Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman (1975)

On. Off. On. Off. On. Off.

A really fascinating, almost hypnotising focus of Jeanne turning on the light whenever she enters a room and turning off the light whenever she leaves a room stays with me after those almost four hours I spent with Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece yesterday. Of course, Akerman says a lot more in this film. Yet I felt absolutely drawn to this small, ordinary action we all do every day, which the director, in her exploration and recording of a housewife’s routine and daily chores, highlights almost to the extreme. I cannot recall a single film that renders this ordinary gesture extraordinary to such an extent. I’m aware that Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) has been talked and written about from various angles, but there is something in this persistent turning on and off of the light that really struck me as marvellous, as simple as the action may seem or actually is. Perhaps one can call it a visual meditation, a meditation on screen, calling on you to be present, to be in the moment and notice your surrounding and be present with everything you do. Don’t get caught up in thinking. Just be…with the light switches, in that case, something in your house that I’m sure you never even think about until it stops working.

Jeanne Dielman is a magnificent piece that really is as brilliant as it is simple. Akerman’s long takes of repetitive actions cause the images to dive very slowly into your brain. They dig into it and take roots there. At the very beginning of my exploration of Lav Diaz’s films, I had the feeling that I could remember an entire film, scene by scene, because Diaz places emphasis on time, on duration. Unless we’re speaking of traumatic memories, which are often distorted and incomplete, creating memories of something takes time. On a basic level, we can think of learning a foreign language; learning vocabulary, learning grammatical structures. Over and over again. Until one day, we become fluent and no longer need to actively think about the right word to use in a sentence. It becomes natural. One begins to live a language. While watching Jeanne, I felt as if I learned something, as if I learned each scene as a form of language which Akerman tries to teach me, a language that I would become fluent in at some point.

I couldn’t help but think about all the other slow films I have seen since late 2009. It’s been almost ten years that I have been following this, and yes, of course, even though Jeanne has always been one of the icons of Slow Cinema, I have admittedly watched it late in my personal and professional exploration of the film movement. At the same time, I believe that it came at the perfect time. It was with my discovery of Lav Diaz that I began to see the real value of slow films. Contrary to the argument that nothing ever happened in those films, I realised that there is a lot going on, but it’s rather small, almost unimportant things that we tend to overlook, just like the repeated action of turning on and off the light. Jeanne is a hyperreal film, in which a lot happens. Not much is said. Dialogues are rare, and emphasis is placed on Jeanne’s daily chores. She follows her daily routine. Always the same thing, for the same amount of time. Until something upsets the routine.

It’s the little changes that are fascinating in Jeanne and that really drive the film. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn off the light in the bedroom. All of a sudden, she leaves the door to the bathroom open. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn on the light in the hallway. All of a sudden, she takes her coffee at a local bar later than usual. All of a sudden, dinner isn’t ready when her son comes home. All of a sudden…

Those small things we wouldn’t worry about become a real source of tension on the one hand, and exhaustion on the other throughout the second half of the film. The film, or rather Jeanne, becomes a collapsing house of cards. Her routine unravels. Given her absolute insistence on it, it is spiralling out of control. To add to this, Akerman creates a tension here between narrative and mise-en-scène. The director maintains her well-organised, rigorous, static framing and opposes it to the collapse of Jeanne’s routine, to the collapse of her protagonist’s state of mind, to her exhaustion. Stasis versus movement, rigorousness versus upheaval, stability versus collapse – these are the underlying themes that collude over and over again.

Perhaps an example is an order. Not long after the start of Jeanne Dielman, I began to think about Liu Jiayin’s 2005 Oxhide I. The experience of the film, of the actions that take place in Jeanne’s appartement, had a degree of claustrophobia to it. I remember Liu’s film creating this tense atmosphere that was impossible to escape. Akerman doesn’t always use the same tight framing, but her mise-en-scène feels tense. There is a pretty strong discrepancy between the (medium) long shots and the obsessive-compulsive action that takes place in front of the camera. The former allows for freedom, the second imprisons you. It’s not easy to create a clearly-defined feeling about this film, because there is a constant shift between those two extremes.

