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2001: A Jeanne Dielman Odyssey (or, Passivity and Agency in Safe)

Essay by Jake Rothman '23 for FMST Capstone

“I,” says Todd Haynes, “was looking at movies like Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman and eventually 2001  for some stylistic pointers, so I was looking at things that were extreme” (Larry Gross). One could argue that these two films, both major inspirations for his 1995 film Safe, exist on two nearly opposite poles of narrative cinema. The Kubrick film, from 1969, is a maximalist cosmic epic spanning thousands of years, while Akerman’s, from 1975, is a minimalist feminist domestic drama spanning a few days. Haynes, by combining the two in ways that influence Safe on a more fundamental level than just “stylistic pointers,” creates a film that uncomfortably exists in the ambiguous median between these two sources of inspiration. The similarities among the three can be best identified by exploring their final scenes, which all include some form of the main character looking back at her/himself. By investigating these closing moments, Carol White’s (Julianne Moore) denouement is revealed to be just as radical as the endings of the two other films, even though her transformation occurs within, and has no impact on the world around her.

As Carol’s journey through Safe spatially moves her from the domestic interiors of a film like Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles to the sparser, space-like, and sterile landscape of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we will begin with examining Jeanne Dielman. For the majority of this film’s runtime, Jeanne is a character with little authority. Although she is the central character, other characters express greater control over her autonomy than she is able to. Most of what she does is for the sake of others. She has sex with clients, gets her son’s shoes fixed, makes him dinner, takes care of someone else’s infant, and more. When she does get the rare chance to be by herself, with no one else to care for, she appears to take little joy out of her solitary activities, which often manifest in some form of eating or drinking.

However, the closing moments, which occur after she has sex with a client, reverse this imbalance of authority. She stabs the man. He dies, and her hand is drenched in his blood. Alex Moore argues that her orgasm is an epiphany of how she could live life for her own pleasure: “[The orgasm] is not for the sake of anyone else. It doesn’t serve [her client] or the neighbor or her son. It serves only Jeanne, and she knows it. She realizes that, in a broader sense, living for herself, without constantly serving others, is the path forward she’s been yearning for. She can’t bear to go back to her old life of servitude.” This glimpse of what could be sparks within her the desire to live that life, the life of someone who acts out of self-interest. Before she kills the man, she sees a reflection of herself and him in the mirror, and what she sees is her past, the last few days we’ve shared with her. A past of perpetual servitude. She acts upon this reflection of herself, and ensures that reflection will not dominate her.

The opposite paradigm shift occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although the film doesn’t have a consistent protagonist throughout its duration like Jeanne Dielman or Safe, whoever is the momentary protagonist on screen succeeds by controlling their environment. The characters in 2001 have, throughout the film, the same kind of authority Jeanne Dielman claimed for herself in her final scene. The apes who win are those who utilize the bone, gaining agency over their lives and killing any animal who threatens to take it from them. After a period of contention, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) succeeds by killing HAL 9000, dismantling it piece by piece, stripping it of its agency and restoring David’s agency. There is a throughline of characters’ domination over their environment throughout 2001, the inverse of Jeanne’s submission to the people in her life during her film.

But, like Jeanne Dielman, in 2001’s closing scene, what becomes passive becomes active, and vice versa. David loses all autonomy, and has no choice but to watch his life pass by rapidly. He looks at himself, as an older man, and becomes that man. This repeats until he reaches out to the monolith. While Jeanne saw her past in her reflection, David is forced to see his future within his visions of himself. Jeanne was able to act and sever herself from the past embedded in this vision, but David is forced to become that future. His life deforms to utter servitude, a man passive to time’s dominance. Then, he is presented with 2001’s version of a mirror: the similarly vertical, black monolith. While Jeanne peers into a vision presented to her with great clarity, the vision presented to David is as obscure as it could be, an object of pure darkness. While Jeanne is able to interact with this vision, and transform the man we see in the mirror into a dead man, David can do nothing but reach out to the monolith. He turns into a baby/fetus, a transformation out of his control.

