Chantal Akerman’s magnum opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels is a deeply-involving, intimate portrait of 3 days in the life of a woman, Jeanne Dielman. Shot entirely with static camerawork, with unhurried editing, the film takes an intent look into the mundane ritualistic nature of daily life, as Jeanne’s carefully calibrated system starts to slowly fall apart.
It is a film that, in theory, should probably bore the viewer to death, as Akerman shows no interest in dramatizing this woman’s daily routine with cinematic techniques.
At 3 hours and 21 minutes, it demands extraordinary patience on the part of the viewer and becomes an experiment in documenting life, exposed and vulnerable, while cleverly and carefully breaking down conventional narrative expectations. And yet, despite its mammoth running time and leisurely pace, the film can be surprisingly engaging and interesting to observe. Provided that the viewer commits themselves to the experience, immersing themselves within the frames, and be willing to have their pre-existing notions of cinematic language changed forever.
Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), the widowed mother of a teenage son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), ekes out a drab, repetitive existence in her tiny Brussels apartment. Jeanne’s days are divided between humdrum domestic chores — shopping, cooking, housework — and her job as an occasional prostitute, which keeps her financially afloat. She seems perfectly resigned to her situation until a series of slight interruptions in her routine leads to unexpected and dramatic changes.
As Jonathan Rosenbaum said, the film’s glacial pace “trains one to recognize and respond to fluctuations and nuances”.
Without the film being exactly what it is, one wouldn’t expect it to be possible to watch a 3.5-minute static shot just showing a woman preparing meatloaf, kneading and folding a lump of minced meat, and still be in thrall to it. Akerman’s directing style finds a hypnotic quality that is achieved in spite of (or because of) the measured editing and mostly-frontal cinematography, that maintains a consistent camera distance throughout, placing us squarely inside Jeanne Dielman’s living room, her kitchen and her life.
It is a portrait of a woman and, by extension, of all women in some form or shape ― stripped down to its bare essentials, and revealing a kind of boldness that’s hardly seen elsewhere. Jeanne Dielman isn’t a film that one should expect to be liked by the masses, and there are many that would dismiss its unique features outright as mere gimmicks. However one has to understand that the film’s sluggish pace and mundanity wasn’t really a fault as much as it was a choice. Was this a radical choice? Surely it was and you have to expect that your film might garner a lot of people who don’t like it at all if you’re going to discard all traditional cinematic tropes. However, creating something truly original entails doing just that, and kudos to Akerman for succeeding in a bold attempt that’s fraught with chances of failure.
The pace and rhythm slows down time to a crawl, mimicking the slowness of our mundane everyday, so that now we manage to sense even the tiniest of variations in Jeanne Dielman’s actions.
A little twitch of the eyebrows, hands suddenly moving faster and erratically than they did before, the smallest signs of restlessness ― all the little things that would otherwise be unnoticeable, suddenly become prominent in this strange environment that Akerman creates. And this is how we are given a glimpse of this woman’s state of mind, who otherwise doesn’t let much slip past her impassive face. It is not difficult to see that the film’s primary strength lies in the portrayal of its central character Jeanne Dielman, deliberate and systematic, always keeping her emotions suppressed. And it is through this mysterious lady that Akerman subtly makes her powerful commentary upon the societal and emotional struggles faced by women in a male-dominated society, which gradually reveal themselves through the mind-numbingly ordinary flow of daily routine.
This is how you transcend cinematic boundaries and re-invent its very DNA ― by showing what others won’t show, by looking where others won’t look and giving importance to even the finest of little things that would go unnoticed in typical screenplays. Akerman’s film becomes an exercise in subverting and re-inventing filmmaking techniques so as to get the most non-dramatic, utterly-realistic depiction of the daily life of a woman. Which means she consciously avoided doing anything to spice up the film or make the viewing any more interesting than it should be. This can be seen even more clearly in the documentary Autour de Jeanne Dielman by Sami Frey, where we see a very fussy Akerman repeating takes to get the timing of Seyrig’s movements just right (they were even using stopwatches at every turn). Almost reminiscent of how a certain Robert Bresson used to repeat takes until his “models” were stripped away of any theatricality.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.