Sunday, 23 October 2011

Saute ma ville

In Saute ma ville, Akerman’s first film, a sprightly Chantal bounds up the steps leading to a tiny studio apartment, mostly taken up by a kitchen. Her determination and precision are evident, but the tasks follow a not altogether clear pattern. As she energetically polishes her shoes, Akerman keeps going with the same obsessive gesture – until she has also brushed her legs and stained the floor around it black. The same gesture seems to produce at once disarray and tidiness. For a while, it is enthralling to try to sort out one from the other. The pleasure derived from witnessing these fully finished actions follows from the rapidity with which mess and neatness (contrasting sharply with each other) are reciprocally wiped out. The framing of these unexplained gestures can be likened, in its reduction of focus, to the single-shot frame of minimalist films trained on a single action carried to completion. But while the action in Richard Serra’s Hands Scraping (1971) comes to a close on a blank, clean screen, Akerman’s space is not neutral. The kitchen immediately defines a domestic space, and other social indices are marginally present.

With the kitchen fully in order, Chantal eats spaghetti, spills wine and food over herself. She then she leans her head on the stove and lights a match. The explosion happens over a freeze frame, in sound only. Here, she presents us with the literal image of a compression chamber, the implicit consequence of the mad chemistry she performs in every one of her boxed-in spaces. Saute ma ville announces, literally and with a bang, Akerman’s entry into artistic adulthood. It is well known that suicide is a favorite subject of adolescents’ first films. Indeed, it would be interesting to check if those who go on to live creatively declare so loudly, as Akerman does in this filmic rite of passage, their future tools, elements, genres. Brushes, spaghetti, water and soap dance animistically with Akerman. In this first film-room, droll humor and tragedy, slapstick and rigorously concerted process alternate in disturbing in-distinction. Saute ma ville presents in swift succession – as if they all pertained to the same order of events – cleaning, cooking and committing suicide. This perversion of categories, of banal and dramatic, of the literally performed action taken to the point of a suggested death, is frontally presented, enhancing these actions’ paradoxical equivalence.

With Jeanne Dielman comes the structural lesson: the stark separation between the scene and the obscene defines how an excessively dutiful domestic concern replaces the desire relegated to the elided room. In Akerman, every single space stared at for too long will bear witness to the cost of this economy. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, the frame remains the same whether a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, or a shoebrush drops. This intrusion of objects moving on their own gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that obsessive-compulsive characters attempt to suppress.

Excessive doubting is the most common feature of this condition. In Monomania: the Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, Marina Van Zuylen brilliantly explores how the panic of the mutable engenders the idée fixe and obsessive behavior. (10) Even though rituals are an important part of day-to-day life, and normal people use concentration to keep away what is irrelevant, the obsessive-compulsive finds the manifestation of ambivalence unbearable. A submission to external orders and schedules always feels better than having to decide for oneself. Manic activity is an attempt to bypass a depressed sense of autonomy through a minute, circumscribed competence. The escape from situations felt as being too contingent, too confusing to bear, is performed through invented orders, made-up series and a reasoning that is mostly lacking in logic.

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Kate Millett pare de la prostitution avec des féministes

In 1975 when prostitutes go on strike and after the publication of her book, Kate Millett discusses prostitution issues with French feminists (Monique Wittig, Christine Delphy...)

Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video Production by Women’s Collectives

Stéphanie Jeanjean

Cathy Bernheim, Ned Burgess, Catherine Deudon, Suzanne Fenn and Annette Levy-Willard, Grève des femmes à Troyes (Womens Strike in the City of Troyes), 1971, black and white video, sound, 55min. Courtesy Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (archive and distribution)

The ongoing reconstruction of early video’s history shows a wider usage of the medium at its start than previously thought, and particularly an expanded relationship to performance, documentary and archives. Also coming to light is the sociopolitical substance of its content, and the leading role of women in exploiting video as a new audiovisual medium. In France women developed a militant practice with video soon after the Sony Portapak camera became available in 1968. Their production and activities remain, even today, almost undocumented, and to a certain extent this stems from their anti-institutional and anti-establishment position. However, these collectives, whose members rarely identified themselves as artists, created the majority of the video produced in France in the 1970s, and arguably represent the first generation that truly and independently used video. Their example brings up several questions, such as why video became such a privileged medium for collectives, especially those composed of women.1 Was video instrumental in the process of women’s emancipation and self-representation and, beyond, in the constitution of themselves as individuals and as a collective unit? And finally, how did early video cope with the limited conditions of distribution available at the time, and what is the current status of this production?

The adoption of video by women was certainly a gesture of disobedience and emancipation. The video historian Anne-Marie Duguet recalls that in the 1970s opportuni­ties for women to embrace careers in technology were limited by familial and social pressures.2 By contrast, video was a new and open medium not yet appropriated by men and not even taught in art schools or universities. Thus it spread through female communities after a few women, who were either self-taught or had trained at places such as The Kitchen in New York, started organising video workshops for other women. Carole Roussopoulos organised such training sessions in Paris in 1975. Originally from Switzerland, Roussopoulos moved to Paris in 1967 to study art history at the Sorbonne. In 1969, she is said to have been the first woman to buy a video camera in France (and the second person after Jean-Luc Godard).3 In 1975, in her ‘Introduction to Video’ workshop held in her apartment in the fourteenth arrondissement, she met the translator Ioana Wieder and the actress Delphine Seyrig;4 together they founded the collective Les Femmes s’amusent (Women Are Having Fun), later renamed Les Insoumuses, and created some of the most significant videotapes from the time. ‘Insoumuses’ was a neologism combining ‘insoumise’, which translates as ‘disobedient’, and ‘muses’, a word sharing the same signification in both French and English and customarily thought of as referring to female personifications for artistic inspiration.

The collective was the organisational mode most commonly associated with early video production in France. The cost of purchasing new technology — video was cheaper than film, but still relatively expensive — encouraged the tendency to work in couples, groups or collectives. However, beyond sharing equipment, technical skills, common interests and ideas, collectives also represented for women in France a new societal behaviour that perpetuated some of the ideals and ethics that had been envisioned and experimented with during May ’68, particularly those concerning better relations between genders and classes. Thus, collectives developed as flexible and anti -authoritarian structures that opposed sexism and exclusion — forms of oppression women had experienced in other audiovisual media, such as television and cinema, as well as more generally at the workplace. Early video in France coincided with the emergence of second-wave feminism, for which the lack of women-led organisations was a major concern. As early as 1949, in her crucial book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir explained:

Women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own […] They live dispersed among males, attached through residence, housework, economic conditions and social standing to certain men — fathers or husbands — more firmly than they are to other women.5

Along with de Beauvoir, whom they considered an inspiration and an encouragement, the women who started meeting regularly in the spring of 1970 at the amphitheatre of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris recognised that the creation of female organisations fighting women’s seclusion and misinformation was critical for their emancipation.

That same year, they formed the MLF, or Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), which became the first and foremost feminist organisation active in France in the 1970s.

