Among the many pleasures to be gained from viewing the paintings of domestic interiors by Johannes Vermeer is a growing appreciation for his meticulous and intriguing handling of space. These paintings — such as the Music Lesson (1662-1665) or Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-1662) — deftly characterize the cloistered atmosphere of the rooms we inhabit, the way in which our lived spaces both comfortingly embrace and threateningly suffocate us. Often Vermeer will remind us of the outside world through an open window casement, or a gleaming shaft of intruding sunlight. The brilliance with which he captures the pervasion of external light into the closed-off world of these interiors (one is tempted to speak of an intercession of vivifying light into the stultifying closeness of domestic space) speaks both to the spiritual distance between the public and private exhibited in these paintings and, simultaneously, to the proximity of these two spheres, the way which the outside world (here depicted by the light) penetrates ineluctably the walls of our seemingly self-imposed seclusion, the barriers of our individuality.
The private home, the domestic interior, is a wonderfully contradictory space. For while we seem to have chosen to live in this manner of seclusion — cut off from others as a means of preserving our individual self, our equilibrium, our sanity — in reality, our manner of living is as much socially imposed (based on the mores of our community, expectations for what it means to be successful and comfortable that pre-date our existence) as it is personally selected. The ways in which we inhabit those private spaces, the manner in which we decorate them and so on, are both in line with and opposed to social convention. Their inherent opposition (the definition of a private space in contradistinction to a public one) is a social, and in that sense public, mandate.
Hence, the peculiar charm of the Vermeer interior. In them, we recognize the manner in which the public inflects the private, and yet we still feel as though we gain some privileged access to a space that ought to be forbidden us. That is to say, there’s a voyeuristic element to these paintings. And yet, this is the point at which Vermeer’s most subtle stroke of brilliance emerges. Notice that in most of these paintings, we are positioned as viewers in the place of the fourth wall, the wall that of course cannot feature in the painting itself. There are no odd, or sweeping angles of view involved here; rather, these paintings are characterized by an overriding frontality, an insistence on the perpendicular. This flatness imbues the paintings with a matter-of-fact quality. Providing no real space for the subjective presence of the viewer, these paintings force us into a sort of God’s eye view, in that we see actions unfold as they really are, as they would go on unobserved and unremarked.
But of course, we don’t actually see actions unfold. We have provided with tableaux, with the static over the dynamic. And so, while these paintings present the verisimilitude of objectivity, and promise the revelation of the secret activities that occur within domestic space, they also provide something of an enigma. We are always left to wonder what is really occurring. Is it an innocent music lesson or a scene of seduction? Just what is the young woman with the water pitcher contemplating as she peers out the window? We can’t help but believe that if only these images would come to life for a brief moment we would secure the answers to our many questions.
Chantal Akerman’s remarkable film, Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles shares many qualities with Vermeer’s paintings of domestic interiors, not the least of which is its obsession with frontality and its exquisite concern with the rich textures of Interior space. Although it tracks the domestic life of a widowed mother (Delphine Seyring) living with her son (Jan Decorte) in 20th-century Brussels and not with the interior lives of the 17th century Dutch, this film in many ways strikes one as a Vermeer painting come to life. Indeed, everything about the film reinforces its painterliness, its concern with tableaux, its insistence upon the image and the image’s thwarted attempts at permanence.
The film follows Jeanne (whose full name we only know owing to the title, as it is never spoken in the film itself) over the course of three days during which she prepares meals, goes shopping, looks after her son, executes various chores, briefly looks after the neighbor’s baby, and — once per day — perfunctorily prostitutes herself to men. Jeanne is meticulously precise in all of the details of her life. Each day of the week has a specific menu (every Tuesday is stew and potatoes, every Wednesday wiener schnitzel) and a specific john. The film involves us in the details of her routine so that what we watch moves from the curious to the excruciating to the meditative to the sublime. Akerman does not have Jeanne prepare one wiener schnitzel and allow the viewer’s imagination to supply the remainder of the work, she shows us the manner of preparation (laying out the flour, the plate with the egg yolk), the breading of each piece of pork, and then the clean-up afterward.
A remarkable thing happens to the viewer when “nothing” happens on film. We become absorbed in that nothingness. The eye, inevitably, begins to wander, to scroll around the surface of the filmed image. We begin to notice the stultifying symmetry of the framing of the camera and of Jeanne’s furnishings. We begin to understand the meaning that this woman invests in the quotidian but we also understand the emptiness of it all, the manner in which our meaning-acts (that is, the ways in which we try to create meaning in our daily lives) are predicated upon an underlying nihilism, a gaping chasm, a yawning abyss that threatens to swallow us whole, to reveal to our flinching unacceptance of the pointlessness of our existence.
This can be easily misunderstood. I’m not claiming, as many critics do, that Akerman attempts to reveal the banality of a woman’s hausfrauliche life in some quasi-feminist manner of protest. Rather Akerman’s vision here (indeed her feminism) ranges far more widely. Owing to her relative isolation and her insistence upon routine, Jeanne is the perfect test case for the examination of a ubiquitous existential condition. We all construct our lives over that abyss. Meaning is not inherent in the world, we create it. And we create it, inevitably, out of the flimsiest of materials and pretenses. Meaning is not something we find in the world, it is an investment we make in our lives but it is an investment that can promise no real dividends; we wager upon meaning knowing we hold the dead man’s hand.
And yet I don’t find Jeanne Dielman to be a nihilistic film. To recognize that we construct hope upon hopelessness is not nihilism, it’s a frank acknowledgment of our deep-set need to exert some kind of control upon our lives, and our willingness to gamble on meaning in a world that would reduce us to a cipher. But, of course, control cannot be maintained. The world slips through our fingers, thwarting our attempts to give it order. Akerman charts this slippage in Jeanne’s life. While entertaining her Wednesday john, she somehow mistimes the cooking of the potatoes. The simple piece of bad luck becomes a crucial scene within the film. There’s something bitterly touching about watching Jeanne as she wanders around the apartment unsure of what to do with the spoiled potatoes. It’s as though chance had never intervened in her life previous to this moment and she’s congenitally unprepared deal with it.
Now objects seem to slip her grasp. A brush and a utensil go careening across the kitchen floor, disrupting her fragile sense of mastery. There’s an almost Heideggerian “revenge of the object” at work here. Things that ought to be mere equipment, that ought to obey Jeanne’s will (as they always have done) — and thus remain a quasi-invisible, or at least unremarked, part of the work itself — intrude into her (and our) consciousness. More accurately described, they obtrude, become obstacles; they impede. If the Heideggerian notion of equipment is that we are involved in being-in-the-world and thus feel accommodated within the world, organizing it through our quotidian projects, then this habit of equipment to revert into objects, to stand out, show up, and stand in our way demonstrates that the world need not accommodate us at all, that it is not necessarily designed to fit our needs and indeed may actively serve to resist our projects.
And so, we return to those domestic interiors of Vermeer, those spaces that are closed off from the world and yet interrupted by it, spaces of order breached by intrusion, interiors suffused with the exterior. Every home is a house of cards. We find meaning in the order (meaning, indeed, being a manner of ordering the world) but the least bit of external force will lead inexorably to its crumbling.
Criterion Collection presents a beautiful Blu-ray edition of this remarkable film. The edition includes several special features. There’s a documentary of the making of the film, interviews from 2009 with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, and even Akerman’s first film, the short Saute ma ville of 1968.