Movies are full of magic tricks, not the least of which is the ability to have the objects, characters and actions depicted transcend their real-world implications, and take on greater significance. Transcendental filmmaking is the means by which Ozu can cut to a vase, and leave you in tears. Or, how Chantal Ackerman can render (for the most part) a regimented routine of household chores and minute daily activities into what Sight and Sound recently labelled the greatest film of all time.
The script for Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was completed in about two weeks. This makes some sort of sense considering precisely how little happens, though all of the endless actions Jeanne undertakes in the course of the film were written out precisely, “practically in the style of the “New Novel”’. Another reason for this speedy turnaround is that, considering Ackerman’s familiarity with these actions, excepting the prostitution and murder, of course (which serve mostly as a metaphor as is) depicting them came naturally.
As with many transcendental films, the focus lavished on these actions, which are typically ‘devalued’, gives them life on film. Why are these actions, which so many describe in relaying the plot as ‘nothing’, given weight? Well, it’s precisely because they are dismissed, most especially by men. When we see someone doing busy-work, they disappear, especially when the person in question is expected to do so. Per Ackerman “We don’t really see them”.
Ackerman’s family life served as partial inspiration; having grown up surrounded by women (six aunts, three on either side). Whenever she’d pay these women a visit, seeing as this was Eastern Europe in the 1960s, she would see them all tend to the upkeep and daily monotonous tasks of housewifery. Ackerman believes that the ritual of these daily tasks replaced Jewish ritual imposed by her grandfather, one which ritualised most every daily activity, a practice she was surrounded by till she was about eight, when the patriarch of the family passed away, after which these rituals slipped into tending to housework, cooking, et al. These activities brought a certain peace, keeping anxiety at bay.
It’s an anxiety that makes itself known when, during the course of the film, Jeanne gets up too early, and her regimented, mollifying routine is disturbed. Everything begins to unwind. She has an empty hour, and somehow we know that no good can come from it. Despite the near total lack of dramatic or narrative jiggery, or more likely, because of it, this minor shift imparts disaster, and we await the fallout. Ackerman compares it to the decided nature of Greek tragedy, despite her hands-off approach.
The snail’s pace of transcendental filmmaking is not for everyone, but it’s a powerful tool when exercised with control. Be sure that your application of this withdrawn approach suits the material, or else risk collapsing an otherwise soundly paced script. If, however, you feel extraordinarily brave (considering distractable modern tastes); employ a little subtraction, draw your audience into engaging with even the slightest of on-screen actions, and you may find yourself in a position to utterly bowl them over in the climax.