How could you know? You’re not a woman.
Chantal Akerman set herself up with a tough act to follow when she directed Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) at the age of 25. On the heels of her 1974 feature Je Tu Il Elle, and three earlier shorts, Akerman’s nearly four-hour opus about roughly 48 hours in the life of a regimented, suppressed, and tactfully disturbed single mother is a film that not only stands out for its duration and its minimalist aesthetic, but is one that practically demands analysis. Since its release, Jeanne Dielman has rightfully secured its place as an extraordinary achievement subjected to a justly deserved salvo of critical scrutiny, on the cultural, political, and formal front. It is a film that only grows more revealing and more riveting upon subsequent viewings, as one looks for indications and subtle (sometimes not so subtle) cues to the fermenting violence that is ultimately unleased by the end of the picture.
The address that forms part of Jeanne Dielman’s title is more than just a semi-comical declaration of the film’s understated situation. The residence proves immensely vital as a literal location where the drama (or lack thereof) unfolds, and also as a symbolic arena that defines Jeanne’s (Delphine Seyrig) identity, which she wholly accepts to start but eventually begins to rebel against. Within this dwelling, shared with her studious son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), Jeanne maintains a house circumscribed by order and routine: a nightly radio tune-in, the dining room table recitation of Baudelaire, specific meals assigned to specific days, and so on. She is fastidious in the placement of things—the exact order of items on her dresser, the painstaking folding of napkins and tablecloths—and her day-to-day customs divulge a paradoxically uncomfortable contentment. The afternoon trysts she has with a regulated sting of clients, on the surface the most unusual part of her day, are nevertheless those glossed over by Akerman, who holds the camera back on the far end of the hallway as Jeanne and her john enter the bedroom and close the door. Lights change to signify the passage of time, the two exit, the man pays and leaves. This, until the end of the film, is the least interesting and possibly even the least relevant part of her day. When she starts preparing a meal, stops to entertain a client, then comes back to finish cooking, the whole rendezvous is treated as a passing trifle. In the grand scheme of things, her afternoon prostitution is but an inconsequential way to earn some income.
Jeanne’s other duties appear inescapable, though, from shining Sylvain’s shoes to the preparatory sequences of her breading veal cutlets or peeling potatoes. And her demeanor during much of this is oftentimes severe, empty, and self-possessed. It creates an instantly stifling constraint. There are moments when the reserve is broached, as when she and Sylvain engage in a candidly frank conversation, which touches on a charming openness between mother and son, but those moments are few and far between. At first only flickering blue lights outside their apartment window suggest a life beyond, but by day two, Jeanne actually ventures outdoors. It’s a potent breath of fresh air for the viewer and for Jeanne, a relief to the domestic claustrophobia so efficiently conveyed by Akerman. Still, even this environmental reprieve is largely demarcated by habitual chores and humdrum interactions, getting the evening’s groceries or chatting with the resident cobbler. Otherwise, the sole extent of her social interaction comes in the form of a chatty neighbor—played by Akerman off-screen—who leaves her baby with Jeanne while she herself runs errands.
Shot by Babette Mangolte, with whom Akerman worked throughout the 1970s, at a time when a female cinematographer was quite the rarity, Jeanne Dielman’s color scheme is drained to antiseptic dullness, acutely expressing Jeanne’s own existence: there is color and life, but both are sapped in their potential vibrancy. Akerman, who employed an almost entirely female crew on the film, creates a hypnotically voyeuristic character study, not just because of the film’s inordinate length and shot duration, but in the banality of that which she focuses on, following Jeanne in the most mundane detail, step by step, room to room. To lend these ordinary activities aesthetic appeal, Akerman, as she would always do so well, creates a strong sense of graphic balance and control, often hinging on an attractive symmetry. Her compositions are typically held in wide and medium shots, head to foot framings of Jeanne standing and closer, centered arrangements when she is seated. Though she said she wanted to avoid cutting “this woman in pieces,” on rare occasions, she will retain fixed vantage points as characters move toward the camera, lobbing off heads and creating visual unease. (Akerman also insisted she is never voyeuristic, commenting that one, “always knows where I am”—maybe, but does Jeanne?)
