Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Greenscreening Series #40
November 3, 2023
November 3, 2023
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A singular work in film history, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles meticulously details, with a sense of impending doom, the daily routine of a middle-aged widow, whose chores include making the beds, cooking dinner for her son, and turning the occasional trick. In its enormous spareness, Akerman’s film seems simple, but it encompasses an entire world. Whether seen as an exacting character study or as one of cinema’s most hypnotic and complete depictions of space and time, Jeanne Dielman is an astonishing, compelling movie experiment, one that has been analyzed and argued over for decades. - Criterion
Find Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles via Reelgood
"I made this film to give all these actions that are typically devalued a life on film.” - Chantal Akerman, 2009
"In great measure, Jeanne Dielman is a movie about representing what can't be shown, what can't even be felt." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 1983
In December 2022, the world of cinema turned upside down as an unexpected film topped the Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll in 2022. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was announced as the Greatest Film of All Time. It not only became the first film directed by a woman to top the poll, it was the first to crack the top 10. Even more remarkable, the film debuted on Sight and Sound’s poll just 10 years before, at number 35.
What makes this ranking even more astounding is the film itself. It’s a three-and-a-half hour, glacially paced film where very little takes place. We watch the protagonist go through her daily routine with many of her tasks performed in real time. Most of the shots are static and last several minutes. Sometimes nobody is in frame for minutes at a time. There’s no score, just natural sound.
Of course, director Chantal Akerman knew exactly what she was doing. She turned nearly every filmmaking convention on its head with Jeanne Dielman. The film asks us to sit with the character through her routine and to observe it carefully, and to share the feeling of tedium and the importance of order. In its meditation on the ordinary and its novel exploration of time, space, and the lives of women, and its resistance of mainstream filmmaking techniques and narrative norms, Jeanne Dielman was a groundbreaking, quintessential feminist film.
If that doesn’t immediately sound appealing, it’s ok. I’m confident very few people reading this are going to dive in. But this is an important film to be aware of, as quite a few contemporary filmmakers were heavily influenced by Akerman. And we can learn a lot from this film about our expectations of cinema and where those expectations came from, particularly as it relates to cinematic representations of gender.
I must admit: I actually haven’t seen the entire film. I've seen clips and have read a lot about the film, particularly since it took over the film nerd internet last December. Like some of the other films in the series, Jeanne Dielman was difficult to track down until Criterion released a special edition in 2009. But it’s also just plain difficult to prioritize watching this kind of film. It carries a reputation as one of the most challenging viewing experiences out there, and there’s so much else to see. And the three-and-a-half hour runtime definitely doesn’t help.
But I do plan to take this occasion to watch the film - potentially with Tiffany. She’s been dreading it since the Sight and Sound list was published in December.
For now, I'll share what I know about the film, its director, and its legacy.
Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 in Brussels, Belgium.
Akerman's parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. The impact of this heritage on her work can be seen in the themes of memory, identity, and trauma that run through her films, as well as the use of ritual (more about this later).
Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) was a massive influence. Akerman decided to pursue filmmaking after seeing his radical film Pierrot Le Fou (1965). She was also a fan of Yasujiro Ozu’s work (Tokyo Story), particularly his use of everyday routines and domestic spaces to convey emotional depth.
Akerman started film school when she was 18, but dropped out after one semester and began making films on her own.
After making her first short film, she traveled to New York and began running in avant-garde artistic circles, which had a profound impact on her style. In New York, she encountered experimental filmmakers who were pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression.
Since the very beginning of cinema, the two dominant modes of filmmaking - Hollywood commercial filmmaking and European auteur filmmaking - have been about narrative. Even the less dominant but important movements like Soviet cinema and Third Cinema have tended towards narrative as the primary vehicle of expression. Movies involve a story, and any playing around with form is typically secondary to the story being told; it’s in service of a narrative.
But from the beginning, there have been filmmakers pursuing alternative expression through the medium.
Experimental film is a rather broad classification for films that lack a direct narrative and/or use abstraction techniques to distort images or sound. Experimental filmmakers often use these techniques to call attention to the film medium and the artifice of filmmaking. Typically, experimental films are about film itself.
We could easily fill a separate series covering experimental film. Our purpose here is to introduce the tradition and style, as Akerman was influenced by avant-garde film and her work bridged between experimental and mainstream film - or at least bridged experimental and art house film.
