Jeanne Dielman is often referred to as a feminist film—a feminist masterpiece, even. But it’s a film that defies easy analysis and categorization. Director Chantal Akerman said in a 2009 interview, “...if I did the film now I don’t know that it would be called feminist. It could have been done about a man, too.” But it wasn’t. It is decidedly woman-centric, down to an all-female film crew. Is it enough for a film to be about a woman occupying a feminine space with an all female crew to reach feminist-hood? I think yes, but as other scholars and critics have pointed out, it’s got its problems.
Jeanne Dielman is remarkable in many ways. It’s over 3 hours long and the majority of that time is a static camera observing Jeanne completing domestic chores: cleaning, cooking, shopping. That this all takes place in more-or-less real time demonstrates the tedium of such tasks. Not only does it take a long time to do underappreciated chores, she must do the same exact things the next day.
The film centers on Jeanne’s rigid schedule. In each of the three days which make up the film, she does the same chores in the same order. Her and her son eat in the same order, down to her telling him not to read at the table each day. She does the same things after dinner each day for her leisure time. Most people can relate on some level to this kind of monotony, but displayed like this it becomes compelling, tense, and haunting. If a viewer had never thought about how tedious traditionally feminine work is before, surely this movie compels them to do so.
However, some feminist critics have taken issue with the shocking and pivotal ending in which Jeanne orgasms while servicing a john, then calmly dresses, leaves the room, re-enters and fatally stabs him in the chest. Director and writer Jayne Loader says:
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. Akerman's solution to the fact of female oppression is unfortunately a common one, which is offered not only in several other contemporary films by women but in a significant number of women's novels as well. It is violence, directed at the first male who comes to hand. By his sex rather than his person, he is forced to stand for the oppressors of all the rest.
In other words, Loader finds Akerman’s depiction of Jeanne as a symbol for oppressed women too simplistic. Loader discusses Akerman’s comments at a 1976 screening of the film: “She has said of the murder, ‘It was either him or her, and I'm glad it was him.’ The murder is seen as an act of liberation, one which, Akerman says, ‘will change her life.’”
There is a lot to think about concerning the murder at the end. Did she do it because climaxed with him which made her feel out of control, therefore disturbing and disgusting her? This analysis makes sense if we consider how carefully controlled her actions are in the rest of her life. Or maybe she had been planning on killing him? Could knowing she was going to kill him caused her to climax? [Dark, I know, but that was my first thought.] Did she simply snap under the weight of monotony and lash out at, as Loader says, the nearest person who imposed her feminine role upon her? Whatever the reason, given the angle of the rest of the movie I find it impossible not to apply a feminist lens to it. And I think Loader is right, using an act of violence [generally thought of as falling within the male realm] is simplistic.
But, then again, given how intensely enmeshed she is in her role as mother and caretaker and how rigid and boring her life is as a result, is there another way for her to break free? She could simply announce she was going to get a job, but then everything about her that she assigns value to will come crashing down. I will not go so far as to call the ending “unfeminist.” In fact, I’m still not really sure how I feel about the ending, but I think I would have been more satisfied had nothing happened at the end. I think the message would have been just as powerful if Jeanne were eternally stuck in her cycle of domesticity. Because for most women, even modern, working women, that’s reality.
Finally, I think it’s important to address Jeanne’s role as a prostitute. Talking about sex work in the context of a feminist analysis is tricky, because modern feminists are very divided. To summarize [and probably oversimplify] the argument: Some believe that if we support sex work, and if, as is the case, most people who sell sex are women, then we are commodifying women, which leads to devaluation and abuse. Other feminists argue that women should be allowed full agency over their bodies, and if sex work is how they exercise that agency, then we should respect and legalize it.
I think Jeanne Dielman is decidedly on the anti sex work side of the argument, as most second-wave feminists were. However, for most of the movie Jeanne doesn’t seem particularly distressed about her work and has full agency over it. She doesn’t seem to have a pimp, she does her work in the security of her own home, and it allows her to retain her role as housewife even after the death of her husband. However, she does violently murder one of her johns after reaching climax with him, so clearly she has some issues with it.
Jeanne Dielman is a complicated film, which naturally invites close analysis. Of this habit, Akerman has said, “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.” That may be true, but we can try. And this movie is so full of complexities that it’s absolutely juicy. I think someone would have a difficult time trying to argue that it is not a feminist film. But, in movies as in life, ideologies are messy, complicated, and flawed.