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No Empty Gestures

October 14, 2010 By:
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 In this space two weeks ago, I discussed my 20-year journey from movie-mad adolescent to disillusioned adult. My passion for films, which was so strong from such a young age, began to wane in the mid-1980s, when action films and inane comedies began dominating the screens, causing me to lose all interest in seeing anything new. But recently, I've begun watching some beloved films of the past, along with works I'd missed or bypassed, all thanks to the magic of home video technology.

This project has yielded one certainty: Many great directors of the past, whether they worked in Hollywood or Europe, often didn't need much more than 90 minutes to tell riveting tales.

Consider Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock; or look at the classic Ingmar Bergman films or much of the French New Wave.

Truth be told, once a movie exceeds the 90-minute mark, all I see is padding. Of course, there will always be exceptions to my imprecise little theory. But in my mind, a director better be on the level of Akira Kurosawa and be making something akin to Seven Samurai if a movie starts pushing the clock excessively.

I'd begun to think of this rule as inviolable -- until I saw an exception: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It not only lasts 31/2 hours, but nothing much happens in that time -- though, actually, as in all great works of realism, everything happens; more on this later.

(Nothing Happens, by the way, is the title of an important study of Akerman by Ivone Margulies, published by Duke University Press, which should be read by interested film buffs.)

I'd missed Jeanne Dielman when it first appeared in 1975; but now thanks to the Criterion Collection, there's a pristine transfer available (Criterion, whose standards are notoriously high, would have nothing less). A second disc of special features includes Akerman's first film, the short, astonishing Saute ma ville, or Blow Up My Town, which she made at the precocious age of 18.

An Explosive Debut

An only child, born in 1950, Akerman has spoken of how she saw Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou when she was a young teen and immediately understood her calling. She studied film for a time, but dropped out to make Saute ma ville.

Her 13-minute debut is sometimes referred to as Jeanne Dielman in miniature. Made in her parents' apartment in her hometown of Brussels, it shows a young woman (Akerman) coming home, fixing food, eating it, taping up the kitchen doors and windows, turning on the gas and then blowing up the place.

After completing another short film in 1971, she left to spend a year in New York. There, she met cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who introduced her to the experimental film scene. As Ivone Margulies explains, at the Anthology Film Archives, Akerman saw works by Andy Warhol and Michael Snow, which had long takes and exaggerated duration. She was particularly struck by Snow's La Region Centrale, which she said opened her "mind to ... the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film, time and energy."

Akerman made several experimental shorts with Mangolte, particularly La Chambre and Hotel Monterey. The first work is made up of several 360-degree panning shots of the director's apartment. Akerman is in bed, and each time the camera passes, she does something different -- smiles, eats an apple, hides under the covers. Hotel Monterey is made up of shots of that establishment. The camera -- sometimes in the elevator, sometimes in an empty hallway -- just sits watching in Akerman's "hyperrealist" manner, as Margulies calls it.

Nothing much happens in either work, which is exactly the point.

Akerman returned home and began work on her first feature, Je tu il elle, in 1974, which follows a character, played by Akerman, who has sex with a man and then a woman. The film ends with an explicit bout of lovemaking between the females.

Next was Jeanne Dielman, which became an instant feminist classic. The title character is a widow, played by Delphine Seyrig of Last Year at Marienbad, giving the performance of her career, by doing nothing but small gestures. We watch as she cleans dishes, dusts, makes supper for her teenage son.

The only unusual moment in her day comes in the late afternoon, well before her son returns from school, when she "entertains" men to help meet expenses.

The movie has three sections, each alike, each ending with a sexual encounter. In the first, we see Jeanne and her customer enter the bedroom. The camera remains focused on the closed bedroom door, holding for a time until the light grows dimmer and the couple reappear. Jeanne is paid for her services, the gentleman departs, and she puts the money in the soup tureen in the dining room.

The second day begins no differently. We watch in long takes as Jeanne does her chores. There's a knock on the door. Time passes. The camera holds on the bedroom door. But when Jeanne and the man appear, something seems wrong. A lock of her hair is out of place, and she forgets to replace the top of the soup tureen.

In a film about habit and gestures, these simple "mistakes" explode like bombs.

Something has happened in the bedroom, which we are permitted to enter on the third day. During the morning, Jeanne's routine has seemed out of sync, and once we're permitted near her bed, we discover why. The last few scenes are truly shocking, for a number of reasons, and drive home with dramatic fury why the film had to be as long as it is.

Akerman has said that she wanted to tell a woman's story and put in everything that's normally left out -- shopping, cooking, cleaning. But who would have thought that peeling potatoes or fixing a cup of coffee could hold such a charge?

I did not comprehend all of the film's implications, though, until I watched an interview included on Criterion's second disc. Akerman explains that she'd watched all the women in her family perform these ritualistic kinds of movements throughout her childhood, but only understood later that they had their source in Eastern European Jewish life.

After their incarceration in Auschwitz, Akerman's mother and other relatives brought these ritualistic motions into the secular lives they established in Western Europe -- in Brussels, for example -- but by then, they were drained of the religious intensity that had been so integral a part of Jewish life in Poland and Russia.

Jeanne's behavior, her need for habit, Akerman notes, is related to those discarded religious rites. All that was left in the new, post-Holocaust world were the gestures, which were very necessary to get one through the day, and which were threatened, Akerman says, by what occurred in the bedroom. Since Jeanne Dielman builds to such a powerful conclusion, it would be wrong to disclose anything. You must watch the film for yourself.

And once you're hooked, you can then purchase Criterion's Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, which includes the early films, keys to this great filmmaker's development. You can also dip into Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman, a collection of essays edited by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Akerman is such an addictive force, such a resonant artist, that you'll want to watch everything she's made, and learn all you can about her life and how she manages to create such startling works.

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