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Mad Men and JEANNE DIELMAN: Separated at birth?

The New York Times had a great DVD review last week of two releases that inspired some ‘compare and contrast.’ The two films that just happened to go to market simultaneously are John Cassavetes’s HUSBANDS and Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN, two classics of the 1970s. See visual references below: Could there be two more different looking movie stills?

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In the Times, Dave Kehr writes: “Cassavetes’s loquaciously American, loose-ended style has little in common with Ms. Akerman’s terse and tidy European modernism, but the two films share a common project: an attempt to isolate and define a gender-specific sense of experience.”

Reading Kehr’s review made me think about more contemporary gender-specific material: “Mad Men.” Look at this image of Delphine Seyrig, the actress playing the title role in JEANNE DIELMAN … I can’t help but think of Betty Draper.

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Of course Jeanne, unlike Betty, is not only a housewife but also a part-time prostitute — a matter-of-fact detail revealed without batting a fake eyelash. But Betty Draper is also about both embracing and disrupting stereotypes and, like Jeanne, inverts gender expectations in her often “man-like” manner: reserved, tough, and almost without emotion. (Do you notice the way Betty treats her children? “Go.” “Out.” She’s never shy with the one-word, terse commands. It’s great!) Jeanne, as Kehr points out, also represents “behavioral clichés [borrowed] from the opposite camp,” repressively uttering sparse, monotone dialogue over the film’s methodical three hours. Betty Draper has plenty to say each episode, but January Jones delivers an emotionally even, formalized performance every time, far from the realism we’ve come to expect from the dozens of shaky-cam television dramas on every single night.

Speaking of drama, JEANNE DIELMAN establishes a unique system of visuals and expectations, setting up the protagonist’s Brussels flat in a way that allows us to know the intimate rituals performed in the space yet still be surprised when the smallest details change. Is that yesterday’s coffee in the pot? Is her blouse now wrinkled? “Mad Men,” on the other hand, relies on techniques from the likes of Douglas Sirk, sweeping domestic melodramas. Still, from my seat in front of the screen, the similarities are enough to note. Most of us have seen some of Mad Men, so check out Jeanne peeling potatoes here:

–AH