Chantal Akerman was 25 when she made Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a landmark of feminist structural-minimalist cinema. It also became the first film by a Belgian filmmaker to ever have been screened in Cannes, where it was presented at the Director’s Fortnight section to great acclaim. Louis Marcorelles of Le Monde instantly referred to it as “undoubtedly the first masterpiece in the feminine in the history of cinema.” The star of the film, actress Delphine Seyrig, was convinced that “no man could ever have made this movie.” Meanwhile, Akerman has often stated that, while she was empowered by the feminist movement of the time at which this film was made, she did not initially intend to make Jeanne Dielman a feminist movie, hoping instead to capture the beauty of the housewife’s rituals instead.
At over-three-hours in length, the film is devoted to a microscopic examination of the titular widowed mother’s household chores (cooking, cleaning, eating, bathing, shopping, etc.). She also does a little childminding and prostitution, taking in a male caller a day for money. These meticulously scheduled errands are ritualized by Akerman’s symmetrical filmmaking style. Actions (apart, significantly, from the sex during the first two days) are shown in real time. The unmoving camera eyes Jeanne at a medium distance. Unless she moves from one room to another, Akerman holds her camera and the shot steady. This hyper-realistic stylization recalls the early actuality movies or the politically uninterested films of Andy Warhol. Seyrig, totally committed to the project, is featured in a naturalistic performance that is an exemplary feat of “anti-acting.” All this, of course, adds up to a sense of detachment and a lack of will to manipulate a spectator’s viewing experience.
While it is impossible not to see Jeanne as a symbol of the feminine repressed, David Denby of the New York Magazine has rightfully pointed out that “the critics have come close to sentimentalizing her and the movie; they overlook the elements of satirical malice built into its structure. For Jeanne is a tyrant as well as a victim – a tyrant most obviously over herself.” Her punctual regularity is, indeed, obsessive. During a rare moment of dialogue in the movie, her son asks her whether she would ever consider getting re-married. Her reply is that she wouldn’t because she fears she would never be able to get used to a new routine. In another sequence, the mother of the child she minds engages Jeanne in a conversation. Her body language in this instance is one that says that she is deeply annoyed at this interruption of her meticulous daily routine. Indeed, it is a disruption of this routine during the third day of the film that leads to the shocking but expected and perhaps inevitable finale. In this sense, Jeanne Dielman (the movie and Jeanne Dielman the character) may be seen as a ticking time bomb, slowly but surely leading to an explosive manifestation of the Freudian return of the repressed in a quick, thirty-second shot.
Though Akerman opts for an extended duration and temporal distension, her film is surprisingly engaging. Perhaps it is because it is braver to show a widowed mother peeling potatoes than one would believe. Akerman turns the cameras towards objects and routines that we usually take for granted in real life. By doing so, she represents a real aspect of femininity that is, to this day, widely under-represented. Jeanne Dielman has not aged at all. As a depiction of a housewife who never truly seems to leave her house, it is just as relevant today as it was in the mid-70’s when it first came out. – ★★★★★
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES || 1975, Belgium / France || Drama || Directed by – Chantal Akerman / Produced by – Corinne Jénart, Evelyne Paul / Written by – Chantal Akerman / Cinematography – Babette Mangolte / Edited by – Babette Mangolte / Starring – Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze / Running time: 201 mins.
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