Gender and Class Struggle in the Workplace

Though early video embraced a diversity of causes — domestic violence, rape, prostitution, abortion rights, dictatorship, homosexuality and female sexuality — production in France in the 1970s significantly centred on women’s experiences at work, especially in factories, where they were predominantly employed. The prerogative of women to work gained urgency in the precarious economic conditions of the time, especially following the 1973 oil crisis, when women’s jobs were often the first to be lost. The situation resulted in numerous women-led strikes. The most significant production on this topic was a series of six videos titled LIP, created between 1973 and 1976 by Carole Roussopoulos with Vidéo Out, the collective she founded with her husband, Paul Roussopoulos. LIP was a watch factory in Besançon, in eastern France, with a workforce that was more than seventy per cent female, and which became the scene of massive demonstrations from 1973 to 1976. In LIP, Carole Roussopoulos makes women the main subject, the video alternating between footage of demonstrations and extensive testimonials by LIP workers. Immediate and personal histories unfold slowly over each interview. Roussopoulos understands that video gives voice not only to her as a director, but also, perhaps especially, to those who stand in front of her camera. In LIP her camera is attracted to charismatic female personalities; there is Monique, for example, whom Roussopoulos met among a crowd of demonstrators while shooting LIP 1: Monique, the first video of the series, in 1973.6 Monique reappears regularly in the series to share her experiences of the conflict and discuss the intricacies of the factory world and the place of women as workers. In particular, she explains that women organised themselves during the strike into a unit, which she describes as a major change in comparison to the arrogant, ‘petit bourgeois’ atmosphere that used to reign in the factory, especially among women. As the LIP project unfolds, Roussopoulos confronts the experiences of different women, which allows a diversity of viewpoints on the social conflict; for example, in LIP 5, realised in 1976, Christiane stands out in a video-portrait in which she articulates at length her experience with the factory unions, and her difficulties in being listened to by her male representatives as she tries to integrate herself into the union as an active member. In the 1970s, French unions were still a patriarchal bastion of the industrial sector that resisted women’s participation, even at LIP, despite its largely female workforce.

Vidéo Out (Carole and Paul Roussopoulos), LIP 1: Monique, 1973, black and white video, sound, 25min, from the series LIP. Courtesy Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (archive) and Association Carole Roussopoulos (distribution)
Beyond the gender struggle, the LIP series also exposes disguised class issues among female workers. Monique and Christiane, for example, represent different classes of employees in the factory’s hierarchy: Monique is part of the administrative staff, while Christiane is a manual worker. Both explain that, before the social conflict broke out, they were not used to communicating with one another; however, during the strike they share the possibility of being laid off from their jobs, which leads them to an awareness, as women, of mutual difficulties and restrictions. LIP demonstrates that in the 1970s the class struggle had also infected the industrial sector: in other words, what Monique formulated as the ‘petit bourgeois’ behaviour that divided female factory workers into different castes was typical of the correlation between gender and class issues in the workplace.

The LIP video series was not the only production addressing this topic; Grève des femmes à Troyes (Women's Strike in the City of Troyes, 1971) is commonly accepted as the first feminist video produced in France. It was created by five women from the MLF, who, in an act of solidarity and with no previous experience in video, travelled to Troyes to record the first women’s strike in a hosiery factory there.7 Again the production is dedicated to a charismatic woman worker, Doudou, who remains at the centre of the camera’s eye for 55 minutes, relating with eloquence and passion the occupation of the factory and the camaraderie among the women, both unlike anything she has ever experienced before.

Common to this type of video production was the use of the camera to record interviews, making the video-portrait a key genre for early video. Encouraging individual expression, the productions lacked scripts and were characterised by unedited recording and anti-acting qualities, contrasting with the finished quality of narrative cinema. There were also technological possibilities and limitations specific to video in its early stages of development that explain the resulting realist quality of this production. Indeed, the endless and uninterrupted recordings of personal histories so common at the beginning of video can be explained by the relative affordability of videotape, along with the absence of editing technology.8 The ability to record in real time and erase any unwanted takes quickly created a climate of spontaneity and confidence between director and subject that did not exist in cinema.9 Because of this, video allowed more fluid exchanges and communications among participants, who were most commonly anonymous or amateur. In fact, videos by women’s collectives were rarely signed, or were done so only with the first names or nicknames of their participants. This obviously negated authorship as an individual creative gesture and, by contrast, contributed to the formulation of a collective expression allied with the formation of a climate of sisterhood.

Institutional Criticism and Counter-Information

Also at stake was video’s ability to offer a more democratic and egalitarian experience than other audiovisual media could, television in particular. Television’s status as a public service funded and overseen by the French state, the massive invasion of TV sets in French households in the 1960s and television’s total interruption of emission during the events of May ’68 had raised suspicions and singled out the medium as a target for militant video. The video Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Maso and Miso Are in the Same Boat, 1976), for instance, focuses on the climate of misogyny and sexism still dominant in French television in the 1970s.10Videos by women’s collectives were rarely signed, or only with the first names or nicknames of their participants; this obviously negated authorship as an individual creative gesture and, by contrast, contributed to the formulation of a collective expression allied with the formation of a climate of sisterhood.Maso and Miso was created by Les Insoumuses from a recording by Delphine Seyrig of a television show that aired on Antenne 2 (Channel Two) and was hosted by Bernard Pivot, a journalist and interviewer known today as one of French television’s erudite personalities but who was famous in the 1970s for his provocative and caricaturising political radio shows. The title of the prime-time television show, Encore un jour et l’année de la femme, ouf, c’est fini! (One More Day and the Year of the Woman Is Finally Over!), was clearly provocative. It had been programmed to commemorate the end of 1975 as the ‘Year of the Woman’, a celebration declared by the United Nations that was widely criticised by French feminists as a ‘mystification’. For the occasion, Pivot’s special guest was Françoise Giroud, appointed by the French government in 1974 as the first Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs, who faced commentaries throughout the broadcast by outspoken misogynists, overtly presented as such; they included television personalities (José Arthur, Pierre Bellemare and Jacques Martin), the chairman of Antenne 2 (Marcel Julian) and political figures (Alexandre Sanguetti). The video’s title, Maso and Miso, standing for ‘masochist’ and ‘misogynist’, summarised the television show as a combination of sarcasm and bad entertainment; it especially referred to the atmosphere of pleasurable perversion communicated by the attitude of the Secretary of State, who on the show either defended misogynistic behaviours or enthusiastically and happily engaged with men in sexist jokes. Here, Giroud embodied the typical ‘bourgeois woman’, according to de Beauvoir, who prefers to ally herself with men even if this betrays her ostensible engagement as Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs.11 Maso et Miso’s original recording was manipulated with various techniques, such as freeze-frames and the inclusion of handwritten texts that added the voice of the collective in comments and questions.12 Concluding the video is a handwritten text that summarises the project and identifies an opportunity for video:

Our purpose is to show that no woman can represent all the other women within any patriarchal government. She can only incarnate ‘the feminine condition’ that oscillates between the necessity to delight [féminisation-maso] and the desire to access power [masculinisation-miso]. […] No images of television want or can represent us. We explain ourselves with video.13

Exceptionally for militant video, Maso and Miso was shown in the independent Parisian cinema L’Entrepôt. Roussopoulos testified that Françoise Giroud exercised pressure through her private secretary to withdraw the video from distribution in exchange for a grant, which the collective refused.14 The recordings of Pivot’s television show featuring Giroud have since disappeared from the INA’s archives.15

SCUM Manifesto, a video made in 1976 by Les Insoumuses, featuring Carole Roussopoulos and Seyrig on stage facing one another at a kitchen table, with Paul Roussopoulos behind the camera, offers another revealing vision of French television as a patriarchal institution. Seyrig reads out loud from Valerie Solanas’s book of the same title, while Roussopoulos transcribes what she hears on a typewriter.16 Between them a television monitor broadcasts the French news. The video keeps the frame fixed on the two women at the table, breaking only to occasionally zoom in on the television monitor. Solanas’s uncompromising criticism of masculinity, juxtaposed with television images showing men as heads of state or as soldiers participating in wars in Korea and Lebanon, links male hegemony and violence while exposing television’s biased content.17

Distribution’s Restrictions and Alternatives

An important part of this early production were those instances when video set the stage for public debates on topics that were too controversial at the time for television or the public media; these videos are often the most graphic and potentially intimidating for viewers. Y’a qu’a pas baiser (You’d Rather Not Fuck!) is a video about abortion made by Carole Roussopoulos and Vidéo Out between 1971 and 1973. Starting with footage and interviews at a notorious pro-contraception and abortion protest in Paris in November 1971, the video develops within closed doors with unsparing footage of an abortion taking place in real time.18 It is difficult for today’s viewer to appreciate just how provocative this video was then — birth control became legal in France in 1974 and abortion in 1975. Denied public dissemination, the video circulated among small circles and succeeded in communicating a profusion of information in simple terms that demystified the medical procedure.

