With the many magnificent films that I have been able to experience within the short amount of time that I have spent living, there are some that evoke too powerful of a response on the spot on the first go it is hard enough to piece together what they leave upon oneself. When I first watched Chantal Akerman’s second feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, I knew on the spot that it was just something that I would never forget in the slightest. And to think, there was a point to which I had been putting it off in fear I would find myself bored by the way it sounded, and when I leave Jeanne Dielman to sink inside my head, my initial expectations are only proven wrong all the more as a specific thought just continues running through my mind. And in the most unexpected way, just like the life depicted here, it just grabs out of nowhere.
Our titular character, is a housewife no different from any of those whom we may see inside of any neighborhood, whether it be our own or anywhere. Every hour of the film for the 200 minute running time is a routine, in which we see Jeanne Dielman working through her day performing chores for her own family, whether they range from cooking, cleaning, or being a mother to her son – they are all of the most basic functions that keep a household in motion. Though as these days pass by and we learn more about what else she is doing for a living, a particular descent comes about as she begins to find her schedule and a sense of conformity has been broken, something that begins to catch me all the more after having caught onto the course of how one routine is set to play out. Initially, the thought of watching a film whose premise sounded like nothing more than a housewife’s chores and just that was unappealing to me, but after having seen Jeanne Dielman, I witnessed much more that ultimately had drawn me closer.
Chantal Akerman is a director who is most notable for her influence upon feminist filmmaking, and with a film like Jeanne Dielman, it is understandable. What first sounds like a film with a mundane idea running for a little above three hours proves itself to be one of the most rewarding of cinematic experiences when a critical moment after the first routine hits. And the beauty to Jeanne Dielman‘s power arises right from how Akerman is not interested in any enhancements towards the approach that she gives to what could look like a simple picture of life. Akerman is only interested in giving Jeanne Dielman a realistic approach to said routines, even if it means creating something that sounds mundane from the offset – because life, when it functions on a repeat, is mundane. In no time, what appears mundane only catches us out of nowhere because the fact that we are caught in a repeat only immerses oneself to think about what may end up missed within the next loop because we have a fixed image about how the next course is set to move.
Jeanne Dielman herself, however, is where the fundamental success of Akerman’s project comes about, because the fact we are fixed within a single image of a routine after we witness one brings one closer to the psychology of our lead character. For even with all of her services around the house, we notice how around her, males do not seem to reply to her services with gratitude. Put that together with the fact we have such a mundane image playing inside of our head when we look at Dielman performing these chores, and suddenly the feeling of watching Jeanne Dielman almost reflects to oneself just like being inside of a prison – where you are stuck inside of one supposed idea, but while it may not initially be made clear from the actions, there is a distinct power that arises from how Akerman is showing a viewer the subtle change when it comes to a facial expression. A singular expression that signifies her feeling of imprisonment to a routine that is already set in motion. Yet Akerman never closes up on it, and within the descent of her routine, a sense of development arises more, one that catches the most unsuspecting viewer out of nowhere. She is not a robot who is performs these chores for the betterment of her suitors, she is a woman, a human being, much like the rest of us.
And it soon becomes clear that is where the power of Jeanne Dielman arises. It is the fact it recognizes humanity and what happens upon the feeling of an imprisonment. From the entire title, which reads Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, I was soon convinced that a certain power came about from watching what it must have been like, conforming to one routine the whole way through. It doesn’t matter anymore what Jeanne Dielman herself is like outside of this routine, because the fact of the matter is, this can be anyone, the most ordinary of housewives. One defined by how they live their own lives and how others return the favour, and in the case of Jeanne Dielman’s, we are feeling what is imprisonment upon a locked set of chores to be done around the house. Nothing about Jeanne’s facial expressions is clear at first, but maybe that is the power of Delphine Seyrig’s performance, we look right at her face as she works through these routines and we think to ourselves about whether or not all of this is something that she enjoys. We look at all of these tasks performed at a glacial rate, but never is any of it uninteresting because of all the patience coming clear in how Delphine Seyrig’s subtle mannerisms are being depicted first moment to last.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not only a great film, but an important one. It is important in the sense that it recognizes how being stuck inside of a single routine can do when all of these tasks, clearly, are not those that are performed by will. The moment in which we see a moment she finally has for herself, the power to Jeanne Dielman only becomes even clearer than it already has been. Jeanne Dielman is a film about finding one’s freedom, one’s own identity, after something seemingly lost after conforming to a routine so much to the point that the routine becomes the prison for the soul. Once the final shot comes by, so many questions begin to fill the mind. Maybe there was a specific hint left by thanks to the flickering lights that come by, for they were hinting at a warning. Filmmakers like Akerman highlight the importance that women have in the film industry, for not only is Jeanne Dielman a definitive feminist picture, but also an important cinematic experience that one should simply take their time with. Maybe there is a whole lot more to be said, but I know many of my peers may have done it better than I could ever on the spot, so all I can say right now, “Just watch it.” Because I can guarantee there are no regrets.
Watch a clip right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Screenplay by Chantal Akerman
Produced by Corinne Jénart, Evelyne Paul
Starring Delphine Seyrig
Release Year: 1975
Running Time: 201 minutes