In belated tribute to one of the greatest of filmmakers, who died this month
Women in cages
The late Chantal Akerman's best-known work and popularly acknowledged masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the character study of a creature in her native habitat, the apartment over which she presides and maintains and operates with almost surgical precision.
Akerman shoots Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig, internationally famous for starring in the films of Alain Resnais and Luis Bunuel) in rigorously worked-out shots, mainly static camera positions that peer into doorways and down hallways, usually at right angles to one another (interesting how an angle will give us one color scheme, its perpendicular partner a whole other palette; interesting too how Jeanne playfully mixes and matches with her environment, the only sense you get of wit in her life--her grey or green shirts or coats agreeing with the curtains or walls or even a box of tissues, her reddish-brown hair highlighting the warmth of a wooden kitchen table or dressing cabinet). The lighting is mostly diffused, the lenses perched at around waist height or higher to give Jeanne a slight magnitude but only slight and not an inch more (Akerman's rigor recalls Ozu's in her refusal to see her characters conventionally as in most films, including and especially Hollywood productions).
First we see of Jeanne she's in the kitchen, readying a potted dish; the doorbell rings and she takes off her blue-gray coat (later we realize the coat keeps her clean; when her clients arrive she shrugs it off and receives them in her most attractive if conservative blouse--she may be a prostitute but she's a modest prostitute). Mind you, she takes off coat and washes her hands efficiently but not hurriedly; Jeanne does things on her schedule and her pace. The client waits patiently outside.
Akerman next pulls off the neat Bressonian trick of angling the camera to watch Jeanne and her client walk down the hallway into her bedroom. Cut to the same shot of the same hallway in dim evening (they've been at it for a while); Jeanne switches on the light, reaches offscreen for her client's coat, and we realize that the camera is also angled to capture the coat's handoff from woman to client (if the frame cuts off their faces that's because the faces aren't the focus anyway).
And so it goes for about three and a half hours--we watch Jeanne go through her daily routine over and over, the only real variation being the dinner she cooks for her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte). In an interview Akerman calls Jeanne's occasional prostitution 'a metaphor'--which raises the question: why focus on a widower? Wouldn't following a married couple be as--I don't know, effective or evocative, definitely more typical?
Only guessing at this point, but if Jeanne's husband were alive it would perhaps subtract from her story, as the husband would necessarily share not just her time but bedroom; would also be more inconvenient, trying to hide her extramarital activities from her habitual bedmate.
You do see the metaphor: these men use Jeanne as efficiently as she uses their money, their mutually profitable relationship a step away from conventional marriage. Leaving Jeanne free also allows us to see what she could do in a semi-independent situation, without a job yet without the full burden and benefit of a mother/housewife, a sort of middle case if you like between two extremes. If Jeanne lives in a cage it's a cage partly of her own making.
And dominating that cage is Sylvain, Jeanne's true master. Sylvain rules over Jeanne's day like a benevolent dictator, decreeing (without once explicitly demanding) that she whore herself for him, clean up after him, spend most of her day shopping and preparing his dinner, walk from one dress shop to another in an impossible quest to match the missing button on his coat. A store clerk suggests, sensibly: why not buy a whole new set of buttons? Unsaid, not that it needs explanation: because it wouldn't be the same. It's the game of mix and match Jeanne plays everyday, this time made the sole mission--and for her precious precious offspring. A child and especially a son the film seems to say can be every bit as tyrannical as a husband, perhaps even more so; biological and not just social imperatives compel her to cater to his wishes (as a writer--beautiful woman, ferociously smart, irresistibly independent-minded--once whispered to me, confidentially: children you love, but not by choice).
I'd mentioned the word 'cage' and after the first hour we realize this is exactly what we're watching: a creature pacing her cage. The right-angled shots showing her one way then another emphasize her confinement within a rectangular space, the doorways and window frames rigid borders that attempt to confine her red-brown curls (about the only thing about her that's not linear, or practical, or unyielding).
Jeanne keeps different aspects of her life determinedly apart; she positions a towel at the exact center of her bedspread to capture any fugitive secretions, then promptly tosses said towel in the laundry hamper. Even her multitasking is carefully coordinated: she prepares slow-cooked meals--boiled potatoes, stews, meat loafs--that after attending to her clients are ready to serve (A viewer wondered aloud: "If Jeanne did a cookbook what would it be like?" "Short," a wit replied. Probably, but I'm also thinking it would be mostly comfort foods, family meals easy to make and less surprising than satisfying--recipes which I imagine can be found in magazines like Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Southern Living).
All of which falls apart on the second day. Akerman in another interview confirms that Jeanne had an orgasm with her second client; not obvious, but she'd spent too much time with him and overcooked her potatoes.
The consequences are cataclysmic: she forgets to switch off the lights to rooms she's just left (where before she switches them on and off like a veteran stage manager in a theatrical farce), she can't seem to decide whether to dump the potatoes in the toilet or kitchen trash, and--horrors!--ends up being late with dinner. Later her son lying in bed tells her an increasingly unsettling anecdote about orgasms and human sexuality, as if her anxieties about what happened were displaced to the people and objects around her, over which she exercises less and less control. No, the orgasm's not obvious, but something has definitely happened to upset her--and the film's--sense of equilibrium.
On the final day (skip this paragraph if you plan to watch!) it happens: Jeanne has her second orgasm (first onscreen), reacts violently (fatally for the client), and you ask: why? Again a guess: what you and I might view as a horrifying prison--horrifying because it's not so far removed from life as you and I live it--Jeanne may perhaps have viewed as a not spectacular but comfortable life. Change is bad; change throws her off-balance, makes her unsure of what to do with herself (she wakes up an hour too early and you see the tension on her face trying to deal with the extra sixty minutes in her day). Change in the form of an orgasm--a thrill of pleasure beyond anything she must have imagined in her no-exit life--she must have been ashamed to admit experiencing, to the point that she pulls the bedsheet over her face to hide from her partner. Change means uncertainty means the possibility of waking up to full awareness--and that she'd rather stab to death with a pair of scissors than allow to come to fruition.
I'd compare Jeanne's tragedy to that of Ginjiro Takeuchi in the film of yet another master, Akira Kurosawa: Takeuchi has known little more than squalor and pain, and the humiliation of being watched like a roach on a garbage heap by Kingo Gondo on his hilltop mansion--that he is familiar with, that he can stand. But the possibility of redemption, of a heaven beyond that redemption where he will be received with open arms--that is intolerable, that possibility unnerves him to the point of panic. I can only suggest Jeanne must have felt similarly towards the end.
First published in Businessworld, 10.16.15