Engaged in Guessing: The Sounds of Jeanne Dielman

Criterion’s cover

The news of Chantal Ackerman’s Death left me feeling sad at the loss of a great filmmaker. At the same time I felt strangely guilty when I realised that I’ve only actually seen one of her films. But it’s one that left a big impression. Jeanne Dielman is the only film I need to see to know that she was one of the greats. That she made such a film when she was younger than I am now makes it all the more impressive (but I don’t feel too bad, it’s a pretty exclusive club).
I starting thinking about that film again (I do think about it, from time to time), and remembered writing a short piece about it for my MA when I first watched it two years ago. I was looking into the use of diegetic sound at the time, and Jeanne Dielman had some of the most pure and most striking examples that I’d ever seen. In case you were wondering, if something is diegetic it means that it’s part of the character’s world, rather than something like a musical score that only the audience can perceive, though if you were never a film studies student you’d probably have no way of knowing this. Anyway, I remembered being quite pleased with the short piece, probably as I was still under the intoxicating influence of the film, so I thought this might be a good bit of writing to resurrect this blog with. Saves me thinking of something from scratch.

The main reason why I haven’t seen many of her films is that their availability in the UK is pretty appalling. The only reason I have seen Jeanne Dielman is because I made an extra special effort to hunt it down, finding a temporarily free stream on Hulu. But even then I had to trick the site into thinking I was in the U.S. Someone doesn’t want us Brits to see them, clearly.

The good news is that, in memory of Chantal Ackerman, Hulu have made it free to view again along with all of her films from the Criterion Collection – until the 21st October. They’re only officially available in the U.S, so you’ll have to put on your best American accent. If you do plan on seeing Jeanne Dielman (which you should, obviously), go and watch that now before I spoil it all for you. Consider this your official SPOILER WARNING. I know it’s not a short film, but seriously, go and watch it. You will need to bring your attention span with you but it will be worth it.

  Engaged in Guessing: The Sounds of Jeanne Dielman

Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles stands out in its disciplined use of diegetic sound during a studious 200 minutes following widow Jeanne’s daily routine over three days. We gather that, as well as looking after her teenage son, Jeanne has taken to afternoon prostitution to earn money. Her routine gradually falls apart, until she murders a ‘client’ in bed.

But it is the way in which the film leads us to these conclusions that interests me. The mundane housework is what lingers most in the memory, the wide and static camera angles restricting the frame so that the sound constitutes the only ‘close up’ detail. As she prepares dinner, the soundtrack is dominated by tiny diegetic sounds, so rich in detail that we can almost feel the texture of the potato as it clicks against the knife, the delicate rippling of water as she places it into the bowl. We become transfixed in its rhythm. In the absence of any other non-diegetic sound, even the crackle of the optical soundtrack gains significance, filling the air with an electric tension.

These rituals, depicted in real time, are repeated, subtly changing until the third day. This time, the knife almost slips. The duration and repetition encourages a cognitive reaction from the viewers, who become detectives scouring the frame for visual or audio clues: What has happened? What is happening? What will happen? It is when faced with such sparsity that we search deep into the character, looking for the slightest pattern or expression that will help us form the narrative in our minds. When we see (and hear) Jeanne washing herself in great detail after showing a male visitor to the door, then cleaning the bath just as rigorously, it all acquires great significance because nothing is certain. We are engaged in guessing. Each day she puts the money given to her by her male visitors into a china pot, which resonates with a distinctive ring when the lid is removed. The unmistakable sound repeats when she opens the pot to give her son money to take to school in the mornings. In these wholesome family moments, the lewd link that forms in our minds is inevitable, and it’s all the more resonant that we made it ourselves. The violent conclusion is almost unnecessary. We have already been engaged by the drama created in our own heads. As Akerman put it herself: “When she bangs the glass on the table and you think the milk might spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder”.

After I’ve caught up with her films on Hulu I may well be lured to London by this exhibition at Ambika P3, and the release of her last film No Home Movie.

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