All this organization in dramatic process and pictorial construction is gradually shaken by the end of the second day, at about the two-hour point. One may not notice everything on a first or even second viewing of Jeanne Dielman, but something isn’t right. Jeanne loses track of time, she leaves the money jar open, she doesn’t immediately greet her son; one detects the slightest of variances in the lines on her face, her barely-there expressions, her disheveled hair. Her movements are off, too. When she drops a brush, the slipup is like an emotional thunderbolt. During her daily tidying up, she seems to slap the bedspreads and pillowcases just a little harder than normal; she kneads the meat a little too long. Jeanne walks into the bedroom, stops, does nothing, turns around and exits. She is like an automaton short circuiting. Ivone Margulies calls Jeanne Dielman “a mesmerizing study of stasis and containment, time and domestic anxiety,” and it’s remarkable how well Akerman establishes these sensations in just a day or two of Jeanne’s predictable schedule. For such an experimental, unconventional work, Ackerman’s talent for generating an ominous suspense is astonishing. At 201 minutes, the film’s measured build-up may be pushing it for many as it is, but one can only imagine how shocking the conclusion would be if even more time was spent getting lulled into the unchanging sameness of this woman’s reality.
Obvious credit for this goes to Akerman, but the triumph of Jeanne Dielman, and the effectiveness of its engagement, also comes down to Seyrig. Star of such acclaimed fare as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Jacques Demy’s enchanting Donkey Skin (1969), and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Seyrig gives a modest but exhausting physical performance, with tremendous immersion and intensity. In the documentary, Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” Seyrig appears argumentative with her director, but her concerns emphasize the importance of pacing in the picture, and of her own careful movements and precarious motivations. Seyrig also expounds on the state of contemporary femininity, which, she says, hinges on choice and the revolt from cliched female roles, in film and life.
This social/sexual commentary is perhaps Jeanne Dielman’s most substantial claim to fame. It was rather quickly heralded as a powerful feminist proclamation, but even that was never so cut and dry. In the portrayal of this Belgian single mother, the film was a calling card for the burgeoning women’s movement, especially in Europe, but some, like Jayne Loader, writing in Jump Cut, didn’t subscribe to everything being consigned to the picture: “I find Akerman’s film not only self-defeating in its depiction of the housewife’s role and her so-called regeneration through violence at the film’s end, but cavalier in its treatment of the complex role of women in the family.” Even Akerman, who did contend that it is a feminist film, also gives the caveat that, “All those labels are a bit annoying. To name something is a way to possess it. I think it makes the film smaller. And O.K., maybe they are right, but they are never right enough.”
Along with Margulies’ essay and the aforementioned documentary, the Criterion Collection release of the film, now on a Blu-ray upgrade, also features a number of interviews, and in one of them, Akerman’s mother alludes to the most persistently impressive aspect of her daughter’s cinema. Upon noting how Jeanne Dielman reflected the life of she and those of her generation, the senior Akerman says she hadn’t realized Chantal had “noticed all that.” That observational gift is one of Akerman’s greatest talents, the way she will look at a given setting, seize it with her camera, and extract something tremendously expressive. This is so much the case with Jeanne Dielman, that one is left staggered by its lasting physiological impression. It’s hard to go about one’s daily chores after viewing the film and not marvel at how Akerman and Seyrig could turn ostensible triviality into such great art.
Prior to her tragic 2015 suicide, Chantal Akerman made several amazing movies (her 1993 documentary, From the East, is one of the best films from the past 30 years), but nothing is quite like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. It is a meticulous portrait of a middling heroine and her emblematic frustrations, all of which are exposed in a rigorous, deeply absorbing cinematic inquiry.