A 201-minute Belgian film described as a “domestic 2001” could inspire reams of pretentious criticism, but I found Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) pretty easy to relate to. Dielman, a widow, lives a narrow, routine-dominated existence, given over entirely to domestic tasks and responsibilities, which over the course of three days we observe in real time. She makes the beds, cooks the meals for her and her mopey teenage son (whose questions about his father and other niggling subjects she deflects), minds a neighbor’s baby, and does the shopping. Between 5-5:30pm she turns a trick, to keep the finances afloat. One day, she finds herself with a free hour, with nothing to due but ruminate—and her carefully regimented life crumbles.
As a stay-at-home dad with various tasks to complete on any given weekday, Jeanne, I hear you. (I prostitute myself by writing DVD reviews). How things change; I was in no way the target audience when the film premiered. Directed by the 25-year-old Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman was written by Danae Maroulacou, produced by Evelyne Paul and Corinne Jenart, edited by Patricia Canino, photographed (strikingly, in the unforgivably tight spaces of Dielman’s apartment) by Babette Mangolte…80 percent of the crew were women, at a time when the film industry was almost exclusively male. The star, Delphine Seyrig (from Last Year at Marienbad, which bends time and space in different ways), was an ardent feminist, committed to exploring the life and contradictions of the non-working woman. I doubt anyone realized that the next generation would breed John Dielmans.
Gender politics aside, the film can be appreciated for the sheer chutzpah of its craft. Think Tarantino goes in for long takes? Watch—and watch, and watch—as Dielman goes about her daily drudgery, including the unsexy sex. It’s surprisingly absorbing—Seyrig, glamorous in her other key roles, really precision-corners those sheets and works that meatloaf—and unnerving, too. You know that something’s got to give when Jeanne comes unstuck, and when it does it’s truly alarming. A 40s picture with, say, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, would start at the ending, and work backwards, via flashbacks, to uncover the “solution” to the mystery. But Akerman goes straight ahead, to show how the relentless conditioning of housewifery is internalized and wears down the soul. The three-plus hours of Akerman’s portrait are stimulating rather than static. Continually accumulating its own force and suspense, the movie simply wouldn’t work at a more commercial length.
The Criterion Collection disc offers a portrait of Akerman, who, in one supplemental extra, expresses concern at being unable to “escape the shadow” of the success of this remarkable first feature—alas, we here in the US aren’t able to gauge that, as much of subsequent work has gone undistributed. Extras also include her first short film, Saute ma ville (1968), in which she herself rattles the chains of domesticity, and her own interview with her mother, Natalia, a Holocaust survivor who doesn’t see the parallels to Dielman’s life that her daughter does. (She’s proud of her fiercely independent career, though). Most compelling is an on-set documentary that shows Seyrig patiently, but firmly, getting Akerman to explain her instinctual brand of filmmaking, so she can get a better grasp on the character of Jeanne Dielman.
This is a “difficult” film; if it helps, talking is at a minimum, so there are few subtitles to contend with. Criterion’s marketing is however witty. Seyrig passed away in 1990, so maybe Isabelle Huppert can sign on for the sequel, Julia and Jeanne.
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