Morning is a stray thread from which the rest of the day unravels. Before Covid-19 social isolation began, I prevented this reckless unravelling by leaving my apartment each day before noon. This rule prevented my slipping into a structureless existence in which the day escaped without occasion. It was also the first of my regular routines to fall away with the pandemic. Noon was no longer a temporal marker with significance; social isolation had irrevocably shifted my relationship to time. In isolation I am faced with a void: no longer required to be anywhere at any given time, the days have begun to expand, restless and unwieldy. This is one function of the void, a reorganisation of temporality in which inside time takes priority: the time it takes to boil potatoes is of more consequence than social arrangements or bus schedules or dinner reservations.
When the deepest period of social isolation in Montreal began in late March, and my real friends were replaced by hazy, pixelated video images ruled by my unreliable internet connection, I sought other modes of relationality. I looked for stories that dimmed the energetic pull of the social world and made sinking into life indoors more comfortable. This comfort first came from Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), whose unnamed protagonist embraces the void in a hyperbolic rejection of social life and responsibility in favour of sleep. My belated attention to Moshfegh’s novel was a happy coincidence. Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation during social distancing provided a comforting sense of relationality drawn from mine and the protagonist’s respective isolations. The narrative follows a young, conventionally beautiful, and passively wealthy art history major in pursuit of a year-long, uninterrupted sleep, a desire made possible by her reckless psychiatrist’s prescriptions of increasingly potent sleep medications. The protagonist envisions a phoenix-like rebirth from her year of slumber, a physical and mental reset that is reminiscent of an exaggerated version of wellness industry detox culture. She idealises the restorative potential of the void: a complete rejection of social responsibility, ambition, and productivity. While I read descriptions of her desire for sleep and avoidance of social interaction, I too am probably in bed, warding off guilt about not having left the house. This guilt recedes rapidly while reading. Though Moshfegh’s protagonist often does interact with the outside world – usually in a blackout state induced by her strongest medications – the important thing, for isolation reading, is that she doesn’t want to. And while she is unlikeable and melodramatic (and intentionally so), she is also a convincing critic of the world outside the walls of her lavish upper east side Manhattan apartment, a world composed of her cloying best friend, Reva, whom she transparently despises, and the comically vain and vapid world of the art gallery where she works. She forces the reader, against their better judgment, to empathise with her need to simply be left alone.
Reading a story about a woman confined to her apartment as I sat confined in mine was a necessary indulgence in the void, a leaning into solitary space, both in my head and in my environment. But the protagonist’s quest in My Year of Rest and Relaxation was inspiring in a way that felt foreboding, a blueprint for isolation living that threatened to disintegrate the already fragile threads that held my days together. I looked elsewhere and found a more nuanced exploration of void-living in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a film that looks closely at the tiny elegant moments that underpin a single woman’s errands and domestic chores.
Watching Jeanne Dielman is an altogether different confrontation with the void, in a slow-burn assertion that Belgian middle-aged widow Jeanne’s daily chores and routines deserve three hours and twenty-two minutes of her audience’s rapt attention. I revisited Akerman’s film for Jeanne’s company, and to escape from the relentless reminders of my own solitude that came in the form of invitations to connect virtually. Akerman’s film provides a comforting sense of relationality through her inversion of which events and actions are worthy of attention. Here she rejects fast-paced, plot-driven cinema, instead drawing our attention to the minutiae of Jeanne’s daily gestures. Akerman narrows our field of vision to focus on the small ways in which Jeanne maintains control and rhythm in her daily life through the repetition of domestic rituals. I become Jeanne’s companion in this project; on the other side of the screen, I too boil potatoes in an attempt to maintain a sense of control.
Akerman’s script for Jeanne Dielman, which she wrote and directed at age 24, began with subplots and secondary characters that were gradually whittled away before being discarded completely during the film’s production. She mined the narrative to its barest elements: Jeanne’s daily rituals, portrayed in long, unmoving shots. The film takes place over the course of three days with intertitles that mark the passage of each. On each day, Jeanne completes a variation of the same routine inside her modest apartment: she makes coffee, folds the laundry, cooks for her teenage son, and, while the potatoes boil for dinner, hosts a client for sex work in her bedroom. Jeanne’s sleeping with men for money is as much a part of her daily routine as her cooking. The camera shuns the clichéd honesty of Jeanne’s sexuality, favouring instead the intimacy of her fingers kneading ground beef as she forms a loaf. She turns the raw meat over itself as she folds an egg into the mixture. The orange yolk bursts and coats her fingers.
Akerman does not look closely at Jeanne’s sex scenes until the film’s very end. Rather, her camera lingers on the minute details of Jeanne’s domestic gestures, capturing the real duration of her daily rituals. The time it takes to shine her son’s shoes, to brush her hair before going to bed, or to carefully remove each small porcelain figurine from the glass hutch in the dining room and polish them with a cloth. Akerman has called the film “a love film for [her] mother”1, a character analysis of a housewife inspired by her affection for her mother Natalia’s own domestic gestures. Her unblinking camera records Jeanne’s movements without cutting away, an approach that she describes as “the only way” to shoot the film, “to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The framing was meant to respect the space, her, and her gestures within it”.2 Akerman’s focus on Jeanne is our new mode of attention: devoting space and time to experiences that had previously been overlooked in favour of dramatic plot points. She insists that Jeanne’s gestures are worthy of prolonged attention: “I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash come higher, and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little”.3 In documenting Jeanne’s chores but not her sex work, Akerman disrupts this visual hierarchy. She indulges in the duration of Jeanne’s routines and demands that we adapt to her pace. As I watch Jeanne Dielman, the affection that Akerman feels for Jeanne’s minute gestures extends to my own tinkering about in my apartment, where I attentively carry out small tasks as a way to distract myself from a mounting sense of dread. Returning to these small tasks is a salve against the void in a context where usual distractions and preoccupations are absent.
