Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles May 31, 2021
3 Hrs., 21 Mins.
o tell a story is also to make an agreement — that only the most essential parts of a character’s day will be evinced for the audience in order to preserve their engagement with the narrative. Why linger on an elevator trip, a long wait at a red light, a quick run through the grocery store when there are car crashes, shootouts, verbal disputes to tend to? This agreement has remained the norm because its effectiveness is dependable
and necessary. It's hard to think of many books, movies, that care about those elevator trips, red lights, grocery-store excursions as much as they do the comparatively action-packed.
But they exist, usually experimentally. The most famous example, arguably, might be Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a nearly three-and-a-half-hour-long movie that follows the title character — a 40-something single mom played by the magnificent Delphine Seyrig, forgoing the movie-star glamour with which she became associated more than a decade earlier — as she goes about her routine across three days. Subversively, Akerman refashions the details that would ordinarily be deemed gratuitous in an orthodox movie — the entire preparation process of a meatloaf; a bath; a stop by the bank, for instance — into things more crucial.
With the older women in her life in mind — women like her mother whose daily routines were almost entirely dedicated to maintaining a household — the then-25-year-old Akerman wanted to make a movie that lent an importance to minutiae that, although consequential on a daily basis, are generally deemed insignificant more broadly. Jeanne Dielman marks a reversal. “I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman,” she reflected years later in Camera Obscura. “They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little.”
Jeanne Dielman almost entirely comprises long takes, shot at table level, of Seyrig completing household tasks. (The film, though, is of course not overly
punishingly literal in its approach; we do not, for instance, see extended sequences focusing on Jeanne sleeping, and we don’t intrude in the bedroom when Jeanne, in need of some extra money in the wake of her husband’s death, takes in johns to sexually service just before her teenage son, played by Jan Decorte, gets home from school.)
A filmmaker with less of a hold on their conceit might render the movie’s form fascinating if a bit gimmicky-feeling. Akerman, however, conducts this risky experiment with such assurance that we never doubt the film’s protracted structure was necessary. The movie is on one hand meant to simply showcase what Jeanne’s days look like, which could easily be shortened into a montage. But what’s of larger importance is accurately conveying the claustrophobia and cloistering feelings of impossibility: attributes that can be best felt viscerally when the prosaic is extended, when silence becomes deafening. (Aside from a couple of special-occasion-style sit-downs by the radio, Jeanne’s life is permeated with a blaring, lonely quietude.)
Personal details — the death of Jeanne’s husband; her still grappling with the loss of her family in the Holocaust; a relative who yearns for her to remarry so often that, according to a letter she sends, she cries just thinking about Jeanne — inform the narrative by necessity. But primarily Akerman creates an identification, unusual for movies, with Jeanne’s largely unvarying routine, the everyday drudgery that exclusively serves her survival rather than her passions. (It would betray slice-of-life realism, too, to rehash too much biography — our protagonist and her son only share more background information about themselves offhandedly.) Jeanne has been so squashed by life, it seems, that on the third day covered in the film, when she has a moment to herself in the living room, she’s almost glassy-eyed. She doesn’t seem to know herself outside of her usefulness. Jeanne has been so defined by her utility for so many years — if not her entire life — that she has perhaps, like the people in her life, prioritized her domestic value so far above everything else that her idiosyncrasies have almost been forgotten about. When they have a moment to breathe, Jeanne doesn’t have the air to give them life.
Jeanne’s days differ so little that time, after a while, seems as if it were caving in on itself. Jeanne’s story isn’t universal, but the basal recognition of monotony is chilling — a reminder that most of one’s life, if not the majority of it, is spent simply trying to get through the day, our own workability always taking precedence. When Jeanne and a business owner have a friendly chat about her son, Jeanne, with a laugh, says, “what would I do without him?” We can’t help but think of the honest response: Jeanne genuinely might not know what to do with herself.
An encroaching sense of doom guides the action in Jeanne Dielman,
additionally aided by those long stretches of unnerving silence and by the ghostly slivers of light that often pour in from the metropolitan bustle outside the Dielman apartment. Her constant bustling seems to be a way to stay distracted — a way to fend off turmoil. We eventually learn that this movie, if to synopsize its narrative arc, is technically about this woman cracking. Infamously, the film ends — spoiler alert — with Dielman unceremoniously stabbing one of her johns to death. This is Jeanne, after years of remaining hostage to her routine, renouncing what is expected from her, finding, albeit messily, some control again. To my eye, this tragic john concurrently feels like a stand-in for her responsibilities in general and of patriarchy more loosely. Saying “no more” provides a temporary catharsis, but the ramifications will certainly be felt when the rebellion is individual rather than part of a collective effort.
Jeanne's fate remains ambiguous. Does she try to cover up the killing; remain in a sort of frozen state, totally numbed, until her son comes home; try to enlist the latter to help her clean up the aftermath? In a movie that has largely moved in a comfortable hum, this plot twist does not feel like a pure provocation — an attempt to shock predictable repetition into startling newness. It’s more so an explosive confirmation of how unsustainable for the soul a life like Jeanne’s, and women like her, is. That her method of catharsis is chaotic reflects the lack of a clearly precedented “way out” — the squeeze of defined domestic roles, the crush of the patriarchal thumb. Sometimes it's impossible to take it anymore. A+