Tales of Ordinary Sadness: Melancholy in The Cinema of Chantal Akerman

© Paradise Films

“Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life.’”

– Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is one of the most profound portraits of melancholia put to film, precisely because it is only really about melancholia tangentially; because it whispers, never shouts. Chantal Akerman’s 201-minute anti-epic is quietly tragic, a work unable—or perhaps, more accurately, deliberately unwilling—to face up to the problems it presents, and one that buries its own neurotic symptoms under layers of ritual. It is cinema at its most undiagnosed, a work in which tragedy rises ceaselessly and inevitably from the screen like the steam broiling off its central character’s kitchenware.

Appropriately, it came to Akerman without fanfare, arriving in her head fully-formed and ready to be translated. She wrote the thing in two weeks, she explained to a videographer working for the Criterion Collection in 2009, her wide eyes flashing. “It all came very easily of course,” she said in her clipped, nicotine-weathered French. “Because I had seen it all around me.”

That “it” was not the prostitution that sustains Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), the starkly drawn heroine of the film’s title, nor even Jeanne’s anxious, overbearing relationship with her son. (After all, Akerman had no children, and the bulk of her films—as frequently concerned with motherhood as they are—explore familial tensions from the writer-director’s distinct perspective as a loving, committed daughter.)

Instead, that “it,” Jeanne Dielman’s central horror, is the anxiety we largely consider a by-product of everyday life: The kind of gentle affliction that barely feels worth expressing. In fact, it’s the kind of anxiety that maybe we can’t express; that maybe there are no words precise enough to carry. Dielman offers no anguished lectures about the crushing nature of mortality to her clients or to the audience; Akerman never rushes the camera in for a closeup of Seyrig’s decent, open face; and not once does the plot ever stray far away from the prosaic rhythm of average existence.

Indeed, the horror of the work lies precisely in its mundanity. The focal points of the film—the disruptive forces that upset Dielman’s carefully-controlled routine—are not violent, or even particularly intimidating. They are a dropped spoon and an over-boiled pan of potatoes: household objects that Akerman uses to reveal the tragedy simmering just beneath an ordinary life.

Though the film makes its case precisely through its lived-in ordinariness, it would be a mistake to call the work autobiographical, or to search for specific traits of author in Dielman. The heroine is drawn in deliberately broad, staccato strokes, and her bare-bones character traits discourage the audience from searching for Akerman in her actions.

And yet there is evidence enough to suggest the director understood the very ordinary kind of tragedy that soaks through her heroine’s skin; the horror that rises off the assemblage of mundane household appliances that encircle her. Cinema was self-care for the filmmaker, and she turned to movies as a way of battling loneliness. “I had an intuition that if I was going to only write, I will stay in one room all the time and never go out,” she told the AV Club. “I felt that if I was going to make movies, I would have to communicate with people and it would be good for me.”

Not that such an understanding results in one definitive emotional reading either way: Akerman’s films are neither warm nor melodramatic. Indeed, quite the opposite. American director Gus Van Sant called Jeanne Dielman “architectural,” but a better word might be “anatomical.” There is a kind of clean, dispassionate honesty about the work, and Akerman considers her main character the way one might study a frog pinned down for dissection. She has to: how else is one meant to probe at anxiety so baseless and without form that we barely register it as anxiety? Everything must be first considered alien; from our bodies, to our houses, to the habitual, gently sad manner in which we live our lives.

Because of Akerman’s remove, Jeanne Dielman plays almost like a documentary designed to explain human beings to some creature that has never encountered them before. Akerman’s long, precise takes, minimal sound effects, and emphasis on actions and objects have an oddly educational, informative tone—as though the aim is to teach life itself.

In Jeanne Dielman pleasure is a break in reality, not reality itself, and the one burst of bodily joy the film’s central character experiences has an immediate and terminal effect. To that end, though Akerman’s films aren’t self-serious, they are largely uninterested in traditional, comforting narrative beats; they shun the “uplifting.” The director’s compulsive need to avoid sentimentality influenced a host of her narrative decisions—most notably Jeanne Dielman’s violent finale.

“A lot of people have said, ‘It’s a pity to have that murder because the film would have been so much more novel without it,’” Akerman told Camera Obscura. “I don’t think so at all. If there had not been that murder, there would have been sentimentality about the ending. That’s what I didn’t want … It’s clichéd to have no ending.”

Indeed, even in her more mainstream work in the late ’80s, happiness is treated as something giddy, something dumb in the original sense of the word—as in, without language, without speech. “I love you” is the first line of Golden Eighties, Akerman’s 1986 under-considered classic, but it’s the second line too, as our heroine proffers up her affections and her lips to two men that flank her, both eager for her attention. There is nothing unique about her love, nor is it something of inherent value: love is painted as external to her existence, not of it. It is a disruption to regular broadcasting, overwhelming when it is good (as in Toute une nuit) and distinctly obtrusive when it is not (Sauite ma ville). Akerman treats love like some expensive, frugally dispensed special effect.

It’s not that ecstasy is necessarily disparaged in Akerman’s films, but it is emphatically secondary to the concerns of everyday life. Extreme emotional events of any kind—the deaths relayed secondhand to the camera in Histoires d’Amérique: Food, Family And Philosophy; the extended, frantic sex scene that takes up the final quadrant of Je, tu, il, elle—are deliberately isolated, inherently “other.” These events are the phosphorous pops of a match before it goes out: bright, but brief, and quickly forgotten.