Other projects defied distribution restrictions related to the contentiousness of their content. Les Prostituées de Lyon parlent (The Prostitutes from Lyon Speak) was also a production by Carole Roussopoulos with Vidéo Out, this time concerning the first strike by prostitutes in 1975, during which the street workers found refuge in a local church that they occupied with the help of the minister.19 In the video, the prostitutes denounce the government’s hostility towards them: the insults and aggressions by the police, imprisonments, fines and state taxation. Roussopoulos uses the traditional video-portrait but departs from familiar techniques by giving special attention to the video’s immediate audience. The material she videotaped each morning was broadcast in the afternoon on monitors hung outside on the church’s façade — this way the women could speak to the street without being arrested by the police.20 Footage of these transmissions was integrated into the final production, and shows a crowd composed of clients and pimps, along with some male and female bystanders. Unexpectedly, all appear astonished and speechless; not only have they learned that prostitutes’ concerns are, in many respects, similar to those of other women, citizens and taxpayers, but they have also realised that a debate on an issue as taboo as prostitution can overtly take place in the public space.

Les Insoumuses (Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Seyrig), SCUM Manifesto, 1976, black and white video, sound, 27min. Courtesy Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (archive and distribution)
Early video empowered its producers, actors and viewers in communicating alternative voices and ideas that contrasted with the more uniform, politically correct and often sexist content circulating on French television and cinema. However, already in the 1970s, militant videos such as the LIP project faced criticism among feminists for insisting on filming leaders rather than comprehensively representing the entire female community. The repeated use of the video-portrait was especially targeted for its focus on individualised expressions. Moreover, despite the democratic potential of video, and its reproducibility on videotape, the impact of the production of women’s collectives was restricted by the difficulty of securing a consistent network for distribution. Never scheduled for distribution on television and rarely shown in cinemas, early video in France was seen by a small audience. It was most commonly shown at local public debates and at feminist or union meetings, where it was typically used to engage discussion and debate among participants. Another popular distribution tactic was called ‘diffusion à la brouette’ (‘wheelbarrow diffusion’), which consisted of a portable video station using a VCR and a television monitor for outdoor broadcast; it emerged from guerrilla street strategies and was used to show early video on public plazas during market day. Together with the nearly real-time modes of diffusion experimented with in Les Prostituées, this also reveals spontaneous and performative qualities of video distribution rarely associated with public screenings but used by women collectives active in video in the 1970s.

Accordingly, Roussopoulos described her video production as ‘video-tract’ — as a means of immediate expression and communication involving current issues, with videos intended neither to be kept nor conceived as documents for the future. As a matter of fact, a large part of this production has been lost, the tapes having been recorded over just after broadcast. Today, the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir in Paris is the exclusive location to view militant video by women collectives active in France.21 After cataloguing and digitalising the videotapes to protect their content, the non-profit organisation is currently complying with the government regulation of the dépôt légal, the legal notice for registration of copyright that allows authors, artists and researchers to register their production at the French National Library and thereby make it available to the library’s readership. Unsurprisingly, women’s collectives originally saw this convention as an institutional gesture that they rejected and disregarded. This compliance marks a shift in the status of this video production — from tracts to archives — and the beginning of its classificatory evaluation as documentary films. What remains largely unacknowledged is the inventiveness of feminist video collectives at using active and performative modes of distribution — which underlines video's ability to function as a means for collective action and direct communication.

  1. The best known women-led collectives active in Paris in the 1970s were: Vidéo Out (formed in 1970 by Carole and Paul Roussopoulos), Vidéo 00 (1971, Anne Couteau, Yvonne Mignot-Lefèbvre and others), Les Cents Fleurs (1973, Martine Barrar, Annie Caro and Danielle Jaeggi), Vidéa (1974, Anne-Marie Faure, Isabelle Fraisse, Syn Guerin and Catherine Lahourcade; the particularity of Vidéa was to not admit men in their collective) and Les Insoumuses (1975, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder). Similar collectives, most of them also women-led, started after 1975 throughout France.

  2. Anne-Marie Duguet, Vidéo, la mémoire au poing, Paris: Hachette, 1981, pp.93—94. This book is the most comprehensive study on early video in France, and one of the few that discusses militant production at the beginning of video. It has never been translated, and has been out of print for years.

  3. This is a statement that Carole Roussopoulos often makes in interviews; see, for example, Dario Marchiori, ‘Interview with Carole Roussopoulos’, International Documentary Film Festival (, Trieste: NODO, 2009, p.45. Jean-Luc Godard knew about Roussopoulos’s production; he wrote an article in the form of a letter to her. See Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Lettre à Carole Roussopoulos (Paris, 12 avril 1979)’, Les Cahiers du Cinéma, no.300, May 1979, pp.30—31.

  4. Delphine Seyrig played Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), in which Akerman records Dielman's daily routine as housewife, mother and prostitute; earlier Seyrig was the female lead in Alain Resnais’s L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961).

  5. Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Introduction', The Second Sex (trans. H.M. Parshley), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, p.xix.

  6. Her full name is Monique Piton, but in this video, as in most militant productions at the time, only first names of directors and participants are mentioned.

  7. Participants in this video production are Annette Levy-Willard, Catherine Deudon, Cathy Bernheim, Ned Burgess and Suzanne Fenn; all members of the MLF.

  8. See Jean-Paul Fargier, ‘Histoire de la vidéo française: Structure et forces vives’, in Nathalie Magnan (ed.), La Vidéo entre art et communication, Paris: École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, 1997, pp.51—52. Indeed, Fargier mentions that the U-matic editing system only became available in France in 1979.

  9. See also A.-M. Duguet, ‘Écrire en vidéo’, Film Action, no.1, December 1981—January 1982, p.110. In this article Duguet makes references to similar stylistic approaches in cinema and television from the 1960s, such as direct cinema (Robert J. Flaherty, Richard Leacock, Albert and David Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker), ethnographic cinema (Jean Rouch), television documentary, reality television (Jacques Krier) and ‘Écriture par l’image’ (Krier and Michel Polac). Nevertheless, in interviews Carole Roussopoulos has claimed to have had no previous knowledge of independent and experimental cinema when she started in video in the early 1970s, and does not propose any stylistic influences for her video production.

  10. In addition to the usual trio composed of Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder,
    Les Insoumuses also listed Nadja Ringart in the production of Maso et Miso.

