I’m quite apprehensive about speaking too heavily or formally on Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at this stage, given that we’ve just set out on A Nos Amours’ ambitious 18-month long plan to screen the entire Akerman oeuvre and I’d like to cover it more extensively as and when the chronology allows, but having just seen the film on the big screen for the first time I couldn’t let the opportunity to muse over it pass me by. A more in-depth piece will follow later.
The list of films one might deem to be genuinely “unique” fore bearers and pioneers apart, is actually very short. Partly due to the nature in which, for better or worse, the original inspires imitation. One such film that bucks the trend is Chantal Akerman’s best known feature, 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which merges film with performance art and video installation, with the resulting work one which is quite like no other, but is extraordinarily cinematic.
It’s in the rhythm and the pace that the film comes to life. Akerman takes the derivative and presents them in the most traditional way possible, in turn shifting our perception of what is derivative and traditional. While the film itself is not told in real-time, sections do unfold as such. If Dielman begins to produce a meal then the camera sits in place, as the meal is prepared. If Dielman sets out to bathe, the camera observes. The everyday punctuates the picture. Meal-times are set pieces, with pacing given over to the rhythm of the protagonist’s daily routine.
The eponymous protagonist’s story is masterfully contextualised utilising the most sparing of means. Through the reading aloud to her son a letter from her sister, who lives abroad, Dielman backstory is naturally introduced in to the picture. We discover that Dielman married young, in want of a child, but lost her husband in the years since. The letter refers to the woman’s natural beauty, and encourages her to make the move from Belgium to join the pen smith in Canada, where willing and able batchelors await. Rather than take the traditional route, a path she has tried once before but been left disappointed with, Dielman chooses to use her own sexuality by means of prostitution, inviting men in to her home throughout the day, for a fee.
The killing that closes the picture stands as a release of pressure. As events go on the film becomes increasingly claustrophobic, with obstruction coming in to play via Dielman’s everyday routine, which is repeated across three days as the film plays out. It’s a presentation of the ordinary, although curiously exaggerated, in the sense that it is so in a different way to most conventional movies. What the first two days establish the final one subverts, albeit in the most subtle of ways. As Dielman begins to make mistakes, or do things differently as she has done in the days that precede, the world slowly begins to spiral out of control. Throughout all of this the picture’s very rigid formalist structure remains in place. The camera never once bats an eyelid, with the scenario presented wholesale, from a multitude of angles that opens up the space completely. One is completely engulfed within the structure of Dielman’s apartment, leading to a double-edged sword of equal comfort and stifle.