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Minimalism’s Radical Quiet: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman


Minimalism’s Radical Quiet: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman


Emilija Talijan

Have we sacrificed noise for silence? Emilija Talijan turns to Chantal Akerman’s famous work Jeanne Dielman, in order to re-consider Akerman’s formal minimalism not in terms of silence as a 'violence to being', but in terms of noise and rhythm as a compensation for the failure of language, asking what feminist statement can be realised through these modes of presence?

For over three and half hours, in Chantal Akerman’s famous work Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), we watch a woman go about her daily, routine household chores, in what might be described as almost complete silence. She peels potatoes, shines shoes, makes coffee, washes herself, makes the bed. Working as a part-time prostitute for extra money, she also receives a client a day, their visit lasting exactly the time it takes for her potatoes to boil. Yet the film elides these moments, choosing to cut at exactly the point where narrative intrigue takes place. The rest of her gestures take place in real time. The film records these chores over three days, but an incident on the second day, which we do not see, sets the order of Jeanne’s world askew. Akerman’s work has been categorised as a form of hyperrealist, minimalist cinema where “nothing happens”.[i] Her famous statement is that she works “with images which are between the images” – showing us those moments that are typically left out of cinema. Of Jeanne Dielman, it could thus be said that the whole film takes place in this in-between, in the space of the ellipsis.[ii]

Akerman’s camera is frontal, fixed in mid-shot, producing images that have fascinated with the questions they pose concerning surface, materiality and corporeality. Her detailed attention to Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) as she goes about her domestic work is considered a resolutely anti-psychological portrait; we are given no access to any interior thoughts, motivations or narrative explanation. However, what might initially appear as a film that takes place in almost complete silence (with the exception of some unsatisfying and uncommunicative dialogues with her grown up son), might emerge under a second listening as a detailed study in noises and rhythms, afforded by the radical quiet in which Jeanne operates. To say that Jeanne Dielman is a film where nothing happens, and that it takes place in silence, is to overlook those events and noises that do. Here, I wish to consider the noises of this work and to ask, if we were to reframe our reading of it as a film made up of noise, rather than silence, what new understanding and questions does it pose in terms of its subject, duration and presence.

Chantal Akerman,  Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles  (1975)

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Everything in Jeanne Dielman is made to sound. In the same way that Akerman’s images display no hierarchy in what is, and is not, given attention, her sound conforms to the same aesthetics of homogeneity with a continuous volume for each gesture, no matter how small. Things that we should not hear make noise; each button done up on Jeanne’s coat sounds its materiality. The money she handles crumples at the same volume as a baby’s crying. For most of the film, Jeanne’s only interlocutors are the noises she produces. In a similar way to the dissatisfying verbal interactions in the film, or the absence of reverse shots, the sounds present us with a form of one-way dialogue between Jeanne’s silent resonant body and her sounding environment. Noise is therefore another aspect by which we might apprehend the film’s concerns with surface and materiality - we hear their encounters. Yet it endows Jeanne’s environment with a certain expressivity that the rigorous visual framing of the film does not. Jeanne’s body, in its ritualised busying, fails silence.

It is through the rhythm produced in this dialogue with her environment that we can hear the sound of time taking place. Indeed, over the course of the first two days, while we follow Jeanne’s economic and efficient movements as she goes about her household chores, we hear no sounds of ticking clocks - she does not even look at one. The rhythmic noise of her gestures stand in for this ticking, expressive of duration. It is on the third day, once the rhythm of her week has been thrown off kilter, that we begin to hear the intrusion of mechanical time in the ticking of clocks made audible. On the third day, she is ahead of time, which means, as Daniele Dubroux has pointed out, that there is “dead time, the obsessive order starts to fall down and the (self)protection to give way (long shot of Jeanne flopped in an armchair, duster in hand)."[iii]

I won’t say I’m a feminist film-maker . . . I’m not making women’s films, I’m making Chantal Akerman’s films
— Chantal Akerman

Akerman expressed a complicated relationship with the term “feminist” in relation to her work: “I won't say I'm a feminist film-maker . . . I'm not making women's films, I'm making Chantal Akerman's films”.[iv]  In spite of this auteurist statement, Annette Kuhn has argued that a director needn’t be intentionally making feminist films in order for them to display feminist concerns: “a film can be feminist tangentially even if its author did not intend it as such."[v] This has been the case with much feminist criticism and attention devoted to the film, suggesting for example, that though the work does not explicitly pronounce any feminist statement (the film is too opaque for that) it is a feminist statement that emerges through silence. Janet Bergstrom, writing in 1977 in an article in Camera Obscura, argued that “in Jeanne Dielman the problem is expressed through diegetic silence […] Jeanne Dielman brings us into a discourse of women's looks, through a woman's viewpoint. It is the quality and interest of the controlling look that makes Jeanne Dielman stand out formally as feminist, and not any particular formal feature such as the absence of the reverse shot or the duration, alone. That this discourse is realized in silence adds to its eloquence. Who knows yet what an unalienated feminine language would sound like?"[vi]

