Chantal Akerman's feminist masterpiece observes an unknowable heroine in vivid detail
Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was released by the Criterion Collection a few years ago in a standard-definition DVD, but gets upgraded to Blu-ray this week, which finally gave me the chance to catch up with it. Here's a pull-quote I don't get to use very often: it's an excruciating viewing experience, which nonetheless nets out to a transcendent piece of cinema.
A film of three hours and twenty-one minutes, Jeanne Dielman covers about two and a half days in the life of the titular widow, whom we observe in lengthy, measured takes, going about her daily routine. She breads a pair of veal cutlets, readying them for the dinner she will share with her son. She takes a bath and diligently washes every inch of herself, and then when done, washes the tub. Jeanne has paid sex with a succession of male callers. Jeanne writes a letter to her sister, who lives in Canada.
Skirted around so completely as to nearly gaslight the audience, Jeanne does indeed engage in sex work in the middle of each of the three subsequent afternoons we spend with her. She makes no comment upon this, exchanges no words with the men, and none of the people in her life seem aware that any of it is going on. For the majority of the film, Jeanne is presented as a character without even a hint of interiority, as though that whole notion was something we invented in the 1980s, years after Jeanne Dielman hit screens in 1975.
Naturally, this does not hold, although as "slow builds" go, Jeanne Dielman takes the cake. By the third day, slight cracks in Jeanne's rigidly repeated daily routine start to visibly dislodge her sense of self. How do you peel a bowl of potatoes like your world just blew apart? Actress Delphine Seyrig finds that gear and expertly shifts into it.
The film tests one idea I've had about screenwriting for character, which is the question of how little of a fundamental aspect of a character's psychology you can show onscreen, having other behaviours merely orbit around it, while still creating a film that cohesively creates a world and a space and a person within that space. I don't know what the dark star at the centre of Jeanne is - and perhaps it's too facile to even assume there is one - but the hinted worldview that makes up the totality of the film about her is a fascinating experiment, and experience, in absorbing her mindset without understanding its drivers.
The film is a cunning meditation upon time, as well, and cinematic time specifically; lengthy sequences unfold in real time only to be interrupted by an obvious jump cut, where others slip gracefully from one to the other across more traditional edits. Some long takes find Jeanne just staring blankly into space, neither so vacant as to suggest being lost in thought nor active enough to propose some identifiable vexation. She's merely letting the clock run down. It's perplexing, and dreadful, and becomes terrifying.
Akerman passed away in 2015, but the disc includes interviews with her from 2009, along with a 70-minute documentary made on the film's set, where we get to watch her work with Seyrig in intimate detail. The documentary is shot in black and white '70s video, if that's your kind of thing; it sort of made me nauseous like old episodes of Doctor Who or a VCR whose tracking is badly adjusted. (Hey, that's probably just me.)
Another charming feature has Akerman, off-camera, interviewing her own mother for nearly half an hour; we also get interviews with Babette Mangolte, Jeanne Dielman's cinematographer, and actress Delphine Seyrig. Rounding out the disc is Saute Ma Ville, Ackerman's 1968 short film and directorial debut.