Chantal Akerman Looks Back

One of the mixed blessings of being a working journalist is that you almost never can use all the good stuff you get in an interview. Unless you have unlimited space, something interesting is always going to end up on the cutting room floor. One of the joys of blogging is that you, heh, heh, have unlimited space.

When I interviewed Chantal Akerman a few weeks ago for Jewish Week, we spoke at length about Jeanne Dielman but, given my mandate from the newspaper, some of the best stuff about the film itself couldn't be squeezed into the article. Happily, Cine-Journal provides me with another place to offer readers this material. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I blog at all. (That, and the huge amounts of glory, money, adulation, sexual favors and, oh yeah, more unpaid work.)

As she was quick to point out to me, when Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, she was only 25 and had no idea of the impact the film would have beyond her own circle of friends and colleagues.

“I wrote another script with a friend of mine. And I didn’t like it and tried to change it and change it, but something was not right. One night I had Jeanne Dielman in my mind totally. I took a pad, put three words, what she put on the bed to leave the bed clean after the customer and the next day I started write this -- very fast but very detailed. All the details were there. The details that you have seen as a child, what you see when you don’t go to school. It just came out like that. After that I realized that there were many ways of thinking of it. When I wrote it, it was like my unconscious coming on the page.”

As befits a film that is minimal in its means, Akerman didn’t storyboard. (I suspect it would have been something of a waste of time.)

“I had a shot list and that was it. It’s a very simple way, I knew exactly how to do it. Everybody [who wrote about the film] was thinking about real time. But it’s not real time, it’s recomposed to make it feel like real time. It’s really choreographed.

One aspect of the film that reflects the focus on a detailed depiction of the ordinary is its title, with that full address in Brussels. I asked Akerman for the reasoning behind the lengthy title.

“I don’t know. It’s the address of one of my grand-aunts. In fact, We shot the elevator and street in her place. My aunts recognized themselves, it was their world that I was picturing, a world that so many women went through.”

Picture this situation: Delphine Seyrig, who is never off-screen in the film, is one of the great icons of post-war French cinema. Her director is a 25-year-old with only a handful of credits to her name. The film is a radical departure from anything Seyrig has done before (or since, for that matter). How does a relatively green kid direct this presence?

“She wanted to make the film. What was difficult, although I wasn’t totally aware of it at the time is that everything is written. When she puts the two sugars together everything is written out, like in nouveau roman. She said to me, ‘I should bring [these things] as an actress and now I don’t know what to bring.’ ‘You bring your presence. That’s exactly it.’

Talk about casting someone for their iconic significance! So Akerman’s directions to Seyrig were detailed but strictly functional.

“’Take one second here, one second less here.’ We were videotaping the scene and I would show it to her. ‘Here you missed a second or ten seconds.’ So she would feel like she was participating.

“It was difficult for her, coming from the [Lee] Strasberg school. She was asking me, ‘Wwhen I do the veal, what should I think?’ ‘Nothing, just do the veal.’ For her it was surprising, but I didn’t know that. I learned about it after, she explained to me that it was not enough because everything was written and I didn’t want her to add anything.”

Akerman professes herself surprised – and a little baffled – by the film’s ostensible influence.

“I don’t know. A lot of people have told me that – well, some -- and I don’t get it. When I see their films I don’t understand it. [Jeanne Dielman] was the opposite of the films you could see in a ‘normal’ cinema.”

And thank God for that.