Doing Time

By Catherine Fowler


A Review Of Chantal Akerman’s Installation, Woman Sitting Down After Killing

At the 2001 Venice Biennale Chantal Akerman was among several filmmakers who agreed to create an installation that reflected collaboration between film and the visual arts. The result was a piece that played across seven monitors called Woman Sitting Down After Killing. Akerman is no stranger to installation work, having delivered D'Est/From the East (1993) as first a feature film then a museum piece, and having more recently constructed an autobiographical video installation featuring extracts from her oeuvre. However, what sets Woman Sitting Down After Killing apart from this work, which precedes it, is the fact that it is “found footage”, namely the last ten or so minutes of her second feature film Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, 1975). 

Akerman’s change of exhibition context for this closing moment inevitably brings with it a shift in interpretation and effect. Like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1997) or Steve McQueen’s homage to Buster Keaton in Deadpan (1999), Woman Sitting Down After Killing breathes new life into old images.

It also shares with 24 Hour Psycho a relegation of the narrative aspect to the background: if 24 Hour Psycho delayed the carefully constructed tension well beyond even Hitchcock’s limits, Woman Sitting deletes the first three hours and ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman’s mammoth sitting. In the final ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman, we find her seated at her highly polished table having stabbed her client of the day, the soup tureen in which she places her daily takings off to one side, and her eyes cast down, expression indiscernible yet also overwhelming. The impact of this ending relied on the duration, which brought with it other elements which are also necessarily absent from Woman Sitting: as a result of a film style which avoided camera movement, oblique camera angles, point of view shots and close-ups, it was largely through her control of time and space that Akerman inflected Jeanne’s world with meaning, thereby creating character, identification, rhythm, tension, narrative and narration. In the absence of the accumulative structure of the 1975 film Woman Sitting becomes a still, flat image deprived of a memory, a history and a context.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the image of Jeanne Dielman waiting in the film and how it is used in Woman Sitting is that in the gallery space we don’t have to wait with her. We can, of course, leave and return as we wish. The ‘real time’ of the film becomes a reel of time in the gallery as the image is looped, playing continuously, subject to our perambulations. Released from the cinematic drag of “what happened next”, in which each image must move the story on because the passive spectator is waiting for it to reach its end, moving images in the gallery space can actually take their time, inviting the painterly states of contemplation, literalisation or abstraction. Clearly, the title of Akerman’s installation provides an index to each of these, literally a Woman Sitting, yet also a challenging, metaphorical image which, if we have no knowledge of the film, invites us to speculate about what has gone before and what might come after. Though we might argue that Akerman’s cinema has always “taken its time” (evident not only in the duration of Jeanne Dielman but also in the preference for slow static shots over highly edited sequences) and thus part of the experience of her films has to do with duration (finding a different kind of tension from that normally associated with the cinema) Woman Sitting suggests that for her cinema and the visual arts can collaborate largely through allowing cinema to be the “back story” for film in the gallery. With this agreement in place moving images are freed from the narrative imperative that dominates them in the auditorium. Clearly this was always the aim of experimental filmmaking and this is why it is so important to read film in the gallery from within cinema history.

Catherine Fowler teaches Film Studies at Southampton Institute of Higher Education.