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Jeanne Dielman, Three Decades Later A Q & A with Chantal Akerman

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Jeanne Dielman, Three Decades Later: A Q & A with Chantal Akerman

Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage

From January 23-29, Film Forum is playing Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a seminal film of its era, a feminist landmark and an epic meditation on the passage of time and the fact that nothing can remain the same for long, even if we map out the most structured daily routine. The film charts three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a part-time prostitute and full-time martinet of the kitchen played by Delphine Seyrig in a phenomenally disciplined, pointillist-style performance. Seeing Jeanne Dielman on a big screen, during a Delphine Seyrig festival at the Museum of Modern Art, was one of the major cultural experiences of my life. That being said, at 201 minutes, you have to let yourself yield to this movie’s rhythms and let yourself be seduced by it; if you resist Jeanne Dielman, you’ll reach “the utmost limits of boredom,” as Stevie Smith would say, after about ten minutes or so. It’s a mysterious movie in some ways, so I leapt at the chance to send a few questions, via e-mail, to Chantal Akerman on the film itself and on working with Seyrig.

Akerman has made interesting movies since Jeanne Dielman, of course, plus a lot of shorts and documentaries I haven’t seen: I’m particularly intrigued by Là-bas (2006), where Akerman apparently documents a semi-agoraphobic period of her life when she holed up in an apartment in Tel Aviv. On YouTube, there are several early Akerman shorts, like Saute Ma Ville (1968) and La Chambre (1972), which testify to her ability to make hypnotic images of interiors that vibrate under her gaze with a sort of David Lynch-ian menace. These shorts show that Akerman is as much a visual artist as a maker of narrative films, and she’s done a lot of video installations for art galleries lately, but Jeanne Dielman is clearly her magnum opus, at least for the time being. Aside from some clarification of film titles, I have left her answers as they were sent to me, at 5:43AM. (When I received them, I formed an image of Akerman at her computer, straight-backed as the sun starts to come up in Paris, filled with ... unspecified anxiety? Staring at potatoes that will have to be peeled for some meal or other?) “Dear Dan,” Akerman wrote, “I will be brief, your questions may end up as a book and I can’t do that.”

What was the genesis of Jeanne Dielman and how did Delphine Seyrig become involved?

The genesis a very long story but yes this script was written for Delphine that met a few years ago in an experimental festival where she was showing the diapositives of ..... about Vietnam and I was showing Hotel Monterey that she loved.

How much of the narrative was pre-planned, and how much of it was instinctive, or improvised?

Everything of the narrative was planned and nothing was improvised.

Did Jeanne ever do anything during one of the long takes that surprised you as you were filming?

Delphine was always surprising me by her presence.

Was it your intention to create a kind of suspense? (When I saw the film in a theater, the whole audience gasped when Jeanne dropped a spoon on the floor).

I didn’t know that there will be suspense, only when I did the first editing I saw it.

Delphine Seyrig was known for creating an extensive backstory for her characterizations. In Jeanne Dielman, she doesn’t seem to be “giving a performance” so much as she is attempting to embody a person. Can you describe the process Seyrig went through to achieve such results, and your own role in that process? And did that process change at all when you worked together again?

Well, for Delphine it was not always easy to do the gestures I ask and only that, she told me that usually she was the one who was going to invent those gestures and add things, then we start to videotape the scenes and I show them to her, so she felt better and in a way more participating. Yes it was different in Window Shopping [also known as Golden Eighties] first of all because the script was a normal one so when we start to rehearse she could propose something.

Do you know what happens to Jeanne with her second client on the second day?

With her second client she had an orgasm, that was what destroyed her order, there was no room for that in her life.

Have you been haunted by Jeanne Dielman, or Delphine Seyrig?

In a way, yes, because it is also related to the life after the war, but not only for those reasons.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.