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
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.
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.