Mar 4, 2014

Spoiler Alert! On Reductive Thinking In Genre-Based Curating

Did that get your attention? As absurd as this may sound, this article contains some key (or as I hope to argue, minimally impactful) information about Chantal Akerman’s famed slow-burn art film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, released in 1975. It should be known that much attention will be given to the film’s ending and manners in which it might be given undue attention. Recently my curiosity was greatly whetted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s series at the Cinematheque on female-centered “revenge” films, Vengeance Is Hers, co-curated with Light Industry. First off, I definitely applaud BAM for their repertory programming and especially find some of their thematic experiments to be fairly genius (Booed at Cannes was a fantastic way of revisiting the collective malaise towards a film that, thankfully, is not always enduring throughout history). Vengeance also sounded like a bawdy and also contemplative glimpse at noteworthy films - particularly of pulp appeal - in which a scorned woman claims satisfaction for herself. However, as I scanned the upcoming schedule, my eyes screeched to a halt when I saw that Jeanne Dielman was in the line-up. 

Now, before I get going, I should mention that I love this film so perhaps I am being a little overzealous and not particularly objective in my stance on this, and having only seen it two or three times I do not claim to be an expert on its filmic devices or feminist claims. The curators do make mention of how the film’s inclusion in the lineup was congruent with its aims to offer some diversity in formal strategies, and indeed this slice-of-life film which tracks the daily rituals in practically real-time of a Brussels stay-at-home mom who also services Johns on the side is perhaps best known for its formal experimentation. And indeed, the film is a delirious, tense, and at times calm three-and-a-half hour elegy that suddenly climaxes when Jeanne stabs and kills one of her Johns with a pair of scissors. I find it fairly reductive to describe this as a “revenge” film for a number of reasons. 

First, I have to wonder how many first-timers viewed the film with the dread of in what form Jeanne Dielman’s revenge would take. Sure, “dread” is certainly a palpable feeling throughout the film as you are almost certain that something in Jeanne’s life is about to unravel. However, “revenge” seems to make it all too clear in what way this will manifest. 

Second, I find that it restricts what might be Jeanne Dielman’s motive for murdering this particular John in order to sway us in the curator’s favor. In the events leading up to the murder, we notice that the day prior, having said goodbye to her most recent John, that Jeanne’s behaviors are slightly off. First she looks particularly disheveled after this encounter and appears to be preoccupied by what just happened to her in the bedroom. Next, she forgets to cover the soup tureen which contains the cash from her recent transaction, an act that she (almost) never fails to do. Finally, she overcooks the potatoes for the dinner that she always painstakingly prepares for herself and her teenage son. Many viewers would argue that Jeanne’s decision to murder the next day’s unsuspecting John was out of scorn for men everywhere (with the exception of her doting son) or at least a means of redirecting her shame or anger from the day’s previous encounter. We know little of what Jeanne does following this act of murder, but the film ends with her placidly sitting in a semi-dark room at the dining table. It is entirely possible that Jeanne performed this act as a means of recalibrating herself, of finding a way to move on with life as she knows it, not out of passionate violence.

Third, as essential as the conclusion is to informing our perceptions of the film as a whole, I find that it overemphasizes the conclusion as what lies at the heart of the film’s - and Akerman’s - intentions. The monotony of the everyday is just as interesting as the punctuation that interrupts it, and similarly we come to understand Jeanne best in the moments in between. The fact that she murders a man comes as no surprise, but we almost don’t care to ask “why?” because in a sense we become unquestioning accomplishes in her every move.

Regardless of how you feel about my interpretations, I do find it unfair for the curators to paint this limited picture of what formalist and sociological claims are being made by the film. As superfluous as spoilers are in contemporary culture, perhaps this is an unrealistic expectation. But please, curators, give the film a little room to breathe.

-- Joey Heinen

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