The works in this exhibit include “From the East: Bordering on Fiction” (1995), “South” (1999), “From the Other Side” (2002), “Down There” (2006) and “Women of Antwerp in November” (2007). Several of these combine multiple screens at once, like the screening of Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” (1966) that the contemporary did a while back. Ackerman, by contrast, is much more socially conscious.
The exhibit brochure linked above begins its bio with, “Chantal Akerman is widely regarded as one of the most important directors in film history.” That’s a fairly bold statement that smells to me of museum propaganda, but it’s a shame that there are few chances for cinephiles to decide for themselves. Her work has rarely seen region 1 release (Update, 2010: Thanks to Criterion this is now no longer true. See comments section.) and is most often experienced through museum and university presentations. That said, my single experience with Ackerman’s work, a not-altogether pristine bootleg of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), impressed me a great deal.
“Jeanne Dielman” is Ackerman’s most famous work and is rightly cited as a landmark of both feminist and experimental cinema. It’s self-assured, challenging, controversial, intimidating and so arty it explodes if brought into contact with summer blockbusters.
The plot, what little there is of it, consists of a day-to-day, often minute-by-minute, visual transcript of a single mother’s life, presumably the Jeanne Dielman of the title (played by the wonderful Delphine Seyrig). The film’s structure is as rigid as its protagonist’s routine, relying on long static takes only occasionally broken by rectilinear editing. We watch Jeanne Dielman cook, clean, shop and prostitute in uninflected, somber semi-silence.
For about three and a half hours…
If you have dabbled in experimental art appreciation at all then you are doubtlessly already familiar with works about nothingness, next-to-nothingness, abstraction, minimalism, meditation, sensory-deprivation, self-conscious boredom and so on. These works of art, while terribly profound in the mind of their creators, tend to strike me and the rest of the ignorant public as dull, lazy, uninspired and, in the age of postmodernism, played out. Nor are our enthusiasms particularly reinvigorated when told that “such is the whole point of the piece.”
So I hope you can appreciate the level of cynicism with which I approached “Jeanne Dielman” and the surprise when I found myself actually drawn into its rhythm. This is a very difficult work and I admit that I found my attention drifting and my opinion wavering throughout; even to the point where at times I started pre-composing the pithy smackdowns I planned to issue should I write a review. Ultimately I came to see its point and, more importantly, to feel that the point was not trivial (as it is in, for instance, Andy Warhol’s 8-hour shot of the Empire States Building).
Yes, “Jeanne Dielman” purposely bores us, intentionally repeats things and stubbornly refuses to give us emotional catharsis or intellectual access with regard to its lone protagonist. But there is something powerful in the way it accomplishes both detachment and intimacy. A certain camaraderie builds up as we share Jeanne’s stifling monotony and one traverses a range of reactions through recognition, resentment and resignation that allows us to empathize with her existence in a way that is not possible in packaged entertainment or even traditional tragedy.
Our ability to distinguish details is, at times, heightened by the length we spend staring at flat mundane slices of her lower-middleclass apartment and at the same time diminished as our vigilance (trained by traditional cinema to expect cues telling us what is important) gradually wanes. Ackerman plays on this softly, by gently introducing glitches into the well-established pattern. These deviations during our third day within Jeanne’s world, at first as minor as dropping a spoon, build towards a brutal climax. It is an ending both unexpected and yet foreshadowed by hours of uncomfortable, almost subconscious, tension.
Far from being lazy, Ackerman’s film is painstakingly crafted to deliver a mixed reaction that is actually insightful, nuanced and just as compassionate as it is cruel. I’m not sure I fully appreciated the film or that I was paying enough attention by the final third to understand the ending or that I’d ever want to see it again. I know that doesn’t sound like a rave review, but if you have the right mix of patience, open-mindedness, curiosity and masochism, then this is a film that may yield unexpected rewards.
Walrus Rating: 3.0 and 8.0 (the two rating existing simultaneously within me)
Note: In case I did not make it clear, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is not one of the films showing at the Contemporary. In case the review only scared people off, I’m told the works at the exhibit are shorter, more accessible and more documentary in approach.