Keeping a distance: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman

Chantal Akerman’s films found a new, personal way of screening women.

Janet Bergstrom
Updated:

from our The Innovators series (1970-1980 instalment) in our November 1999 issue

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

In January 1976 Le Monde heralded Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as “the first masterpiece in the feminine in the history of the cinema”. The unconventional style (frontally centred images, elliptical and disjunctive editing) and subject (a woman’s alienation from her daily routine as a housewife and involvement in a discrete form of prostitution that leads her to murder) made the film a powerful sign of a decade when feminism erupted into the arena of politics and film. In Jeanne Dielman Akerman conveyed the insistent presence of a viewpoint outside the story proper: her own – a young woman absorbed by the world of her mother’s generation. And her film still seems remarkably modern, all three hours and 20 minutes of it.

But Jeanne Dielman was not the only groundbreaking film Akerman made during the 70s. Her handful of completed works posit cinema as a developing artform that every new film should advance. Partly thanks to dedicated programmers, sympathetic distributors and screening venues and committed journals, these films gained a high profile and attracted an increasingly engaged, passionate audience. This 70s infrastructure probably seems more distant now than the fiery polemics around feminism and film, but it was every bit as central to what people talked and wrote about.

Akerman the filmmaker came of age at the same time as the new age of feminism, and Jeanne Dielman, Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and News from Home (1976) became key texts in the nascent field of feminist film theory. Feminism posed the apparently simple question of who speaks when a woman in film speaks (as character, as director…); Akerman insisted convincingly that her films’ modes of address rather than their stories alone are the locus of their feminist perspective.

Je, tu, il, elle (1976)

Je, tu, il, elle (1976)

The many arguments about what form a ‘new women’s cinema’ should take revolved around a presumed dichotomy between so-called realist (meaning accessible) and avant-garde (meaning elitist) work; Akerman’s films rendered such distinctions irrelevant and illustrated the reductiveness of the categories. That her films were openly autobiographical, yet in a stylised, indirect manner, and that the aspect of her life she often represented concerned her relationship with her mother attracted great interest. And her role as actress in the long, nude, lesbian sex scene at the end of Je, tu, il, elle, filmed in an uncomfortably direct yet distanced manner, provided a startling new perspective on voyeurism, exhibitionism and the woman’s image on screen.

In later years the investigation of Jewish identity became an explicit motive for her work and she discussed the subject repeatedly in interviews, especially regarding Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). She has described herself many times in a way that stresses her Jewish identity – as well as her cinematic genealogy. “I am Belgian, a Polish Jew by origin. I was born in Brussels 6 June 1950 and I wanted to make films very young, after I saw Pierrot le fou by Godard.” And she has repeated that her mother was in a concentration camp during World War II and would never talk about it.

Akerman saw Pierrot le fou by chance when she was 15; she had never heard of Godard and she didn’t think much of movies. The experience led her to realise that she wanted to make films that, like Godard’s, would carry an erotic charge of immediacy, would be “like talking to one person”. She made her audacious gem of a first film – Saute ma ville (1968, 13 minutes) – when she was only 18, in 35mm, with no money and no institutional support. “One day I wanted to make a film about myself. That was Saute ma ville. I needed a camera, some film, some lights and someone to operate the camera. I asked somebody I knew if he would help me make the film and somebody else loaned me a camera, we bought a little film stock and we made the film in one night. And then I edited it.”

Saute ma ville (1968)

Saute ma ville (1968)

Akerman had spent several months in a Brussels film school (INSAS) before she dropped out because she wasn’t allowed to plunge immediately into filmmaking. But even after she had completed Saute ma ville no one around her believed she was a filmmaker. Her sense of isolation and uncertainty was so great that she left home for Paris, where she stayed for two years. She wanted to work in films but she didn’t know how.

Akerman describes Saute ma ville as follows: “You see an adolescent girl, 18 years old, go into a kitchen, do ordinary things but in a way that is off-kilter, and finally commit suicide. The opposite of Jeanne Dielman: Jeanne, that was resignation. Here, it is rage and death.”

The adolescent is played by Akerman. The film is structured around ordinary domestic routines; the humour, or horror, emerges from the way simple tasks veer out of control. The girl ‘sings’ (la-la-la-la) with the intrusiveness of a troubled child vying for attention; every gesture looks like the externalisation of psychic implosion, for instance, her disturbing dance with her mirror image. The girl’s dislocated activity is the despairing prelude to suicide. The explosion that blows up not only ‘her city’ but first of all herself is set off when she sets fire to a letter (which we cannot read) as she leans over the stove with the unlit gas turned on full blast. A sound-image carried over from this scene opens Jeanne Dielman: before the names appear in the credits the loud sound of a jet of gas can be heard, a noise repeated every time Jeanne turns on the stove.

