JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE,1080 BRUXELLE Chantel Ackerman         (1975; Fr)  Delphine Seyrig 

Dec 2022 voted best film by Sight and Sound poll

Hommage to observation

This film drills.  ‘Drills’ in both senses of the word. I watch the housewife-sergeant Jeanne Dielman ‘drill’ herself as the consummate performer of the same perfected acts and motions in an series of endless repetitions.  Drills in the other sense of the word because most of her actions takes place in real time and are captured by one prime fixed 50mm lens that takes up only two angles – at 90 or 180 degrees – in respect of its subject. The physical effect of this in itself ‘drills’ what is happening into consciousness as you watch.  The audience in this respect are more than just the usual privileged observer; Ackerman’s creative decision to restrict filming to two angles (representing the natural point of view of an observer who is present) give the viewer the feel of being ‘with’ the action.

The title of the film itself suggests a military ethos: the soldier when asked who he is gives his name rank and number.  That’s all the information you need to know about him.  Jeanne Dielman is given her name and address as her identity.  That’s all that you need to know. She is simply defined by these externalized parameters of her civic personage.   

It is Winter and the mornings are dark. In kitchen hall bedroom living room bathroom the housewife carries out her chores (the drill of the the dead soul).  Chantel Ackerman’s film, title role played by Delphine Seyrig, manifests as a rhythmic tattoo of light and sound, in which the housewife machine paces out patrols and controls with obsessive military precision the space she occupies in her world.

Because the film as a consciousness drill that is similar to the parade ground, the sound track is as important as images.  The sound effects operate as an independent syncopated accompaniment to the image.  My impressions of the film are as much acoustic as visual.   When I recall this film I hear: the pacing feet between the rooms – bathroom bedroom sitting room kitchen hall – each space distinguished by a different beat as each of Jeanne’s migratory passages through her apartment has its own sound key determined by the need to open and close doors, switch on switch off the light.  Jeanne’s progress is a percussive orchestration of  foot beats, light switch clicks, sprung catches, door closures and other intermittent domestic adjustments.  Each room has its own characteristic sound: bathroom bedroom kitchen etc. are respectively associated with splashings, smoothings, rubbings and scrapings.  Each room has its own slightly demented offbeat visual style with movement through the rooms given edge by the brutal sudden interplay of light and dark as Jeanne obsessively and meticulously switches the lights on and off as she travels through the bowels of her apartment.

The soundtrack has obviously been carefully designed to heighten the ideas of the mechanical,  the machine and the dissonnant .  In contrast the dialogue, such as there is, is indistinct and fuzzy.  In fact there are no human sounds (until that is Jeanne’s break down when we hear her gasp as she services a client with her body).  In Jeanne’s meal time scenes with her son, the sound of the spoons on the plates rings out, and the other table sounds, picking up and replacing things, are distinct.  But the sound of eating, which locates eating as human, such as sucking of soup, is absent.  

Jeanne Dielman is not located in the land of the living.  It is located in the underworld. 

Everything in the film has a feeling of being dead.  The film is a report from the land of the dead.  Each space in the house has a mythological resonance culled from Hades. In this body there is not one sign of life.  Delphine Seyrig plays ‘the housewife machine to perfection. As housewife she smooths folds cooks cleans washes fucks.  A machine in which  the thought processes that created each of these ritual tasks and their solutions has long ceased. All that is left is for a zombie psyche to carry out these chores as an outer simulation of something that once had meaning. 

Although often represented as a feminist film my thinking is that Ackerman’s representations in Jeanne Delmann have wide significance not limited to a particular group.  Ackerman wants to show what happens when people become deadened by ideology and repetitions ingrained in the life process itself.   In these conditions people become dead, they die to life and to love. Just like the soldier on the parade ground they are stripped of the ability to think and feel.  They become deadened – and ultimately ready to kill or be killed.  Ackerman was aware that something of this nature happened in Nazi Germany with its cult of the Mutter –  Kinder Kuche Kirche and the Soldier – Ein Fuhrer.

In  the course of its two and half hours the film shows what happens when dead machines break down. They become dysfunctional and stop working.  We are now in the era of the computer and the smart phone, where mechanicality has now insinuated itself into the very processes of thinking and feeling.  Today ( and for a long time before) in our cars and with our destructive consumption, our world has become dysfunctional and attuned only to self destruction as like the Dielman Zombie, we sleepwalk towards environmental disaster.    

Adrin Neatrour


Author: Star & Shadow

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