Just as Jeanne shifts between those extremes in the second half of the film – she upsets her routine while trying to pursue it – so does the viewer. This is what makes the film, despite all its routine, its repetition, its ordinariness, its simplicity, so exciting. It reminded me of a peaceful river that, here and there along the way, shows little swirls. And it’s perhaps the perfect illustration of slow film and my own personal belief that it’s best represented by the Chinese concept of time; time as a river that carries its water at different speeds, with swirls at some points but not at others, swirls that introduce speed to the water flow, but also circularity. I cannot think of a clearer example of this than Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It is a shame that writing on the film focuses primarily on Jeanne, on the chores of a housewife and on feminism. Akerman always said she wasn’t a feminist filmmaker, and I think that by focusing on aspects of feminism exclusively, you actually miss the complexity in simplicity and the shifts, twists, swirls and constant changes that makes this a great film rather than “only” a representation of the hard life of a housewife in Brussels in the 1970s.

Oxhide II – Liu Jiayin (2009)

Hooray! It took me almost to the day four years before I watched the sequel of Liu Jiayin’s fascinating Oxhide (2005), which struck me primarily because of its use of a tight framing and the director’s success at making us feel the lack of space in the family flat. This was not only a literal thing, however. Her parents, who had run a shop that sold Oxhide leather bags, was in trouble and I remember Liu’s father saying that he wouldn’t be able to sell anything if he didn’t put discounts on his products.

Four years after her film about family life in a small and cramped apartment, Liu Jiayin returns home to film a sequel, a different part of the family’s life in which she takes part. Oxhide II (2009) is less about oxhide leather and bag-making, than it is about making dumplings. In some ways, Oxhide II could be a perfect cooking show, but without the audience buzz, the fast cuts, without the music to create suspense as to who has to leave the cooking competition…yes, so maybe it’s not quite that. But Liu’s film is very much a record of a family tradition and after more than two hours watching this, you do get hungry!

In fact, Oxhide II uses the family’s making of dumplings as a visual shield behind which the director hides the ongoing, and apparently worsening, difficulties of the family’s business which become audible here and there in fragments of discussions between Liu’s father and mother, until she herself chips in. The film starts in a room, one would perhaps assume a sort of workshop, where Liu’s father is working on new material for his bags. The camera is set on a rather low level, possibly positioned on a small stool very close to the table her father uses for work. The position of the camera somehow does make you feel as if you’re a little child who can just about look over the table to see what daddy is doing. But the camera also brings across once more the nature of the family’s flat: cramped, almost suffocating the viewer because there is no empty and therefore “free” space to look at that could give you a break from all the items right in front of your nose. I cannot quite remember the actual aspect ration of Oxhide I but there is a strong discrepancy going on between the super wide screen used in Oxhide II and the actual content of the frame. I personally associate a wide screen always with freedom, with breathing space. In some ways, Xavier Dolan did a wonderful demonstration of that in Mommy (you can watch the scene here). What we see in Liu’s film, however, is the opposite. The frame feels suffocating because it seems too slim. The borders push down on us from top and bottom, and the content of the frame reinforces the idea of being entrapped.

All the while we see every stage of making dumplings… This is bizarre but also somewhat enjoyable, interesting, and, in some ways, satisfying. Oxhide II does not have a lot of scenes. I didn’t count the cuts Liu used, but there were probably less than ten over the course of over two hours. She keeps the camera running for as long as possible before she cuts, which is demonstrated beautifully in the very first scene in which we first see her father working on new designs. Then her mother arrives with a bunch of chives from the market, disappears into another room invisible to us, then returns with a bowl and a sack of flour in it. Liu’s dad asks, “You want to put this here already?” The reasons he asks this is that the table he had worked on will also be the table they will use to prepare (and cook and eat) the dumplings. So he needs to clean it first, which he does, and then both move the table to that there is more space in the room. The moving of the table happens right in front of the camera, and this moving changes the mise-en-scène right in front of our eyes. This change doesn’t come through a cut, which is usually the case. On the contrary, Liu allows us to witness this change, and I found it marvellous. Simply by moving the table around, the entire perspective changes for us.

