Dir: Chantal Akerman
Gen: Looking at Women
n the 1970s, French theorists such as Julia Kristeva , Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous proposed a new way of thinking about gender and sexuality, expanding and building upon Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the “becoming” woman. Their writing was liberatory and promoted creativity as a form of resistance. From this theoretical context auteurs such as Chantal Akerman began to write a new form of
women’s cinema that championed the political agency of the woman’s everyday; she didn’t need to renounce her role as mother or turn her back to men to adopt an autonomous identity of her own.
Chantal Akerman “placed her[self] at the centre of debates surrounding women’s cinema and feminist film-making” in 1975 with Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles (Schmid 2010, p.1). The film was groundbreaking: it was three hours and twenty minutes long, documented a seemingly mundane day in the life of a Belgian housewife and posited the idea that the orderly, caring and methodical mother could also be a prostitute by day whilst her son was at school. The French newspaper Le Monde stated that Jeanne Dielman was “the first masterpiece in the feminine in the history of cinema” when the film was commercially released in 1976, and Akerman’s work has since come to define feminist film making (Ibid.).
Akerman found her own, feminine identity behind the camera by taking notoriously mundane and lingering shots of the events on screen, such as a housewife peeling potatoes in Jeanne Dielman. Her cinema presented a hyper-realist account of the everyday. In doing so, Akerman turned her camera to narratives that “focused on underprivileged and underrepresented groups who [were] traditionally denied the right of place in mainstream cinema”, alerting the viewer to the emotional and psychological strains that mundanity and social isolation pose(d) to the housewife (Schmid 2010, p.6).
Indeed, in the film the “disturbingly banal” turns into the disturbing full stop when Jeanne, after having presumably experienced an “unwanted orgasm” with one of her clients, proceeds to fall into chaos and eventually murder her next client (Ibid, p.44). Without unpacking the worrying relationship that this unearths between Jeanne and her own sexuality, her meticulous daily routine, both sexual and domestic, is revealed to be an oppressive and entrapping regime that alienates her from experiences that she would otherwise share with the rest of society.
Just as Charlotte Perkins-Gilman explores in her novel The Yellow Wallpaper, domestic space becomes a place of female torment in which the housewife, in Akerman’s words, “occupi[es] time to avoid anguish, to keep moving so as not to think about the fundamental thing, which is being” (Ibid, p.44).
By keeping the camera at the same distance from Jeanne as she is kept from her own thoughts, Akerman began to challenge mainstream, typically masculine cinematic techniques. Instead, she proposed a feminine language of cinema; by denying the viewer the scopophilic pleasures outlined in Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, such as the close-up or the POV shot, Akerman’s films induced a sense of estrangement that, for the auteur, was an integral part of the female condition.
However, Akerman has frequently asserted that “when people say there is a feminist film language, it is like saying there is only one way for women to express themselves… there should be as many different ways as there are women making films” (Schmid 2010, p.49). Rather than proposing a cinematic language of the other, Akerman proposed a cinematic language of another.
Featuring series curator, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt and Caitlin Deery.
Where to watch
The full version of Jeanne Dielman is available using the following link:
Schmid, Marion (2010) Chantal Akerman. Manchester University Press.
Du Graf, Lauren. “Cinema in the eyes of Simone de Beauvoir.” Screen 59 (2018): 381–390.
Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman, 1974
Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren, 1943
Last Year In Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.