by Jayne Loader
from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 10-12
copyright 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.