Regarding the Pain of Jeanne Dielman
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a marathon of the mundane. For well over three hours we are asked to watch the quotidian chores of the titular character, a middle-aged widow. Akerman’s 1975 tour de force is unwavering in its stylistic choices and its dedication to slowness. This steadfastness helped earn the film its place in cinematic history.
The viewer’s mind is set free to ponder Jeanne’s motivation (and the film’s purpose) by the long and lingering shots of the domestic routines. Some viewers interpret the movie’s crawling pace as a way to relay the boredom of a housewife’s life. This video essay offers a different reading by combining Akerman’s meticulous visuals with the precise writing of Susan Sontag.
Excerpts from Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others are used to cast Akerman’s dogged dedication to Dielman’s daily drill in a different light (1). Although Sontag was writing about the representation of violence, her thoughts are strangely suitable companions for Chantal Akerman’s movie.
Isn’t Jeanne Dielman filmed in almost painful detail, “distinct and indecent” as Sontag puts it? Aren’t these seemingly simple scenes shocking and shameful to watch, yet also alluring? Is the sheer length of the movie not an indictment of the viewers’ inability to identify with Dielman’s quiet plight? Aren’t Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte “spies in the house of love and death”? Isn’t the film’s stubborn slowness a provocation that forces us to consider the causes and effects of this dulling domestic life?
Susan Sontag was thinking of war and terror. That her writing so easily complements these images makes it clear that the apartment on quai du Commerce is a warzone too, a place where terror is just as likely to occur as on the battlefield.
This video essay uses excerpts from the scenes set in Jeanne Dielman’s kitchen. Those scenes, of Jeanne preparing a meat loaf, a schnitzel or just making coffee, are among the most iconic in the movie. In addition, the essay only uses the shots where the camera is set up perpendicular to the long wall of the kitchen (where the sink and stove are installed). These shots alone make up over 27 minutes of the movie’s total runtime.
Why these particular shots? Chantal Akerman makes it clear that her protagonist is caught in her daily routines: her apartment is a prison, each room is a cell. The kitchen is the most obvious of these jail cells (2). The grid that is formed by the joints of the kitchen’s tiled wall is nothing less than a prison grating.
Every shot facing the kitchen wall is slightly different: framed tighter or wider, more to the left or to the right, closer to or farther away from the back wall. For this video essay, all those shots were repositioned and adjusted (using resizing, skewing and slight color corrections) with the tiled wall as a reference map. The shots of Jeanne Dielman cooking and cleaning were then overlaid on an image of the empty kitchen, cut out following the tiles’ joints. The resulting collage reinforces the feeling of a woman trapped in a homely cell. The joints between the tiles hover over her face like the bars of a dungeon (3). All we can do is regard her pain, from the unfaltering and uncomfortable viewpoint that Akerman offers us. Are we Jeanne’s jailers?
(1) The fragments taken from Sontag’s text were extensively rearranged for this video essay. The resulting text does not follow the original’s chronology, and sometimes parts of sentences were deleted to respect rhetoric logic.
(2) The bathroom is another example of such a prison cell: that too has a grating motif in the tiled wall.
(3) In the process of conforming all the shots to the grid of the tiles, I noticed something strange. The position of the towels hanging from the wall changes several times throughout the film. There are three distinctly different positions (which you can see in the rotating visuals above). The towel hooks shift from close to the sink to closer to the stove: a quiet dance that occurs unnoticed between scenes. Has Jeanne Dielman been redecorating? A more plausible, but also more prosaic explanation is that perhaps the position of the towels was changed to obscure the reflection of the camera in the smooth tiles.
This video essay uses clips from:
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [feature film] Dir. Chantal Akerman. Paradise Films et al., Belgium, 1975. 201 mins.
The voice over narration uses excerpts taken from: