On Jeanne Dielman and Its Roots
By David Schwartz
David Schwartz is the programmer of the series Jeanne Dielman and Its Roots, which plays at Museum of the Moving Image from March 31–April 22, 2023.
Autour de Jeanne Dielman (Around Jeanne Dielman) is an illuminating 68-minute behind-the-scenes documentary shot on low-grade black-and-white video by French actor Sami Frey on the set of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It captures intense conversations during rehearsal, between the young director, Chantal Akerman, and her experienced star, Delphine Seyrig. A small crew, seemingly all women, work busily in a cramped apartment as the actress and director argue about Akerman’s instructions to Seyrig to brush her hair more slowly. “That’s not good enough,” says Seyrig. “Explain why you want it to be slow. Find a reason.” Maybe she is daydreaming, Seyrig offers. Not wanting to give a concrete explanation, Akerman says, “For me, I think it could be slower. For you, it’s not fine.” Finally, to Seyrig’s relief, Akerman offers, “It’s a moment of relaxation.” “Ah…” says Seyrig, gratefully and wryly. “You can explain when you want to. But you don’t want to.”
This moment captures so much about the way this work of art, recently voted in the 2022 Sight & Sound critics poll as the greatest film of all time, retains its intriguing opacity while being so intently focused on the quotidian.
The hair-brushing scene in the finished film is a 100-second shot. At the end of the first day (the film takes place over three), Jeanne sits at a small table in her bedroom. The daily chores for this widowed housewife and part-time sex worker have included afternoon sex with a client, and the preparation of a meat-and-potatoes dinner for her awkwardly quiet teenage son. Brushing her hair offers a moment to Jeanne after a day of serving others. For the viewer, there is nothing to do but be with Jeanne and study her closely. On the table is a black-and-white family photograph, one of the few suggestions in the film of Jeanne’s history, besides a letter she receives from her sister. Films usually fill us in on their characters’ back stories, while rushing them (and us) toward their futures. Aside from perhaps, Andy Warhol’s films, has a movie ever been more in-the-moment, rooted more solely in the present, than Jeanne Dielman?
Immediately before this scene is a matter-of-fact but psychologically loaded conversation between Jeanne and her son, Sylvain, who asks how she met her husband. She describes a marriage of convenience and talks about marrying him despite her sister’s protests that he is unattractive and that she could have done better. Sylvain bluntly asks how she could have made love to him if he was ugly. “Making love is just a detail. And I had you,” she says. Sylvain replies, “If I were a woman I’d never make love to a man that I wasn’t deeply in love with.” Jeanne asks, “How would you know? You’re not a woman?” The juxtaposition of these two scenes is striking; we feel a chasm between the calm that Jeanne feels in her private space and the indignities she experiences when she encounters the men in her life; specifically, the way she is called upon to use her body to procreate, to marry, to earn money to maintain her domestic life.
The freshness of Akerman’s approach is the way she defamiliarizes the familiar, giving dramatic weight to chores that would not usually be integral to the narrative. As she expressed it in an unpublished interview from the 1970s found in the files of the Pacific Film Archive, “In movies, what’s supposed to be an ‘effective’ image, an important image, are crimes, car chases, etc. Not a woman, shown from the back, doing dishes. But that is on the same level as the murder—in fact, I think it’s much more dramatic. I think that when she bangs a glass on the table and you really feel that maybe the milk will spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder.”
With supreme confidence, Jeanne Dielman asserts the importance of its subject while also asking us to reconsider what we look for in—and how we look at—a movie. We inhabit what feels like a simulation of real time, confined except for the occasional errand, to the interior of 23 quai du Commerce. What a marked contrast to the time-hopping and dazzling showmanship of, say, Citizen Kane, which reigned for five decades as Sight & Sound’s greatest film. Jeanne Dielman is so unlike the template of a “great film,” with its telegraphed big themes and grand action, that when I saw a Tweet announcing Jeanne Dielman’s selection, I initially took it as a wry joke by one of the film’s admirers, like saying that Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Vision won an Oscar for Best Picture.
But as the jolt of such a brazenly radical film being anointed the greatest settled in, I felt an odd blend of exhilaration and unease. Would the mantle of “greatness” somehow wear heavily on a film that is so determinedly minor—in the best possible way? Could this avant-garde work, which so playfully defies expectations, sit comfortably atop the pantheon of established masterpieces? Of course it is precisely Jeanne Dielman’s iconoclastic originality that is at the heart of its elevation to #1 status. While there was some grumbling online that the selection was transparently political, i.e., gender-driven, all it takes is a viewing of the film to see why it rose to the top of the list. Moment by moment, it is vividly and precisely realized; a perfect collaboration between director, cinematographer (Babette Mangolte) and star (Delphine Seyrig); and a film that so changes the way one sees cinema that to watch it really is a life-altering experience.
