When referring to her 1993 film From The East in a lengthy interview for The A.V. Club, Chantal Akerman notes, “you feel as a viewer, when you face the film and experience the film, you feel an implosion” Reaching beyond this particular film, the quotation befits the filmmaker’s recently screened work. In all of its unyielding simplicity, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is no exception. With each assured cut, Akerman’s second feature length narrative becomes a precarious game of jenga, casually building pressure until its eventual collapse. The result is a quietly painful, tense and nauseating ordeal that doesn’t seep out of the mind for days after the viewing.
Produced in 1975, Jeanne Dielman emerged during a period when a growing concern for spectatorship was developing amongst filmmakers and theorists. In practical circles, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s indignant farewell to cinema, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom denounced the – as he put it – “commodification of the human body,” and revealed the ethical implications of our nonchalant engagement with images of sex and violence. Theoretically, luminaries, such as Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen examined the tacit positioning of the spectator via the cinematic apparatus, integrating the psychoanalytic ideas of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. In doing so, the notions of pleasure and identification became the main threads of their argument.
By stripping down the filmic mechanics to its bare essentials, Akerman eradicates these two common joys of cinematic interaction. A typically emotional proximity is consistently evaded, favouring far removed, stylised tableaux over close-ups. Displeasure aside, the superficially aloof director clearly wishes for us to experience every millisecond of the titular character’s everyday activities. Dielman (played by Delphine Seyrig with an impervious elegance) cleans, babysits, and prepares evening meals for her pubescent son, moonlighting as a prostitute prior to his return. We spend three days merely looking at this regimented lifestyle. By the second, order is fractured, revealing the brittle pieces behind the icy demeanour. A key factor in soaking up these miniscule moments is the firmly grounded and exact compositions, extensively utilised across the film’s 201 minutes. Eventually, depending on individual patience, one adapts to the steadfast rigour, becoming loosely involved in the calculated widower’s ritualistic manoeuvres.
Another major contributor towards this sense of inclusion is the often-undervalued acoustic properties. The subtly crafted sound design is tantamount to Jeanne Dielman’s strict visual layout. The constant distance sustained by the symmetrical framing is counterbalanced by close attention to the manipulation of specific audio elements. Even a couple days after the screening I was locked inside Akerman’s echo chamber with an acute sensitivity to otherwise minor sounds. From flaming gas hobs to the jabbing clack of heels, our ears become attuned to this heightened soundscape of the mundane. Seemingly effortless in its employment, these auditory qualities operate as an immersive tool.
In order to raise tension and create proximity between character and spectator, the sharp amplification of Dielman’s audible surroundings remains an indispensable aspect. In its entirety, this well-calibrated medley of household items and rhythmic gestures jar the audience through their tonal shift. Moreover, it is here where Akerman’s intention of generating an implosive experience are realised. From the outset, as hissing gas rises during the opening credits, an ominous atmosphere is established before we enter this solitary existence of concealed passions.
Once inside, we must look and listen to the soft (but prevailing) scrubbing of Dielman’s body whilst in the bath and the clanging of cutlery against dinner plates. On the second day, after an evening with a regular customer, the sounds become coarse assailants, rattling our senses. For example, in a taut series of shots, the curtains (which were previously less piercing) screeching along the pole, and the harsh cry of rusty hinges and closing doors underscore an anxiety bubbling beneath the fallacious apathy. Even the occasional grunting buzz of the intercom evokes a growing uneasiness.
By day three, the presence of silence and the distant outside streets envelop us within the gradual deterioration. In a possible attempt to snip these deep-rooted feelings, the housemaid lounges in the living room, gripped to her chair with a monastic stillness. Unseen vehicles breeze by, containing the same looming menace. Moments later, Dielman’s ephemeral state of calm is rived by her usual babysitting job. The baby’s infernal cry only swells the composed sitter’s nerves while the noise lacerates our eardrums.
The remaining portion of the narrative continues its descent into Dielman’s imbalance until she can no longer maintain control. At this stage, the film’s pronounced application of sounds is a reminder of the impending outburst. Unlike Chantal Akerman’s preceding films (excluding Hotel Monterey and La Chambre), which reveal an early attention to the power of sound design, Jeanne Dielman seems, so far, her most potently enthralling. At age 25, the precocious director and her sound department’s skilful construction of differing tones certify the pivotal role it plays in gauging a character’s undisclosed vulnerabilities.
Displaying the burning conviction of a fiery young filmmaker in her prime, the film is a challenge for the most hardened cinephile yet captivating in its technical and performative expertise. To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, “Each sequence demands a reaction”