  11. Speaking about women Simone de Beauvoir affirmed: ‘If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women’. S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, op. cit., pp.xix—xx.

  12. For example, after Françoise Giroud chuckles at a sexist comment made by Marc Linski, Maso et Miso displays the following (handwritten) text to survey the viewer’s opinion: ‘Mrs Giroud found this funny. In your opinion is she: 1. Seductive, 2. Servile, 3. Classy, 4. Abused, 5. Maso, 6. Miso, 7. Secretary, 8. Secretary [of State] for Women's Conditions. 9. Secretary [of State] for Men's Conditions, 10. All of the above, 11. None of the above?’ Translation the author’s.

  13. Translation the author’s.

  14. Hélène Fleckinger, ‘Entretien avec Carole Roussopoulos’, Nouvelles questions féministes, 38, no.1, 2009, pp.105—06. This is the last interview with Roussopoulos, published before she died in Switzerland on 22 October 2009. Roussopoulos was the most prolific video director in France in the 1970s and 80s, when she signed and co-signed at least fifty independent video productions. More rarely mentioned as part of her career, she is also credited for collaborating with Gina Pane in recording her performances in 1973 and 1974 as well as for recording Michel Journiac’s famous Messe pour un corps (Mass for a Corpse, 1975) at the Stadler Gallery in Paris. Roussopoulos addresses this experience of performance in comparison to her own practice in video in Julia Hontou, ‘Gina Pane: Entretien avec Carole Roussopoulos’, Turbulences Vidéo, no.52, July 2006, pp.46—51.

  15. Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) preserves for documentary or research purposes the totality of the programmes broadcast on French public radio and television since their creation. Another instance of censorship by television involving militant video was the footage by ORTF (the governmental organisation in charge of radio and television in France from 1964 to 1974) of Jean Genet reading a pamphlet he had written in reaction to the incarceration of the activist Angela Davis for her defence of the Black Panthers. Anticipating censorship by ORTF, Genet had asked Carole Roussoupolous to record it with her own video camera. Jean Genet parle d’Angela Davis (Jean Genet Speaks about Angela Davis, 1970) was Roussopoulos’s first video. Today it remains the only document recording the outraged public address by the renowned writer and political activist. In 2001, this video entered the collections of the Espace Nouveaux Médias at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; it is currently the only militant video by women’s collectives that belongs to the French public collection.

  16. See Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto (1967), New York and London: Verso Editions, 2004. Solanas’s ideas were known in France in the 1970s, especially among female intellectuals and feminists, but her famous manifesto was already out of print there by 1976.

  17. The Swiss artist Angela Marzullo made a partial remake of Roussopoulos and Seyrig’s SCUM Manifesto as part of her video Performing SCUM Manifesto (2003—05), in which she re-enacts video-performance works from the 1970s. In Performing SCUM Manifesto, Marzullo features two young girls sitting at a table in a children’s room, one reading and one typing on a children’s typewriter, while the television monitor between them shows violent cartoons designed for boys.

  18. The year 1971 was a year of unprecedented public actions organised by women in favour of abortion rights in France, among them the ‘Manifesto of the 343', a petition signed by 343 women, intellectuals and actresses claiming to have had abortions. Simone de Beauvoir wrote the text of the manifesto, and, along with Delphine Seyrig and others, signed it. It was published in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur on 5 April 1971, and all signatories were risking jail time.

  19. In 1975, the collective Vidéa created Millett parle de la prostitution avec des féministes (Millett Speaks
    about Prostitution with Feminists), another video addressing the same prostitutes' strike in Lyon. The video shows the well-known North American activist and feminist writer Kate Millett (author of The Prostitution Papers in 1971, a diary of women and prostitutes) speaking with a group of French women about the strikers. They are informally seating on the floor, surrounded by walls covered with books. The core of their conversation concerns the position that feminists should adopt in regards to prostitutes, and Millett’s fraternal message to blame prostitution rather than prostitutes.

  20. See D. Marchiori, ‘Interview with Carole Roussopoulos’, op. cit., p.48.

  21. The centre was created in 1982 by Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Iona Wieder with funds from the new Socialist government, after François Mitterrand was elected President of France in 1981. A common observation suggests that the support of the Socialist government in the 1980s contributed to removing the militant edge from video production by women collectives in France.

    For more information on these videos, see the websites for the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir
    ( and the Association Carole Roussopoulos (; both last accessed on 11 April 2011). The author would like to thank the Centre and the Association for their assistance, as well as France Languerand and Cyril Lecomte.

Jeanne Dielman Death in installments

by Jayne Loader

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 10-12
Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES, recently subtitled in preparation for possible American release, is an ambiguous and difficult film but one that deserves serious consideration from both feminist and formalist critics. In presenting her portrait of a bourgeois Belgian housewife whose widowhood leads her to afternoon prostitution, Akerman elicits not only an intensely sensitive performance from Delphine Seyrig but startlingly contradictory responses from her audience as well. These responses of vehemence and passion and the film's complex structure lead one to question Ackerman's politics and aesthetics. And such questions can only be answered in the context of the historiography and theory of women in the home: as workers who are essential in maintaining the capitalist system through production and reproduction, largely unrecognized and unpaid. The film raises further questions in terms of its contribution to the vital task of developing feminist art and feminist film language, providing a measure of how far we have come and of what remains undone.

My own answers to these questions are not encouraging ones: I find Akerman's film not only self-defeating in its depiction of the housewife's role and her so-called regeneration through violence at the film's end, but cavalier in its treatment of the complex role of women in the family. Akerman's solution to the fact of female oppression is unfortunately a common one, which is offered not only in several other contemporary films by women but in a significant number of women's novels as well. It is violence, directed at the first male who comes to hand. By his sex rather than his person, he is forced to stand for the oppressors of all the rest.

JEANNE DIELMAN examines three days in the life of its heroine, each day consuming approximately one hour of screen space. Much of the action of the film is shot in "real time." If it takes Jeanne fifteen minutes to peel a batch of potatoes, then the fifteen minutes are presented on the screen without a cut. Yet the moments thus shown are of necessity carefully selected; three days must be compacted into three hours, rather than 72. Much of the film and, for me, its strongest sections are about housework. Other moments capture Jeanne's interaction with her teenage son. Less time is taken up with her relations with the other people on the periphery of her life: the storekeepers who sell to her, a woman in her building whose baby she watches, the baby, neighbors on the street. She seems to have no friends. Only a small amount of time is devoted to the men who provide Jeanne's income, the clients she services as a prostitute each afternoon.

