Jeanne Dielman sits still in the dark. Her arms rest on the dining room table. The flickering blue light of a sign outside her apartment window dances across the wall. Her right hand is stained with blood. A streak of blood stains her white blouse. She breathes slowly, but otherwise appears completely still. Over the course of a few minutes, subtle expressions waft across her face. Is that a smile I see? Is that satisfaction? Or is it regret? The film ends. No questions are answered.
The last frames of Jeanne Dielman are as enigmatic as they are compelling. By the time the ending credits roll, viewers have watched Jeanne through over 3 hours, following her every action in painstaking detail. We’ve seen her cook dinner. We’ve seen her take a bath. We’ve seen her silently sit with her son and eat. We’ve seen her accept strange men into her home as she prostitutes herself to support her family. Then, in the penultimate scene, we see her reach a sexual climax with a john before calmly getting dressed and murdering him with a pair of scissors. We end the film sitting quietly with her.
As I sat with her, stunned by the film’s conclusion, I, like everyone else who’s watched this film, wondered what was going through Jeanne’s head. I tried to read the parade of subtle expressions that I saw crossing her face. I tried to think back through the movie for warning signs. Certainly, in retrospect, there are some. As the minutes tick by, Jeanne grows increasingly harried by the details of her life. She overcooks the potatoes. She misses a button on her cardigan. Her hair loses its poise. And yet, while these episodes point to her increasing agitation, they don’t explain why they resulted in a cold-blooded murder.
What does it mean to have Jeanne’s moment of ecstasy followed by a dispassionate murder? What does it mean to follow this murder with Jeanne sitting sphynx-like in the dark? As with any great piece of art, the answers to the questions that Jeanne Dielman raises are debatable. We each bring our own personal experiences and interpretations to the film. As I watched these final sequences, a single concept kept going through my mind: freedom.
As I watched Jeanne go through her daily routine, I kept coming back to a sense that Jeanne rarely does anything for herself. Instead her day revolves around taking care of others. From her first moments in the morning, she’s taking care of her son. She makes him coffee and breakfast. She turns on the stove before he wakes up. Even after he leaves the house, much of her day involves various chores centered around him, from preparing dinner to mending his clothes. And when she’s not doing things for her son, she’s doing them for others. She watches the neighbor’s baby and listens to her troubles. She prostitutes herself out to various men. Especially at the start of the film, she goes about this with an algorithmic precision, as though she’s running through an infinite list of instructions one by one. It’s telling that we never hear Jeanne’s name uttered by another character. It’s almost as though the world, too, doesn’t think of her as anything more than a tool executing instructions.
Jeanne’s life starts to come apart in the latter half of the film. The careful choreography of her life starts to unravel. The burned potatoes, the misplaced lid. Who knows what makes those final days, different from the hundreds that preceded them. What does become apparent, though, is that under that controlled exterior is a woman struggling with the meaning of her existence. I imagine that as she executes task after task, she’s wondering whether there’s anything more to life. She must be wondering whether she exists only to serve others. She must feel trapped, wanting something more from life, but not knowing precisely what more entails. Perhaps these little mishaps, building on one another, are the nudge she needs to tip her over the edge. Or maybe on these days, the indignities of being nothing but a tool have finally built up enough that she’s ready to snap.
As it turns out, Jeanne does discover what it means to have something more in life. In that penultimate scene, her orgasm after one of the least energetic sex scenes in all cinema, jolts her out of her robotic existence. While the film never makes it explicit, it appears she usually derived little pleasure from her professional activities. Her orgasm surprises. It is also an epiphany. Unlike everything else that’s come before it, the orgasm is Jeanne’s own. It is not for the sake of anyone else. It doesn’t server the john or the neighbor or her son. It serves only Jeanne, and she knows it. She realizes that, in a broader sense, living for herself, without constantly serving others, is the path forward she’s been yearning for. She can’t bear to go back to her old life of servitude.
So, Jeanne blows up her life. She breaks away from everything that she’s been serving. She kills the john she’s with, not out of a fit of rage, but because after years of being used by men, she’s been thinking about murdering them. Now that she’s tasted freedom, she realizes that she’s free to go ahead and live out this fantasy. It’s notable at this point, she sits at the scene of the crime waiting for her son to come home rather than running. Her son will find out that she’s both a prostitute and a murderer, and she’s staying there to face it. In fact, rather than being distraught or nervous, she looks relaxed. The infinite list of chores has disappeared. She’s worked her last day as both a mother and a prostitute. I like to think that for the first time in recent memory, Jeanne Dielman is happy because she is free.