As I have already pointed out, to describe Jeanne Dielman as silent, overlooks the ever-present noises throughout the film. Yet, in attending to these noises, another form of feminine language can be situated. Despite not aligning her work with feminist filmmaking and herself querying the very possibility of a feminine language, Akerman did allow for the idea of a feminine rhythm. In an interview with the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1977, Akerman stated “I also believe that we have a rhythm, if only sexually, physically, biologically, which is different from that of men . . . It's really a hard problem to try to say what differentiates a woman's rhythm in film because a man can use these same forms of expression. I don't know if we have the words, if they exist yet.”[vii]

Akerman compensates the failure of words, with a faith in rhythm and it is this rhythm that her film makes audible. For this reason, we might wish to rename the ‘silence’ of her film as a minimalist aesthetic of radical quiet. I am borrowing this term from Eugenie Brinkema’s Critique of Silence (2011). In an excellent questioning of the regime of silence, Brinkema shows how silence might be seen to function as a form of violence to being, for the way it has been linked to a “dialectic of being and nothingness, plenitude and finitude, the fullness of meaning or the ground of nonmeaning from which meaning is drawn”.[viii] Instead, she posits the alternatives of “near inaudibility” or “radical quiet” which, she argues, are linked to a different set of conceptual and aesthetic terms: pressure, tension, intensity, and force. For Brinkema, the former [the regime of silence] “concretizes the discourse of silence into a concern with being, while the latter concerns itself with formal gradations of intensities and with duration”. Both, she shows, contain within themselves theories of violence, but silence is a violence done to being, whereas radical quiet is a violence done to form - the arrangement, pressure and tension within presentation. Akerman’s cinema, in its formal rigor, minimalism and hyperrealist attention to the minutiae of the rhythm of the everyday and their variation, is of this second kind. A violence done to form, a pressure and tension on duration, rather than on being, in which her subject walks free. Akerman expressed a similar sentiment when discussing her desire to respect Jeanne as her subject, within her framing and editing: "It was the only way to shoot that film - to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The framing was meant to respect her space, her, and her gestures within it."[ix]

Chantal Akerman,  Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles  (1975)

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The ending of Jeanne Dielman is memorable. For once, we follow her into the bedroom scene, we see her with her client. Narrative bursts forth in the space as suddenly Jeanne picks up a pair of scissors and stabs her client in the chest. Again, we do not approach this scene up close and the film resists providing any causal connection between events. Yet this is the false ending of Jeanne Dielman and to fixate on it would be to fall into a fictional reading that the film has resisted. There follow a further seven minutes where we watch Jeanne sit motionless at her dining room table. Akerman has underscored the importance of these final minutes: “Certain people hate this murder and say ‘you have to be more pure. If you show a woman doing dishes, you shouldn't show a murder.’ But I don't think that's true. The strength of the thing is to show them both in the same film. And it didn't end with the murder. There are seven really very strong minutes after that.”[x] The film thus ends with the force of duration and radical quiet. Jeanne is motionless, her gestures have ended, but there remain sounds (the space is intruded upon by the sounds from outside). This bears on the way Brinkema discusses the concept of the ‘burst’ of near inaudibility: “Instead of the burst as an instantaneous offering, near inaudibility lets duration as such—the “space of time” that haunts “quiet”—bear the pressure of what breaks through. The burst is thus redescribed from a sudden temporal rupture to an elongated intensity that affectively manifests in its suspended form, as opposed to resolving it […] Near inaudibility thus reimagines the force of duration as something that in itself can surprise again.” The ‘strength’, force or burst of Akerman’s final seven minutes is not to be found in the narrative eruption of the murder, the Kairos that bursts through the Chronos of the everyday, but in the elongated intensity produced in the burst of radical quiet as Jeanne herself ceases movement. It acts as an affirmation of duration as a form that the film is able to suspend and put under pressure, in the way it spits us away from action and narrative, back to the literal force of time and the materiality of a body present before us at once as actress, character and corporeal presence.