This change of perspective is not only to be taken visually. What starts off as a film about making dumplings (more or less), slowly becomes a film about the ongoing business problems the family faces. Oxhide I contained quite a bit about this, and it is in Oxhide II that Liu’s mother says that after 7 years she can no longer handle the pressure of not knowing whether she can pay the shop rent or pay the workers. What sets this off is the looming fear of the contract for their shop not being renewed. Liu’s father tells himself that they wouldn’t close his shop because he designed and produced everything himself. He goes as far as saying “Shops like mine are the future!” But there is little support coming from the family and he himself knows that he tries to hold on to a business that is neither successful nor does it seem to lift the family’s living standard in any way. There is a telling scene in which the father stands against the wall, his head hanging like that of a sad dog. He realises the futility of lying to oneself and also has to fight off the continuous remarks by his wife and his daughter about the pointlessness of going on. To me, he looks humiliated, perhaps emasculated as the bread winner whose shop just doesn’t bring in any profit.

Liu changes the visual perspective (the camera angle) several times in the film. It is like seeing the process of making dumplings from every possible angle, although she hardly ever goes much above the heads of herself or her parents. The camera remains on a comparatively low level, or even goes to the very bottom, to the floor, in order to film the actual cooking process of the dumplings. Liu, all the while, is learning the process, which is funny at times. The film is not cheery at all, but Liu’s presence and her attempts at learning how to make dumplings is funny indeed! I remember the scene in which she tries to cut chives the length of 4mm using a ruler in order to determine the length… She takes the process serious, and I couldn’t figure out whether she was really like this or whether she just wanted to bring some fun into an otherwise sombre film.

I don’t think I’m able to say which of the two films I like best. They’re both very good in their own ways, and Liu certainly is a great director. There have been rumours for quite some time now that she’s working on a third instalment of Oxhide. I wonder what that one will be about…

Day 3 – Oxhide I (Jiayin)

On day three, I have thankfully managed to avoid further motion sickness. Although I cannot say that I have moved into a better environment. Quite the opposite actually. After Alamar, a lovely trip to an atoll reef off Mexico, I ended up in a cramped apartment in China.

Oxhide is, to my mind, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction. I felt unsure what was scripted and what was complete improvisation. In any case, director Liu Jiayin filmed daily life in the apartment she has lived with her parents. I was often surprised at the way Tsai Ming-liang has so far treated everyday life, and thought that he pretty much got the point. However, Jiayin went a step further and I cannot recall a single film that describes our (specifically their) mundane life so well.

There are two points in this film that interested me. The first was the framing. The slow films I study have as their main aesthetic feature a basis of vastness and nature. The landscape plays a major role, if it isn’t a character in itself (which I think it is in most cases). The framing tends to be loose, which is an interesting fact as loose frames are often associated with freedom for the character, but in the majority of slow films the characters are, in fact, trapped.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

In Oxhide, the traditional feature tight framing equals pressure and stress on the character is more valid. It is for me the outstanding aesthetic I took away from the screening. The film was claustrophobic, especially over the course of two hours. There was literally no space. Neither for the viewer nor for the characters. Indeed, the father (who’s the director’s real father; she was filming her real family) says at some point “There’s no room to move freely”.

This also accounts for the viewer. It creates a tense atmosphere, also because we are often forced to witness arguments, and because there’s no free space to take our eyes (and therefore our mind) off things, we’re stuck with watching uncomfortably. Another interesting fact in the same context is the lighting. It always seems to be dark in the flat. I can’t remember having seen a single window in the film, which adds to the feeling of imprisonment.

The second significant thing is the theme of poverty and capitalism, which I recognised in quite a few films, especially in those by Lav Diaz. Jiayin’s parents design, make and sell bags made from oxhide. At the beginning of the film, the dad wants Jiayin to get discount advertisements ready on the computer. We see that he reduces the original price for a bag by fifty percent. The discounts bring in money, but he is unhappy about how he, as the maker and designer of the bags, and as the owner of the shop, has lost control over his business. He says at one point “It’s our shop, our bags – and in the end it’s the customers who set the price”.

Jiayin’s mother argues with him about his stubbornness. He wants to get rid of the discounts, while she argues that people just want cheap prices. For the customer, the shop owner or how the products had been made are of little significance. What counts is a cheap price. It matters little whether the shop owner can live off the money he makes with his own creation. She fears the date their rent is due, which tells us that they are indeed in financial trouble once he has removed the discounts.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

It is a general theme that is picked up here. This has been developing for a long time, and it is true that more and more traditional craft makers go out of business. People want cheap prices. This is all they care about. This is also the reason why we see repeated accidents in factories, such as the one in Bangladesh this year.

P.S.: Yes, the screenshots are dark, but so is the film. Gives you an idea of how dark it really was!