For the most part, our film calendar is fairly random. Sometimes we choose to cover a film that has some sort of current significance, either because of an anniversary or a related film hitting theaters, but usually it is just a selection of a film that the lead contributor that week wants to write about. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels was random in that way, too, but it perfectly hit on a confluence of events. First, my wife remarked to me that we haven’t been covering enough films directed by women, something that I had noticed, too [before this week, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. was the only one and that came all the way back in our fourth week, almost a year ago]. I knew I wanted to explore a film that I hadn’t seen before and preferably check off something on my list of shame. So, I visited my old friend They Shoot Pictures, curious to see what they had ranked as the greatest film directed by a woman, Jeanne Dielman was it and it perfectly fit my personal parameters. After scheduling the film for this week, I noticed that the Criterion Collection was releasing a Blu-ray upgrade of the film and a local theater was screening it as part of an Chantal Akerman retrospective. Everything had aligned for the Cinessential to cover Jeanne Dielman.

To wade into a little First Viewing territory here, I had heard enough about Jeanne Dielman to have pretty well-defined expectations going in—but I sure am glad I didn’t know everything [side note: while I won’t spoil certain elements of the film here, we’d be hard pressed not to fully explore the film’s narrative throughout the week, so be warned]. Here are the basics: Jeanne Dielman [Delphine Seyrig] is a widowed housewife who spends her days cooking, cleaning, running errands, and turning tricks in her small apartment. Akerman builds the narrative of the 200 minute film painstakingly, with long stretches of Dielman performing these tasks in one take. The film has long been held up as a feminist masterpiece of its era, spotlighting the way we view women, especially middle-aged mothers, and their role in modern society.

All that said, my expectations were both resoundly met and subverted in interesting ways. The film’s structure is as rigid as you might imagine, but I did not expect Jeanne Dielman to be both so engaging and hypnotic. Akerman smartly decided to front load the signature style, with almost two hours before it breaks its routines, allowing her to play with the audience—there are multiple occasions where the film seems to be breaking or where the viewer may desperately want it to break [for example, the film leaves out her johns’ visits].

How Akerman shoots Jeanne adds to the structure. The camera typically sits in a medium, static shot, perpendicular to a wall which gives a background and sets like a stage. The effect of this is both performative and sociological, as if we are watching Jeanne as part of a study. This isn’t exactly the kind of cinematography we think of as particularly special, but Akerman has clearly thought this through and it hangs meaning to how the film is read. Few other films [even good looking ones] have the same purpose in its camerawork as Jeanne Dielman. So, even while consisting of mundane tasks and little dialogue, the film doesn’t drag because it openly asks the viewer [even challenges them] to closely inspect the “action,” follow exactly what Jeanne is doing on screen.

Most films that use a day as a specific measurement of time ten to cheat with abbreviation—Groundhog Day shows the day in relative fullness before its repeats are chopped up; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could not possibly happen all in one day; more recently, Paterson [which I think is definitely inspired by Jeanne Dielman] is a bit more consistent, though it still plays up like moments in a day. Jeanne Dielman, though, is so full and seemingly in real time that one could make me believe this took place on an alternate universe where a day is about 90 minutes in total, the length we see Jeanne’s days play out.

As we’re settled into the rhythm, we slowly notice small mistakes begin happening, things that are completely normal and excusable, but begin to add up unnervingly. The potatoes overcook, the coffee burns, Jeanne can’t find an appropriate button to sew into her coat, etc. This uneasy feeling pairs with the repetition, the long takes, the camera placement, the decor, the mundane tasks, to build to an astonishing conclusion.

Akerman plays the viewer like a fiddle, masterfully playing with audience expectations and response. It isn’t difficult to see something climactic coming by the end, but she still sent a shiver down my spine. The last few moments of Jeanne Dielman do so much, they exhibit so much conflicting emotion, spark so many difficult questions and force a recontextualization of all the normal events that came before. After one viewing of Jeanne Dielman, I can’t quite put all the pieces together nor see all of what Akerman is trying to say, but I feel the weight. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels is haunting and provocative, a masterpiece of patience and precision. A film that would assumably be a one time necessary chore for cinephiles, I can’t wait to see it again.

Here is what we'll cover the rest of the week:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 16
  • Related Review of Akerman's final film No Home Movie
  • A further look into what makes this a feminist masterpiece
  • A deep dive into the film's stunning ending
  • And more!