Jeanne Dielman, Faciality, and Time

an essay featuring probably too much Deleuzian theory

In the introduction of his book, Poetics of Cinema, David Bordwell makes a big show of avoiding the typical classic approach to cultural studies. He complains about the impenetrable dense prose of famous thinkers that have haunted cultural studies and complains that their theories do not hold to a rigorous empirical standard. He writes that “we have lived with this writing for 30 years. Its limping cadences, convulsive syntax, and strategic confusions have dulled our senses. Very likely, no one in the history of English ever published prose as incomprehensible as that signed by Theorists” (2). Not much later, in the first essay, Bordwell complains about the methodology employed by these theorists and much of cultural studies. He writes that:

“method” comes down to meaning “interpretative school.” An interpretive school, I take it, asks the writer to master a semantic field informed by particular theoretical concepts and then to note certain features of films that fit that field. The writer then mounts an argument that relates features of a film to the theory by citing the film, quoting from relevant theorists, and creating associative links between the semantic field and the film. (12)

He goes on to complain that this methodology does not consider the poetics of cinema which has “no privileged semantic field, no core of procedures for interpreting textual features, and no unique rhetorical tactics” (12). This all sounds good and his harrumphing about the field of cultural production seems compelling. Yet, Bordwell himself cites, in the next paragraph, Aristotle, Stravinsky, Todorov, and the Russian formalists. He also prostrates himself at the altar of Bazin and other theorists who are not easy reading at all. Bordwell himself is a big fan of basic narratology strategies and cites Seymour Chatman’s impenetrable book Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in fiction and Film — though Bordwell quibbles with aspects of Chatman’s theories on narrator. It seems odd that Bordwell would make such a big fuss out of abstruse prose and concepts when he himself cites Todorov (a very complex thinker and writer) and Bazin. Why does he bother making such a big show about all this? What is his fundamental issue with critical thinkers? Perhaps he assumes, like many who oppose critical theory, that the theorizing is to be taken as gospel truth, as an objective reality. He complains that cultural studies have demolished the idea of a single Truth and mentions that logical fallacies are required (but he does not specify which ones).

Like others, I believe Bordwell makes the mistake in thinking that critical theory is meant to replace reality. Rather, as I’ve understood it, critical theory is an explanatory framework that helps elucidate elements of reality, culture, politics, ideology, and behaviour in order to understand and challenge the status quo. For example, when people cite Freud’s theory on the death drive, they are generally using it as shorthand for the concepts that have shaped culture. Freud’s influence has been immeasurable, and his ideas have molded a lot of how we conceptualize the brain and human behaviour. The death drive is a useful explanatory framework for understanding how culture has conceived the selfsame ideas. I’m sure there are theorists who believe literally Lacan’s mirror stage, but that doesn’t invalidate the explanatory potentiality of their ideas.

It’s suspect that Bordwell carps about all the theoretical throat-clearing in film theory but then spends 20 pages doing the same. He’s engaging in the same behaviour that he finds so objectionable. There’s nothing wrong with using a semantic field to make sense of a cultural text just as there’s nothing wrong with historicizing the text, understanding the context and conditions of production. Frankly, a lot of Fredric Jameson’s work is about unpacking the ideologies (either concomitant and/or oppositional) that created the cultural text itself. A cultural object is never produced in a vacuum, something even Bordwell admits, yet, he tries for an ahistorical approach focused on only poetics. I’m not opposed to Bordwell’s methodology; in fact, I love Bordwell’s strict formalist and utilitarian approach. There has to be some sort of middle ground between these two poles (my own approach, clichéd as it is and Bordwell’s, all cognitive and empirical).

In the spirit of that, after all this introduction, I’m going to try and find that middle ground by considering Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles with both poetics and Deleuze’s theories on faciality. This attempt might stumble and combust, but at least I tried without generalizing an entire field and without griping about Bordwell’s methodologies.

I’ve been thinking about faces a lot. Consider the face: it is the primary locus for focus during interaction and communication. The face is what we use to anchor ourselves in conversation; countless people have said that non-verbal cues comprise most of communication, with a significant chunk coming from the minute but monumental shifts in facial expressions. Consider that the face is not simply a series of discrete expressions, changing incrementally but rather a complex tapestry of muscles, nerves, bones, tendons, blood vessels, etc etc etc. It’s not simply one thing, it’s an assemblage.

The assemblage is an idea developed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. They use the example of the wasp and the orchid; the wasp needs the orchid for the pollen and the orchid needs the wasp to remove the pollen. Together, the heterogeneous terms sustain a third, the wasp-orchid-becoming, to use D and G’s verbiage. The two species interact to form a multiplicity. Here, methodologically speaking, D and G freely appropriate biology’s concept of mutualism in order to form their argument. The wasp-orchid-becoming comprises two segments: firstly, the wasp-orchid-becoming is a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another. The other segment is of a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transformations attributed to bodies. A Thousand Plateaus with its rhizomatic structure (one can read the chapters in any order) is an assemblage that combines discrete essays, capable of producing any number of effects rather than a tightly organized coherent whole that produces one fixed dominant reading.