Saute ma ville (1968)

Saute ma ville (1968)

Saute ma ville sat in a lab for two years because Akerman didn’t have the money to claim it and because she was so uncertain about its worth. Finally, when the head of the lab told her to take it away, she asked him to watch it and give her his opinion. Not only did he like it, he also gave her contacts in Belgian television, which led her to Eric de Kuyper, who broadcast Saute ma ville in his Alternative Cinema series. The next day Akerman heard André Delvaux, Belgium’s best-known filmmaker, give her film a glowing radio review. Overnight she became ‘a filmmaker’, not least in her own eyes.

L’Enfant aimé, made the following year, is a film she still regards as a complete failure and won’t allow to be viewed. She had learned the hard way that, as she put it, cinema wasn’t a matter of copying life but life had to be transformed into cinema through mise en scène. On the spur of the moment she left Brussels for New York. “Along with Pierrot le fou, that was the determining factor in my cinematographic existence. I saw Brakhage’s films there, but most importantly, Michael Snow’s. His films work exclusively on the language of the cinema, without any story or sentiment… it is language itself, without parasites, without the possibility of identification.”

Akerman lived in New York for about a year and a half between 1971 and 1974, interspersed with several trips back to Europe. Almost immediately she met Babette Mangolte, who became her friend, her mentor and her gateway to the New York avant-garde film, theatre and music scene, as well as the cinematographer on all her films of this period except Le 15/8 (1973) and Je, tu, il, elle. Mangolte was eager to try out new techniques and equipment to fit Akerman’s conceptions and had the contacts Akerman needed to continue to make no-budget films largely using borrowed equipment and volunteers.

La Chambre (1972)

La Chambre (1972)

Akerman made two stunning short films during this first New York trip – La Chambre and Hotel Monterey, both experimental in the American sense of minimal filmmaking. La Chambre (1972) is a ten-minute silent directly influenced by Snow in which a camera surveys a small apartment in a continuous circular movement, sometimes reversing direction. But the departure from Snow is evident in the presence of a young woman, Akerman herself, who lies in a bed and looks directly at ‘us’ (the visual field occupied by the camera). Though neither distance nor pacing is changed when the woman enters the field of vision, each time we see her she performs a simple action (she rocks back and forth, she eats an apple…). The room is suffused with a beautiful natural light that also offsets the potential austerity.

Hotel Monterey is much more ambitious. Made the following year, it takes an hour to describe a low-cost residence hotel and its inhabitants in a way that endows the off-screen space inhabited by the camera with a felt presence that is never associated with any person or character. Akerman described the narrative progression as “an ascent through space and time” beginning on the ground floor in the evening and ending on the roof at dawn. The camera moves inexorably through the lobby, into the elevator as the doors open and close on different floors, down corridors that are often empty and sometimes into a room where someone might be sitting. The sense of waiting without a specific objective is overwhelming, something like Edward Hopper’s paintings, to which Jeanne Dielman would be compared.

“I was shocked when I saw that hotel,” Akerman said. “If I had made something right away, it would have been like a news report. But I thought about that hotel for six months: through that mise en scène and that work on language, I attained ten times more truth.” Hotel Monterey also brought Akerman together with Delphine Seyrig, one of the icons of the French nouvelle vague who was part of the jury that awarded it a prize at the Festival de Nancy in the summer of 1973. And Seyrig made Jeanne Dielman possible.

Hotel Monterey (1973)

Hotel Monterey (1973)

According to Mangolte, Akerman applied for a subsidy from Belgium to make a fiction film starring Seyrig, “but she felt she would never get the money with the portfolio she had. She had to do a film very quickly, so she made Je, tu, il, elle in 35mm.” Akerman’s first feature, it is a European narrative film infused with elements drawn from her New York experimental background, and a daring study of the uncertain constitution of sexual identity and desire. Based on a story Akerman wrote in Paris in 1968, it was shot in about a week, on a shoestring. As with Hotel Monterey, Akerman emphasised the importance of having waited until she had arrived at an appropriate formalisation of her ideas: “The six-year interval allowed me to create a mise en scène: my role as an actress was part of that mise en scène.”

Je, tu, il, elle is divided into three sections united by a young woman’s quest for sexual knowledge. This woman, played by Akerman, is first presented in solitude, though linked to someone else through the writing of a long letter. Her increasing discomfort is externalised by stripping her room and herself bare, as if disposing of all that is inessential. We hear Akerman’s voiceover narration in this section only, describing some of her actions, though what she says doesn’t always match what we see her do.

