A minimalist explosion of aesthetic and political rage, there's never been anything quite like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) either before or since. At first glance the film, new on a Criterion DVD, may resemble a fusion of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974), the former a timebomb of middle-class ennui and the latter an expression of gender-binding anxiety in the suburbs. It's true, Jeanne Dielman hits these marks, but the 25-year-old director takes these themes to a radical, transcendent extreme.
Akerman films Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) — widow, stay-at-home mom, occasional prostitute — as she goes about her daily routines with unparalleled patience, monotony, and sympathy. The static, frontal compositions match Dielman's carefully coiffed red hair: colorful, dynamic, not a strand out of place, obsessive, compulsive. On the surface, there seems to be some connection to Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), which also purports to examine a middle class mom who turns to prostitution, though for Godard such a character remains a political model, whereas for Akerman Jeanne Dielman is much more than just a loudspeaker. Caught between labels of mother and whore, independent and exploited, liberated and confined, Dielman is a living, breathing vortex of contradictions, irrefutably recognizable and relatable as a human being.
In what has truly been a Summer of Seyrig, we have seen DVD releases for three of her most famous and critically acclaimed roles. First there was the Criterion Collection edition of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and then the Facets release of Stanislav Stanojevic's Diary of a Suicide (1973), both of which figured Seyrig as the obscure object of masculine desire. Her commanding performance as Jeanne Dielman, however, takes the cake in terms of being enigmatic. With no access to her thoughts, and few occasions to hear her speak, our understanding of her is limited to her actions: taking potatoes from one pot and putting them in another, placing her clients' money in a porcelain pot on the dinner table and replacing its lid, making meatloaf. Gestures define her life and prevent it (for the time being) from rolling into abstraction and ennui. However, the disruption of these routines — burning the potatoes, forgetting to put the lid on the porcelain pot, an unsolvable dissatisfaction with her morning cup of coffee — is only the first sign that her world is crumbling away, that the security of monotony is surely fading.
Despite the Camus-like existentialism of the final two scenes, Akerman refuses to allow any easy resolution or explanation for Jeanne Dielman. What remains equally uncertain is the viewer's role in the film. The near-fetishistic content of the scenes seems to suggest voyeurism: why else would we watch her bathe from a distance, coldly watching her scrub down her nude body, or stare at her combing her hair, or running her hands through a mountain of ground beef? Are we like her son, who relies on her for money, food, clothes, and shelter — it's undeniable that the majority of Dielman's actions are done for her son's benefit rather than her own. Or perhaps we are meant to be in the position of her clients, who see and use her as a female commodity? Or maybe the screen that separates us from her is actually a one-way mirror: allowing us to peek into Dielman's life, the way she might look back onto herself: detached and merciless.
These probing uncertainties are what have made Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles an essential part of cinematic mythology — a nearly three-and-a-half-hour tome to kitchens, bedrooms, dining rooms, halls, and the woman who haunts them day in and day out, and forever as long as the film keeps rolling by.
As expected, the deluxe Criterion Collection edition was supervised by Chantal Akerman and is full of the usual goodies: a pristinely restored image, an on-set documentary by Sami Frey (costar of Band of Outsiders), interviews with Akerman and company, and Saute ma ville, the director's first film, from 1968 (also involving a kitchen).
Also on DVD this week:
Diary For My Children (1984) (Second Run, PAL DVD Region 2) - From Márta Mészáros (Adoption), one of Hungary's most acclaimed and prolific directors, comes this story of the post-war experience, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Take Out (2004) (Kino, DVD) - Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's harsh but humanistic day-in-the-life of an illegal immigrant who works delivers Chinese food hearkens back to Italian Neorealism (particularly De Sica's Bicycle Thieves), but Take Out is no mere pastiche — it's one of the most unrelenting examples of cinematic realism in recent years.
Werner Herzog: Encounters in the Natural World box set (Revolver Entertainment, PAL Blu Ray) - Buy this not for Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, or The White Diamond, but for the two masterful shorts La Soufriere (in which Herzog is logically compelled to visit an island that has evacuated in preparation for a volcano explosion) and The Flying Doctors of East Africa (the title of which explains the sky-biking nuns in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely).