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Regarding the Pain of Mothers: On the Silence in Jeanne Dielman

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


for my mother, of course

While you must die every day, not together
With me, I am not, I am not except in your earth.
In me your life perishes in rotation, you do not
Return to me, from you I do not recover.

‘The Mother’ (Hugo Claus, 1955 / Translation by John Irons, 2005)

I. The Ritual

Chantal Akerman once described her work as “noise on the silence”. The noise were her movies and the silence was that of her mother. Since there is no such thing as an absolute silence, all silence is relative and becomes only tangible in its relation to its opposite; noise. What Akerman has done her whole career is making noise in order to make her mother’s silence louder, more present. If movies have a way of talking, hers are constantly talking around the unspeakable. The absence of graven images­— in the Biblical sense­—in her documentaries that as such make up the centering non-image of those films, has its narrative equivalent in this silence, a rupture that doesn’t let itself be narrated, the trauma. With the words of Wittgenstein we know that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” but the silence shows what we cannot speak of, it transforms every word into a word that speaks not of whereof one cannot speak. The silence becomes the sole meaningful marker rendering all spoken words meaningless. They have lost their meaning because they could only mean what they cannot speak of. They have become ritualistic.

In terms of things that are not spoken about, let us start with a remarkable example from Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), from here on referred to as Jeanne Dielman. When her son Sylvain (played by soon-to-be grand homme of the Belgian theatre Jan Decorte) comes home from school, his homework consists of reading aloud some verses of Baudelaire in order to practice his French. He does so with an extremely Flemish accent and his exercises are intended to lose this accent in order to better integrate, which in the context of Jewish identity (something a lot of Akerman’s work deals with) is no small detail. But the pronunciation exercise only encompasses the first two stanzas of the poem, the last ones go as follows:

Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je rêve
Trouveront dans ce sol lavé comme une grève
Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur ?

– Ô douleur ! ô douleur ! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l’obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le cœur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie!

Time consumes life and although it is not really clear who’s the obscure enemy that follows in the next line, in the context of Jeanne Dielman it is clear that the enemy is Time itself. A lot has been said about the so-called temps mort that seems to make up most of the running time of Jeanne Dielman but actually there is very little dead time. Jeanne is constantly occupied doing the household work and she does this very, very attentively. When we have gotten to know her routine in the first hour of the film and we think we will see the same daily actions performed all over again in the second hour, marked by an intertitle as the second day, our attention is grasped by the mistakes she makes and the intensity that is interrupted when something for example slips through her fingers. This is most clear when Jeanne overcooks her potatoes on the second day. She has to start all over again but first she has to go to the shop to buy new ones. Because of this, dinner is not ready to be served when her son comes home and they have to wait a couple of minutes between the finishing of their soups and the main course. I have never seen anyone wait so uneasily for their potatoes to be done.

In my reading of the film, the rigor and determination that go into Jeanne’s housekeeping activities have less to do with the prevailing reading of the woman whose only identity is that of housewife and mother. The strictness of her routine seems to be completely self-imposed and, even more, a way of defending herself against the great enemy that is Time and in particular the changes that can come when Time is not tamed by the consolatory repetitiveness of a routine that borders on the ritualistic.

In Entretien avec ma mère, Natalia Akerman (2007), Chantal tells her mother that the order of Jeanne Dielman and her philosophy of “une place pour chaque chose et chaque chose à sa place” has to do with the mother’s past of being an Auschwitz survivor. Not only was there extreme order in the camps, both in terms of geography as in the meticulous bureaucratic system that made them possible, conforming with that order seemed to be the only way to stay alive. Every change was one for the worse. Every repetition of the camp’s daily routine meant that you were alive for another day. In his essays, Nobel Prize for Literature laureate and camp survivor Imre Kertész has written many times that the reason he didn’t commit suicide, as a lot of other camp survivors in Western Europe did, was because he was almost immediately imprisoned in a new totalitarian system; that of dictatorial communism. The system Jeanne Dielman creates for herself must be understood as a same sort of prison that needs to protect her from both chaos and the disillusions that might come with freedom. To rephrase it in the existentialist words of Jean-Paul Sartre (with whose work Akerman should have been acquainted, be it at least through the works of Simone de Beauvoir), Jeanne Dielman is not able of dealing authentically with the existential freedom to which we, humans, are condemned. Sartre showed us, with the title of his first novel, that the only way in which we can respond to these moments wherein we grasp our complete freedom, is with nausea. The exact feeling Jeanne Dielman has to conquer when her routine fails her.

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

II. The Contract

Another interpretation forces itself to the surface. It is no coincidence that the philosophical post-war fashion of the European continent was existentialism. When the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, they were immediately seen as the end of the great metaphysical project. Two thousand years of Christianity and at least a thousand more of philosophy did not prevent the greatest genocide that happened on the continent where these traditions were practiced. Nietzsche had already declared God dead, but He still needed to be killed and this happened in the concentration camps. In her text La Douleur (1985), which she presents to the reader as the authentic diary wherein she recorded her pain and fears while waiting for the return of her husband from Dachau, Marguerite Duras writes about “the great European mass grave, with millions of Jews and the idea of God, with every Jew the idea of God, with every Jew” and that “when they will talk to me about Christian charity, I will say Dachau”. If these texts were really written in 1944, as we are presumed to believe, it seems that it was clear from the beginning that a major change had occurred. After millions of deaths the idea of God could no longer be the unproblematic center of a worldview. Martin Heidegger, of all people, would famously state in his last interview that “only a god can save us”, implying that the era of God had ended.

(The same goes for art. When Adorno said there can be no more poetry after Auschwitz what he meant was that the language of humanism, which had been the major language of literature for centuries, could not make sense of the death of metaphysics. A new language had to be invented; that of Paul Celan and Samuel Beckett. The theatre needed to be liberated from cheap psychology by performance art. Cinema needed a neo-realism, which Akerman would take to its extremes.)

And what about the Jews? The Jews had to pick up life again after escaping the first crime against humanity, which was disproportionally aimed at them. Marc De Kesel wrote in his book Auschwitz, Mon Amour (2012) about how the character of Job had always been at the center of the Jewish tradition. The man who lost everything but kept faith and was therefore rewarded with a doubling of his riches. But how could the Jews have kept their faith in their God who did nothing to prevent the genocide of his chosen people? It seems that not only the Christian God had died. Emmanuel Levinas, whose lectures in Paris Akerman attended for two years, makes a different analysis. In one of the texts collected in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, titled ‘To Love the Torah More Than God’, he argues, by way of reviewing a story about the last days of the Warsaw ghetto he once read in a newspaper, for Judaism not as a personal relation to God but as a historical tradition based on the contract the Jewish people made with God. The Jewish God has not died because of the Holocaust because he didn’t die for them on the cross first. The relationship between the Jews and their God is not an emotional relation like that of Christians to whom God is love, but a relationship based on a strict moral code exemplified by the Ten Commandments and the tradition of commentary that was bestowed upon them for centuries. The Holocaust is not a failure of God but a failure of man. One way of reacting to this failure could be a reevaluation of the contract, a reconsidering of the tradition with renewed scrutiny. For the Jew the existence of God is of little importance, as long as he has His laws. And yet theory and practice are not so easily aligned, because the idea that something was lost is not so easily shaken off. A certain innocence, a belief has been lost. How can you still keep up the burden of a weighty moral contract, when you are starting to doubt if the One you closed the contract with is still there.

In an interview published on the occasion of the release of her documentary Là-bas (2006), on the subject of Israel, Akerman mentions her cousin pointing out that Jeanne Dielman is a film about the loss of Jewish ritual and she tends to agree with the fact that she misses these rituals: “Ça donne des bornes.” Yet no explicit Jewish rituals are presented throughout the film. Rather, they are translated into the rituals of a bourgeois housewife.

In his essay collection The Invisible Voice: Meditations on Jewish Themes, Hungarian writer György Konrád links the Jewish identity with that of the ‘bourgeois’ in its strict meaning of citizenship. Only when there is a democracy where every person is a citizen protected by the rights based on personal freedom (and obligation) can Jews live safely in a country. This in contrast to a citizenship based on nationalist ideas that will seemingly always put Jews in a position where they are just that; Jews. So the rituals of bourgeois housekeeping are (apart from the evident feminist reading) also the rituals of conformity, of integration. A contract you make with society. Before the rise of Nazi-Germany, Jews were integrated in their respective European home countries through a falling back on the private rituals of the bourgeois way of life in a matter of keeping up of appearances in the hopes no one will notice that you are in fact the Other. After the Holocaust, however, this keeping up is no longer possible without knowing that at any time the policemen of Kafka’s The Trial might show up at your door in order to arrest you solely on the fact that someone has been telling lies about you. Lies of a pseudo-biological nature, perhaps, as the Nuremberg Laws were.

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

III. The Transgression

Now that we have come to understand the ritualistic nature of Jeanne Dielman’s daily routine, we can take a closer look at its unraveling. The ritual is an action whereby one hopes to avert a certain or uncertain danger and when performed devoutly it might give its participants a feeling of safety. But the threats to this safety are everywhere and Jeanne Dielman invites them in herself.

As with everything else, not a large number of words is devoted to the fact that Jeanne Dielman prostitutes herself (presumably almost daily) in her own apartment. Since her husband has died, the reason for her taking up this so-called ‘oldest profession in the world’ is easily identified as the pure economical necessity of a widow trying to make ends meet and provide for her son. In order to do so, she has to invite strangers into her apartment, into the environment she has so meticulously crafted as a safe-space. In fact, her source of livelihood is yet another reason to perform her rituals as scrupulously as possible, so she can hide this transgression of family life from her son.

