In October 2015, Chantal Akerman was reported to have died by her own hand at the age of sixty-five. Many of the obituaries reflected on the diversity of her film, TV and gallery installations, highlighting the recurring shadow of the second world war and the strong feminist politics in her art work. Citing Godard as an early influence, Akerman enrolled and subsequently dropped out of the INSAS film-school in Belgium, going on to establish her career with a number of experimental short films which combine a structuralist approach to cinematic form with themes of personal and social alienation. At the prodigiously young age of twenty-five, Akerman made her second feature and with it cemented her place in film history.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was released during International Women’s Year, 1975. The decade had witnessed a flourishing of public consciousness around social and international politics together with a new-found sense of empowerment and responsibility for individual action. Popular opposition to the American invasion of Vietnam had focused attention on Western foreign policy, while the revolutionary politics of second-wave feminism, Marxism and cultural identity were changing the frameworks of private and social interaction. The feminist writer Carol Hanisch conveyed the implications of this new consciousness at the start of the decade with the phrase, ’the personal is political’.
In both its form and subject matter Akerman’s film connected in a strikingly new way with the spirit of contemporary protest as well as directly to audiences’ political concerns. Foregrounding the empirical reality of housework and motherhood, Jeanne Dielman’s unprotesting conformity to the social contract becomes eroded by its unanticipated demands on her identity. Akerman’s subject does not choose the rebellion that she begins to feel and she is clearly not motivated by political argument. What makes this narrative so politically urgent is its forensic exposure of the social acceptability of inequality and oppression; the small print in the contract invalidating the very security it offers us.
By focusing exclusively on Jeanne’s daily routine the other characters in the film are developed only to the extent of her relationship with them. Neighbours and shopkeepers make brief appearances but serve mainly to establish the functional basis of Jeanne’s interaction with the local community. Jeanne’s son Sylvian is given a more significant supporting role, representing Jeanne’s maternal interest and, during a few short conversations, revealing much of the film’s sparse biographical information. His presence though remains peripheral, leaving the apartment each day to attend college. Few films have focused so exclusively on a female character, or so successfully represented a woman outside of the context of the male gaze.
Jeanne is a widow and has chosen to raise her son on her own, taking on the responsibilities of both parents in a nuclear family. From a feminist perspective, Jeanne’s situation emphasises her autonomy, while her independence and resourcefulness are shown to be constrained by her traditional female role within the home. The inference that Jeanne has consciously chosen this role for herself takes nothing away from the obvious gender inequality accepted by her and her son. Sylvian’s dependence on his mother’s care is partly explained by his adolescent introspection, however his critical remarks concerning Jeanne’s appearance and competence, reveal how little he appreciates his privileged position.
As a young man and a student, Sylvian is able to freely express his thoughts and worries while Jeanne shows little curiosity even in reading the evening paper and rarely draws attention to her own feelings. In one key exchange between them, Sylvian naively proposes that a woman could only sleep with a man if she truly loved him. Jeanne’s pointed reply reveals her own worldly realism, ‘But you’re not a woman, so you don’t know’.
Fittingly for her Quai du Commerce address, in addition to the social labour she accomplishes as a housewife, Jeanne also provides an income by discretely receiving clients for paid sex in the afternoons. The money she earns from this is shown to directly benefit Sylvian in supplementing his college expenses, as well as providing for housekeeping. The tension created between impeccable middle-class behaviour and prostitution is further complicated by Jeanne’s ability to treat both with the same dutiful practicality, dealing with her client’s needs in the time it takes to boil the potatoes for her evening meal.
Akerman avoids a simplistic picture of immorality here by drawing our attention to the wider critique of an apparently benign set of social values. The male clients Jeanne receives arrive by appointment and return at the same time every week. No conversation is required, with both parties tacitly performing an expected role. In a variation from convention however, the client pays for Jeanne’s services only when he is ready to leave which makes the payment appear both conditional and discretional. The barely concealed insecurity which Jeanne displays at this moment accentuates her vulnerability in the transaction while also relating it to the more respectable over-the-counter commerce in which the customer is assured of their rights.