This is where I believe Bordwell and Deleuze & Guattari could be allies. Bordwell rejects fixed readings that rely on semantic fields while D and G are outspoken in their rejection of what they call the Oedipean Fathers, the White Men like Freud and Marx that seek to constrain the world in just another hierarchical grid of control. D and G aren’t entirely interested in empiricism, but they are motivated by scientific inquiry. Many Deleuzean theorists, such as Rosi Braidotti and Brian Massumi, argue for a “posthumanities” approach to epistemology and critical inquiry; instead of discrete ivory towers, Deleuzian thought asks of the thinker to pick and choose what fits their explanatory framework from both science and the humanities. We’re all in this together, despite some differences in opinion, Deleuzian studies exhorts us to remember.

Let us return to the face and consider then as an assemblage, a machine of biological mutualism. As an assemblage, then, the face does not simply express, enunciate, state, but also produces, through its assemblage composition. The face is a machine that produces meaning through the assemblage of different elements, physical and/or emotional. Since the face is the locus for so much meaning and affect, it can’t help but be crucial to the formation of assemblages. D and G argue that the face, either abstract or literal, is political as the political structures the deploy its formations compel significance and subjectification.

We have to remind ourselves that when Deleuze writes of faces, he does not mean literally faces — or maybe he does; he’s a very coy writer who is both expressive, allusive, and elusive. It’s a common refrain in Deleuzian studies to avoid taking what he says literally. But how can we help ourselves? How can we stop ourselves from thinking about the face as a face? Deleuze isn’t speaking of pareidolia, the psychological tendency to see faces where there is not (consider the “face” on Mars). So we’ll be heretical and consider D and G’s work on faces as both metaphorical (a word they hate) and literal (another word they hate). It’s easier this way. We should also remind ourselves that reading a text, either literary or filmic, “is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring machines, a schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force” (Anti-Oedipus 116). D and G’s project, if that can be called a project, is to deterritorialize, to separate the Oedipal connections to the authority, whatever authority it is, in order to see, connect, perceive, and engage with the universe in new freeing ways.

Thus, the face is locus of power for the state. Consider that the state is represented by a man, usually a white cis man of European descent and that the state-man is represented by his face. For the longest time, D and G argue, Jesus was The Face, the big one; his face was the ontological origin of the face — not literally, but politically. The face is the center of the technique of facialization: the imposing of the face onto the subject. That’s why D and G argue that the face is the “black hole of subjectivity”: it overcodes the subject, erases them, replaces them with the face that The Face/The State/The Man wants it to be. The face is part of a system that codes subjects into a binary system: yes/no. Yes means acceptance into the wheels of the machinery that is society. No means exile, expelling. Facialization produces concrete faces, not assemblages, such as “father,” “worker,” “employee,” “citizen.” It is the imposition of the grid, the hierarchical structure that controls. Imagine the prison, with its uniform grid of cells that atomize and isolate subjects. Imagine that same grid overlaid, overcoded on the individual assemblages of subjects, removing their subjectivity. It is the White Wall of the Other (white referring to, of course, the White Man).

A lot of the information provided in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… is conveyed by the titular character’s face. The film is brilliant at training the viewer to watch this. We watch so many Hollywood films that individual movies rarely need to train us how to watch; we know that when a gun is introduced, it will go off in the third act (or sooner); we know that a timer will indicate an objective with a clear time frame; we know that two opposing personalities forced to work together will eventually resolve their differences. We’ve been educated on these storytelling techniques enough to not need re-education with each new film. Jeanne Dielman teaches the viewer how to watch in a different way. The film is structured into three days; the first day gives us almost all of the information needed to watch the subsequent two days. In the first 15 minutes of the film, we see Jeanne cook, clean, tidy, receive a client, put money in a china jar, bathe, do her hair. The rest of the film is subtle variations on the theme, like a melody slightly shifted each refrain. Since there is no plot to speak of, and very little dialogue, the film teaches the viewer to be hyper-vigilant of subtle changes in her routine, her physical expressions, and her face. The film uses this new way of watching in a strategic way. Akerman is not quite as interested in the classical unfolding of plot but rather the subtle incremental fluidity of time and space, a new, revolutionary conceptualizing of cinematic time.

Hollywood cinema, as aforementioned, has already taught us how to watch; the form of storytelling has already reterritorialized us as an audience: commercial cinema is “undeniably familialist, Oedipian, and reactionary” as Guattari wrote in the 90s. Cinema is almost entirely entrenched within the capitalist power structure, susceptible to the market forces that constrain and alter aesthetics. Jeanne Dielman, as a film then, resists the patriarchal Oedipian modes of watching; the film offers a new face and a new way to interact with that face.

