This was the most impressive film for me personally at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Akerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.
The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and single mother’ have very different connotations.
On the first day, Wednesday we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal. Reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada. And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.
Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.
On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.
The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.
As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasises this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.
Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.
The Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.
If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.
The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing. If you missed this, the fortunate news is that there are plans to circulate a package of Ackerman’s films in 2014: hopefully this will include Jeanne Dielman.