Tender Potatoes

Chantal Akerman’s films show how murderous violence always lurks in the mundanity of the domestic

WHEN Chantal Akerman’s hyperrealist homage to ritualistic domesticity, Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, Akerman settled down in the back of the room and observed the crowd. As the film progressed, a stream of audience members left, their chairs echoing their dismissals with loud smacks. Marguerite Duras, whose film India Song also screened at the festival, stood up at the end of the film and yelled, “This woman’s crazy!” Akerman, explosive at times, began to throw back defenses, but Delphine Seyrig, the star of both films, silenced her. The next day, after 50 people requested the film for festivals, it was clear. Cinema was hungry for ­Akerman.

Young but hardly a novice when Jeanne Dielman screened, Akerman had already established herself as a serious filmmaker. In her earliest film, Saute ma ville, a simultaneously joyous and suicidal short, Akerman shows a nuanced understanding of the precarious relationship between order and disorder, as well as a penchant for using food as a narrative device. Before blowing herself up, Akerman devours a plate of spaghetti with manic ferocity. She also eats an apple and sets the kettle to boil, though she never makes tea.

These commonplace actions, trivial as they may seem, establish the leitmotifs that appear in the rest of Akerman’s ­oeuvre—eating, not eating, preparing food, and refusing it all come to signal displaced sexual desires and internal disturbances within her characters. Whether depicting an anemic sexual appetite with a single pea, as in Les rendez-vous d’Anna, or a psychic break with burnt potatoes, as in Jeanne Dielman, by fixing the camera’s gaze on the mundane, often discarded tasks of food preparation and consumption, Akerman infuses ordinary gastronomical images with social and emotional significance. Here, food is not only a source of nourishment and preservation, but also an embodiment of desire, control, and their lack.

After Akerman’s death on October 5, 2015, her longtime cinematographer Babette Mangolte introduced the newly restored Jeanne Dielman at the Museum of Modern Art by noting that, more than ever, Akerman’s early films are reaching new audiences. In part this is because of the films’ relatively recent availability through the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series and Hulu. But it is also because Akerman’s films offer an insight into the loneliness and quiet beauty that comes from physical isolation in a time when society increasingly tends to replace the fleshy body with the social avatar and actual, physical community with an image of it. Akerman’s films are deeply corporeal, and in that, they belong to a cinema that seems to be slipping further and further away.

 

JEANNE Dielman tells the story of a highly disciplined widow, who we watch, over the course of three days, cook, turn tricks, and take care of her son. Eventually Jeanne’s regimented routine is disrupted, and to restore it, she murders a client. Much of the 201-minute  film was shot in real-time; its detailed establishment and slow unraveling of Jeanne’s routine builds a desire for denouement. Mirroring Jeanne’s restraint, Akerman and Mangolte fixed the camera’s gaze in each shot. No close-ups, no reverse shots (simply because, as Mangolte argued, they aren’t needed), no pans, no zooms. Aside from two in-place jump cuts to indicate the transition from day into night during Jeanne’s sex work, there are no trick edits. Akerman said of the decision to allow for Jeanne to complete her actions within the frame before cutting: “It was the only way to shoot that film—to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The framing was meant to respect her, and her gestures within it.”

Unflinching and uncanny, Akerman’s stationary camera sets the viewer at unease. Akerman and Mangolte initially used variations of this technique in Hotel Monterey, the first film that they shot together, and then in La chambre, filmed the day after completing Monterey. After moving to New York in 1971, at the age of 20, Akerman became friends with Mangolte, who introduced her to the work of avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow. Akerman was deeply taken by the way Snow, rather than relying on narrative and linear plot, used space and oscillating tracking shots to create suspense and emotion, particularly in his film Back and Forth. After Hotel Monterey, a wordless film that speaks to the beauty of stillness inside a desolate hotel, Akerman and Mangolte replicated Snow’s back and forth tracking shots for La chambre, completing a 360-degree pan around Akerman’s New York apartment, revealing dishes and chairs and Akerman on her bed, staring into the camera, defiant. Eventually, the camera reverses its motion to and away from Akerman in her sea of blankets, now seen chomping on an apple.

While the constantly panning camera of La chambre builds suspense, the stationary camera and frame of Jeanne Dielman creates a world of utter consistency. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, we see Jeanne has dialed and locked her routine to the second. The film opens on Jeanne setting a pot to boil on the stove. The bell rings, but she doesn’t startle. Cut to the entryway. Jeanne stands, decapitated by the frame, arms extended to take her guest’s outerwear. They walk down the hallway to the bedroom and shut the door behind them.

Jump cut. It’s dark. Jeanne and the guest emerge and, after a slightly awkward moment, her “guest,” a client, hands her money and says that he will see her next week. Fastidiously turning lights on and off as she goes, Jeanne moves to the dining room, deposits the money into a soup tureen, then goes into the kitchen, switches off the stove, and drains her perfectly cooked potatoes. Without pause, she continues her routine until her son arrives, right on schedule, just after she has set the table.

