by Qian Zhang
The first time I learned about Chantal Akerman was several years ago when I was living in Bloomington, Indiana. She was scheduled to visit IU Cinema (my favorite place in Bloomington) where her new film Almayer’s Folly (2011) along with her previous films, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) and News From Home (1976), were planned to be screened. Without any hesitation, I got tickets for all the films. Unfortunately, Akerman could not make the visit. To be honest, I did not feel sad for her absence until I watched Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, which is one of the most striking films that challenges the traditional representation of women.
Many films, particularly mainstream films, represent women through close-ups, tracking shots, and the like. Female characters are consistently captured by the camera, and female bodies are manipulated into a series of fragmented images. Women in those films are reduced to objects of images and even fetishized. Those films frequently adopt point-of-view shots in order to deliver the (usually) oversimplified thoughts of female characters. None of these techniques appears in Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. The film adopts a static camera and long takes toward the female protagonist Jeanne Dielman, and allows her to get in and out the screen space freely. In this way, Akerman reminds the audience of the existence of some kind of "off-screen space" that is hidden from the camera. This unusual technique creates a unique distance or gap between the audience and the main character. Besides this static camera, there are neither voice-over nor point-of-view shots. The only manner the audience can utilize to know about Jeanne Dielman is to "see" her getting on and off screen; everything else about her —what she thinks, what she loves, what she sees, what she desires, etc.—is beyond the bounds of the visual images.
The title of the film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, is also an interesting thing to think about. It provides both the protagonist’s name and her precise geographical location. By this piece of straightforward information about a person’s “location” in a society, this title ironically imposes a paradoxical geo-sociological identity for Jeanne Dielman: it locates her at a specific place but dislocates her from the dynamic society. This echoes Akerman’s main point on the representation of the female character: seen and unseen, stable and unstable, located and dislocated. In the end of the day, she is not some object over there for the audience to know about; she is a subject for the audience to know.
This is a long (201 minutes) and rich film. It deserves the attention of any serious film lover.