Chantal Akerman’s 1975 experiment in film form, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is an astonishing work of subtextual feminism which has to count as one of the seminal films of the 1970s. As esteemed critic Manny Farber noted, Akerman’s portrait of the daily household routines and self-imposed patterns of a Belgian single mother successfully merged such diverse generic movements as the matriarchal passion play, the architectural ethnography, and the non-narrative examinations of filmed space pioneered by Michael Snow and Andy Warhol into one cohesive precis. Because Akerman’s scenario and her realization of it are so provocatively heterogeneous, and because the interpretations of the film’s place in the canon of great cinema are so varied (and also because Akerman’s editing rhythms and pacing are as methodical and unhurried as Stanley Kubrick’s), some have called it the “domestic 2001.”
Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is an efficient homemaker, and also a discreet one-client-per-day fille de joie. She goes through her daily routines in a plate-spinning manner. She’s the master of her domain, and she seems to celebrate this power through her delegation of the day’s duties (and her execution of said chores) into a complex crosshatch. As the film opens, she’s putting a pot of potatoes on the stove and salting them while she finishes drying off some dishes. She answers the door for her gentleman caller of the day (she schedules them weekly, the same way she plans her dinner menu). When she’s finished her daily shift as a prostitute, she goes back to the kitchen to turn down the heat under the boiling potatoes. She opens her bedroom window in order to let the funk of her john dissipate into the evening air. She gives herself a sponge bath. She gets dressed again. She switches off the light in the bathroom and switches the light in the kitchen back on again. It’s never made clear whether or not her compulsive habit of only lighting up whichever room she’s in is a matter of Jeanne’s budgetary concerns (she keeps the money she makes from prostitution in a china bowl on the dining room table), but it seems more likely from her demeanor that she has very simply worked the switching-light procedure into her system.
And so it goes for over three very intimate and, paradoxically, disaffected hours (presented in the film as a two-day cycle that begins and ends in the late afternoon). Any analysis or reaction one might read about Jeanne Dielman will at one point or another simply begin listing off some of the actions Seyrig’s Jeanne performs in clockwork fashion. It’s a natural cognitive reaction to process this information and try to synthesize it as a series of narrative clues. For example, one might note Jeanne’s repressed emotions toward her son during dinner and assume that Seyrig will eventually erupt into a hair-shaking Oscar-clip moment (a la Ordinary People).
But it’s more likely that the film’s crucial first half-hour or so is a series of narrative and formal expectations being broken down, one by one. Though every shot in the film is framed at a 90-degree angle in relation to both Jeanne and her apartment walls (with one or two exceptions), it takes a while to register Babette Mangolte’s precise cinematography because the second or third shot in the film happens to be one of those carefully chosen shots that does not adhere to Akerman and Mangolte’s rigorous schematization. In the recurring shots of Jeanne greeting her outpatients, she’s framed so that her head is cut off at the top and only her torso is visible (representative, perhaps, of the first thing men see when they look at a woman), or else they’re framed against the corner of two walls at a 45-degree angle. Every other shot in the film is straight on, but the early placement of these odd setups ensures that the device doesn’t overtly announce itself until Jeanne leaves the apartment the next morning to go to the bank (an Antonioni-like virtual split-screen between a flat building façade and an open horizon).
The clearly defined cinematography of the film remains resolute even as the tight leash of control Jeanne has on her world seemingly slips out of her hands during the second 24 hours. She accidentally burns the potatoes when she takes a bath before turning down the range stove. Later on, when attempting to write a letter to her sister, she forgets to turn on the radio until it’s too late and the music no longer inspires her. The next morning, she drops both a shoe-polish brush as well as a freshly washed spoon. She leaves too early to run errands and is faced with closed store after closed store. Later, she has to remake the morning coffee, which for some reason has gone bad. Her neighbor (voiced off screen by Akerman herself) drops off her baby for Jeanne to look after and the child won’t stop crying. As her day starts to unravel, the film’s editing (by Patricia Canino, who joins Akerman, Mangolte, and producers Corinne Jénart and Evelyne Paul in a crew almost totally composed of women) starts to become more hitching and confused.