Jeanne’s steady progression through the rest of day one and the morning of day two reveals the rigidity of her routine. By planning every single gesture, she protects herself against any unwanted anxiety that could seep in and erase the carefully constructed divisions in her life. Her rituals keep her life together by breaking it into cordoned fragments: motherhood, cooking, and sex work. Before meeting her clients, Jeanne washes and dries her hands completely, which cleanses her of cooking residue and, symbolically, her duty as caretaker. After she is done with a client, she deposits the money in the soup tureen before taking a bath, a sort of baptism, ridding the money of impurities. Jeanne gives money to her son directly from the soup tureen, never from her purse. By keeping these distinctions tidy, Jeanne maintains a sense of clean, guiltless power.

This changes when Jeanne emerges from her room with her client on day two. From the moment she walks out, she breaks her routine: she forgets to turn on the light in the entryway before handing her client his coat. She places her money in the soup tureen and forgets to replace the lid. By the time she reaches the kitchen, the potatoes have burned.

While peeling the new potatoes, her eyes drift closed and her hands slow to a drag, but she never stops. Despite significant delays to the evening’s ceremonial routine, she refuses to discard any ritual, displacing power onto the objects of her obsession rather than onto herself.

The next morning, Jeanne’s anxiety proves to be too much. Ahead of herself, Jeanne manages to skip a button on her nightgown, drop the shoe polish brush, arrive early to the post office and the grocery store, and ends up with an extra hour to kill—a first. Perhaps in the most telling scene, Jeanne tries to hurry the water through the hourglass neck of her pour-over coffee filter in an attempt, as Ivone Margulies points out in Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, to push time along. Later, in a testament to her diminishing control, she prepares meatloaf, passing it through her hands for a full three and a half minutes—an eternity on film.

In the film’s penultimate scene, the viewer realizes what happened to disrupt Jeanne’s routine the night before, as it happens again for the camera. Jeanne has an orgasm and succumbs to pleasure—notably, though, for less time than it takes to make coffee. Positioned in front of the mirror so that both Jeanne’s reflection and her client are within frame, the camera watches the aftermath. Jeanne dresses, spots her scissors out of the corner of her eye, leaves the frame, re-enters, and plunges the scissors into the neck of her client.

 

ON the surface, scripting a film, like putting a recipe to paper or choreographing an airtight routine, writes out anxiety. However, lingering at the edge of Akerman’s meticulous script and Jeanne’s daily menus is a sense of dread that something can nevertheless seep in to raze the façade of impenetrability.

Akerman’s emotional relationship to food began early. As a child, her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, scolded her for not eating. Born into a poor family in postwar Brussels in 1950, Akerman recalls not wanting to eat because she did not want to be a burden. Instead, she ate her hunger, refusing to “reveal anything on the surface.” In an interview with Lola Journal, Akerman recounts, “As a teenager, I ate voraciously—which bothered my father, since you had to keep skinny to get married.” This tying of food to duty and societal expectations echoes throughout Jeanne Dielman.

Despite Jeanne’s best efforts to maintain a routine, appetite and hunger control the plot. Appetite, unlike hunger, is never fully resolved but sustained in harmonic suspension from the end of one meal into the anticipation of the next, unless either rejected or displaced. Like a conductor of a great Wagnerian epic, Jeanne paces her meals to bring hunger in right on cue the same time each day, with no room for improvisation, snacks, or any other sort of indulgence.

Indeed, there are no brightly colored treats or deliciously ornate costumes in the film to whet the eye, only meals that are exactly enough and real-time fragments of gastronomical events that, like watching a friend eat when you don’t have a plate, slowly build the viewer’s hunger. Jeanne’s sexual appetite, too, as mirrored in her abstemious food rituals, is purely economical, “merely a detail,” as she calls it. When the orgasm occurs despite Jeanne’s precautions, her orchestration slips.

To purge herself of her overabundance, Jeanne hurls her desire. Nausea, the violent undoing of appetite, manifests itself in Jeanne’s overcooked potatoes. Her absurd shuffling from kitchen to bathroom with the potatoes invokes Bakhtin’s grotesque body, overflowing and transcending its own limits, until she has eliminated them. Here, in retching, the metaphorical connection between Jeanne’s internal and external worlds becomes tactile.

A new Eve, fallen into what she herself has defined as forbidden territory, she takes her innately soiled apple, the burned pomme de terre, and peels away the skin, ridding it of its dirt and, symbolically, of her trespass against her rigid set of commandments. Of harder flesh than the red apple that tempts Eve but with the same sinister undertones as the apple in Snow White, the raw potato contains solanine, a poisonous glycoalkaloid, which when ingested can be toxic.

Always present inside the seemingly inane imagery of the domestic is a murderous violence: The cook’s ability to create comes directly from an ability to destroy. Though we witness no blood, we see Jeanne prepare butchered meat twice.

When Jeanne stabs her client, she completes the hunger cadence series that she controls throughout the film and brings her appetite to a resolution, indicating both a release for Jeanne—from her routine, her asceticism, her appetites—and for the viewer. As Jeanne sits at the dining room table with blood on her shirt, we see for the first time the violence of the everyday externalized.

It’s important to note that Jeanne Dielman is not a condemnation of Jeanne or her prostitution but rather a staging of the brutality present in everyday ­banality. Jeanne Dielman is indeed violent but not because it shows murder or madness. Rather, it is violent because it fills the screen with the coded mundane, forcing the viewer to consider what may go unsaid, hidden in the most organic components of the quotidian routine. 

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