Jeanne is fairly impassive for most of the film. She goes about her chores with little expression. Her face tells us — for the first day — nothing about her emotional state. Is she happy? Is she lonely? Does she enjoy having sex with her clients? A change in her emotional state, expressed by her face, comes when her son returns from school. It’s a very subtle change on her face, but it’s one of peace. Her chores, her errands, her cooking, even her prostitution is for this person. Her subtle, but again, monumental, shifts in affect tell the viewer more than dialogue ever could.

Deleuze writes that affective sensation is physiological, transmuted into physical movements. Affect then is another type of gesture and since it is most clearly interpreted from the face, the film grammatical “phoneme” is the close-up, in its various forms (medium, extreme, etc). Akerman rarely provides the close-up of Jeanne’s face, if any at all. The close-up is not necessarily a better way of interacting affectively with the face.

When one recognizes a single face in the crowd, that face becomes detached from its surroundings. It is an abstraction, no longer an interface for communication. It is a machine that labours intensely once abstracted. When the face is blown up and projected on a screen larger than life, the face becomes even more decontextualized from its machinic possibilities while paradoxically producing an excess of affective gestures: immobile for those moments while simultaneously a sublime production of potentiality (sublime of course in the Romantic sense of the word: horrific and horrifically beautiful). We can see then how D and G tie the looming face with the face of the state, of the authority. The face becomes all surface, a reflective material both reflecting and consuming the subjectivity of those watching.

The face (of the state) is an empty black hole of subjectivity, D and G argue, an abstract machine that performs the processes of signification (the process of communication) and subjectification, a machine that that evaluates the faces that pass before it (in a yes/no binary) and gridding the subjects, gridding the faces that gaze upon it. The grid is the control.

Akerman’s denial of the close-up means — again — that the viewer must be taught to watch in new ways. No longer is the face the locus of communicative power in Jeanne. Her whole body, her assemblage made of countless muscles, bones, veins, tendons, etc, that move in uncanny synchronous motion at 24 frames per second.

In her book Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Laura Mulvey writes of the dialectic between the filmstrip and the screen, and how this question “revolves around the fundamental, and irreconcilable, opposition between stillness and movement that reverberates across the aesthetics of cinema. Stillness and movement have different relations to time” (67). Consider that there are frequent moments of Jeanne simply sitting completely still. The final shot of the film, which lasts approximately 5 minutes, features Jeanne sitting at her dining room table. Mulvey continues:

From the stillness and movement of frame and projector in the flicker film, in which the actual “paradox” appears on the screen, the affinity is realized in visual equivalents that translate and extend the movement of the camera. In the opposition between stillness and movement and the division between the projector and the screen, camera movement gives a further dimension to the illusion created by the filmstrip moving at 24 frames per second. (69)

And again: “Linearity, causality and the linking figure of metonymy, all crucial elements in story-telling, find a correspondence in the unfolding, forward-moving direction of film” (69). Jeanne Dielman is resolutely still: the camera never moves, always static, while Jeanne herself is a paragon of economy of movement. As aforementioned, there are numerous instances in the film where she sits, completely still, as the viewer contemplates and learns to watch this un-cinematic (lack of) motion. It is the opposite of the car chase, the gun battles, the explosions. Her movement is uncanny: the stillness, the motion, the revolutionary possibilities of her labour and subjectivity.

Cinema itself plays on the uncanny effect of seeing a two dimensional picture move as if a three dimensional event. This affect of the uncanny works in cinema through the audience’s doubt, their uncertainty at the real on the screen. Cinema challenges the strict division between the animate (the bodies of reality) with the inanimate (the bodies of the two dimensional). The inanimate yet still living body and the animate yet dead body present the crucial problem for the spectator. It should be no surprise that the latter, the moving dead body, fascinates and horrifies audiences still. These are “narratives in which the dead return to the world of the living as a ghostly apparition: inorganic but animate” (38).

Recalling my exceedingly long introduction that cites David Bordwell, I should mention that my citation of Laura Mulvey is not a “semantic field” that corresponds to the “text” of the film (even though we’re both using “uncanny”); more so, I’m trying to speak of the poetics of Jeanne Dielman, I’m trying to speak of how the film teaches the audience, and how meaning is constructed through these poetics. Since the film isn’t entirely interested in plot or even narrative for that matter, meaning must be constructed through performance (stillness and motion) and Jeanne’s relation to space and time (motion through time and space, stillness within that time and space). How her body moves or does not move is integral to constructing meaning.