Having established the non-silence of the film, it is to the question of presence to which I will now turn. Though everything is made to sound, except perhaps Jeanne herself, it is through the rhythm of her actions that the sense of her presence is given to us. The film presents us with many rhythms, not just auditory, constituted through repetition and difference of darkness and light, different gestures, chores, or how a day is structured. Edmund Husserl argued that time is the structure and form of human consciousness. However, it is rhythm that allows ‘time objects’ to have a form. We can only talk about form if it has stability. It is stability that allows us to talk about Akerman’s formal minimalism, or of Jeanne’s daily existence. Though we are not presented with Jeanne’s psychological depth, or allowed any concern with her inner consciousness, she continually produces rhythm through the efficient and precise choreography of her actions, and in producing rhythm, also produces form, and arguably thus, a presence. This rhythm is most obviously manifest in the resultant noise of her actions.

However, Jeanne’s rhythm also provides her with a form of comfort. It is the disruption of her daily rhythms that produces her, and our, sense of discomfort. Akerman mirrors this disruption in her own form in, for example, breaking with her established camera positions to film spaces from new angles. What are the specific affects of rhythm? Most broadly speaking, rhythm affects our bodies. Considering the question of spectatorship, the initial rhythm of Jeanne’s daily existence lulls us into a low state of attention that for the (inevitably at times) bored spectator provokes a drift into daydream, it relaxes us and allows our bodies to fall into a state of response that is not to do with semantic content, we pay less attention to this. In ways, this might mimic the way the mind drifts independently from an action when engaged in housework. This is explored in an earlier Akerman film, Saute Ma Ville (1968), where we see Akerman herself engaged in household tasks (though going about them in a completely chaotic manner) accompanied by a voiceover of the character’s interior babbling, made up mostly of nonsensical noises and tuneless humming.  

Akerman establishes rhythms in Jeanne Dielman in order for them to be broken in the second half of the film, and in doing so, commands our attention, making us sit up and become alert to the change. We thus mimic Jeanne in the transition from comfort in form and rhythm to discomfort and alarm, as we are once more brought back to attend to the fictional or referential content of the scene. We may not have access to Jeanne’s interior subjectivity, but we nonetheless participate intersubjectively through our bodies with hers in its states of transition.

While the film is therefore concerned with an anti-psychological presentation of its subject, it nonetheless gives us presence, Jeanne’s (and simultaneously Delphine Seyrig’s) presence, through rhythm. We hear the sound of being, knocking against surfaces, and the encounter’s production of rhythm allows us an intersubjective, more corporeal engagement with Jeanne. To return to Bergstrom’s claim that the film produces a feminist statement realised in silence, might we instead seek to ask what feminist statement is realised through noise and rhythm? Akerman does not turn to words, she turns to noise. Though the film’s visual construction remains at a surface materiality, in its noise, the spaces between these surfaces are made audible. Just as Akerman states that she works “with images which are between the images” in seeking to offer up new sites of representation, noise in the film allows our ear to dwell in this space - what happens between an image, a body, a surface, and produce the sense of its living. To say that the Jeanne Dielman is realised in silence, suggests that nothing happens in the space between two surfaces, that the in-between or the ellipsis is empty - that there are no “images which are between the images”. To say it is realised through noises, acknowledges the event between these spaces, the noise of the ellipsis, that allow a feminist form micropolitics to take place.  

[i] Margulies, Ivone. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (London: Duke University Press, 1996).
[ii] Treilhou, Marie-Claude. (February 1976) Interview with Chantal Akerman Cinema 76 No.206.
[iii] Dubroux, Daniele. 'Il n'y aurait plus qu'une seule image' Cahiers du Cinéma, No.278-9, Autumn 1977.
[iv] Mulvery, Laura. 'Guest Appearances'; interview with Chantal Akerman, Time Out, No.475, 25-31 May 1979.
[v] Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. (London: Verso, 1994), p. 49.
[vi] Bergstrom, Janet. "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by Chantal Akerman," Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory 2 (Fall 1977).
[vii] 'Entretien avec Chantal Akerman’, Cahiers du Cinéma No.278 (July 1977).
[viii] Brinkema, Eugenie. “Critique of Silence,” The Sense of Sound, special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22 (2 and 3), ed. Rey Chow and James A. Steintrager (Duke UP, 2011).
[ix] Bergstrom, Janet. "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by Chantal Akerman," Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory 2 (Fall 1977).
[x] Akerman, Chantal. "Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman, " Excerpts from an interview with Camera Obscura, November 1976." Camera Obscura 2 (Fall 1977): 118-21. [Emphasis mine].

Emilija Talijan is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on auditory experience and the presence of noise in Contemporary European Cinema. ‘What Utopia Would Feel Like: Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark’ is her forthcoming article in the academic journal Screen.