Dancing on the edge of a volcano

1 09 2011

I

Jeanne Dielman

Chantal Akerman’s magnificent Jeanne Dielman can be praised for many things, chief among them being a masterpiece of restraint. But not some conservative or judicious brand of restraint, so much as an unbearably intense, suspenseful, violent, and quietly sinister variant. Akerman uses her camera like an architect. The four limits of her frame are walls and Jeanne Dielman is trapped inside them. She is likewise caught in the folds of her prim apartment, a disquieting space of nested surfaces, most of them guarding, underneath their solemn appearance, the garbled code of our protagonist’s muted pain. Every inch of her home is a silent command that she must follow without fail. The dimensions and tools of her kitchen, the organization of her living room, and the decoration of her bedroom, everything contributes to generate a silent and perpetual voice that orders Jeanne Dielman around like a slave. Her apartment is built out of innumerable and inescapable reminders of all the scheduled tasks she has to complete, day in and day out: the cleaning, the cooking, the child rearing, the fucking. She is in a prison of her own making, for her home can only direct her as she has ordained for it to do so. When she completes her chores early one day, she is suddenly forced to do nothing, and so she sits on a sofa-chair and basks in her dead time. She begins to fuss, to tremble with anxiousness. Temporarily outside the loop prescribed by her agenda, she finds her freedom to think absolutely terrifying. Her house of tasks is a fortress that shields her from the dangers of contemplation, lest she realize how harrowingly empty her life is.

Houses are stuffed with meaning. Characters interact with the memories that tremble in every niche. And so do we, heads raised to the screen, gasping at uncanny images of the powerfully familiar. Akerman, like Ozu in Tokyo Story, returns over and over again to the same rooms and doorways, and each return is more profound than the last, more burdened by the weight of past visits and emotions. In order to arouse our recognition and get us to make connections between scenes, Akerman and Ozu will often, not only return to a room, but also film it from the same angle, matching the blueprint of the house to the composition of the frame. We begin to think of the screen in architectural terms, its surface lined with hallways, doorways, and cabinets. We deposit meaning in its corners. The careful balance of household objects and the wary dance of a female body, parallel conflicts in a strict rectangular arena, become geographical drama. We flatten and deepen the image, we fall through the celluloid. A door is closed in Tokyo Story and immediately we recall how that door has been closed previously, under what circumstances, and how the characters moved through the frame in each case, at what speed, and with what gesture. We can compare easily because each shot of the closing door is almost identical. Except for what has changed, which is also what matters most.

II

The House by Sharunas Bartas

French director Jean Renoir confessed that, when he made his most canonical film, The Rules of the Game, in 1939, he meant to depict a group of people “dancing on the edge of a volcano”: the volcano was World War II and the dancers where high class socialites and their distracted servants. Preoccupied with petty intrigues and flighty romance in a château, the characters are cordoned off from the world, like inhabitants of a floating island. Their manic games send them careening through a complex system of passages and corridors. Soon, the country house begins to resemble a labyrinth, a hall of mirrors where all the participants, drunk on the sensory spectacle of their nighttime fun, forget the dangers growling around them.

Sharunas Bartas’ The House presents a more deranged and opaque version of this theme. In both films, war rages or will rage around the mansion or château, but the protagonists are always too busy worrying about their comparatively tiny conflicts to notice. Renoir, of course, could not know with certainty that war would arrive to France. Germany was ballooning with power and Europe was tense with anticipation, but the ensuing six years of horror had not officially begun. Nevertheless, The Rules of the Game captures the electric crackling of the months leading up to World War II, the booming guns on a quiet field and the startled death of fleeing animals, massacred during a hunt. Even if we reject this historical interpretation, the oblivious socialites still act like children juggling adult consequences. Their funny dance twirls with playful charm, but the props they use can kill. With its intricate layout, the château spurs on the festivities, the chasing and the mock fighting, until finally everyone is too dizzy to examine either themselves or their situation, let alone foreign policy. Doorways conceal as much as they reveal, slippery floors speed up every movement, hallways push bodies in various directions, and rooms generate private moments separated from the larger story: the château practically directs the action and decides its destination. Like a jealous captor, it would prefer its prisoners continue performing mindless circles and never appreciate the decadence they are surely destined for.

If The Rules of the Game is about a group of fools spinning down towards oblivion, The House is set after the fall has been completed. Its characters are already lost, like specters frozen in the ennui of a bleak afterlife. Time does not flow in this haunted film, and we might imagine we are watching a single instant crystallized into an eternal pause. A mute narrator paces aimlessly around The House, and his shuffling odyssey becomes our own, as we are guided by his curious eyes. Every room is a film onto itself, populated by characters surrendered to self-absorption. Bartas’ eye for portraiture isolates each subject even further. Their solitude, already spiritual and physical, is extended to the frame, which often focuses on a single despairing face before inviting in another. A distraught woman fiddling with colorful puppets, a reclusive chess player going against himself, and a big-eyed girl reading a book while clad in over-sized garbs, each individual occupies his or her own personal area. Even when they all sit down together at a long dinner table, there is no conversation or interaction. The camera, again, quarantines the lonely characters and forces them to suffer by themselves. Like with Akerman, the frame seems to be in league with the architecture, restraining the protagonists to their puny lots.

The House compels its lodgers to stagnancy. An invisible force pulls them all in and interrupts the passing of the hours. Every room is a potential cage: Jeanne Dielman‘s smallish apartment is no less a sprawling and impossible labyrinth than the endless interiors of the Bartas film. The human mind finds the aisles, passages, and crevices it needs to continue perambulating without end in a pointless act of self-preservation. Without a goal or the hope of improvement, the mind finds the need to keep moving, while its human owner, entrenched in endless circles of imaginative flight, concentrates on whatever surrounding surface might lend itself as a getaway destination.

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