It is the housework that sticks in one's mind after the film is over and the housework that provides Jeanne's identity. The work is close to ritual, rigidly scheduled and repeated daily with slight variation and maximum efficiency. It is a process that appears impossible to sustain if one has not been at some point a housewife (or factory worker) oneself. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English describe it:

"Housework is maintenance and restoration: the daily restocking of the shelves and return of each cleaned and repaired object to its starting point in the family game of disorder. After a day's work, no matter how tiring, the housewife has produced no tangible object-except, perhaps, dinner; and that will disappear in less than half the time it took to prepare. She is not supposed to make anything, but to buy, and then to prepare or conserve what has been bought, dispelling dirt and depreciation as they creep up. And each housewife works alone."(1)

Since Jeanne Dielman's duties as housewife compose the bulk of the film's action, one can get a feel for the film's flow and pacing through scanning this list of them: Jeanne gets up, puts on her dressing gown, and chooses her son's clothes. She lights a fire in his room, picks up his shoes and takes them to the kitchen, where she shines them, lights the stove, grinds the coffee beans and makes coffee. She wakes her son; he eats while she dresses. She says goodbye to him, and gives him money taken from a blue and white china crock on the dining table. She washes the dishes, makes her son's bed and folds it into a couch, makes her own bed and lays a towel over her coverlet. She shops and runs errands, returns to her apartment, and begins to prepare dinner. She sits with her neighbor's child, eats her lunch, and returns the baby to its mother. The doorbell rings. She admits a man, takes his hat and coat, and leads him into the bedroom. She leads him to the front door, gives him his hat and coat, and takes money from him, which she puts in the blue china crock. She opens the window in her bedroom, puts the rumpled towel in the clothes hamper, bathes, cleans the tub, and dresses. She closes the bedroom window and takes dinner off the stove. Her son comes home. They eat dinner immediately: soup, meat and potatoes. She tells him not to read while eating. He puts his books away. She clears the table and helps him with his homework. She knits, and glances through the newspaper, until it is time for them to take their evening walk around the block. They unfold his sofa bed. He reads while she undresses. She turns off the stove, kisses him, turns out the lights, and at last goes to sleep.

There exist subtle variations within this basic range of activities that give us clues to Jeanne's character and moods, but this structure, carefully designed and rigidly adhered to, forms the core of the film and accurately, poignantly captures the reality of housework and the housewife role for many women. Ann Oakley notes the frequency of such inflexible, self-imposed schedules in her study of contemporary English housewives, who use timetables and ritualized action in order to give their lives structure, to impart meaning to what seems to many a meaningless job:

"Faced with housework as their job, they devise rules which give the work the kind of structure most employed workers automatically find in their job situation. Having defined the rules they then attempt to adhere to them, and to derive reward from carrying them out."(2)

The monotony and crippling effect of such a process are powerfully illustrated in Akerman's film. We are initially bored with the film's slow pace, which admits no music, no camera movement, and no opticals as distraction. But we are ultimately carried into the rhythm of Jeanne's life: empathy is virtually unavoidable. The frustrations — so often presented as the "mad housewife" syndrome in American film and fiction about women — are absent here for the most part. Jeanne is serene, methodical, almost madonna-like as she floats efficiently, effortlessly through the day. If she feels frustrations with her role or has fantasies of escape, she represses them even, or especially, in the privacy of her own home.

The precision of Jeanne's motions is as clean and sharp as a good Swiss watch. We watch her dip veal in egg, meal and flour without a wasted movement. She is presented as an automaton, geared for maximum efficiency and functioning perfectly, a victim of both the domestic science movement and the petit-bourgeois Belgian culture that produced her. The compulsiveness of Jeanne's housecleaning, the zeal with which she attacks crumbs and disorder, the serenity with which she accomplishes her tasks all point to a woman who has internalized the principle that "neglect of housecleaning is tantamount to child abuse."(3) And Akerman's controlled, formal style perfectly mirrors the inner feelings of her character, forcing us visually into her world.

The most striking formal technique in JEANNE DIELMAN is Akerman's use of the static camera. We see Jeanne's life as if it were a painting which we have all the time in the world to study. Thus we are not manipulated by dollies in or out of space that force us to focus on some particular point of action, or by changing camera angles which hurtle us up or down emotionally. Akerman has said that she saw no reason to move the camera in her film, and for the most part I agree with her: her character's actions speak for themselves. (4) The static camera traps us as completely as Jeanne's static life traps her, and studying that world, we become a part of it. The contrast between the average viewer's boredom with Jeanne's life or voyeuristic obsession with its stasis in contrast to Jeanne's glacial calm is striking. We are forced to experience Jeanne's life and wonder how she stands living it.

Since Jeanne is the heart of the film, this is expressed visually by her placement in the still frame. She is centered precisely within it, and unless she moves from one room to another, Akerman not only holds the camera steady but holds the shot as well. There are no cuts except when absolutely necessary, and Jeanne is almost always on screen. Akerman's cinema focuses our attention on her smallest gestures, gestures that reveal character but would be lost in a more flamboyant film: a knife that almost slips when a potato is peeled, a light turned off unnecessarily, a facial expression of disquiet or of frustration, the curious act of making coffee in a thermos in the morning for drinking at lunchtime. The effect of such details, repeated and ritualized, is cumulative. Slowly the portrait is pieced together.

Akerman's mise-en-scene is subtle in structuring the way we view the separate elements of the film and gradually put them together. When Jeanne returns to her apartment after a shopping trip, for example, Akerman presents the action with one long shot in the apartment hallway. The elevator that will take Jeanne upstairs is centered precisely in the middle of the frame, and mailboxes line the hall's left side. Jeanne walks into the foyer and stops to check her mail, then walks away from the camera toward the elevator, pushes the button, waits and enters it. A simple shot, but the use of a lens with very little depth of field which is focused sharply only on the foreground mailboxes changes the nature of the shot. We see Jeanne walk out of focus as she nears the elevator and stands waiting for it. As she nears her apartment, she becomes (visually) a different person. Suddenly the objects in the frame outweigh her. We concentrate on the texture of the walls sharply in focus rather than on the fuzzy female person. And the following shot sharpens the emotional impact of the first. Jeanne is in the elevator, slowly being carried up past the lighted floors. We don't see Jeanne but her mirror image, trapped in one half of the frame, with the lights of the passing floors playing over her face. The slow trip becomes a poignant metaphor. The woman trapped in a small, dark space while the world's lights flicker by is an image whose real self is obscured. As Jeanne leaves the elevator, the angles of the mirror's edges fragment her image further. And Akerman uses this particular sequence of shots and the elevator itself only when Jeanne returns to her apartment, never when she leaves it.

The apartment seems to have a life of its own, to have needs and demands which manipulate Jeanne and structure her day much more substantially than do the needs of either her living son or once living husband. Both of them are, she tells a neighbor, "easy to please," blind to their surroundings or to what is on the table. (5) It is the apartment that makes clear and tangible demands. It must be cleaned, its dishes washed, its furniture polished, its rooms aired of unpleasant odors, its voracious appetite for human attention, love and labor appeased. (6) The cuts in the film emphasize this fact. Akerman's camera often lingers lovingly in a room moments after Jeanne has left it, or precedes her entrances by a few long feet of film which show the quiet permanence of the apartment. Older than Jeanne, it will survive her.

Much of the cutting in the film involves the physical presence of the house and its maintenance. Because there is no camera movement, there is no invisible editing and very few cuts on Jeanne's moving figure. Although Akerman occasionally moves from one room to another by cutting on the placement of Jeanne's figure within the frame, she is much more likely to cut on objects. A table in one shot is balanced by a bowl in the shot adjacent to it. By cutting on lights, sounds and objects, Akerman emphasizes the overpowering presence of the apartment that, in its very ordinary state, has such an effect on the lives of its inhabitants.

A frequent kind of cut involves a movement from one room to the next; Jeanne turns out the light in the kitchen, and turns on the light in the living room. The cut is masked by the darkness between the two moments. Similar cuts are made with doors opening and closing, often in combination with turning on and off of lights. Such cuts make the film smoother than repeated jump cuts would have, providing natural fades without compromising Akerman's static frame or the illusions of naturalism and real time. The cuts also serve to emphasize Jeanne's compulsive nature and thrift. The lights are turned off to save electricity, the doors closed to save heat. The incessant turning on and off of lights, the rhythm of the opening and closing doors, become additional rituals, visual and aural patterns that add another level of repetition to the film and emphasize its pace.

