lost without him,” a line that seems absurdly hilarious until Dielman’s moments of spare time force her to sit and stare blankly into space seemingly without thought or impulse except a growing sense of unease. (Has any actor expressed existential dread more perfectly than Seyrig when she stoically brews a series of unsatisfactory coffees, the dramatic task–for once–stalled in perpetual limbo?) Whether Dielman’s mechanical actions have replaced her inner life or whether she never developed one in the first place, automation seems like the only alternative to complete and total shutdown.