The editing of Jeanne’s first 24-hour day is orderly and symmetrical, but the second day is highlighted by an editing rhythm that’s alternately huffy and lethargic. Sometimes there’s a sharp cut between Jeanne in different locations (perhaps to show how Jeanne seems to be fighting to be in two places at once). Other times, the pace slows down so much that Jeanne enters and exits the frame multiple times before a cutaway, which emphasizes Jeanne’s wasted and misspent time. All of her seeming frustrations (Seyrig’s wonderfully stone-faced performance only hints at the upset Jeanne tries to hide) reach a breaking point when the third man arrives for his afternoon delight. As he lies panting on the bed post-coitus, Jeanne takes a pair of scissors from her vanity and nonchalantly stabs him in the neck. Akerman cuts to a long take of Jeanne sitting at her dining room table with blood on her hands as dusk falls and the film comes to an abrupt conclusion.
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on the film, the murder of the third customer was merely Akerman’s attempt to bring the film to a conclusion point, which suggests that the moment is less significant than the events of the preceding three hours. Nevertheless, the film’s final act calls into question the meaning of everything around it. Because Akerman’s film is, in fact, a narrative film as much as it is a feng shui aquarium, it can’t be underestimated how provocative Jeanne Dielman’s denouement really is. What is the significance of the murder? What motivated it? Did anything motivate it? Has this been building throughout the entire film? All of these questions are likely to go through the viewer’s mind as he or she sits and wonders in the same way that Jeanne sits and wonders during the final five-minute shot (the omnipresent flashing sign outside her living-room window now seems to mock her with its intractable, immutable pulse).
This is where Akerman’s innovational directorial approach lays itself bare. Here, the film’s deft tightrope act between experimental and pedestrian is stripped away in a feat of instantaneous revision. The audience is left to decide whether to view the murder as a narrative climax (which will have them filling in a few blanks like: “What did the man do to deserve it?”), a moment of feminist vigilantism (“Does Jeanne consider him emblematic of male oppression?”), or a hoary cliché that tips the scale toward viewing the film as a structuralist manifesto (“Is it significant that the only obliquely shot frames in the whole film correlate with Jeanne’s clients?”). That the film is structured so deliberately, and the repetition of shots allows for effortless cognitive recall, compounds the epic totality of Akerman’s visionary direction.
The film’s most amazing commodity is how ingeniously Akerman manages to have each isolated gesture and action performed by Jeanne unmistakable in its intended diegetic meaning, and yet she sculpts the aggregated details of the film as a whole into one big question mark. We know that the first day represents order and the second chaos, but how are we to know for sure that the first day represents “a normal day” in the life of Jeanne Dielman? One could entertain the possibility that the fabled cracks in Jeanne’s ever-fragile control-grip are present even in the first day, especially when one compares her disposition with that of her son (Jan Decorte, all sloped shoulders and gawky gait). Sylvain leaves the hall light on when he enters. Whereas Jeanne knows exactly how much soup to dish out for herself, she can’t seem to serve Sylvain a portion that will satisfy his appetite. If her loss of control is to be given the burden of blame for the violence that caps the film, are we then supposed to expect that she’s committed murder before (her husband, for instance)? We know that something provokes the murder, but because we’ve not been shown the bedroom etiquette of previous customers we can’t know whether the third customer breaks one of Jeanne’s taboos. If it weren’t for the film’s title, we probably wouldn’t even know her name.
The greatness of Jeanne Dielman is its ability to reveal the radical presuppositional leaps of faith an audience will make when deprived of concrete characters and motivations in a film (Abbas Kiarostami’s films expose this phenomenon as well). The space that Akerman allows her audience to ruminate over their own interpretations and postulations is as generous and unlimited as the space she gives Jeanne (or rather, the space she allows Jeanne to give herself) is constricted. If Jeanne Dielman has come to be considered a crown jewel of myriad film movements (feminist, avant-garde, experimental), it’s because the egalitarian allowances Akerman makes are profuse enough to adapt to any intellectual framework.