Jeanne Dielman is also deeply rooted in film history. Specifically, it comes from a synthesis of two traditions that profoundly influenced Akerman; the New York underground of the late 1960s and early 1970s that she absorbed during a transformative two-year stay in the city in 1971 and 1972, and the post–New Wave innovations in European art cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s. The series "Jeanne Dielman and Its Roots" at MoMI explores these influences, placing Akerman’s tour de force in context while also celebrating its freshly acknowledged greatness.
Some brief notes on the series selections:
La région centrale
Michael Snow’s three-hour opus was just the mind-expanding and transformative experience that Akerman was looking for when she came to New York in 1971. Its duration has obvious connections to Jeanne Dielman, just as its differences are fundamental: nonstop camera movement and complete lack of narrative compared to the static shots and tightly structured story framework of Akerman’s. What the films share is their interest in the physicality of the cinematic experience, how they play with space and time to command and reward close attention.
Wavelength, La Chambre, Hotel Monterey
The inclusion of Snow’s most famous film, built around a 45-minute zoom that traverses a SoHo loft, is a bit of a cheat, as Akerman claims that she never saw it. It was actually Snow’s Back and Forth, with a camera rapidly panning side to side in a classroom, that inspired La Chambre, Akerman’s 11-minute short consisting of three circular pans around an apartment interior. It was filmed by Babette Mangolte, who also shot Hotel Monterey, a silent study of an upper west side hotel structured around a tension between its abstracted visual style and its observational documentary approach.
Je tu il elle
Akerman’s first feature, made on the barest budget after her return from New York, is both an openly autobiographical work and a bridge between structural filmmaking and more traditional narrative. The storyline is slender: Chantal, playing a character named Julie, passes days alone in her apartment, hitchhikes to see her ex-girlfriend (and has a sexual encounter with a truck driver), and then sleeps with her ex. Each key incident is extended in time beyond its usual duration, implicating the viewers and asking them to closely examine their expectations.
The daily routine of Mouchette, a French country girl who suffers psychic abuse from her parents and sexual abuse from local men, is chronicled by Robert Bresson with starkness and simplicity. “With so little, Bresson makes us feel so much about the world,” said Akerman, referring to the film’s tragic ending but also to the precision and naturalism of Bresson’s style.
In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s autobiographically inspired film, sex work is both an economic necessity for Anna Magnani’s single mother raising her sullen teenage son and an act of rebellion against the oppressive demands of her life in a squalid, violent slum just outside of Rome. “The film is great not for its fiction but for its documentary dimension,” wrote Akerman.
“For me Le bonheur is the most anti-romantic film there is,” said Akerman of Agnès Varda’s pastoral tragedy of a young mother driven to despair when her husband leaves her for another woman. The film’s lush colors make it look like a Hollywood musical; yet as Varda famously wrote, “I imagined a summer peach with its perfect colors, but inside there is a worm.” Jeanne Dielman also uses bright colors and sunlight, even in its claustrophobic interior shots, to provide counterpoint to the dreariness of Jeanne’s daily routine.
Moses and Aaron
Akerman saw Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s adaptation of Arnold Schonberg’s uncompleted opera when it premiered in Cannes in 1974, not long before she began making Jeanne Dielman. Filmed outdoors in a rugged Italian landscape near the ruin of an amphitheater, the film is austere and precisely choreographed. We see Moses at first, from behind, the camera lingering on the back of his head for over four minutes minutes. It is, like Jeanne Dielman, a film where the most powerful emotions are expressed in the most minute details, where every physical gesture, along with every camera move, choice of angle, and edit, is filled with meaning.
Set in the early 20th century, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film about a former singer trapped in a stultifying marriage and finding an escape in a romantic affair, is composed almost entirely of long takes; on the surface a stodgy, claustrophobic film, Gertrud is in fact emotionally charged at every moment, and has only grown in critical stature over the decades.
Two or Three Things I Know About Her
Akerman has often credited Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou as the film that inspired her to become a filmmaker. “It gave me the force, this crazy desire to become a filmmaker.” She liked the film less when she revisited it; Two or Three Things, a free-ranging essay film centered on a bourgeois prostitute, is closer in sensibility and subject to Jeanne Dielman.