Salute Your Shorts: Chantal Akerman's "Saute ma ville"

Movies Features Chantal Akerman
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Like Neill Blomkamp and Jacques Tati’s shorts the last two weeks, Chantal Akerman’s first film, “Saute ma ville,” is best understood in relation to one of the director’s feature films. A 13-minute black-and-white film she made while only in her teens, it looks rather like any other amateur experimental film from the '60s and '70s except when put alongside its big sister Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which finally made its way onto DVD this past Tuesday. Featuring the earlier short as an extra, the two films complement each other thematically in the way many of Akerman’s works do, though in some respects the feature acted as a remake of this shorter work.

Of course, Akerman herself is a difficult figure to pin down here in America as so few of her features have been released in any format besides 16mm. A lot of cinephiles have heard of her because Jeanne Dielman wound up on Slant’s 100 essential films, the Village Voice’s 100 best films of the 20th century, and in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s reviews any time he could manage it (not to mention giving glowing reviews to anything else Akerman throws out). But actually seeing one of her films has mostly been restricted to revival houses in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.

Given her emphasis on film time occurring as real time, though, this paucity of releases isn’t quite so surprising. Despite her wide range of genres, the characteristics that define her as a filmmaker aren’t exactly box-office material. She eschews music in her movies, focuses on lonely characters in closed spaces, and has a worldview that can sometimes make Ingmar Bergman look sunny in comparison. Still, all of those wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the focus on real time, which is taken to the fullest extent in Jeanne Dielman and is why the film is both frustrating and groundbreaking.

Until its cataclysmic ending, Jeanne Dielman is three hours and twenty-one minutes of normal, everyday time unfolding across an uneventful 48 hours. Jeanne washes dishes, Jeanne makes meatloaf, Jeanne brushes her hair…and that’s about all the excitement the film offers, even though its main character is supporting herself through prostitution. Though meticulously acted and beautifully shot by Babette Mangolte in a style that combines Yasujiro Ozu with Douglas Sirk (or perhaps Sirk’s frequent cinematographer Russell Metty), it’s difficult to watch what is ultimately hours of nothing happening. Even if the subtleties of observation and gradual development of crisis are pretty compelling, how much can you really blame an audience for not wanting to sit through something like that? Hell, it even keeps you from watching its sex scenes.

Jeanne Dielman ends with its protagonist stabbing a john for making her orgasm and as the film closes she’s contemplating what’s transpired with blood still on her hands. It’s this explosion, which is gradually built up beginning with the second 24-hour period after Jeanne ends up with an extra hour of free time, which completes the film’s promise to its audience, effectively satisfying Don DeLillo’s rule that all plots tend to move deathward. Though it’s what keeps the film from being completely a formalist exercise, the end is far less important than the three hours and fifteen minutes or so of boredom that preceded it, where Jeanne’s day-to-day tasks have been interpreted as a feminist text documenting the subjugation of women in the patriarchal structure of modern day life.

Or something like that. Aside from the hypnotic power of Jeanne’s repetitions, the film’s true value lies not in its feminist subtext but in its observations on boredom in adult life. Although Jeanne is mostly a homemaker (with her tricks just one more chore in her daily duties), she might as well be working in an office doing mindless busywork there just as well as she does at home. Her outburst at the end of the film isn’t so much a cry against men as it is an attack on society and the emptiness of her sort of unfulfilling lot in life. Acceptance of this sort of adult life can only be taken for so long before an explosion is necessary.

An explosion is in fact exactly what Akerman infused into “Saute ma ville,” which came seven years before Jeanne Dielman and attacks the same problem but in a very different way. The literal English translation of its title is “Blow Up My Town,” so its end shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But until its main character, played by Akerman herself, blows up a room at its end, the short is set in a remarkably similar-looking kitchen to Jeanne’s and she is tasked with making herself dinner. Without Jeanne’s need for rituals, the main character finds even this small task to be too much for her and gradually demolishes the kitchen. This fun can’t last, though, and she decides to clean up her mess…but she also can’t change her personality, and soon she’s back to trashing the joint again before setting a fire and putting her head on a gas stove.

Akerman described “Saute ma ville” as “the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman” in which this person who doesn’t need rules to govern her own life blows its rituals to bits. But because of its end, “Saute ma ville” is not a description of a positive way to live life, rather than Jeanne’s existentially loathsome one. It in fact ends just as badly, with self-destruction just as inherent in completely abiding by these rules as it is in trying to destroy them.

Akerman also looks at the film as “the next generation,” where the character in “Saute ma ville” refuses to live the way her predecessors did and thus throws out all of these rules. It’s easy to see a parallel between the hard-nosed '50s in America and the '60s’ response to this in these films, though that’s probably reading a bit too far.

A bit more derivative than her later works, “Saute ma ville” was largely inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierret le fou and didn’t yet have the formalist bent of her later works, which mostly is to say that it doesn’t look a whole lot like the rest of her films. It also doesn’t look homemade, though, and while it doesn’t have the kind of time put into composition that the rest of her works did, its way of aligning the audience with the protagonist against the kitchen through claustrophobic framing manages to make the short fairly effective nonetheless. The experiments with asynchronous sound, mostly made up of a weird sing song thing, are typically sophomoric for short avant-garde films from the era, but isn’t too annoying.

Though calling Jeanne Dielman a remake of “Saute ma ville” as Rosenbaum does is quite an exaggeration, the two films do work beautifully together to comprise a fuller view of day-to-day work in general and the kitchens women can be forced into in particular. It’s a film any fan of Jeanne Dielman should check out—and why not? After 201 minutes of the slowest burn ever put to celluloid, you’ve earned 13 minutes of sheer destruction.

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