The lighting pattern in the elevator is one more example of these repeated physical motifs. A far more important one is the neon light that flashes into Jeanne's living room each evening. With its consistent, unchanging pattern (four regular flashes and a flicker) the neon light, which never goes out and is never washed out by the light sources in the room, becomes a visual metaphor for the lives of the film's characters and perhaps a foreshadowing of Jeanne's breakdown at the film's end. Hers is a "flicker" of life that is always contained by the more powerful pulsation and control of a larger pattern.

The three days of Jeanne's life are significantly different. If the first day is a usual day when everything goes smoothly, we see that the second day throws Jeanne slightly off balance. Because a client stays longer than usual, Jeanne burns the potatoes that were cooking on the stove. With her hair slightly mussed, she wanders from room to room with the pot of burned potatoes, wondering what to do with them. It is a powerful moment in the film, the first time we have ever seen her lose her composure or perform an action that is not completely efficient. Because Jeanne has no potatoes left in the house, she must go again to market. Dinner is late. And although she is quick to reassert the family routine by forcing her son to take their nightly walk around the block, although he would prefer to read, Sylvan destroys her day further by embarrassing questions and confessions about sex. Although Jeanne heads the questions off, the day is not what it should have been.

The third day is even more disrupted. Jeanne fails to button her robe completely and gets shoe polish on her cuff while polishing Sylvan's shoes. Both precision and efficiency are eroded. She moves in and out of rooms turning their lights on and off as she goes, with no idea of what to do once in them. She arrives too early at the post office and grocery and is unable to locate a button for Sylvan's coat at the several shops she visits. She washes her dishes over and over and kneads a meatloaf interminably. When her coffee tastes strange, she throws it out and makes a new pot but finds she cannot drink even that. At the restaurant where she usually goes after shopping, her usual waitress has already gotten off, and a stranger occupies her favorite seat. It is an older, business-like woman with short hair and no makeup who smokes and is engrossed in her work. Traditional, feminine Jeanne is literally displaced by a new kind of woman. At the shops Jeanne makes an attempt to talk to the sales people about her family. Previously she had been pleasantly formal to them. She even tries for the first time to play with the baby she sits for, but it cries whenever she picks it up. She sits and stares into space. She is inactive. She responds sexually to her client and then stabs him to death with her sewing scissors.

Given the role of the housewife as Akerman presents it, one could easily define Jeanne as a "victim of society" and her act of murder an act of liberation. But there is another aspect of the film that undercuts this interpretation: the psychologically and socially repressive role of the mother in the patriarchal family. While Jeanne's relationship with her apartment marks her as a social victim, her relationship with her son shows him to be victimized as well.

Jeanne is a victim who accepts her victim's role and forces her son to join her in it. Akerman thus reveals the social role that many women have been compelled to assume. As conservative force in the family, mothers transmit patriarchal values to their children and assure through their repression and subjugation, the continuance of the dominant social order. The emergence of this role as a full-blown stereotype in male culture can be seen often in film: Leo McCarey's MY SON JOHN is certainly a prime example; the woman in THE HARDER THEY COME, a more contemporary one. Denouncing the stereotype has led many women to deny its real social base and has kept feminists from giving it the serious treatment it deserves. The pitfalls Akerman risks in her attempt to do so are obvious. She presents Jeanne's role as repressor so graphically that her character becomes a difficult one to sympathize with. By zealously defending the family and internalizing its values, Jeanne seems to renounce all opposition and to accept the principle of male-dominated bourgeois society: "bad luck is your own fault." (7)

The idea of the mother as a monster within the home is not a new one in either film or literature, and in Dielman's interactions with her son, she exhibits the kind of character traits which Phillip Wylie grouped together and labeled "Momism" in the 1940s. (A concept which peaked in popularity as women were forced back into their homes during the 50s, Momism allowed men to blame women for all the world's ills while never noticing that it was the active repression of women in post-war America that produced Mom in the first place.) Jeanne is rigidly compulsive and thrifty, completely invested in concepts of order and cleanliness, with no interests outside her home and no ideas. When her son asks her why she married his father, she explains that she did not want to marry him when he was rich; but that after he lost his money, she could not be talked out of the marriage. She finds mention of her husband's body distasteful and explains sex as something to submit to in order to produce children. The marriage to a weak, poor and unattractive man indicates Jeanne's resolve to have a husband she could tower above as a beautiful and competent woman. And her relations with her son reveal her attempts to cast him in the same mold: as a weak man, without hope or thought of rebellion. As a stereotyped castrating mother, Jeanne Dielman is distinguishable from Mrs. Portnoy and Ma Jarred only by virtue of style.

Jeanne's conscious choice of her role in the victim/victimizer chain may seem at first glance to undercut Akerman's apparent intent in the film: to portray a woman who is a product of a specific class and social milieu, a woman shaped by society and by history. I believe, rather, that it reveals Akerman's sophisticated understanding of the role of women in the home, showing to what lengths some are forced to go in order to have autonomy in the only sphere allotted them. If such women seem monstrous, they become so only to defend themselves from almost overwhelming social forces. Just as Dorothy Arzner's Harriet Craig (in CRAIG'S WIFE) was willing to sacrifice everything, including her husband, in order to preserve the only place in the world where she had power and security, so Jeanne Dielman is similarly willing to make sacrifices to preserve her home. These include not only her physical prostitution but the renunciation of all genuine human relationships.

Jeanne's son Sylvan's character is not fully revealed, but he has clearly internalized many of the values of his mother and his culture. He corrects her lapses from proper motherhood immediately, reasserting the family routine when it threatens to break down. His only rebellion in the film is to suggest that the family walk be abandoned, but when Jeanne insists, he dutifully puts on his coat. His weakness is emphasized in his total lack of social life and in his failure to pass a school test by faking an illness.

The extent to which Sylvan has accepted Jeanne's values is illustrated by this remarkable interchange, uttered after he returns home on the second day to find dinner late:

Sylvan: "Your hair's all tousled."
Jeanne: "I let the potatoes boil too long."

That the two perfectly understand each other is one level of communication: to Sylvan, it is logical that a hitch in the day's schedule is enough to muss his mother's hair. That we know her hair is messy because she hasn't had the time to comb it after an overlong sex act adds another level. At this level, Jeanne denies not only her sexual activities but the function she performs to support the family-as prostitute and as worker.

The sexually repressive nature of the family and its links with the authoritarian personality are perfectly realized in Jeanne's character. And it is in terms of sexuality that her role as agent of repression is most fully shown. During the second evening, Sylvan attempts to talk to Jeanne about sex. In a remarkable monologue he describes his introduction to sex through a friend, who has told him, "The penis is a sword; the deeper you thrust it, the better it is." The pain and power associated with that image evokes his own secret fantasies about sex between his parents and his confusion of guilt over his father's death. Hating his father's sexual use of his mother made him wish for the father's death, but to Sylvan's cry for help and explanation and comfort, Jeanne coldly answers, "You shouldn't have worried." To end the discussion, she turns out the light.

