I went into my first viewing of Chantal Akerman’s epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels aware that it was slow-moving, deliberate, seemingly mundane, and fairly unsentimental. I admired all of these qualities, but I found the film’s absolute commitment to being unsentimental actually had the opposite effect on me. Jeanne Dielman is tremendously moving, but it achieves this in ways that most films [and filmmakers] wouldn’t dare try.
Certainly, the film’s ending elicits the most obvious emotional response—shock chief among them—but a moment early on registered similarly.
It’s not shocking, but it conveys the film’s m.o. in a clear, blunt way that nonetheless hits you.
It’s on “Day One,” and Jeanne [Delphine Seyrig] is sitting down for dinner with her son, Sylvain [Jan Decorte]. She announces that they’ve received a letter from her sister, Fernande, who lives in Canada.
Reading it aloud in the most startling monotone you’ve ever heard, Jeanne relays to Sylvain the snow Fernande and family are getting, their desires to have Jeanne and Sylvain visit later in the year, and then what they hope Jeanne will do with her love life. It’s the film’s first and almost only piece of verbal exposition.
“Jack says you should remarry, that a good-looking woman shouldn’t be alone. George has been dead six years now. We know you’re very brave and you say you’d rather stay single so as not to complain. But sometimes when I think of you, tears come to my eyes.”
It’s such a clever way to introduce a character’s backstory, but what’s particularly remarkable is the way its delivery says everything it can about everyone involved. It’s a very sentimental piece of writing, but Jeanne couldn’t be less interested in self-pity. Sylvain, too, seems more concerned about the book in front of him than what his aunt has to say about his mother’s happiness.
Jeanne drones on in so disinterested a fashion that it’s almost funny and her respectful but passionless folding up of the letter after she’s done tells you she [nor we] will be dwelling on this text for the next three hours.
Akerman’s static camera here isn’t much different than it is during most of the film’s other scenes, but it does feel like it’s mimicking Jeanne’s delivery and even elevating what it says about the characters and their situations.
We’ve written and spoken this week about how Jeanne Dielman is a tough sit, but this moment early in the proceedings should clue you in on whether its unconventional but hypnotic rhythms will click with you. It was my favorite scene in the film, and it’s the moment that made me sit up and demanded my attention.