Jeanne interacts with the outside world more than I am allowed. She sits in a café to drink coffee, she goes to the bank, she visits a small grocery store to buy just a few things. She indulges in a quest to find a lost button’s perfect match by visiting three different shops, a wandering that is unheard of in my own circumstance. And yet, no matter the length of her excursion, I know that Jeanne will return home. Jeanne’s relation to her home is steadfast: the film’s title informs us of her place within the home, her address an addendum to her name. Akerman’s camera reinforces Jeanne’s attachment to her apartment the first time she leaves the building, after dinner on the first day. Jeanne and her son leave the apartment and, as they descend in the building’s elevator, the camera remains, looking out toward them from the perspective of the apartment door, as if reticent to follow.
Where Moshfegh’s protagonist renders the world outside her apartment an abhorrence to be avoided, Jeanne’s relationship to the outside world is more ambivalent. Her interactions with the outside world are comfortingly dull: allowing me to look forward to once more sitting idly in a café, but not exciting enough to incite real jealousy. The outside world is a peripheral afterthought in Jeanne’s life. The majority of the film takes place inside the apartment while the outside beckons, unconvincingly. In the evenings, lights from outside an unseen window reflect off the interior walls of Jeanne’s dining and living rooms, reminding the viewer of the existence of the outside world only in glimpses. Jeanne is not want for social interaction; on one of her excursions, she declines an invitation to have coffee with a passing female acquaintance. “I don’t have time this afternoon. Maybe next week”, she says, and returns home.
As much as Jeanne Dielman is an expression of Akerman’s affection for domestic gestural minutiae, it is also a film about a woman who has little to do, and fills the void of empty time with small tasks to mitigate her restlessness. Her restlessness announces itself in two brief scenes, on the third day, when Jeanne sits in an armchair in her living room and seems acutely directionless. In these moments, Jeanne and the viewer both realise that she has run out of tasks to fill her time. These spare moments between domestic rituals and errands are where Jeanne confronts the void, and the possibility of the day’s unravelling. These are the moments I too am avoiding as I sit with Jeanne on the other side of the screen. Like Jeanne, I have little to do. Confined to my domestic space, I face the void and attempt to structure my existence with domestic minutiae, revisiting tasks that are lower on the hierarchy of film images with a renewed sense of attention. The repetition of Jeanne’s routine is a comfort to us both. It is when this repetition lapses that the edges begin to unravel. Akerman forces the viewer to attend to the gestural minutiae that differentiate one day from the next, when all obvious signs of difference have been eliminated. It takes a concentrated eye to notice what changes between the days.
One effective way to fill swaths of unstructured time is to extend the duration of daily tasks. Showering becomes taking a bath. Before isolation I didn’t take baths, not because I don’t have the time but rather because I had decided that they just weren’t for me. I could never quite get the water hot enough without feeling like I had inadvertently boiled myself. Perhaps concentrated temperature regulation was a task I could approach with renewed attention in social isolation. It was while sitting in a late March bath that I started watching Jeanne, soaking in water slightly too hot, Jeanne balanced on the edge of the tub. During my bath I bend inside time to my will. Sunlight streams through the bathroom’s large window but I draw the curtain and light a candle. Here, with Jeanne, it is evening. For a few utopic moments near the film’s beginning, my bath overlaps with Jeanne’s, and I watch Jeanne scrub herself clean with thorough dedication. Jeanne rinses the tub once it has drained, reminding me to do the same. The film’s length allows me to carry Jeanne with me through a number of my daily routines, as I escort her around my apartment on my laptop. I sit cross-legged in bed, folding towels, while Jeanne folds her son’s blue pyjamas and collapses the pull-out couch on which he sleeps. Jeanne retrieves a bag of potatoes from her back porch and finds that there is only one left. I feel her disappointed realisation that she must leave the house; I have felt it too. While Jeanne waits for potatoes to boil, I drag myself from bed to begin preparing dinner.
Jeanne’s control over her routines establishes a comforting repetitive rhythm at the beginning of the film. What becomes increasingly evident as Jeanne’s days progress, however, is the rising sense of unease that simmers under the surface of her routine, evident only in small hints. On the evening of day two, Jeanne’s hair is unkempt, and the potatoes are overcooked. On the third day, her coffee doesn’t taste quite right. She rinses her cup and tries again, sifting through her sugar jar to find two perfect cubes before finally dumping the coffee down the sink and brewing it again. The film’s simmering unrest climaxes when Jeanne does, in the first sex scene to which we have access. After having an orgasm with a client, Jeanne carefully redresses, tucking her shirt into her pencil skirt, and stabs the man through the heart with a pair of scissors. Order – and control – are restored, at least momentarily. Jeanne’s murderous act implies that while her routines are elegant, and may be worthy of attention and respect, they are untenable. As the rhythm of her routine is threatened, so too is her ability to cope in her surroundings and maintain a sense of control. This is part of Jeanne’s fitting companionship. Though Jeanne comforts me, my isolation is ultimately no more sustainable than hers. The salve of inside time expires as the world outside my walls presses in. The edge will crack. The day will unravel.