On the left, we have the seductive, ageless Countess Elizabeth Báthory. On the right is Belgian housewife Jeanne Dielman, who’s somewhat less glamorous than the Countess as she peels potato after potato after potato. What do these women have in common, you may ask? Well, my friend, they’re both played by the great Delphine Seyrig, a Lebanon-born French actress who starred in countless art films throughout 1960s and ’70s. She worked repeatedly with Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel; she was in William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) wearing a poofy red wig and Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970) as Catherine Deneuve’s fairy godmother; she also directed a few movies of her own.
In short, she was a multitalented woman (and proud feminist) who worked almost nonstop for three decades before her death in 1990. You don’t hear Seyrig’s name bandied about much by cinephiles these days, which is a shame. Therefore, I’ve decided to bandy it about myself! Seyrig and her quiet mystique are at the center of the two very different films pictured above: Harry Kümel’s arty, nudity-filled vampire movie Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Chantal Akerman’s 3 1/2 hour experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In both films, she plays laconic, enigmatic women, but still, you could hardly find more different roles than a bloodsucking aristocrat and a weary, working-class single mother.
Daughters of Darkness is almost all surface, with virtually no substance; thankfully, much of that surface is provided by the glittering, impeccably coiffed Seyrig, whose lipstick matches the blood that flows throughout the film. It reminds me of the work of Roger Vadim (who also made a lesbian vampire movie, Blood and Roses ): pretty, sexy, a little weird, but totally empty-headed. The Countess Báthory follows the usual model of the beautiful, predatory lesbian vampire, as she gradually takes a newlywed couple under her wing and leads the wife in sucking the husband’s blood. And, as usual, she ends up as a burning corpse impaled on a tree branch. Such are the wages of fear.
Meanwhile, Jeanne Dielman is a patient, painstakingly shot document of three days in its title character’s life. Seyrig’s expression varies between a half-frown and a half-smile as she goes about her daily chores – brushing her hair, writing a letter, sending her adult son Sylvain off to school – but her emotions never quite breach the surface, and always remain tantalizingly ambiguous. Is she happy keeping her home clean? Does she hate the drudgery of her day-to-day existence? Despite its repetitive structure, it’s a masterfully dense film that requires far more discussion than I can give it here and now; incidentally, Jeanne also moonlights as a prostitute when her son’s not around, granting the film several additional layers of feminist subtext.
The substance of Jeanne Dielman is just the mundane, never-ending processes and rhythms of normal life, filmed in wearying detail. But through one geometrically composed long shot after another (several set-ups are repeated time and time again; the film doesn’t have so much as a single close-up), you achieve a greater awareness of the processes, the sheer time that they consume, and their emotional toll on Jeanne. (Even if Seyrig’s performance is minimalist practically to the point of being an automaton.) In Jeanne Dielman, the daily lives of women (and their cinematic representations) are joined to the techniques of avant-garde filmmaking, with bountiful if hard to watch results.
At the heart of all that, of course, is Delphine Seyrig. Her face and gestures reciprocate the camera’s patience; she goes about her day methodically, without a shred of movie star ego or exaggeration. In Daughters of Darkness, on the other hand, she brings in just the right level of exaggeration, playing the Countess as a decadent, glamorous, and graceful mass murderer. Yet she does it with surprising understatement – a giggle here, a kiss there. I’ll conclude with a single, beautiful image from the end of Jeanne Dielman, from just after Jeanne’s shocking final act. What is she thinking? What are her plans? All we know is what we see on Seyrig’s face.