Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brusselsis a glorious requiem for many women. In its 3h45m running time we witness three days of Jeanne, a housekeeper, a widowed mother, and a daytime prostitute. Her days consist of cooking, cleaning, making the beds and unmaking the beds, and taking her clients into her bedroom with cold respect. The only difference between her days are the signs of her gradual breakdown.
Jeanne’s pain, subtle in the beginning and apparent towards the end, is hypnotizing. I doubt any other movie has earned its running time as fairly as Jeanne Dielman has. Chantal Akerman, who made this at 25, is brave and uninhibited. Anyone who has seen Jeanne Dielman would know that Chantal Akerman didn’t let any obstacle change the slightest detail in this movie.
But what does Jeanne’s tragedy consist of? She is utterly lonely, in a life invaded by chores. She prepares dinner for her son, Sylvaine, who in exchange reads while eating. They barely talk, and when they do it is very apparent that they live in different worlds. The most profound conversation between them reveals Jeanne’s view on sex. For Jeanne, sex is only another chore. She keeps it completely distant and sterile. She lays a small towel on bed before her client arrives to keep the bed clean from body fluids. Her life is a life of duty, and we barely see her reactions change. Still, her breakdown is not a surprise. Her attitude slowly dissolves, and her breakdown climaxes with her unprecedented orgasm. Her orgasm is a stark disruption of her core composition, and it triggers a strong response in her. She stabs her client to death, and this magnificent movie ends with a shot of Jeanne’s crying with blood on her shirt, instead of preparing the dinner for table as usual.
Chantal Akerman’s final movie, No Home Movie, is another take on Jeanne Dielman forty years later but with different sensibilities. No Home Movie is a documentary on Chantal Akerman’s mother, Natalia Akerman, who is a survivor of Auschwitz. As we can imagine, Jeanne Dielman’s character is one facet of Natalia, and with No Home Movie Chantal Akerman is liberating her from her dutiful suffering, and giving her her memories back. In an interview scene in the kitchen, Natalia nostalgically remembers her childhood. We see longing on her face as she talks about her father’s lovingness. We feel affection for Natalia in every frame, because the camera is affectionate towards her. Her fragile body, her slow steps, her feet hanging down the chair, her shallow breathing: all these capture our hearts.
In Jeanne Dielman and News From Home (an experimental documentary by Akerman that had been made in the same year as Jeanne Dielman) the mother’s loneliness is striking. In News From Home we listen to the letters of Natalia Akerman, but we never hear Chantal Akerman’s responses to them. All we hear are the repetitive letters of her mother. She tells Chantal Akerman she had sent her money, that she misses her, she writes about the weather, but everything she says is on a surface level. Their communication is always flawed. We don’t know if Chantal Akerman is trying to communicate with her more profoundly, but we know from her mother’s letter that she doesn’t always responds to her mother. When Chantal Akerman tries to share her work her mother’s response is a sadly honest “I couldn’t understand”.
Letters are slow, and they are not trustworthy. Some letters never reach their destination. In No Home Movie, Chantal Akerman films her Skype call with her mother. Natalia Akerman asks her why she is holding a camera, and Chantal Akerman answers, “I want to show how small the world has become.” Yes, now we don’t wait for letters to reach their destination, but still the truth is Chantal Akerman and her mother are not able to communicate profoundly. Natalia Akerman complains about Chantal Akerman’s keeping valuable information about her life untold. Chantal Akerman’s sister, Sylvaine, needs to come in between to help the two understand each other. From Jeanne Dielman to No Home Movie, there is always a communication wall, which seems impossible to overcome between the mother and her son/daughter. The loneliness of the mother is always the tragedy.
The use of time in No Home Movie is no less impressive than its usage in Jeanne Dielman. Chantal Akerman’s camera reposes on landscapes, and those landscapes, with the glory of their permanence, transform in front of our eyes. They become a medium for our imagination to run free. I could swear the light brown hills were curves of a woman’s body, a woman’s body with a longer than usual lifespan, and I wondered if Chantal Akerman had seen the same.
Etna Ozbek was born and raised in Istanbul. She is a senior in the Film and Video department at SVA.