#CriterionMonth Art House House Wives: The Domestic Space of Safe and Jeanne Dielman

Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection. We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others

Housewives occupy a strange space in pop culture – ‘desperate’ and ‘real’ – the middle class, white American, female housewife is often a paradox; the picture-perfect exterior contrasts with an inner emotional distress. Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory deemed that the silent image of a woman in cinema is a bearer of meaning, rather than the maker of meaning; though Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxells (Jeanne Dielman) (Chantal Ackerman, 1975), are two cases where the meaning is found in the women’s silence.

Both in the Criterion collection, these movies present subversive perspectives on the lives of housewives. The Melodramas of the 1940’S and 1950’s set the pervasive image of housewives in western popular culture, though Safe and Jeanne Dielman subvert the tropes of the genre. With no focus on the romantic relationships of their protagonists, leaving out the soap operatic drama, theatrical lighting queues, and swelling orchestral music we expect in stories about female home makers. So, what happens when the man is not the cause of the woman’s concern, when the women are completely disinterested in sexual and romantic relationships?

In Safe Carol (Julianne Moore), lives the model life of a 1980’s L.A. housewife, her interests and hobbies include interior design, aerobics classes, and going for lunch with her middle-class housewife friends, women who are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. When a new sofa is delivered to Carols house, it descends like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey; starkly contrasting with the saccharine baby blue of the living room, the delivery people have got it wrong and delivered a large black corner sofa. Carol is panicked as “It doesn’t go with anything in the house!”. A seemingly trivial problem triggers Carol’s complete emotional, psychological, and physical breakdown; Carol begins to believe she is afflicted by a special condition, after reading new-age medicine pamphlet titled  ‘are you allergic to the 21st century?’, and all the chemicals that come with it.  After a perm and a trip to the dry cleaners both trigger Carol to have bleeding and fits, Carol leaves her cushy suburban life to move to an equally oppressive cult-like retreat called Wrenwood, where similarly afflicted women and men reside. Once there, Carol confines herself further to a prison like room with it’s own sterilised air and water supply. The unnerving ending of Safe shows Carol staring into the rooms mirror, staring at us and herself through the fourth wall and quietly repeating “I love you”.

The black sofa of ‘Safe’

The titular character of Jeanne Dielman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is a bourgeois Belgian housewife and sex worker, who is discreetly visited once a day by a male client. Jeanne speaks as little as possible, and spends much of her time alone in her apartment – leaving only once to go to the shops.  The movie is nearly 3 hours long; silent lengthy sequences create a portrait of Jeanne as she does chores around her apartment, takes clients, has dinner with her son, and show the subtle breakdown of her routine and psyche. Jeanne is a quiet and orderly woman, and like Carol, and when she experiences a single change to her controlled life (an orgasm, assumed to be her first) her whole sensibility changes, not drastically, but slightly enough that it is clear something is wrong. On the final day, Jeanne silently murders her third and final client with a pair of golden scissors, the final scene shows her sat at the dining table, blood still on her blouse, as she stares into the distance.

While neither Carol or Jeanne have the grand, tragic romances of the Melodramas which came before, sex plays an interesting part in both their lives. Contrastingly, the protagonists of classic Melodramas abandon the cushy middle class lives and privileges, all for a night of passion with the gardeners son (All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Skirk, 1955), or spend their entire lives dedicated to men who barely realise they exist (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophuls, 1948). The first time we see Carols face in Safe, she is laying underneath her husband, visually bored and disinterested; confronted with her dissatisfaction. Whereas Ackerman presents sex as nothing more than a job, a business transaction in Jeanne Dielman; only ever alluding to Jeanne’s work the camera doesn’t enter the bedroom until the third day, when Jeanne kills her customer. R.Patrick Kinsman described Jeanne Dielman as counter-cinematic, that it’s slow pace, lack of dialogue, and minimal plot challenges patriarchal film form. Safe, does this as well, as both movies deny us the conventional male-gazey sex scenes we have come to expect.

Often in horror films, the building itself is the evil, the house, or castle, or cabin in the woods is haunted or possessed. Fear is part of architecture and getting out and leaving forever is the only way to overcome whatever ancient being has decided to wreak terror on whoever has taken up residence. Early on in Safe, we see Carol outside, doing the gardening, the house appearing gigantic behind her. The house seems to dwarf Carol in every shot, the empty space in her huge L.A. home creates tension, she seems incapable of assuming her role as wife and step-mother, so instead of complying to domesticity she retreats further into herself and away from her home. For both Jeanne and Carol, their anguish comes from the inside. Perhaps both these movies are so arresting to the viewer, because they are so silent and unforgiving, neither woman attempts to scream or to run. There are no hints to what either Jeanne or Carol are feeling; the respective performances by Seyrig and Moore are played with a vacant distress, rarely do these women speak, and when they do they remain distant and detached from their own families, and from us as an audience.

Potato Peeling in Jeanne Dielman

Carol gardening in Safe

There is no soundtrack to Jeanne Dielman, left only with the natural sounds of the apartment, we are both aligned and alienated from Jeanne, the most noise she makes comes from the clicking of her heels, a constant reminder of her presence. The fixed camera and long shots, many lasting over 4 minuets with minimal action, give us time to inspect the apartment, to become familiar with Jeanne’s modest, tidy, middle-class home. As we become bored with the films pace, we become aware of ourselves, of our bodies in the seats, painfully aware of the time passing whilst feeling bored and frustrated by the monotonous slow pace of the movie; making us ultimately empathetic to Jeanne’s life and routine. As we are lulled into Jeanne’s rhythms, the only hint at trouble comes when she burns her potatoes on the second day; she wanders around her apartment, pot in hand, her hair slightly mussed, wondering what to do.

Jeanne and Carol take care and pride in how they present themselves and their homes; lacking any distinguishing features or personalities, they are perfect as cinematic symbols of the of middle-class, white, bourgeois, domesticity within capitalist-patriarchal society. Examining Safe and Jeanne Dielman as films which reject the cinematic style of excess associated with Melodrama and classic representations of housewives, shows a subversive, feminist representation of the unseen (and in the cases of women in less fortunate positions than Carol, unpaid) domestic labour of women.

Safe closing scene

Jeanne Dielman closing scene



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By Reba Martin

Reba Martin is from Bristol. She’s been obsessed with the Simpsons since before she could walk, and watches it religiously to this day. Her hobbies include planning to go to the cinema, and going to the cinema. A few favourite films are Eraserhead, Ghost World, and Clerks. You look at her movie diary here and she tweets @rebaxmartin

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