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CHANTAL AKERMAN

A Screening
Tuesday, November 6, 7pm at the Northwest Film Center 

How strange to think that you can’t pass along the feelings of Chantal Akerman’s second feature film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, 35mm, 201 min.), when it’s so easy to summarize: Three days of a widow’s time is meticulously put on screen. She peels potatoes. She brings a pot to boil. In silence, she sits down to eat with her son and in silence she rises to the dishes.

It should be better than Nyquil, but the film’s unbroken concentration and oil-painting-in-motion quality increases in volubility and begins to pull a kind of menace into the frame. Frankly speaking, I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that endurance and some suffering will alchemically and automatically produce art, so it gives me a soft shock to notice that half way through the film, time combines the very malignant and the very mundane in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.

Akerman made the film in 1975 when she was only twenty-five and it has since become a landmark that people gather around to gawk. It was shot by Babette Mangolte who is so real-deal genius that I know guys who collect her chewing gum. If there is anything else to add, perhaps it is simply that films are an authoritarian medium. They depend on submission. They vulnerabilize you and then dominate you. Part of the magic of going to a film is surrendering to it, letting it dominate you. Few films make submission more un-ignorable.

The film is co-presented by NWFC. Thanks to Morgen Ruff and Bill Foster for their support.

INTERVIEWER
That’s very much the feeling of watching Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman. The repetitive ritual of her daily chores forges a connection with the viewer that’s practically physical, to the extent that you feel a jolt when she drops the shoe that she’s shining, or lets the potatoes boil over. It’s an effect you can really only achieve with a film of that length.

AKERMAN
It is physical, but you know, when I started to shoot Jeanne Dielman, at the beginning, I was not aware of what was going to be the film. Everything was written in the script already, but still. After three or four days, when I saw the first dailies, I realized and I said, “My God, the film is going to be three hours and 20 or 40 minutes long, and it’s going to be developing little by little.” For example, when after she sleeps with the guy for the second time, and you feel something happens, even though the length of the shots is more or less the same as before, certainly there is an acceleration inside the viewer, just because, “Oh, she forgot to put the money there, and then suddenly she doesn’t know what to do.” It’s like the end of her life. She doesn’t leave any room for anxiety. It’s like the workaholic, they do the same. When they stop, they die, because then they have to face something inside of them that they don’t want to face. When she has that, that’s the anxiety.

I think I am speaking about people. Jeanne Dielman is not special. I can do that with a man, going to work and doing the same thing and being happy because he has the key and he opens the door and then his papers are there and his secretary. Imagine, and then something has changed and he can’t stand it. Because change is dangerous. Change is fear, change is opening the jail. That’s why it is so difficult for yourself to change deeply.

INTERVIEWER
The making-of documentary by Sami Frey on the new DVD is fascinating, especially the extreme precision with which you coach Delphine Seyrig. Have you worked with an actor that way before or since, or did that just come from the particular film?

AKERMAN
It’s really related to that film. That film was about gesture. And choreography, in order to give you the feeling that it’s real time. It’s not. It’s totally choreographed. It’s a very specific film in those terms.

INTERVIEWER
It’s fascinating, because the way Seyrig moves, you would swear she’d done these same things the same way thousands of times.

AKERMAN
She never made coffee in her life. I had to teach her to do this, and when we talk about how to make the veal and things like that. It was what I saw when I was a kid. My aunts and the aunts of my mother. The gestures of the women around when you are a child. What else are you looking at? What they do, the women. Usually, the man isn’t there. The man is working. And you have the woman, if it was a mother, or maid, or aunt, someone taking care of you as a child, 99 percent of the time it’s a woman. And you do things all the time. As a child, it is something you look at. So it’s really a film that was inscribed in me from my childhood.

INTERVIEWER
Did you know that at the time?

AKERMAN
No, I didn’t. Well yes, because some time in Sami’s film, we are fighting about how to do the veal or the meatloaf, I don’t remember, and I said, “Okay, I will call my aunt.” Delphine is a very proper woman, from high society. She’s from the [Ferdinand] de Saussure family, the structuralist. Old money. Swiss. Protestant. I was a little girl, third generation in Belgium, who was making all the time mistakes when she was talking in French. So she was high-class and I was like that. She never did those things. At one point, I am laughing when she says “Jeanne Dielman will never wear that!” I’m laughing, because I realize that the experiences of life were at that moment so different. But she had the courage to go do it and to go to the end, even though it wasn’t easy for her. She trusted me, but she needed all of her trust to be fed.

INTERVIEWER
No one had made a movie like that before.

AKERMAN
Yes, but you know Delphine was here in New York in the ’50s. She was part of that group. She did Pull My Daisy with…

INTERVIEWER
Robert Frank.

AKERMAN
And [Alain] Resnais also was a bit, not experimental, but… She did daring movies. As soon as she started to work, she did daring things. Even though she did not come from that world, she came from a world… Her father was a friend of Picasso; he had many Picassos. They were that type of well-educated people who could recognize a good artist before others, and she was like that. Even if it was against something inside her. Tell me one actress in 1972 in France, except Delphine, at her level, who would love Hôtel Monterey. No one. No one.

INTERVIEWER
It’s interesting you mention Jeanne Dielman coming from the perspective of a child. But when a child watches her mother or her aunts making dinner, that usually provides a sense of security and a structured environment. But in the few movies of yours where the characters actually do stay in one place—Jeanne Dielman; Tomorrow We Move; The Man With A Suitcase; Je, Tu, Il, Elle—the home is a source of anxiety. It’s not a place where people go to rest.

AKERMAN
That’s because it’s me. I’m speaking about me all the time. I’m my main interest—I’m joking. I’m joking. You have to understand that I’m a child of the second generation, which means my mother was in Auschwitz, and the aunt of my mother was in Auschwitz with her; my grandmother and grandfather died there. So yes. All of those gestures they work for you, or for them, to fill their time or not feel their anxiety. But the child feels everything. It doesn’t make the child secure. You put the child in a jail.

INTERVIEWER
Children do feel everything. Even the things that you don’t say or express, they pick up on.

AKERMAN
They pick up and they don’t know exactly what to make of it, and so they endure it.

Excerpted from an interview by Sam Adams, The Onion, Jan. 28, 2010.