JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES directed by Chantal Akerman (Belgium/France 1975)
What pleasure can be derived, Mr. Everyman cinemagoer might ask, from a three-hour plus movie in which, save for the final ten minutes, the biggest drama comes when the protagonist overcooks some potatoes?
This is not an easy question to answer for a movie which is so particular it cannot be judged in conventional terms. An informative film essay by Ivone Marguiles describes it well as “a radical experiment with being undramatic, and paradoxically with the absolute necessity of drama”.
Pleasure is the very thing that is entirely absent from a middle-aged widow’s uneventful life which we see presented in meticulous detail over the course of a three-day period.
We watch her in real-time, washing up, preparing dinner, shopping, attending to her adolescent son and babysitting. From the tiny rituals that make up her daily routine, we come to understand how she makes sure everything is in its right place. For example, she is scrupulous about turning the lights off in a room she is not using and keeps the modest one bedroom flat clean to the point of dusting objects inside a glass cabinet.
Home making and child minding are regarded as a woman’s domain and the tedious chores these duties entail are not usually the stuff of movie drama. By making these tasks the focal point, and by showing them in such precise detail, Akerman forces the viewer to realise just how soul-destroying these jobs can be.
What we do not see is what goes on behind a closed bedroom door with the woman’s gentleman visitors. Only from a cloth placed on the bed beforehand and the payment she receives afterwards do we learn that she is engaged in prostitution. It’s not hard to visualise Jeanne having sex with these clients with the same joyless efficiency that she deploys when carrying out her household chores.
All the crew for this movie were female and, not surprisingly, it has been hailed as an important feminist statement. However, I think it’s a little reductive to interpret it in such terms. The gender issue is important but it is simplistic to present this woman’s sad life solely as a symbol of female oppression.
In one sense, the loss of her husband six years before could have freed her from what we gather was a fairly loveless marriage – “sleeping with him was just a detail” she replies when her usually taciturn son, Sylvian, indiscreetly asks about her marital relations.
At the end of the second day things begin to fall apart. Not in any catastrophic manner but those overcooked potatoes take on a special significance because we have come to realise that this is a woman who doesn’t usually make such mistakes.
On the third day, Jeanne goes out too early so has wait for the shops to open, she arrives at a cafe for her afternoon coffee later than usual so can’t sit at her usual table and the waitress is not the woman who normally serves her. She pays for her coffee without drinking it.
Akerman doesn’t flag any of this up in any obvious way. In the part of Jeanne, Delphine Seyrig’s expression remains impassive throughout, void of any emotion. There are no close-ups or sudden edits and no music to indicate that anything is amiss.
Gradually we see prolonged lulls in her self-imposed busyness – in one shot she sits in an armchair with a duster in one hand staring blankly and the camera stays on this shot for around five minutes. Never have I seen boredom and isolation captured on film so vividly and uncompromisingly.
In the context of Jeanne Dielman’s narrow existence , the accumulation of these small details become monumental and symbolise a life that is slowly unravelling. The final scene is shocking and melodramatic but helps make this remarkable film even more memorable.
This movie was the only one directed by a woman to make the BFI/Sight & Sound to 50 list of best films of all time, . Much as it goes against the grain to agree with the critics, I think that they may just have got it right this time.