How do you write about Chantal Akerman’s brutally demanding, three-and-a-quarter-hour “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975) without making it sound like a Gitmo stress position? It’s a film about a widowed Belgian housewife (Delphine Seyrig) who meticulously attends to housework all day, which we watch in real time, except when she’s making cash being an afternoon prostitute, which is the only thing we don’t watch her do. “A film about…” is a misleading construction — Akerman’s film just is, a life experience rather than a convenient story told. But it’s not what you’d call a consciously pleasurable experience: the undulations of frustration, fascination, tedium, fury and epiphany you feel watching the movie are built in, part of the scheme, intrinsic to the point. Just don’t touch the fast-forward button.
Movies aren’t supposed to work like this — Nero-like mega-consumers that we are, we expect a movie to hold our distracted attention in a death grip, and nowadays fast-forwarding is our functional act of critical reproach if the film in question should fail for even a half-minute. Of course, long art films have toyed with this position, but compared to “Jeanne Dielman,” marathon epics by Fassbinder, Rivette and Bergman are noisy melodramas; even Tarr’s “Sátántangó” has more enrapturing action, performed by the cast and by the camera. Before Akerman, no one had ever made a film examining emptiness, and made it so empty. It’s a masterpiece that writes its own rules about how movies express themselves — you can’t compare it to other films, not even Akerman’s.
Rarely seen and never available on video before in the U.S., “Jeanne Dielman” is nothing if not restrictive: Seyrig’s heroine is observed in huge swatches of real time, making beds and breading veal and doing dishes and eating dinner with her drippily uncommunicative high school son (Jan Decorte), but observed from a finite distance — no close-ups, no emphasis, no camera movements. If Jeanne walks out of the frame, we wait for her return or cut to another view of the apartment. To unleash another simile, it’s a sensory deprivation tank of a film, and predictably we seek to fill in the emptiness, searching for clues (to the character’s psychology — how similar and different the film is to Polanski’s “Repulsion” — and to Akerman’s intention), reading minute patterns of behavior and happenstance, gleaning bits of info (the shadow of the Holocaust, the absence of a husband), assessing possible metaphors (What is that irritating blue neon strobe outside the living room window? Where do the mother and son walk to at night?).
Akerman’s film has been a go-to text for all manner of dogmatic theorists and scholars over the last quarter-century, feminist and Lacanian and post-structuralist, reflecting as it does the character’s tribulations in the form of the thing itself. It demanded the attention — there’s no mistaking it for anything other than self-consciously iconic (with Seyrig flawlessly tossing another classic modern figure onto her career pile, after the lost princess in Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” the war-worn widow in “Muriel,” the vampiress in Kumel’s “Daughter of Darkness” and a key jolly hypocrite in Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”).
But it’s as visceral as any horror movie. Unlike the observational tone in films by the younger and sundry Sons of Akerman (Hou, Tsai, Jia, Reygadas, etc.), “Dielman”‘s merciless rigor is used like a weapon against us, the complacent and impatient audience — the time spent, occasionally bitterly, watching Jeanne attempt to control her little world is like gunpowder slowly packed into a cannon, and eventually the fuse is lit (somewhere in the middle, tiny things begin to go uncompleted, and Jeanne’s concise energy seems to get distracted, waylaid…). The climax is only a meaningful shock if you’ve been paying attention, and put in the hours.
Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyń” (2007) isn’t minimalist, but it is a weapon, the Polish grand master’s career-capping redress of history, as he rummages around in WWII and its aftermath, centering on a particular massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the titular forest at the war’s outset in 1940. Wajda’s father was one of the victims, and for years after the war the new Communist Poland forged its soul on the bitter memory of the Katyń killing field, which was sown, propaganda said, by the Nazis. But families knew, through various means, that the Soviets did the slaughtering, something the USSR didn’t officially own up to until 1990. (What strategic reason Stalin had for ordering the killings is still a matter for debate.)
Wajda digs at this public wound with an old man’s slashing pick, chopping up timelines, jumping stories, introducing new characters without ado, lifting off the old scab with what used to be Costa-Gavras’ dedication and ire (and has been Wajda’s at least since 1981, when “Man of Iron” became the house movie for the Solidarność movement), and ceaselessly examining the caught moments when Poles, trying to survive during the war and having to survive after, feel the whip of the massacre’s memory and the moral compromise it forced on the whole country. Naturally, the movie is shaped like a bolero, and the massacre is reserved for the last 15 minutes, which is inexorable, savage and cold-hearted, beginning with the first bulldozer.
“Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (Criterion Collection) and “Katyń” (Koch Lorber Films) are now available on DVD.
[Additional photo: “Katyń,” Koch Lorber Films, 2007]