The mother's refusal to deal with her own sexuality honestly and to recognize the sexual confusion of her children is one factor, Horkheimer argues, that contributes to the continuation of a repressive social order:

"Under the pressure of such a family situation the individual does not learn to respect his mother in her concrete existence, that is, as this particular social and sexual being. Consequently, he is not only educated to repress his socially harmful impulses (a feat of immense cultural significance) but, because this education takes the problematic form of camouflaging reality, the individual also loses for good the disposition of part of his psychic energies. Reason and joy in its exercise are restricted; the suppressed inclination towards the mother reappears as a fanciful and sentimental susceptibility to all symbols of the dark, maternal and protective powers."(8)

When Jeanne hides the reality of not only her past sexual life with Sylvan's father but of her present sexual life with the clients who visit her regularly, monotonously, each weekday afternoon, not only sexuality but work is repressed. Jeanne denies that she works at all and is thus able to maintain the illusion that she is "only a housewife." Her self-definition does not include the concept of work. By engaging in prostitution in her home, while the potatoes boil, Jeanne relegates it to the level of cleaning the bathtub or bleaching out a particularly nasty stain. Sex becomes a necessary but bothersome choice.

Dielman's role as a prostitute becomes another facet of her role as both repressive agent and conservative social force. The prostitute complements the wife, and both are necessary in maintaining the status quo and preventing any real change from occurring. As a prostitute Dielman provides a socially acceptable outlet for drives which left unchecked might lead the individual to question the sexually repressive nature of society and to think of rebellion. If, as some feminists argue, the prostitute literalizes the sexual oppression of all women by calling it by its right name-an exchange of sex for money-and refuses to accept the nonnegotiable items (love, marriage, dinners) that most women bargain for, she may, in fact, avoid being a sexual victim herself. But by serving as a stabilizing force in bourgeois society, she perpetuates the sexual oppression of other women and leaves them and herself open to other forms of oppression.

The role of prostitute (a job many women have found capable of providing large amounts of money in a short time) allows Jeanne the luxury of maintaining that she is a housewife, with her dead husband's support replaced by that of the five johns she services. They replace the father as dispensers of cash while Jeanne serves as dispenser of culture.

As Jeanne misrepresents herself to Sylvan through lies and distortions, the camera similarly represses sexuality through its selection of the moments of time it chooses to show or to omit. Although Akerman shoots much of the film in real time, the sex between Jeanne and her first two clients is not shown at all. Possibly, Akerman is seeking to avoid any audience voyeurism. Because sex is in itself often interesting, omitting it altogether from the film is one way to make it seem unimportant, to prevent any sexual titillation from creeping into the film.

This seems a glib way of solving an important problem in cinema: How does one present sexuality, given the audience's conditioned responses to it as spectacle? Hard-core pornography teaches us that it is quite possible through repetition and the objectification of body parts to make the sex act seem as boring and mundane as washing dishes, as distasteful as cleaning the toilet. But by her failure to show Jeanne's physical prostitution, Akerman calls attention to it. She makes us not voyeurs but busybodies — we wonder what went on in the bedroom. By withholding knowledge of sex, she makes us preoccupied with it and forces us to identify not with Jeanne but with Sylvan, from whom knowledge is similarly withheld.

In the chain of rituals, of monotony, of the interchangeability of days and events that the film presents, the act of sex stands as an anomaly. Although sexual parts are interchangeable in filmed pornography, men and women are not; each person makes love differently. To preserve the illusion that Jeanne's clients (and all men) are identical, the filmmaker must not show their most personal, least interchangeable acts. In a film of such realism, this flaw or distortion is particularly noticeable and unfortunate.

On another level it destroys the credibility of the film. When we finally see Jeanne in bed with a client on the film's third day, we know something significant is about to happen. When we see her react sexually to the man, we are confused. Our lack of knowledge about her prior sexual behavior prevents us from understanding her: does she always respond, or is sexual response a further symptom of her disintegration? The film's point is muddied, and Jeanne's act incomprehensible. Does she kill the man because he made her respond despite herself or simply because she had a bad day?

While Akerman plays down the importance of the killing to the film as a whole, a look at the film's narrative structure reveals that the murder is demanded: the film has a conventional narrative structure despite its slow pacing and technical innovations. (9) It tells a story, sets up a conflict, and offers a solution to the conflict. It has a violent climax and period of reflective calm afterwards. The editing becomes faster as the climax approaches, and the revealing of new bits of information — the sexual act — piques our interest and lets us know that a solution to the conflict is near. Scissors left conveniently near the bed foreshadow the film's resolution. (10)

One can take the film's climax in at least two ways. My own reaction was to see Jeanne's act as a repressive one, a response to her sexual awakening. To accept this interpretation, one first has to believe that her breakdown is a positive thing: that a breakdown is preferable to a life of calm, controlled insanity, and that sexual response could be the first step toward that breakdown and thus toward change. The film becomes a critical one — critical of Jeanne's role as repressed and conservative force while cognizant of the difficulties of change — while Jeanne's act is part of a desperate struggle to preserve the status quo in the face of forces that are threatening to change and overwhelm her. The film, then, illustrates the power of bourgeois, patriarchal culture and points out the degree to which most of us have internalized its mandates. Ending the film with a bloody Jeanne, sitting in a dark room with neon flashing over her face and the blue and white china crock prominently in the foreground, seemed to capture in a frame the hegemony of oppressive forces, the futility of isolated, individualized revolt.

Chantal Akerman intends that the film be read differently. She has said of the murder, "It was either him or her, and I'm glad it was him." The murder is seen as an act of liberation, one which, Akerman says, "will change her life."

Such a concept of problem solving is neither particularly novel nor arguably feminist, which makes its use by women writers and filmmakers all the more distressing. It is understandable in such a work as Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe Von Trotta's LOST HONOR OF KATHERINA BLUM, where a young woman shoots the muckraking reporter who has tormented her throughout the film. But the reporter is an old-fashioned villain, a symbol more of a certain kind of press than of male culture, and his death is as cathartic for the audience as the climactic shooting of any Western bad guy is likely to be. Nothing feminist about it.

Nor is there anything particularly feminist in the kind of solutions many of the heroines in contemporary women's fiction reach to their objectifications and oppression: Lois Gould's beautiful victim becomes a pseudoman in A Sea Change and victimizes her female lover; Susan Reis Lukas's housewife/victim breaks out of her rut by having sex with two Puerto Rican boys who try to hustle her in Stereopticon and finishes the job by killing herself with a shiv. Judith Rossner's Theresa is murdered by a pickup in Looking for Mr. Goodbar at precisely the moment when she decides to change her life and stop being a victim. And in Liliane Dreyfus's FEMMES AU SOLEIL, the heroine's conflict over whether to leave her comfortable, if stifling and superficial bourgeois life for the love and adventure offered by a younger man is conveniently resolved when he is killed in a motorcycle accident. Death is the deus ex machina. As children end stories, badly written, with the words "and then she died," so many women authors and filmmakers resolve the conflicts set up in the bodies of their work.

