A Filmy Kind of Dread
November 1, 2010 | by Liz Brown
Georges Simenon famously wrote in a kind of concentrated trance state, starting and finishing books within a matter of weeks, sometimes days. And that has always seemed to me the best way to read him, too—in a concentrated trance state. Quick, immersive, done. (See his Paris Review interview here.) I don’t necessarily remember many details afterward—just a blur of images, a filmy kind of dread—but once I begin to read his work, especially the romans durs, nothing else exists but the slide into whatever seedy underworld awaits: cheap hotel rooms, colonial outposts, occupied cities, whorehouses, and roadside bars. Whiplash quick, atmospheric, his are usually the skinniest books on the shelf.
So, at five hundred and forty-four pages, his autobiographical novel Pedigree is something of a departure, and not simply in terms of length. Pedigree is the book that Simenon spent the most time on, and it’s the one where the most time passes. Set in his birthplace, Liège, it opens in 1903 and continues through 1918, just after the Armistice.
There is a seedy underworld, too, in Pedigree: the home. Because this is Simenon, there is a crime—an anarchist bombing—but that’s a minor subplot. And that subplot pales next to the seething, roiling dailiness that is life with the Mamelins, the novel's Simenon stand-ins. There is Élise, the fretful, grasping mother; Désiré, the kindly, docile father; and Simenon’s alter ego, Roger. He starts out soft, a little like his father in his sensitivity to subtle sensate pleasures, but gradually hardens. As his mother and her discontent recedes in the latter half of the book, Roger’s restlessness comes into high relief. He chafes against the constraints of home, “each one encrusted in his little parcel of space,” and seeks out the underworlds beyond—at the movie theater, for instance:
The atmosphere of the cinema, the darkness crossed by a pencil of white light, the pictures jumping about on the screen, the strumming of the piano accompaniment, and the warm, invisible crowd which you could feel around you, always produced a sort of fever in him. All his desires and ambitions were exacerbated and multiplied tenfold or a hundredfold; he longed to experience everything at once; and this immense appetite finally took the form of anxious, furtive glances at the boxes. He knew what happened inside them ...
While reading Pedigree I kept thinking of one movie in particular: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). No one would ever describe her domestic epic as whiplash quick. Glacial, yes; trancelike, yes. Three days in the life of a Belgian woman, living alone with her son, going about mundane household tasks. There is no camera movement: no close-ups, no zooming, no tracking, just the low, fixed shots keeping us always at a remove while Jeanne Dielman performs her daily routine. The effect is stifling, even tedious, and yet approaches, too, the devotional and feverish. Monotony becoming suspense. Terence Rafferty was talking about Claude Chabrol’s approach to filmmaking, but his formula applies here, too: “Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and more nothing happens, and then something awful does.”
Ivone Marguiles provides an incisive account of Akerman’s movie:
We watch, for three hours and twenty-one minutes, as Jeanne cooks, takes a bath, has dinner with her adolescent son, shops for groceries, and looks for a missing button. Each gesture and sound becomes imprinted in our mind, and as we are lulled by familiar rhythms and expected behavior, we become complicit with Jeanne’s desire for order. The perfect parity between Jeanne’s predictable schedule and Akerman’s minimalist precision deflects our attention from the fleeting signs of Jeanne’s afternoon prostitution.
And J. Hoberman gives yet a sharper summary: “cleaning, shopping, straightening, cooking, shopping, and fucking.”
All those static frontal shots. The weight, the tactility of mundane objects. The match to the gas stove. The doorbell. Hands taking a hat and scarf. Hands returning a hat and scarf. Jeanne Dielman scrubbing scrubbing scrubbing in the tub. The potatoes, always the potatoes. The watery light from the street signs coming through the curtains. Jeanne Dielman setting the table. Jeanne Dielman walking out of the frame, the camera holding on the empty room. How did the napkins take on so much mass?
Jeanne Dielman isn’t a doppelgänger to either of the parents in Pedigree. Désiré is too content, Élise too chaotic. Rather, I see Delphine Seyrig’s bravura slow-burn performance as containing both. Like Roger, she starts out with Désiré’s methodical love of routine and gradually, very gradually, builds to Élise’s frenzy.
Here is Désiré after Élise has asked him to start taking young Roger to school:
And that had been enough to create a new ritual. For with Désiré the repetition of the same action took on a ritual character, and the various stages of the day followed one another as harmoniously as the priest’s gestures accompanied the organ.
Désiré is a man who cherishes “the familiar sound of the potatoes which were being peeled falling one by one into the fresh water”:
But for Élise, repetition does not breed harmony. She desperately craves order, or, rather, she thinks she does until she gets it:
There was an atmosphere of expectant calm, and this calm enveloped Élise so closely that she felt imprisoned inside it, that she had the impression of being short of air, that occasionally, if she had obeyed her instincts, she would have rushed around haphazardly to avoid the anguish of immobility.
She had nothing more to do. There was not a speck of dust left in the dining-room, the furniture had been polished so brightly that the knickknacks were reflected in it, the walls of the staircase, painted a pale green, had been washed with soap and water from top to bottom, the stairs sandpapered; there was nothing left to move, nothing to wash, polish or scrub.
Margulies describes a corresponding dilemma in Akerman’s heroine, sexualized agitation thrumming underneath the daily tedium, building into explosive rage: “When Jeanne sits on the mustard armchair, not knowing how to fill up her time, the anxiety is palpable. She briefly touches her chest, her heart.”
But the compulsions of Jeanne Dielman—or any of the Mamelins, Roger included—are matched, perhaps even outdone, by the compulsion in filming and writing their stories. Both Pedigree and Jeanne Dielman may have started out as backward glances—Simenon recalling his childhood in Liège, Akerman her mother’s daily routines in Brussels—but they each become something else, a reenactment or simply an enactment, tender and oppressive. And in the end, these are not exercises in remembering a time past as much as in being ever-alert to time as it is passing:
She never forgot the time. Even when she neglected to shoot a glance at the hands of the alarm-clock, she remained alive to everything which marked the passage of time: the hammer at Halkin’s—which you didn’t hear as clearly as in the Rue Pasteur—the boys coming out of the Friars’ school, the siren at Velden’s.
A walking tour of Liège, Simenon’s birthplace.
Exterior shots from Jeanne Dielman.
Chantal Akerman and Delphine Seyrig discuss the way Jeanne Dielman should brush her hair.
And Raekwon and Jeanne Dielman together at last.