With the home identified as workplace and Jeanne’s use of her marital bedroom to sell sex, the film offers structural insight to the idea of ‘marriage as legalised prostitution’. In the absence of a specific husband figure, Jeanne’s dutiful performance as a house wife is revealed for the way in which it benefits the collective interests of a privileged male society. Popular cultural understanding distinguishes the home and the body as sites of privacy for the individual, however it is clear from Jeanne’s socially formalised routine that she experiences both as a source of alienation. Instead, it is in the breaks between work that Jeanne’s personal identity is given some small room for expression, simply conveyed through her appreciation of a well made cup of coffee.
Akerman’s visual strategy, the formal architecture of the narrative and her bold use of concrete time are all instrumental in positioning the viewer’s political awareness of Jeanne’s personal actions. Each separate shot emphasises the material reality of Jeanne’s work and environment through its wide angled, static framing and unbroken duration, with some shots lasting a number of minutes. The sequencing of shots conforms to the serial logic of linear time, describing roughly 48 hours and uses of inter-titles to simply mark the ellipses from night to morning. The fictional setting of the narrative only gradually becomes more evident through Akerman’s selection of scenes and the structuring of the film around three of Jeanne’s afternoon appointments.
The use of structuralist techniques to foreground Jeanne’s existential reality firmly places the film within the political framework of Marxist materialism; locating the narrative, not just in the possibilities for action within an existing social system, but in an analysis of the very conditions and relations which define it. The empirical and authentic depiction of Jeanne’s repetitive drudgery is conveyed though with a surprising sense of pace and brevity. Repeated scenes skilfully expose crucial variations while the scenes pictured only once have their repetition inferred by further ellipses in the timeline. In this way the viewer is prompted to engage dynamically with the film’s structure and to imaginatively complete the shared temporal and emotional experience of Jeanne’s life.
Having established the limited personal expression which Jeanne allows herself within her socially regulated schedule, the controversial second half of the film hinges on an unprecedented demand made precisely on that private identity. Following Jeanne’s sex work with the second client she returns to the kitchen to discover her potatoes overcooked. Akerman has deliberately left the first two episodes between Jeanne and her clients to the viewer’s imagination, placing the camera outside her closed bedroom door. If it is possible to imagine any number of possibilities for Jeanne’s delay with her client, the accepted explanation of her passionate arousal only initially satisfies the dramatic tension surrounding her repressed desire.
The emotional confusion that Jeanne subsequently exhibits is dramatised with compassionate humour through her indecision over how to dispose of the potatoes, briefly carrying the saucepan into the bathroom only to carry it straight back again. What for many people may have been considered an entirely permissible loss of self control, whether referring to her spoiled meal or to her orgasm, for Jeanne, sets in motion a disaffection for her whole routine, an increasing reflectiveness and loss of purpose, and finally her unpremeditated act of murder. The significance therefore of Jeanne’s unspecified experience places it within a much larger portrait of her emotional history, and outside the primary information disclosed by the film.
The presence of the camera however, during Jeanne’s third encounter with a client offers a more precise picture of the emotional turmoil affecting her. Lying on her back, with the client absently immobile on top of her, the personal agency of Jeanne’s orgasm is portrayed through her ineffectual battle to refuse it. Later while dressing, it is the client’s affectionate gaze and the easy familiarity he assumes in falling asleep on her bed that appears to prompt Jeanne’s sudden impulse to stab him in the neck.
Indicating Jeanne’s sexual experience as something felt more akin to rape than catharsis, Jeanne’s perception of the client’s demand for reciprocated pleasure is cruelly at odds with the unwelcome reminder of her widow’s grief. Having spent the day unusually preoccupied with memories of her husband and her family abroad, Jeanne’s personal sense of injury can be seen to retaliate against the same disinterested society in which she had sought refuge.
In interview, Akerman has played down the film’s critique of patriarchy, pointing to the film’s personal link with memories of her own mother in the generation after the second world war. The fact that her Polish mother was a survivor from Auschwitz however, leads us ultimately back to the film’s uncomfortable examination of society’s conditional care for the individual and our susceptibility for the justification of privilege.
Akerman’s last completed film, No Home Movie (2016) is a joint portrait of the film maker in conversation with her mother whose death preceded her daughter’s by only a few months. The film has a US release in April this year and will be screened at the Brighton Festival in May, with an anticipated wider European release to follow.