by Yoana Pavlova
Since the official start of the pandemic one year ago, I have found myself thinking about Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) every now and then. The hyperreal perception of time, the claustrophobia of one’s own home, the mundanity of daily chores, the feeling of social isolation and ennui from one’s identity defined strictly on the basis of externalized pragmatism – these are the film’s meme-heavy tropes that have been on many people’s minds in the past 12 months. It is with its rhythmical gesticulation that it lives in the cinephilia imaginarium nowadays. Thus, devotees who are more or less of the same age as Chantal Akerman when she shot her signature work instinctively adopt her gaze vis-à-vis this masterfully choreographed Mother, often neglecting the nuances of her mysterious inner life.
Now that I am a single, stay-at-home mother of a boy myself, I can’t help but project many private and personal notions of this outwardly lonely existence onto a film that seems to offer so much space for everyone to join in on the fantasizing. Still, if there is one major difference between the realm of Jeanne Dielman and mine, it is access to the Internet and social media. Therefore, I decide to reimagine the whole film with its protagonist surrounded by contemporary tech devices, consuming media and mediated social interactions like the rest of us. When I go through my screenshot collection, I realize that, indeed, every frame grants enough room to add a gadget close to JD (not too informal, I hope, she is already part of Web 2.0, plus it sounds like the shorter, grim version of another Belgian, JCVD), especially given the fact that in so many of these shots she is seated at a table in the various mood / M.O. chambers of her apartment.
The next thing I have to decipher is JD’s tech agenda. Not only because phrenology evolved into personality reading in line with the devices we flash in public — there is also a very practical reason for this: I’ll need stock photos, lots of them. A quick poll on Twitter, and I’m convinced that she bought a pair of low-class Samsung Galaxy products, a phone and a tablet, thanks to a Christmas promotion. The amount of high-resolution SG images, all online and for free, is exhilarating, yet here comes the tricky part.
The first thing you learn when you start studying drawing is about linear perspective, how to render 3D objects on a 2D surface. If you spend enough time contemplating Chantal Akerman’s mise-en-scène, you will notice it is more like mise-en-aquarium. The indoor scenes, in particular, reek of XIX-century realism in terms of framing and PoV, color palette, subject treatment. The checkered tablecloth flirts delicately with the concept of a vanishing point, and when the tablecloth is meticulously set aside, our eyes seem transfixed at the level of Delphine Seyrig’s chest. At the same time, XXI-century stock photos are shot by people who, ostensibly, do not care much about Leonardo’s ideas when it comes to linear perspective. In all the SG images I find, the devices appear as if they float in thin air, ready to be cropped and photoshopped, with their screen exposed enough to paste the required content on top of it.
I embark on the task with ferocity, screenshot websites and platforms from my own Android phone, look for online OS emulators to reproduce the resolution of a SG tablet, test different filters and tools to tone down the vulgar shininess of these ultra compact pixels that do not seem to belong to JD’s grainy universe. The devices and my online screenshots mingle well, yet the moment I paste them onto a frame from Chantal Akerman’s film, I feel pretty much like those lunatics who vandalize paintings in museums with a knife. I fail over and over again.
And yet, as much as this is a spiel, it is also a documentary, so let’s go by the rules of cinema, and imagine JD is like all of us, keeping her phone and tablet somewhere in the room, but not necessarily in front of the camera, for there is none.
Most viewers are quick to forget that there is a baby in the film, yet its presence is among the few episodes when the silence of this orderly place is spontaneously agitated with innocent audio ripples. Busy with more important things, also maybe unwilling to return to the memories of her own motherhood, JD places the tablet nearby and plays Henri Salvador – “Une Chanson Douce (Le Loup, La Biche Et Le Chevalier)”, or this one mix that always does the trick. Without YouTube Premium, though, she passes by from time to time to make sure no abrupt ad would wake up the kid.
JD is most certainly on Ravelry, not to take part in any knitalongs, mostly to peruse patterns, sometimes to yearn for someone’s yarn stash or accessories, given that her budget is so limited. Apart from Ravelry, the other place where she seeks creative inspiration is Instagram. A couple of friends from her teenage years promote their knitting podcast there; not that JD listens to the series, she just likes the photos, sporadically throwing a glimpse at a local yarn bombing account.
Do you know what one needs when peeling and chopping a sack of potatoes? Music, naturally! Her son showed her how to find online radios – nothing like Radio Garden, more like NTS that provides a variety of styles. When she has to organize her matinée in a really efficient manner, JD goes for more energetic tunes, without neglecting the ambient mixes, for ruminative moments. Once in a while, she also enjoys listening to the chatty DJs, when they tune in from exotic locations around the globe, daydreaming how it would feel to be there, physically.
Nothing more delightful than writing an actual letter to a long-time friend living abroad who is not very active on social media. Luckily, she sent her postal address via Facebook a couple of years ago, so it is easy to find. What would be JD’s Facebook username, maybe something close to jeannelman32? Don’t underestimate her password, though, for it is an anagram of animula vagula blandula – a reference to one of her favorite novels, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, read in her youth.
During her quiet coffee pauses, JD browses websites for new recipes, not always intending to actually cook them. Often the very fantasy of preparing something exquisite, for a special occasion, is enough to make her feel hopeful during those gloomy, rainy days in Brussels. The tablet is at an arm’s reach, with NYT Cooking open, as she pauses for a second to calculate the cost of this or that dish, so she can decide which recipe to save. No time for chef shows on the TV, no desire either, for their loud and intense storytelling does not mesh well with her character.
The dating app, because, of course, this would be the easiest and fastest way to find men, and discretely. As someone who is not on any of these, it takes a lot of time for me to sift through multiple options based on the way I feel about their vibes, until I figure out JD would have used something local, preferably in French. Google tells me Meetic has a Belgian version, yet I can’t possibly access it on my own phone even for a screenshot. Here, her phone is close by, ready for a selfie that will be carefully cropped and filtered afterwards.
Originally, this file contained ‘112’ in its name. If there were mobile phones in 1975, would have JD called for an ambulance in the aftermath of realizing her deed? Or would she have sat at the table with her hands on her phone’s surface, as if looking for tactile consolation, staring into the void? This table reflection, sculpting a Queen of Clubs, hints at the duality of the film’s finale, yet the fact that the phone’s mirror image is missing is a question to you, dear reader: are reality-producing objects real in themselves?