When I wrote up Jeanne Dielman for Slant six years ago as one of our 100 essential films, the movie was still almost impossible to see unless you either happened to live in proximity to one of the few repertory movie theaters in the world that offered the movie up on a biannual basis or you were willing to shell out for one of the seventh-generation VHS dubs that would periodically show up on eBay. The movie’s legendary unavailability, coupled with its astronomical 19th-place position in the Village Voice’s century-capping film poll, has heretofore colored its reputation. Now that the movie has been released on DVD in both Europe and America (having been selected to stand shoulder with Pickpocket, The Scarlet Empress, and Stan Brakhage in the Criterion Collection), the movie can be viewed once again as an alien cog in the consumer grind, no less valuable for its radical experimentalism but also suddenly more resonant for it’s hidden but insistent populism. (Boring or not, the events depicted in Jeanne Dielman are almost universal.) Like Sleep, Wavelength, Sátántangó, Jeanne Dielman can clearly be absorbed as test case for cinematic temporality. Not for nothing has the movie been repeatedly summed up with the brusque, matter-of-fact descriptiveness of Edison reel titles: Delphine Seyrig Peels Potatoes for Three Hours. But if duration is the word and Babette Mangolte’s vacuum-tight cinematography is the verb, the movie’s underlying feminist discontent seems almost accented by the movie’s sudden availability at popular prices. Jeanne—housewife by day, housewife by night, prostitute somewhere in between—progresses from total choking control to discombobulated, irritated disarray in the space of 24 hours. Stylistically, very little changes to tip the difference; the precise order of shots loses traction as Jeanne alternately rushes and stops dead, but that’s it. Akerman suggests that Jeanne’s psychological apocalypse is all but rendered invisible by imposed menial qualities. Said menial qualities being her maintenance of a voraciously food-, literature-, and knowledge-consuming culture geek, the disquieting conclusions of Jeanne Dielman ought to haunt even the most negligibly conscious of viewers as they file their own personal copy away on their DVD shelf.
Criterion’s presentation doesn’t mark the first unveiling of Jeanne Dielman on digital-versatile. It was previously included on a five-disc European set with a number of Chantal Akerman’s other films. I have that set and, having eyeballed scenes from both, think these are basically the same transfer. (The wording on Criterion’s rundown of features-"restored digital transfer," not "brand new transfer"-would seem to back this guess up.) Which is to say Criterion’s presentation is only astringent-fresh when held up against the old 5 Minutes to Live bootlegs with which most viewers are likely to be familiar. The colors are a little waxy and there seems to be persistent halos around objects, but there’s no doubting the movie looks like a revelation even in an imperfect transfer. The monaural sound sometimes sounds a tad overmodulated, but the effect is almost worth it for the moment when Jeanne drops her spoon on the floor. Explosive.
Some of the extra features are carted over from the European set, the most intriguing of which is "Autour de Jeanne Dielman," an hour-plus-change montage of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Sami Frey. The footage mainly shows Akerman and Delphine Seyrig establishing, with excruciating detail, the movements and routines Jeanne must undergo to arrive at that static, pregnant final shot. The title of the documentary is deliberately ambiguous, as it’s never quite clear who, between Akerman and Seyrig, can claim ownership of the character. They clash, debate, and analyze every last iteration-right down to the proper swish Jeanne should use to brush her veal cutlets over a pile of flour. Seyrig pushes for more motivation while Akerman firmly establishes she does not want her actor to perform any psychoanalyses on Jeanne. Equally telling is the clip from the French TV show Les Rendezvous du Dimanche, in which Seyrig and Akerman appear quite unified about the movie when attempting to explain it to a mildly befuddled male host. Additionally, there are new interview clips with Akerman, her mother Natalia, and her cinematographer Mangolte (who is charming even when sniping "Steadycam has killed cinema, you could say"). Lastly, there is the director’s first film, the 1968 Saute Ma Ville. While it’s reductive to simply describe it as "Jeanne Dielman prefigured as a punkish, Godard-tinged short," the film’s charms and annoyances are both best experienced in isolation-which is precisely where the central character, played by Akerman herself, chooses to reside. There’s no commentary track, but as Akerman suggested in Auteur de, there should be no attempt made to extrapolate too much motivation.
Own Jeanne Dielman if you must. Just don’t fall asleep on her bed.