However, Akerman is not simply interested in Jeanne’s body, but rather the explosion of interiority and exteriority that characterizes Jeanne’s motion through time and space in her apartment, her town, her bathroom, her kitchen. Jeanne is an assemblage, a Jeanne-space assemblage that moves through instances of time. She is not a man, not a woman, but a becoming-woman, a becoming-minor, always in the process of happening (never linear, but rhizomatic). The becoming-woman or becoming-minor is catalyzed in cramped social spaces like a tiny apartment. She is on her way, through time and space (and eventually homicide), to becoming-animal, a pack animal.

The pack animal, as Deleuze and Guattari write, is not literally a pack animal, such as the wolf and its family, but that “every animal is fundamentally a band, a pack” (A Thousand Plateaus 239) in the sense that the animal is affectively produced by its relations with other matter (organic or inorganic, human or inhuman). A pack is constantly changing, constantly being affected and affecting, constantly becoming. Since a pack is comprised of shifting terms, is always modular, it represents perfectly the multiplicity of the becoming. Animals are organized into schools, bands, herds: “populations which are not inferior social forms; they are affects and powers, involutions that grip every animal in a becoming just as powerful as that of the human being with the animal” (241). A pack is a superior social formation, as well as a superior epistemological formation, a better, more embodied formation of the subject. The pack subject, formed by its variegated relations with others “is not split along the traditional axes of mind/body, consciousness/unconscious, or reason/imagination. On the contrary, the notions of embodiment and immanence posit it as one energetic, forever-shifting entity, fundamentally driven by desire for expansion towards its many-faceted exterior borders/others” as Rosi Braidotti writes in her work, Metamorphoses (131). It is the rejection of the Cartesian dualism, the patriarchal Oedipean grid of bifurcation into something more porous, more rhizomatic. Jeanne’s subjectivity is exploded as the apartment, with its slow descent into doom and chaos, comes to represent not simply her interiority in metaphorical ways, but to be the collapse of her interiority/exteriority in its constituent elements.

The grid of her apartment, the control mechanisms that keep her in her minoritarian position of becoming-woman, decay slowly. She drops a spoon; she neglects replacing the lid to the china vase that holds her money; she overcooks the potatoes; she folds her son’s pajamas in a clumsy manner; she misses a button on her housecoat. Jeanne is resisting the facialization of the state, of the patriarchy.

Her face, though, is mediated to us by the screen, by the director’s choices to keep the camera static, to withhold the cut, to maintain the unblinking gaze of the camera on Jeanne’s body-apartment. Guattari offers the concept of autopoietic subjectivation, which “accounts both for living organisms, humans as self-organizing systems, and also for inorganic matter, the machines….” (Braidotti The Posthuman 94) Guattari’s machinic autopoiesis establishes a qualitative link between organic matter and technological or machine artefacts — the face is mediated through technology (film, process, developing, digitizing, put onto disc, played in my laptop). Likewise, Jeanne’s life is mediated through regimented time and space, the literal grid of the apartment, the grid of her routine. She and her apartment are changing, becoming, through affective gestures and homicide.

The face, then, is not only a space or surface of control, but as Foucault reminds us with relations of power, also a space of resistance and absence of control. Remember that D and G’s project is deterritorialize, by rethinking the hierarchical structures of the capitalist power into rhizomatic organization, robbing the hierarchy of its power garnered through top-down relations. The rhizome, the organization with multiple points of entry and interpretation, is represented in the film Jeanne Dielman. While the film is unfailingly linear in its progression of time, it boasts a grand openness of interpretative possibilities. Jeanne’s face, the careful subtle expressions of her affective gestures, along with the careful distribution of line (201 minutes!) and the film’s skill in training the viewer, renders a rhizomatic deterritorialized film, not complicit in the patriarchal power structure of capitalism, the great grid of control. This is not a feminist film in the way people mean the vague gestures of politicization, but rather, it is a becoming-woman film, a staunchly political operation of deterritorialization, teaching the viewer new ways of understanding the face, the woman, the labour. It is taking what capitalism tells us is not cinematic (peeling potatoes, shopping, waiting, thinking) and makes it explicitly cinematic. So rather than cite a specific semantic field as “proof” of the links between theory and this film, I submit that the poetics of the film ask for revolution; we have no need of reterritorializing Oedipean fathers (eg Freud, Lacan) to impede our readings of the poetics; her face tells us all.

Jeanne’s face is that space of deterritorialization. It is the space of revolutionary force.

Works Cited

Akerman, Chantal, dir. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Paradise Films, 1975. Film.

Bordwell, David. Poetics of Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses. Cambridge: Polity, 2002. Print.

— . The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. 1987. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Minneapolis UP, 2003. Print.

— . Anti-Oedipus. 1983. Trans. Robert Hurley. Minneapolis: Minneapolis UP, 2004. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2006. Print.