Je, tu, il, elle (1976)

Je, tu, il, elle (1976)

The second part shows her hitchhiking, and here we witness her intense curiosity for the trucker who picks her up, her compliance with his understated request that she bring him to orgasm with her hand, her absorbed listening to the story he tells about the changes he has experienced in his sexual desire for his wife and daughter. In the final section she arrives at the apartment of a young woman who at first refuses her, then feeds her and makes loves with her, both of them naked and presented frontally to the camera in a long take, after which Akerman exits the frame and is heard singing in the shower. This small masterpiece was shown in festivals before Jeanne Dielman but was not released theatrically until afterwards.

Made by a crew composed almost exclusively of women and a 24-year-old female director working outside the dominant system and the norms of length, plot, visualisation and address, Jeanne Dielman was seen as a model for a cinema of the future in which filmmakers would embrace woman-centred means of expression as well as content. One of the aspects of Akerman’s visual style that was most noted was the separation she maintained between the visual field occupied by the camera, which she has often equated with her own view, and the field observed by the camera. There is an absence of the conventional shot/reverse-shot rhetoric of editing and a skilled use of ellipsis that emphasises the separation of these two fields. A choice has been made not to draw the viewer into the psychological depths of dramatic verisimilitude.

Akerman called Jeanne Dielman a feminist film, but not a militant one: Jeanne is neither a role model nor an example of a victim. The film chronicles three days in the life of a middle-class Belgian widow who cares for her teenage son; she has maintained her role as housewife and her routine inside her home, each moment taken up by a specific task, by becoming a discrete prostitute, receiving a respectable man nearly wordlessly each afternoon. But her order is disrupted by the second client, probably because of an unwanted sexual orgasm, and she is unable to put back the pieces after having so carefully defended herself against intrusion into her private world. On the third day, she murders the man after they have sex. “Jeanne Dielman’s defences had snapped and I wanted to demonstrate that with the strongest sign of her oppression: prostitution… Jeanne Dielman kills to regain her order.” The protagonist’s daily routine is shown in minute detail, except for the bedroom scenes. There, we enter only on the last day and are kept at a distance.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Akerman stated in an interview with Camera Obscura: “I do think it’s a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little.”

Akerman once thought of dedicating Jeanne Dielman to her mother, and in an interview she described her love for the mother’s gestures which she observed with so much care. “I was looking with a great deal of attention and the attention wasn’t distanced… For me, the way I looked at what was going on was a look of love and respect… I let her live her life in the middle of the frame… I let her be in her space. It’s not uncontrolled. But the camera was not voyeuristic in the commercial way because you always knew where I was. You know, it wasn’t shot through the keyhole.”Yet Akerman’s point of view and framing also represent the director’s control over the mother’s every movement – perhaps the will to omnipotence that motivates every child, but given Akerman’s mother’s refusal to speak about what must have seemed to be the most important thing in her past, the stakes were surely higher.

News from Home (1976)

News from Home (1976)

Akerman’s second major trip to New York, in May 1976, led to News from Home, based on the letters her mother had written to her during her first trip. A 16 mm non-synch-sound production, the film was shot by Mangolte and is much more directly related to the American experimental tradition. Here the soundtrack, in which a young woman reads the letters against the background of the ambient sounds of the city, endows the images with a significance that would otherwise be entirely absent; there is an absolute non-coincidence between seeing and hearing. The images look almost like photographs – streets, arid subways with people randomly present or absent, none of them the “you” (the daughter) addressed in the letters, who is never shown.

Following News from Home Akerman returned to Europe and launched her first large-scale production, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, aimed at a much broader audience. The film follows a young woman filmmaker as she travels with her new film from Germany to Belgium to France – according to Akerman it is at once about Europe and about Anna returning to her mother as the centre of her life and the structural centre of the film. Akerman has talked of Anna’s travels in terms of the ‘wandering Jew’ and of her own sense of uprootedness. “When I look at my parents, I see that they are very well integrated here… They don’t have this feeling of exile. In a way, they have made a break with their past… I think that we represent the generation in which the repressed comes back… Because they didn’t tell us about that past, because they didn’t pass it down to us, what they did pass down was precisely this sense of uprootedness.”

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978)

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978)

In Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, as in many of Akerman’s films, autobiography is presented as if an invisible wedge had been driven between the lived experience and the audience: we look on to a stylised world that would not be called autobiographical in the usual sense. Keeping a distance is a key element in Akerman’s cinema – both the locus of her films’ power and a barrier to their popularity. Aside from numerous television documentaries, her attempts to adjust her filmmaking to commercial norms have not been successful. On the other hand, she has maintained a loyal following worldwide who appreciate the challenges her films initiated, one after another, so memorably in the 70s.

The films of Chantal Akerman demonstrate a motivating interest in the status of the representation of woman – her desire, her self-image, the image others create of and for her. Akerman’s films have shown different solutions to the question ‘who speaks?’, and it may well be that any given answers will always be reductive. But were the questions about the representational status of women, so urgently posed during the 70s, ever resolved? I think not, because I still hear them asked by successive generations of students.

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