The prostitution takes place in the master bedroom. But for the first two days we do not get to see what happens there, as such making the actions obscene, through the engagement of a section of the house that constitutes, in the etymological sense of the word, the ‘offstage’. In the history of theatre the obscene actions that were part of the Attic tragedies consisted mostly of the sorts of violence that were not possible to display on the scene. Rather they were talked about in monologues by messengers in order to force the audience to imagine the horrors that had happened outside of the theatrical space, making them in a way complicit of or, perhaps, even part of the violence. This could lead to the catharsis Aristotle saw as the purpose of art. This complicity engages the viewer, but, in the context of Jeanne Dielman, not showing the acts of prostitution may also be a way of protecting her. It protects her from the voyeurism of the audience but it also protects her from having to deal with this transgressive existence she has carved out for herself. Akerman said about this that “not having pleasure was her last freedom. If Jeanne had found pleasure in having sex with her client she would have been surrendering to the men with whom she was working”.

She needs to keep things professional in order to preserve her sense of self. She doesn’t come across as someone who knows what to do with pleasure; in fact, Jeanne Dielman is the kind of person who is not good at feeling any emotion.

The idea of a relationship in the form of a contract comes up again. Just as with God, the chaos of the strangers that enter into Jeanne’s life is mediated through an (unspoken) contract. The greetings they exchange when the clients leave, seem to suggest that this too is part of a weekly routine, where the same guy shows up on his day of the week at the same hour. (The time when Jeanne puts her potatoes on the stove.) If we extend this theory of the contract, we might understand the master bedroom as what is known in Jewish liturgy as the Holy of Holies, the place in the temple were only the High Priest was allowed on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for all the obligations the Jewish people were not able to hold up in the past year. This was the venue where the Ten Commandments, the original copy of the contract, was preserved and the same place where God was believed to dwell. In classical Freudian style, therefore, religion and sex meet each other in the taboo. A taboo always brings together the greatest moral prohibition and the most sacred. If that is not Freudian enough for you, Akerman lets Jeanne’s son Sylvain make the link in Oedipal fashion when talking about sex:

I said, “What? Dad does that to Mom?” I hated Dad for months after that, and I wanted to die. When he died, I thought it was a punishment from God. Now I don’t even believe in God anymore. Yan also said it wasn’t just to make babies. So I started having nightmares so you’d stay with me at night and Dad wouldn’t have a chance to thrust inside you.

Just like God, the father is absent and the rituals Jeanne submits herself to are born out of an economical necessity that came with the death of the patriarch. Her clients function as ersatz-fathers that provide the money Jeanne needs to live her life, and threaten that same life because of their unpredictability. She takes them into the most Holy of Holies and performs an obscene act, as such bringing together the two archetypes of mother and whore, ultimately culminating in the supreme transgression of murder.

It is a testament to how well-written Jeanne Dielman is, that, in true Chekhovian fashion, the weapon employed during the murder is introduced to us before the crime takes place. In a letter Jeanne gets on the first day, her sister-in-law announces a present will arrive. The scissors she uses to open its wrapping and to stab her client, were at the scene of the crime seemingly coincidentally but nevertheless, also, inevitably. The murder of her client has been interpreted as a feminist comeuppance in true second-wave fashion, but this would suggest a premeditation that I find lacking in Jeanne’s life. The real reason the murder happens seems to lie in the fact that her client is late, thus throwing off her routine and making Jeanne wait which opens her up to the nausea resulting from her existential dread. In accordance with the understated nature of the rest of Jeanne’s life, the murder seems to be nothing more than a way of solving a breach of contract. The client was late so he needs to be punished for the dread he caused.

It is a cliché of screenwriting to reveal character through actions, but for the whole film Jeanne’s actions have revealed nothing but a desperate attempt at renouncing character. She didn’t want to be a person. This refusal to be a person is also translated in the way Akerman allows the viewer to perceive Jeanne. The long static shots that are the building blocks of this film, slowly build up a tension that ultimately ends in the anticlimactic reveal that the essence of all mystery is the absence of a mystery.

The viewer is forced—albeit almost lovingly in a way—to project himself unto Jeanne because so little is said of her by way of mise-en-scène. The distance that is kept through the shots seems emotionally cold at first, seems to push us in a rather contemplative disposition, to try and understand this woman solely by her empty actions, and then goes even further by stretching the shot even longer so our projections slide of her shoulders again. The choice to never take anything into close-up is another way of undermining these attempts in understanding her because this suggests every single detail is equally important, which ultimately makes every one of them indistinctive, opaque and ephemeral. The subversive revolutionary quality of Jeanne Dielman lies in the statement that not only is this ostensibly little life interesting enough to be explored for more than three hours, but at the same time precious and ambiguous enough to be protected from easy categorization. When I say that the essence of all mystery is the absence of mystery, what I mean is the absence of something as easily understandable as a psychological deus-ex-machina that rewards our efforts at pinning Jeanne down. We never come close, figuratively and cinematographically. Jeanne is as elusive as Time, the longer we regard her pain, the more she distances herself from us and stays off-stage. We can only try to imagine her as someone beyond the ritualistic nature of the images projected here. The only opening might be the murder of the client, foreshadowed by the other glitches in her rituals, as the only action that meaningfully reveals the despair that is at the heart of Jeanne Dielman, rendering all other deeds as mere blabbering around the trauma whereof she cannot, will not speak. They speak impotently of the silence of God.

Written during the dog days of the summer of 2018
and first published in the Madness issue of Umbra, March 2020.