Much like last year’s Koyaanisqatsi, this is kind of a weird film to review, since it does walk a fine line between feature film and art experiment. That said, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is quite clearly a narrative film. In fact, the thing that’s so striking about it is how strictly it sticks to its very straightforward narrative of showing a woman’s day unfold, as we see each little mundane thing she does while also subtly unraveling internally. I honestly can’t think of any other film quite like it, though I suppose any slow-moving indie film that really takes its time owes something to this film’s deliberately glacial pacing.
The first thing we see in the film is Jeanne Dielman (played by Delphine Seyrig) cooking, before then greeting one of the male johns that frequent her apartment. After sleeping with the man, she collects her payment, then goes about meticulously preparing her meal before her son Sylvain comes home. They then eat dinner while reading a letter in which we learn that Jeanne is the widow of a husband that she didn’t seem entirely in love with. Still, she seems less interested in remarrying than sticking to her regular routine of cooking, cleaning, turning tricks, and taking care of her son.
On the second day, we continue to see Jeanne very methodically go about her day, doing errands, showering, drinking coffee. You know, all the seemingly uncinematic things we do each day. Then after one of her sexual transactions we see that she overcooked one of her potatoes (gasp!), and then we occasionally see that she’s a bit off her game. There’s an underlying tension that crops up in the second half of the film where it’s apparent that the precision she displayed on the first day isn’t quite there. Then on the third day, overwhelmed by an inability to do everything in her life precisely, she commits murder.
Jeanne Dielman has often been described – including by director Chantal Akerman herself – as a film composed of the types of scenes that often get cut out of movies. Such as watching someone peel potatoes, buy groceries, look after a neighbor’s baby, quietly drink coffee, and of course wait at a post office. These are scenes that, by all means, should be incredibly dull. Yet there is something kind of mesmerizing about the stillness in this movie. It’s hard for me to put my finger on why that is, but I’m sure it has to do with the way Akerman so specifically captures these quiet moments that we go through each day. Which is a very universal thing we can all identify with, even when it’s capturing a moment in time from 45 years ago, and in a country that most Americans don’t think about very often (Belgium).
That said, watching all of these small moments play out over the course of Jeanne’s day does point out how less stimulated humans were in the 20th century than they are now. Sure, we see Jeanne and her son reading books and listening to the radio, but that only takes up a small portion of their days. If they were to make a film nowadays depicting a day in the life of a person in the way that Jeanne Dielman does, it’s hard to imagine that this person wouldn’t be spending 80% of the movie looking at a screen. Though I have to assume that it was a deliberate choice to not have Jeanne own a television in the movie, since I’m sure that particular screen was already an integral part of the typical stay-at-home mom’s life in the ’70s.
Speaking of the ’70s, Jeanne Dielman is often talked about in its relation to the feminist movement of the era. I’m not sure if this is entirely fair, since you could make the case that it’s just a very intimate story about one human being, who happens to be a woman. But there is something to be said about the fact that Chantal Akerman deliberately wanted the film’s crew to be 80% women. Also, the movie has plenty to say about the way women of that era behaved in the absence of having a man around. Which in Jeanne’s case is that she still feels obligated to do all of the things a wife does, even when she no longer has a husband. She cooks, she cleans, she’s a mother, she’s a lover, she’s whatever other things Meredith Brooks is in that song “Bitch”. So even though she doesn’t have a man domineering her life, she seems to have the ghost of a man still domineering every decision she makes throughout her day.
Of course, I may be projecting all of this onto the film. Jeanne Dielman never really lays bare what its themes are, and never even has much dialogue in order for you to parse what our title character’s desires and intentions are. Yet, because the film gives you these little snippets of a backstory, you can draw your own conclusions based on Jeanne’s actions. Also, Delphine Seyrig gives one of the all-time great restrained performances as Jeanne, which allows you to project as much or as little on to her blank expressions, and try to figure out what she’s thinking. The film doesn’t have a single close-up, and is mostly in medium or wide shots, which makes Seyrig’s expressions feel even more muted and her emotions even more difficult to pin down.
Honestly, there’s a part of me that wants to give Jeanne Dielman a perfect 5-star rating, since it’s certainly a film I’ve been thinking about a lot since I finished sitting through all 201 minutes of it. Though at the same time, it’s not a film I could unequivocally recommend to everybody. The average viewer would be bored by huge chunks of this film, if not all of it. Still, personally, I just love that there’s a film out there that really went to the extreme of pushing how slow a film can be, and how true a film could be to the way time passes in real life. Because by the time the film has ended, you truly feel like you’ve inhabited the same apartment as the main character, experienced the same daily routine of her, and possibly helped her commit murder. What a weird couple of days.