The suicidal heroine of Dinah Brooke's Death Games resolves her love/hate relationship with her father by slipping into his bed after he's suffered a heart attack and performing fellatio on him until he dies. Brooke, like Akerman, portrays this act as a sign of social and sexual liberation for her heroine and, by analogy, for all women; a literal blow against patriarchal culture:

"Children scream violently, struggling, hissing with rage, daughters become avenging demons. What is required is nourishment. Love. We will fight forever. We will never give up. We will spew up your aid, your allowances, your falseness; we will struggle for what we need. We cannot be denied. Our desires are as old and powerful as the earth. They are also your desires. If you deny them you will die. … We will all be destroyed by the hidden, silent, secret desire, never expressed. You have created such a huge world, such a stack of card houses, such false structures of governments, and bombs and money and boarding schools and ministries and hotels and banks and factories and development projects and armies to hide you, to protect you from your own desires. But do not be afraid. We will pursue you. We are your daughter, your soul. We will sneak up on you in the night and in the afternoon. We are your salvation. We will have you. We will find you out in spite of all your struggles and your power. Your power is nothing. It will scream, melt, explode in the heat of our desire, and of your own."(11)

Such alternatives are not attractive ones and offer little hope or encouragement to real women. It's a choice between absolute repression or living out all one's repressed desires for incest, sex and death within the framework of a total war between men and women. Dusan Makavejev's SWEET MOVIE expresses these options perfectly through two different women: Miss World of 1984, who is objectified and mauled throughout the film until her famous chocolate bath makes her a living symbol of the union of sexual oppression and consumerism under capitalism; and the carefree "liberated woman," a revolutionary who acts on all her desires, including the castration of her only adult lover in a bed of sugar and the seduction and murder of little boys.

Many male filmmakers use the kill-for-freedom motif of JEANNE DIELIIAN, not the least of them being Sam Peckinpah. Dustin Hoffman's rampage in STRAW DOGS is as socially "justified' as Dielman's and proves him a man capable of action as hers proves her a conscious woman. Killing is used as proof of manhood in THE MARATHON MAN, where the villains which Hoffman (again) vanquishes are hardly less odious than the somewhat gentle man Jeanne Dielman kills and are meant to stand for just as many cultural evils: anti-Semitism, fascism, blacklisting, and government immorality. And the virtue of revenge and regeneration through violence is routinely offered as a solution to the moral dilemmas posed in scores of old and new films: WALKING TALL, MACON COUNTY LINE, BUSTER AND BILLIE, DEATH WISH.

Is violence any more progressive politically when women perform it? Many women applauded when the heroine of Stephanie Rothman's VELVET VAMPIRE murdered the man who tried to rape her, after pretending to submit. But Rothman later shows us that her violence was not reserved for oppressive men alone but was generalized to include more sympathetic figures, women as well as men. Most male films about female rape victims become opportunities to depict the act of rape for the titillation of the male audience, no matter how those victims ultimately respond or revenge themselves. Margaux Hemingway's murder of her rapist in LIPSTICK was overshadowed by her lengthy rape, and Yvette Mimieux's murder of the rapist/jailer in JACKSON COUNTY JAIL—the Joanne Little case in whiteface-solves nothing: not for Mimieux's character in the film and certainly not for the women who continue to be brutalized and raped inside jails and out of them.

When we study these films, we find that most of them support the social order, offering individual solutions to complex social problems: Kill criminals rather than abolish the causes of crime; kill rapists rather than rearrange the sexual power structure that necessitates the act of rape. If there are films that criticize such solutions (as I would argue in the case of WALKING TALL) then such criticism resides in the mise-en-scene, as in many films noir. The plots are spoonfed homilies to an audience that has been taught to expect what it gets: the message that violence is the acceptable way to handle all difficulties and a "natural" reaction to injustice.

The ending of Robert Altman's IMAGES crystallizes the drawbacks of such responses to oppression. Although Susannah York kills her oppressive husband, who is probably contributing to her madness, she kills him only when she sees him as a mirror image of herself. It is her own problems which haunt her and continue to haunt her after her husband's death: her husband is gone, but the greater problem, York's own, persists. Nor does Gerald Depardieu's self-castration in Ferrari's LAST WOMAN solve the problems of machismo and egoism, as the pathetic final offering of his severed penis to his lover suggests, though it is certainly an act that "changed his life."

If we are to make real changes in our lives and in our cinema, we must offer not only new cinematic structures but serious solutions to the social problems that persist. If none are forthcoming, I feel it is better to be descriptive than prescriptive. Films which illustrate the extent of female oppression and the tenacity of patriarchy seem to me more feminist than those which offer cheap answers to complex social, historical and political problems - answers that fall within the range of acceptable responses as defined by male-dominated bourgeois culture. The sections of JEANNE DIELMAN which examine in minute detail the function and practice of housework and the role of the traditional mother within the repressive structure of the nuclear family are among the finest examples of feminist cinema yet produced, pioneering and carefully wrought in both form and content. I only wish Akerman had been content with this magnificent and unique achievement rather than succumbing to the demands of the traditional narrative film form that requires a bang-up ending and the culture that requires a neatly packaged and thoroughly acceptable message. In this case: Killing is good for you.


1. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, "The Manufacture of Housework," Socialist Revolution, 5:4 (Oct.-Dec. 1975), 6.

2. Ann Oakley, Woman's Work (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 95.

3. Ehrenreich and English, p. 19.

4. The static camera becomes confusing at only one point in the film: the nightly walk around the block. Four shots show them on the block's four sides, but the streets could be anywhere. Without a tracking shot, we have no sense that the four streets interlock.

5. This proves to be delusion. When Jeanne starts to perform her role as a housewife poorly, her son is quick to notice, to button an open robe or tidy disarrayed hair. Her perfect performances are taken for granted, but she is never allowed to stray from the rigid bounds that circumscribe her role.

6. The house has something of the feel that Lotte Eisner described so well in German films and literature, mirrored by a linguistic structure that gives objects a life of their own: "…they are spoken of with the same adjectives and verbs used to speak of human beings, they are endowed with the same qualities as people, they act and react in the same way… (the houses) seem to have an insidious life of their own when the autumn evening mists stagnate in the streets and veil their imperceptible grimace." See The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1969), p. 23.

7. Max Horkheimer, "Authority and the Family," in Critical Theory (N.Y.: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 121.

8. Ibid., p. 121.

9. This and all references to Akerman's comments on JEANNE DIELMAN were discussed at a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art's CINEPROBE series, November 8, 1976.

10. If, as feminist film critic Barbara Halpern Martineau has convincingly argued in her lectures, most narrative films reflect a structure that is remarkably close to the conventional pattern of male sexual response (tension build up, climax, exhaustion), then Akerman's film falls well within this range rather than positing an alternative narrative structure that is female or feminist.

11. Dinah Brooke, Death Games (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 147-148.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Skiving and Salvage Double bill

Sunday 30th October | Doors 7pm | Admission free

Elephants' Graveyard, 1976
By Peter McDougall & John McKenzie
(Scotland, 48mins)

Pretty Dyana, 2002
By Boris Mitic
(Serbia, 45mins)

Peter McDougall & John McKenzie - The Elephants' Graveyard (1976, 48mins)

Bunny has told his wife he is working as a postman, but in fact is wandering the hills all day, wondering why he doesn't want to work. He meets Jody, an older man who has told his wife he's working in a factory, but is in fact doing the same thing. The two men spend a day of friendship together, but what does the future offer them? And tonight is supposed to be pay night...

Brand new text about the film
Taking a Walk in The Elephant's Graveyard
by a Feral Subject

Boris Mitic - Pretty Dyana (2002, 45 mins)

An intimate look at Gypsy refugees in a Belgrade suburb who make a living by transforming Citroen´s classic 2CV and Dyana cars into Mad Max-like recycling vehicles, which they use to collect card-board, bottles and scrap metal. These modern horses are much more efficent than the cart-pushing competition, but even more important, they also mean freedom, hope and style for their crafty owners.

Colorama Cinema
52-56 Lancaster Street
London SE1

Download the pamphlet for this screening from Zine Library or Skiving and Salvage

More screenings and info:

Full Unemployment Cinema