This inversion of the active/passive paradigm in Jeanne Dielman and 2001 is complicated, obscured, and distorted in Safe. Throughout the film, Carol has the lack of authority over the people in her life that Jeanne had, combined with the lack of authority over her environment that David had at 2001’s end. But with this supreme lack of authority comes a new kind: inability to control her own body. When she receives injections to measure her reactions to certain substances, someone else handles the injections. When injected with milk, she loses control over her body. It is only when someone else injects her again that she is able to breathe normally. As her environmental illness worsens, her ability to compose herself and take care of herself disintegrates. Haynes frames her passivity as if Carol were an object with no agency in a claustrophobic space: “I’m definitely drawn to minimalism aesthetically. I think it’s beautiful and so the film is beautiful to me although... what’s beautiful about Safe is also hard and rigid and cold and controlled and so it’s scary. I definitely felt the need to depict Carol constantly in relation to her environment and as part of its architecture” (Gross). Carol is the epitome of the protagonist devoid of authority, a painting on the wall.

But, in Safe’s final moment, there is a shift. Like Jeanne, Carol looks into a mirror. But she doesn’t see her past, a past life of servitude that she soon will sever. Neither does she see the future, like David. Rather, she sees what falls in between: the unvarnished present. What surrounds her is an Akermanian domesticity, mutated with a Kubrickian foreignness, her personal spaceship of cold sterility. Carol is not awarded the power to flip her situation, and gain control over everything that has controlled her. Rather, she is awarded the glimmer of such a switch, a switch she will have to work toward. So, she starts small, telling her reflection she loves herself. To her, this relatively small act of self-love is monumental. Of the three protagonists in these films, she’s the only one who smiles back at her/himself. Her path hasn’t been irreversibly, cosmically altered, like Jeanne’s and David’s, but the present moment that is being reflected in her mirror has some hope when before, there was none. While both Akerman and Haynes crafted films that, in the words of Mary Ann Doane, “have a flatness of tone leaving the central character virtually without affect” (Geller, 124), Haynes grants Carol an ending that sprouts a hopefulness within her, a hopefulness not for the world, but for her ability to eradicate some of the flatness in her life and possibly living a life of great affect.

The exterior of this isolated white dome is eerily similar to 2001’s space-pods, the same space pod David inhabits at the onset of his time-jumping. Despite being powerless, perhaps David is fortunate, as he is able to leave his space-pod. Carol has no such luck: while she sees the possibility to change her outlook on life, she is still inside the pod. Perhaps she wishes she could escape this capsule and be thrown forward in time like David, not having to worry about her ailments of the present. With passivity also comes contentment, a calming release of the grasp on what you cannot have, a peaceful concession that all is out of your control. Notice the gravity of the protagonists’ gestures in the two films of inspiration: Jeanne stabs a man, and David reaches out to the monolith. Carol, however, remains just as small as she has been, merely bringing her oxygen tubes to and from her mouth. She doesn’t commit to a sweeping, life-affirming/denying gesture, but something that requires just as much courage: a radical self-acceptance.

Haynes, in conversation with Larry Gross, said, “I had considered Safe like Jeanne Dielman, but taking place in an airport. I just kept thinking that certain homes in Los Angeles have the quality of airports. All traces of human life, or natural life, have been excluded and taken over. Air is controlled and space is controlled. There’s no trace of humankind, of the mess of human beings.” It is this “mess of human beings” that Carol embodies in her closing scene, staring back at her bruised self. Safe’s ending, when examined within the context of all that came before it, and how Jeanne Dielman and 2001 finalize their stories, exists at the complex midpoint between these two films. While Jeanne breaks out from her passivity into self-agency, and the environment finally breaks David down, stripping him of his agency, Carol’s behavior is not a similar, outward leap. It is an internalized blossoming, a possible, hopeful first step into an unknown future.


Works Cited

Akerman, Chantal. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Olympic Films. 1975.

Geller, Theresa L. “‘The Hardest, the Most Difficult Film’: Safe as Feminist Film Praxis.” Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, 2022.

Gross, Larry. ‘It’s a Pretty Unambiguous Condemnation of a New Age Answer to Life’s Problems’: Writer/Director Todd Haynes on Safe.” Filmmaker, 2020.

Haynes, Todd. Safe. Sony Pictures Classics. 1995.

Kubrick, Stanley. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1969.

Moore, Alex. “The Liberation of Jeanne Dielman.” The Cinessential, 2017.