Even in her romances, passion is beside the point. It manages to survive and grow only by chance, in opposition to the natural state of the world. 1996’s A Couch In New York, Akerman’s flawed, fascinating take on mainstream Hollywood rom-com tropes, tells a love story via absence, as the film’s two leads, Béatrice (Juliette Binoche) and Henry (William Hurt), fall not for one another’s bodies or voice, but for the other’s possessions. It is a film of echoes, two voices bouncing off each other in a cave, and the true moments of passion and commitment are as surprising and abrupt as a car crash.

Maternal, familial love is drawn no more sentimentally. Despite the fact her mother Natalia was the guiding creative light of Akerman’s life—the softly-spoken Holocaust survivor was one of the first people to encourage young Akerman’s cinematic obsession, and her presence can be felt across almost every one of the director’s films—the filmmaker is unromantic in depicting the mother-daughter bond.

In Akerman’s works, the role of the mother is largely a functional one. Take News From Home, an avant garde documentary that sees maternal love and support sanded down to its most essential, basic form: a film in which the loving words of a mother are revealed to be supportive the way a chair is supportive, or a ladder—physical, measurable.

The key to Akerman’s work then remains what happens in between frenzied, discomforting snatches of contact: the average, everyday hurt that proves foundational for her entire filmography. Chantal Akerman made films about sadness the way Sam Peckinpah made films about honor and disgrace; the way Hitchcock made them about cruelty.

Most importantly of all, none of her films were made with the aim of moralizing. She never said anything she didn’t mean—never allowed her films to whisper rumours, or tangentially imply anything she was unwilling to back up. Hers is a literal kind of cinema, one to be understood in the gut, and each of her images comes clipped of metaphor.

The minute pains of Jeanne Dielman are not stand-ins for great tragedies, just as the profound pain relayed by trauma survivors in the experimental documentary Tell Me is not designed as some comment on the agonies of everyday life. When Dielman’s carefully-wrought routine begins to fall apart towards the end of the former film’s middle segment, if we understand it as anything other than what it is—anything other than the practical effects of a routine stretched to breaking point—we are doing the work a disservice.

Akerman’s camera often attempts to strip an image down to its most base components, scraping the iconography off scenes like a criminal sanding off their own fingerprints. The moments in Dielman in which the titular character is framed from the neck down; the uninterrupted takes of desert landscape that separate No Home Movie into two distinct parts; the long tracking shots that introduce Portrait Of A Young Girl At The End Of The 1960s In Brussels—these are deliberately unsentimental images, diagrams designed to be precise, not pretty. They are arrows aimed at sadness, but never designed to imply its value or its viciousness. Akerman, for her part, does nothing but point.

For that reason, Akerman takes time to make it clear that characters like Jeanne Dielman are not Emma Bovary-types. Dielman is not a figure searching for pity, largely because she doesn’t even understand that she is pitiful. We do not weep for her because she is not rendered helpless by her pain. She’s not even ready to use the word “pain” to describe her life. “Jeanne Dielman is not special,” Akerman explained in the same interview with the AV Club.

Nor are Akerman’s characters deeply improved by their suffering. It is one of the greatest and most oft-repeated lies of Western cinema (particularly Hollywood) that hardship is good for us—that any horror can be helpful if we survive it, that all pain contributes to some imagined character arc.

Akerman’s films never connect adversity with heroism. Her characters do not grow from their pain. They do not become wise, important members of society. In Tomorrow We Move, the memory of the Holocaust is played for embarrassing, cringe-inducing laughs, as a character is reminded of Auschwitz by the whiff of a cooking oven. Their pain has not improved them, or greatly altered their opinion on the world: rather, it is something they must make uncomfortable jokes about. And in No Home Movie, Akerman’s love letter to her adored mother (and the last film she made before committing suicide), the trauma of history is an awkward, ungainly presence: a character inelegantly eavesdropping on a deeply personal discussion. In Akerman’s cinema, trauma is a property, as essential and commonplace as air, and can be quantified only by the extent of damage it causes.

So, the unconvinced might wonder—what is the point? If the pain Akerman outlines is too minimal to be elegantly expressed, and too inconsequential to be of any great impact, why would anyone want to watch her films, particularly if they often require up to three hours of sustained, uninterrupted attention?

The answer is simple. For all their analysis of melancholy, Akerman’s films make their great humanist case simply by existing. Her characters do not wax poetic about their plight, or launch into monologues about the tragedy that defines them. Instead, they live. They live in opposition to; they live in spite of. They are the cinematic equivalent of Samuel Beckett’s great line about mortality: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Just take the final shot of Jeanne Dielman, the Rosetta stone of Akerman’s work. Jeanne sits at a table, stained in the blood of the man she has murdered for no other reason than he gave her pleasure; than that he happened to be around as her routines strained and snapped.

Her eyes are closed, her head is bowed slightly. She breathes in. She is not honorable, nor tortured, nor pained, nor profound. Even though Dielman has endured ceaseless quiet catastrophe over the film’s three hour running time, she is no different from how we first met her—no more learned, nor more wise. She is ultimately no more likely to sidestep the melancholy that awaits her, the melancholy that will define the rest of her life, melancholy manageable only by submitting to routine; melancholy that she would surely rather die than endure another moment of.

The light begins to fade. She breathes out.