If you thought Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce was too slow-moving and uneventful (and God knows a lot of people did), Chantal Akerman’s glacially paced Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles will probably drive you up a wall. Personally, I love these movies partly because they unfold slowly, allowing plenty of time to appreciate the intricate ballets their title characters perform on the line between Xtreme girl-power efficiency and total dysfunction.
I also love the Museum of the Moving Image for choosing this double bill to celebrate Mother’s Day weekend. Way to reclaim the day from florists and greeting card companies. That’s my MoMI!
Haynes has called Jeanne Dielman “a feminist masterwork of minimalist constraint; a cinematic powerhouse of narrative innuendo.” It’s easy to imagine why the director, a semiotics student turned Queer Cinema pioneer who loves to experiment with both old and new ways of conveying ideas and feelings on film, might have appreciated Akerman’s influential 1975 indie. Jeanne Dielman pushes naturalism so far it risks losing its audience, but it has plenty to say, if you can stick with it, about how social norms can disempower women and how mysterious all of us humans are, even to our own selves.
Jeanne Dielman, a widowed bourgeois housewife, is stuck in a constricted and constricting world, trapped in small spaces—mostly her own kitchen or the other rooms of her tidy but cramped apartment, but also the cage-like elevator she rides to and from her apt, the bank where she deposits her earnings, and the stores where she does her shopping. So are the other women whose paths she crosses during the day as they wait patiently, shop aimlessly, or perform menial tasks of their own. Akerman provides the voice of one of those women, an unseen neighbor who drops off her baby with Jeanne—and keeps her hostage at the door one day after picking the baby up, delivering a monologue of mind-numbing banality while Jeanne mm-hmms politely.
Ackerman and her cinematographer, Babbette Mangolte, used a stationary camera to emphasize their characters’ stasis. They sometimes keep the camera rolling for a bit before or after the subject had left the frame, in a style long since popularized by Jim Jarmusch and others, but for nearly all its 201 minutes, the film focuses on Jeanne. It observes her in long, mostly wordless or near-wordless takes over the course of three days as she ticks her way down a list of self-appointed tasks. By day three we’ve come to realize just how ritualized her routines are, so even a little deviation, like dropping a spoon in the kitchen, registers as a sign that something’s seriously wrong. Then one of the johns Jeanne entertains during the day (hey, she’s got to pay for all those fillets of veal she cooks for herself and her son) gives her an orgasm, which introduces a lack of control that the tightly wound Jeanne finds unbearable.
Mildred Pierce, an apparently faithful adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, looks and feels far less challenging and austere than Jeanne Dielman, but the two are sisters under the skin.
The most striking similarity may be the breathing room both give their protagonists. At a total of five hour-plus episodes, Mildred is even longer than Jeanne, and that allows both films to capture pretty granular details (we don’t just see Jeanne pick up a dirty dish when it’s time to clean up; we see her wash the whole stack, and at the start of Mildred Pierce we practically watch Mildred make a pie from start to finish). Literally making visible mundane bits of (typically female) business that most films gloss over also shifts the dramatic emphasis, so a typical dinner Jeanne shares with her son or a visit from Mildred’s estranged husband when he plays on the floor with their youngest daughter may feel as important as a case of adultery or murder.
Both films are interested in the poisonous effect of the secrets we keep even from ourselves, and how little we know even of the people closest to us. As Dennis Lim put it in the New York Times: “Mr. Haynes’s great theme has been the mysteries and traps of identity,” and Mildred is a fascinating case study. She’s loyal, hardworking, capable, and invested by Kate Winslet with enormous empathy and heart—you can’t help but sympathize with her, especially after her husband leaves her for another woman and she has to scramble to provide for herself and their daughters, starting out at an employment agency where she’s told she has no skills and ending as the owner of a successful chain of restaurants.
But then Mildred projects all her inchoate social-climbing hunger onto her older daughter, Veda, turning her into a hot mess of unearned privilege, resentment, and toxic snottiness, and you just want to shake her. When both mother and daughter’s dreams of Veda’s success in the world of classical music, that culture-snob haven, are finally realized, it’s because Veda has turned into a monster. A gifted colluratura, Mildred’s coddled daughter has the voice of an angel, but she’s no more to be trusted, her vocal coach warns, than a poisonous snake.
Mildred’s central tragedy is her unhealthy fixation on Veda. She works hard and gets everything she thought she wanted, but—even more than her hunger for money and social status—her toxic relationship with her daughter keeps happiness out of her reach. Their twisted family tie functions more like an unrequited love affair: Mildred blushes like a schoolgirl when Veda bestows an icy shard of love or approval on her, and she’s overcome with emotion when she hears her daughter sing—so much so that, the first time it happens, she has to leave her restaurant to be alone on the beach with her thoughts and emotions.
Delphine Seyrig’s Jeanne spends most of her time onscreen alone, and though Seyrig’s deadpan mug is much harder to read than Winslet’s translucent one, Akerman gives us plenty of chances to study it. The film ends with a seven-minute shot in which Jeanne sits at her dining table, covered in blood and looking at the camera.
Staring at her for clues as to what she might be thinking, I found myself wondering about her son. How will his world change after learning what his mother is capable of? What will he think about how his mother spent her days? And why didn’t he talk to her more when he had the chance? Did he think he already knew everything there was to know about who she was and what she had to say?
Guess I’d better call mom.