Alice Munro, in “Epilogue: The Photographer,” from her astonishing 1971 book Lives of Girls and Women, lays down this profound bit of wisdom: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with linoleum.” Munro’s stories often get unjustly derided for being “boring” or because “nothing happens.” As the quote from Lives of Girls and Women shows, though, Munro’s focus on the quotidian is deliberate, her stories constructed to show just how much substance there is in and underneath the routines of a seemingly boring life. What does that boring life hide? What does that routine protect the character from? What do we learn about our lives as we examine the time we experience in the mundane locales of our daily lives? After all, every one of us experiences 24 hours each day, 365 days per year, and much of who we are, much of our joy and pain, our growth or despair, is found in the tasks we set out to do each day. Munro’s work shows this beautifully.
I cannot imagine it’s easy to achieve a story that focuses on the relatively mundane while keeping readers enthralled. The successful artist has to know how to imbue ordinary objects with terror, has to make tangible the passage of time. I’m not sure I can say I’ve seen this particular aesthetic theory played out on screen anywhere so well as in the works of Chantal Akerman. Look at the Criterion Collection cover for Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, just out today in a wonderful Blu-ray home video release, and you may see where I’m going with this. Of all the filmmakers I am familiar with, Akerman is the only one who achieves something similar to Munro: she has the confidence and ability to make her viewer experience time and space without an overt story to propel us forward. She teaches us how to watch and find amazing depths in something that might otherwise be passed over as not really worth our time.
I was fortunate to join with David Blakeslee and Pauline Lambert in a podcast conversation about many of Akerman’s films from the 1970s (see here). At the time, I had not yet seen Jeanne Dielman (I’ll avoid the longer, nicely mundane title from here on out), though in another podcast with Michael Koresky (here) he said it was one of those films that changed him (he also voted for it for the 2012 Sight and Sound critics poll). I respect Koresky’s opinions and I loved the other 1970s Akerman films we discussed, so I was excited to have an opportunity to review Akerman’s most famous, most ambitious, most provocatively “boring” film that, if we can just see into the cracks of that linoleum, becomes a psychological thriller.
Delphine Seyrig plays the title character, a middle-aged widow raising a teen-aged son. The film takes us through three days in her life, and Akerman’s camera quietly watches her routine: washing dishes, peeling potatoes, cleaning up, etc. Each afternoon, while the potatoes are boiling, a client arrives whom Dielman takes down the hallway, shutting the door on us. We remain in the other room, the closed door on our periphery, fully conscious of what’s going on, how Dielman has managed to get by. There are no ellipses here. The film runs 201 minutes. It should not be shorter. Jeanne Dielman is meant to make us feel time, to make it tangible as we sit there watching an unadorned character’s life pass before our eyes. How else can we become part of the routine? How else can we feel the weight of time and the stress that enters when something starts to slip?
And of course things start to slip. There’s a reason we experience fear while someone prepares meat loaf or gasp when someone drops a spoon.
The Criterion Collection edition is packed with good supplements, including Akerman’s first film, the 13-minute Saute ma ville, made when Akerman was only 18 (impressive, and still more impressive to consider Akerman was only 25 when she made Jeanne Dielman). The disc also comes with a lot of supplements featuring the women involved in making the film — yes, Akerman employed a crew made entirely of women to make this wonderful film about a woman. Seyrig features prominently, particularly in Autour de Jeanne Dielman, a making-of that shows Akerman and Seyrig working closely together to figure out the best ways to make the minutia perfect. We also get a great 23-minute interview with Babette Mangolte, who worked as the cinematographer on many of Akerman’s early films. Perhaps best of all, for me, because it ties into Akerman’s astonishing film News from Home, is a 29-minute interview between Akerman and her mother, Natalia Akerman, filmed in 2007. News from Home is a lovely film where we wander the streets of 1970s New York while Akerman read letters from her increasingly worried mother. Here the tone is more congratulatory; Natalia is very proud of her daughter’s work.
All in all, the Criterion edition is a fantastic presentation of this powerful film.