Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Belgium (1975) Dir. Chantal Akerman
Forget Avatar: The Way of Water, THIS is the film everybody is talking about right now. What – you’ve never heard of it? But Sight & Sound magazine has just declared it The Greatest Movie of All Time in their decennial poll! What’s it about? I’ll tell you…
Widow Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives in a tiny apartment with her teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte). While Sylvain is at school, Jeanne goes about her daily routine of cleaning, shopping, cooking, babysitting, and sleeping with men for money. A change to Jeanne’s routine leads to a tragic conclusion.
There you go, I’ve just saved you 193-minutes. The Avatar sequel might be the same length but it’ll never top a Sight & Sound poll. I admit I am being facetious but this is a difficult film to review; had it not come to prominence via this poll, it would have been even more difficult.
Belgian director Chantal Akerman isn’t out to baffle anyone with Jeanne Dielman, but a few things about it do need to be established. It’s a film with a pertinent message that is relevant to this day regarding the role of women in life. It won’t be obvious to those who prefer uncomplicated entertainment to symbolism, but I’m not going to knock them for that; this film is not aimed at them and won’t be viewed by them either.
Via long, often single takes, the daily life of our protagonist plays out in precise detail. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound very enticing, but it is important. We see Jeanne cooking the dinner, tidying up the house, seeing to her male client, having a bath, eating her dinner, going out with Sylvain, and finally going to bed. In the first 20 minutes, there are only three lines of dialogue. I can hear you yawning already.
Yes, it is tedious but after 40 minutes, day one ends and day two begins. Jeanne gets up, cleans Sylvain’s shoes, makes his breakfast, does the housework, goes shopping, babysits, prepares dinner, then repeating the events of day one (with a different client). However, after the client leaves, Jeanne is slightly confused. She overcooks the potatoes but doesn’t know what to do, darting about the flat with the saucepan in her hands.
No explanation is offered for this but Jeanne rights the ship in the end, not that Sylvain is any help, still idly expecting mum to perform her duties on time. This is akin to a robot experiencing a glitch in its programme, not knowing how to extemporise because it is supposed to be a problem free machine. And this is essentially Akerman’s point – women are NOT domestic automatons.
Day three is more of the same, except it isn’t – things happen to upset Jeanne’s routine and she is out of sorts. Being Autistic, I can tell you this is can be a huge derailment to us so I can empathise, though I doubt Jeanne is Autistic. For the first time we see her with a client but it’s not erotic. I couldn’t tell if she was in the throes of ecstasy or in existential pain with this man on top of her. What happens next implies the latter.
So this is the crux of the film’s intent – it is dull, tedious, and repetitive because it is supposed to be. Akerman is showing us – mainly men – what a day for housewives is like whilst they’re at work. Making us sit through longueurs after longueurs of Jeanne doing the washing up, peeling potatoes, or just staring into space is dreary viewing but we’re only watching it, she is living this day after day.
I must confess after an hour I did put this on double speed, stopping for rare dialogue, which I accept defeats the purpose, but I’ve never been one for watching someone sit still in silence for 10 minutes, so more power to anyone who is. But I get why Akerman did this, and I don’t think she could be labelled pretentious for it either as I do believe it is crucial to understanding the tedium a fixed pattern in life can incur.
Akerman employs no tricks here – the camera is static throughout, an almost Ozu-esque in its dispassionate observance, there is no music, only diegetic songs via the radio, and all interactions are formal and clinical, even between mother and son. It is interesting that when Jeanne has clients, they come and go immediately; this isn’t a comment on male lasting power, but an idea the “exciting” part of Jeanne’s day is too disruptive to the central ennui to share with us.
Keen eyed viewers, or those waiting for something to happen, will slowly begin to notice things they didn’t before – the pulsating blue light from outside leaking into the living room; recognisable brand-name cleaning products even to us here in the UK; or that Jeanne practically wears the same clothes every day. Most importantly, that we have fallen into Jeanne’s routine, waiting for the baby or the client to arrive.
One has to hand to Delphine Seyrig for her absolute commitment to the role of Jeanne. Most people get into acting to avoid domestic duties so to take on a role that requires just that for three hours is a bitter irony, but Seyrig finds a way to switch herself off from “acting” to submerge herself into Jeanne’s stultifying existence. I’m not as tolerant as others are but I can see how she makes this a mesmeric viewing experience for them.
Cinema like Jeanne Dielman exists for a reason – so art can challenge life issues which Akerman does quite sublimely. But this is not a film for everyone, even me, though it wasn’t so dense I couldn’t understand it. It didn’t need to be three hours and Akerman was on a mission. I’m glad I’ve seen it and recognise its importance but “Greatest Film of All Time”? Sorry, not for me.