The 1975 Franco-Belgian film “Jeanne Dielman”, or “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” to be precise, saw a young lady of twenty five with little formal qualification in film introduce a totally new vocabulary into cinema. Chantal Anne Akerman had arrived. The three and a half hours of seemingly repetitive footage of mundane domestic chores will provoke, inquire, and make you examine the nature of human relationships and the fundamentals of modern society if you can sit through the first hour..!
Jeanne Dielman is your typical nondescript woman living in a similarly nondescript apartment, in a nondescript neighbourhood of Brussels – there is nothing particularly distinguishing about Jeanne save the fact that she’s somewhere in her late thirties, widowed, and has a school-going teenage son. To make ends meet (and fill a vacant timeslot during her ‘active’ day), she services a small clientèle of gentlemen at an appointed hour. When Jeanne’s carefully constructed daily life of ‘ritualised’ schedules is disrupted, she realises that she couldn’t function ‘normally’ any more. And she desperately tries to stop her life spiralling out of control…
There is indeed very little there is to say about the storyline – the film may be over three hours long, but it covers only three days of Jeanne’s life. The length of the film however seems necessary considering the profound messages contained there in. I suspect even Ms. Akerman might not have articulated all of them fully when the film was made. Besides, the plaudits she won had placed her in an unenviable situation so early in a career of having to emulate if not better what she’d already accomplished through this film.
The film talks to me in different levels nevertheless. It could be seen as a in-your-face feminist statement, showing what the other half of humankind are up to while men work to ‘bring home the bread’. It could be seen as a portrait of a society in transition and the pressures it places on families. But there are additional levels if you care to dig deep – it is about our hidden fear of the unknown, and a desire to stick to known ways than having to deal with change. The predictability and clockwork precision of her chores and their outcomes allowed Jeanne to stay in control – everything is where they should be in the household, she knows exactly in what state of repair each item is in, and when they need to be replaced. Frighteningly, she’s also the ‘perfect’ housewife one could wish for, who might just as well have managed without the prostitution bit had her husband still be alive. Jeanne’s part-time occupation in itself can be seen as a metaphor of sorts in the film. Even more so, when you are privy to the fact that it was her first experience of orgasm, with a client, that actually throws her routine off-balance. Apart from highlighting the importance of the sexual event itself, Ms. Akerman can also be seen as indirectly blaming men’s preoccupation with sex for women’s woes. Ouch..!
Production wise, this film is nothing short of brilliant, despite most of the crew being women – a rarity in those days. The thoughtful cinematography and framing, the sparse but extremely intelligent script, the boldness with which mundane events are depicted in real-time, which while not only having you transfixed, will force you to feel empathy for the character. Delphine Seyrig who plays the main character of Jeanne Dielman was not only a big star at the time, she was also a favourite among various auteur directors. Ms. Akerman’s reason for casting Ms. Dielman in the film becomes obvious as the film progresses – someone like Ms. Dielman could never be imagined making up the bed or cleaning the kitchen after use. By casting someone as charismatic and recognisable as her, Ms. Akerman wants the ‘unseen’ part of a woman’s work to be ‘seen’. And Ms. Dielman certainly doesn’t disappoint. By whatever yardstick you wish to use, this film is provocative, insightful, and will ask you probing questions – exactly what great art always does. This film is an exquisite piece of art, it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
About the DVD:
Criterion has done a wonderful job with this set by including a second dual-layered disc full of amazing extras. They include interviews with Ms. Akerman about this film, a short film about her work, an Akerman interview with her mother, and also Chantal Akerman’s first film, a short called, “Saute ma ville” starring herself. She will act in some of her other films too, which I’ll touch upon in another post. The 2nd disc will make you notice what a charming and adorable person she is, and her infectious child-like enthusiasm for film even after all these years suggests she hasn’t grown-out of film yet. This is certainly my recommended DVD-set.