Sound Unseen: The Acousmatic Jeanne Dielman

Is Jeanne Dielmans’ apartment on 23, quai du Commerce in Brussels a haunted house? It might well be. Because the dwelling where most of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece is set is often eerily deserted, with only the distant sounds of shuffling feet and clanging keys filling its hallways.


As the camera waits for the titular protagonist to arrive (or lingers after she has left), the rooms are reduced to echo chambers. When Jeanne Dielman disappears from sight only her aural aura remains. She is disembodied, a ghost even in her own domestic realm. Her visual absence in these moments represents quite literally the invisibility of her plight: a life lived in the shadows, a fate suffered just around a corner, conveniently out of view for the rest of society.


This video essay consists of those moments in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles where we are left to ponder empty rooms and corridors. And there are a lot of them: roughly five and a half minutes of the film’s runtime are interior shots without any visual human presence (1).

Acousmatic sound is sound that one hears without seeing its source. The etymology of the term can (purportedly) be traced back to the ancient Greek, where akousmatikoi was the name given to the pupils of Pythagoras. That philosopher made his students listen to his teachings while he himself hid from sight, forcing them to focus on the substance of his lectures instead of on appearances. Akerman uses the same strategy: in the visual absence of Jeanne Dielman the essence is in the noises. The rattling keys become chains, the footsteps are those of a dead woman walking, the doors (of rooms and kitchen cabinets) screech as if they’re a cry for help.


Sound Unseen: The Acousmatic Jeanne Dielman uses only the empty interiors in Akerman’s film and the sounds that accompany these deserted locales (2). The footage and sounds have however been extensively reorganized to fashion a narrative of sorts from the material. We hear a day in the life of Jeanne Dielman while the visuals function as a memory palace. The video essay suggests that these motionless moments are not appendages but the heart of the movie. A heart with four empty chambers.

(1) This video essay only uses shots set inside the apartment building on quai du Commerce. In the exterior scenes there are even more examples of such empty settings.
(2) There is one single exception: in the movie we do see Jeanne in the kitchen when we hear the doorbell sound. So even if the doorbell is acousmatic at that moment, Jeanne isn’t.
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.