One of the major works of American experimental film was Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). The 14-minute film has a very loose, abstract narrative about a woman who enters a house, takes a nap and dreams about following a mysterious figure in front of that very house, only to stop and enter the house, seeing herself napping, and looking out the window to see herself again following the mysterious figure. The film uses innovative techniques like jump cuts, slow motion photography, and surreal imagery to create its dreamlike atmosphere. It was an international sensation, claiming a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It has also since gained serious critical acclaim, coming in at #16 in Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll. You can view the film for free on Wikipedia.
After WWII, critics and scholars began to recognize, study, and promote experimental film, leading to its flourishing. Major film festivals, including Cannes, launched programs featuring experimental films.
In the 1960s, structuralist filmmakers became increasingly interested in messing with film form and drawing attention to the ingredients of the medium. Where mainstream film might mess with filmmaking techniques like nonlinear narrative or jump cuts, structuralist filmmakers experimented with the basics, like sound, color, time, and setting. How long are shots on screen, and what does that do to one’s attention and one’s feelings about what’s being shown on screen? If a shot lingers on a tree, for example, and you gradually de-saturate the color or alter the color so that the tree becomes blue, how does the audience react? If the camera moves in unexpected ways, or seemingly at random, it draws your attention to the fact that shot selection is highly controlled by the filmmaker, and you become aware that even documentary films are inherently subjective. These are the kinds of things structuralist filmmakers were interested in exploring and saying with their films.
Three of Akerman’s key influences were the structrualist filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, and Andy Warhol.
Mekas was first a critic for the Village Voice, and later founded Anthology Film Archives, which collected experimental films. Mekas mentored many filmmakers, including Akerman and a young Martin Scorsese. As a filmmaker, Mekas pioneered the “diary film,” which was a collage of his daily life, street scenes, and events he happened to witness, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-in for peace.
Snow was one of the pioneers of structural film. His film Wavelength (1967) consists of a single 45-minute shot, slowly zooming in from a wide shot of an apartment to a close-up of a picture on the wall. While the camera zooms, a few characters come in and out of the frame and do some brief actions like listening to music, making a phone call, and in one character’s case, collapsing dead on the floor. The film invites the audience to consider how time and space are represented on screen, and how we instinctively search for meaning when something happens on screen.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Andy Warhol directed and produced a series of highly experimental films. Many of these films messed with audience expectations and were deliberately provocative. An example is his film Sleep (1964), which is a 5+ hour film of a man sleeping. Warhol’s films also frequently incorporated camp and explicit sexuality, which linked his films with a broader underground or counterculture movement within experimental film.
Earlier in the series, we introduced Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, with its theory of the male gaze. Since cinema was a system largely run by men, the medium itself took on a masculine way of looking at gender, and reflected the predominant (conscious or not) societal attitudes toward women. Frequently, this meant that film was about looking at and objectifying women, and that cinema could only be about women in relationship to men. Mulvey changed how people understood films and filmmaking, especially in relation to gender and sexuality.
Akerman was a feminist and aware of Mulvey’s theory. Akerman, more than any previous director, experimented with ways to resist the male gaze. The structuralist avant-garde filmmakers pointed to a way to think about the medium in a less gendered, more objective way. Akerman took some of these techniques and used them to create films that resisted a subjective gaze at the characters, and which instead invited the viewer to think about the characters’ internal state.
In Jeanne Dielman, we watch the main character go through her daily routine in significant detail, nearly in real time. The lighting is flat and realistic, not dramatic or enhanced to make Jeanne look more attractive. Even the camera's height is lower than usual. Akerman doesn't cut to close ups, which would invite us to admire her features. We’re meant to observe and respect Jeanne's routine, not leer at her.
Throughout the film, the camera remains fixed within Jeanne's apartment. Akerman's framing creates a sense of containment, emphasizing the domestic sphere as both a refuge and a confining space. The apartment also becomes a metaphorical representation of Jeanne's life, with each room having its own significance and reflecting both Jeanne's emotional state and the roles she plays.
It wasn't just about techniques. In order to create a film free from the male gaze, Akerman had to be intentional about who worked on the film.
"It was absolutely crucial at the time that 80% of the crew be women. But people didn't trust a woman cinematographer, for example. It was really considered a man's job. Female sound recordists practically didn't exist. There were script girls and women who were editors or in charge of wardrobe or makeup. But there was no one for lighting. Quite a few positions were off-limits to women. So I wanted to show that it was entirely possible. So we did. I wasn't out to provoke in any way."
And for her lead, she cast Delphine Seyrig against type. Seyrig was glamorous, and had made a career playing romantic leads, but also had art film credentials, having starred in Alain Resnais' classic Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
"I absolutely had Delphine in mind when I wrote it. I thought the extraordinary thing was that she was not this character at all. She was quite 'the lady.' If we saw a person making beds and doing dishes whom we normally see doing those things, we wouldn't really see that person, just like men are blind to their wives doing dishes. So it had to be someone we didn't usually see doing the dishes. Delphine was perfect because it suddenly became visible."
Seyrig's performance and the way she inhabits the frame are central to the film's impact. Watch for the nuances in her expressions, the subtlety in her movements, and her ability to convey complex emotions through minimal dialogue.
Akerman also saw additional deep cultural, spiritual, and psychological dimension to the routine of domestic work, and connected this to the drama of Jeanne's everyday life.
"In Jewish ritual, practically every activity of the day is ritualized. I was surrounded by those rituals until I was eight because my grandfather lived with us. But once he died, my mother and father put an end to all that. But the actions - it's as if (Jeanne's) actions took the place of those rituals... abandoned rituals and ones that I believe bring a sort of peace. That's why knowing every moment of every day, Jeanne knowing what she must do the next moment brings a sort of peace and keeps anxiety at bay. So when she gets up too early the following day, she has an empty hour - an hour she has to fill. And a suspense builds up because I think deep down, we know that something's going to happen."
When Jeanne Dielman was released in 1976, the film received mixed reviews.
The film had a particularly rocky debut at the Cannes Film Festival. As Akerman described, "Delphine and I were sitting at the back and people kept getting up and leaving. You could hear the seats banging. That's when I realized that people couldn't stand it."
However, the word of mouth was strong. "The next day after the screening at Cannes, 50 people asked for the film for festivals. I showed this film all over the world."
Critics disagreed over the film, and it remained an underground favorite. Though the word of mouth was strong, it wasn't necessarily seen as a marquee film. The Village Voice didn't even send its most respected reviewers - Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris - to cover the film. Roger Ebert never reviewed the film (not to say he felt negatively about it). And David Thomson didn't even include an entry on Akerman in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Jeanne Dielman's reputation over the years has been strong among cinephiles, but it was regarded as a curieux, as an acquired taste.
The film has had a profound influence on contemporary cinema, particuarly in art house and independent film.
Akerman's film is often considered a precursor to the slow cinema movement. Contemporary directors like Gus Van Sant, Abbas Kiarostami (who we'll meet soon), Bela Tarr (director of the 7-hour classic Satantango), and Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) have adopted the deliberate pacing and exploration of daily life seen in Jeanne Dielman.
Directors like Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl), and Sarah Polley (Women Talking) have drawn inspiration from Akerman's nuanced portrayal of female experiences.
Finally, Jeanne Dielman has become a touchstone for art house cinema, influencing directors who emphasize mood, atmosphere, and contemplation, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light).
And of course, the film's meteoric rise to the surprise #1 position in 2022's Sight and Sound Critics Poll. What do we make of this sudden ascent to the top?
As with Touki Bouki, Black Girl, and other films that leaped up the list from 2012 to 2022, Jeanne Dielman benefitted from increased exposure. Prior to Criterion releasing a special edition of the film in 2009, it was tough to see; three years later the film debuted at #35 on Sight and Sound’s poll.
I also believe the pandemic helped a wider audience appreciate Jeanne Dielman. Those long days in 2020 when puzzles, sourdough starters, and other slow activities helped people cope. In fact, a Ringer piece from March 2020, Nine Extremely Long, Extremely Good Movies, recommended Jeanne Dielman. I'd be shocked if quite a few film enthusiasts didn't take advantage of being stuck at home to finally get around to watching the great film about being stuck at home and going a little mad.
Topping the Sight and Sound list is definitely a big deal, but I'm kind of sad for the film to bear the weight of such hype. Granted, the moniker "greatest film of all time" is unfair for any film to have to live up to, but particularly such an experimental film as Jeanne Dielman.
Akerman passed away in 2015, so she only got to enjoy a short time of the renewed appreciation of Jeanne Dielman. She continued to make films - both narratives and documentaries - until her death. But none of her other work has been quite as influential or well regarded as Jeanne Dielman. In 2009 Akerman seemed to regard the film's success as both a blessing and a curse - a creative peak achieved just as her career was taking off.
The day after the (Cannes) screening, I was on the map as a filmmaker. And not just any filmmaker. Suddenly at 25, I was informed that I was a great filmmaker. It was pleasant, but tough too, because I wondered how to do even better. And I don't know that I have.
The greatest film of all time by Laura Mulvey
A Matter of Time by Ivon Margulies for Criterion
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