JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DE COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES qualifies as a neglected classic. The lengthy film, released in 1975, has achieved a cult status, but rarely gets screened. If anything, however, JEANNE DIELMAN seems as relevant as ever as a work of great haunting formal achievement
and a profound social statement.
JEANNE DIELMAN examines, in minute detail, the life of the title character. Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is a middle-aged widow and mother living in a small apartment with her teenage son, Sylvain, in 1970s Brussels. During the day, while her son attends school and she busies herself with her
household chores, Jeanne secretly makes money by prostituting herself to male visitors who come to her flat. Jeanne seems to live a lonely life, barely speaking to her son, her customers, the nearby shopkeepers or her neighbors, but she keeps excessively busy by attending to her housework.
On the first of three days spent looking at Jeanne's life, she starts cooking potatoes for dinner for herself and Sylvain, then greets a male "john" at the door. After the brief rendezvous in Jeanne's bedroom, the man leaves and she takes a bath. She resumes cooking the rest of dinner for Sylvain,
who comes home from school. Mother and son eat dinner in near silence. After dinner, Jeanne reads aloud a letter from her sister in Canada, who says she is sending her a gift. Then Jeanne helps Sylvain correct his French accent while reading his school book, The Enemy by Baudelaire. The day ends
with Jeanne putting Sylvain to bed and telling him how she met his late father during WWII.
The next day, Jeanne makes breakfast and polishes Sylvain's shoes. She gives him some money and sends him on his way to school. She then tidies up the bedding and breakfast dishes before heading out to the post office and shoe store. When she returns home, she takes in a neighbor's baby while the
neighbor goes to the market. Jeanne returns the baby to the neighbor, and goes out again herself to buy some yarn and have coffee at her favorite cafe.
When Jeanne returns home, she prepares potatoes again for dinner before meeting another john. Her appointment this time lasts longer, and she is forced to throw out the potatoes because they have overcooked. She goes out to buy more potatoes, and returns home in time to make dinner, which is ready
only slightly later than on the previous night. After dinner, Jeanne and Sylvain listen to an opera on the radio. Later, as Jeanne says goodnight to her son, he tells her of his childhood wish to see his father die. Jeanne dismisses her son's recollections and goes to bed.
On the third day, Jeanne becomes less meticulous with her housework than usual. While polishing Sylvain's shoes, she drops her shoebrush, and after Sylvain leaves for school, she also drops one of the breakfast dishes. Jeanne later goes out to the post office only to find it closed. She comes home
to start cooking a meatloaf for dinner, then sits by herself in the living room for a long time. With little housework left to do, she begins dusting the figurines in her dining room cabinet. She babysits briefly before going to the store to buy a button for one of Sylvain's old coats. When she
visits her favorite cafe for coffee, she is forced to sit in a new seat because another woman is occupying her usual spot. She eventually pays and leaves without having her cup of coffee.
Back at home, Jeanne finds her mystery gift from her cousin in the mail--a pink nightgown. As she examines the gift, a john rings the bell. She proceeds with the appointment, but feels uncomfortable later as the man holds her down on the bed. When the john finally allows Jeanne to get up, she
picks up the scissors she had used to open her gift and returns to the bed to stab the man in the throat. After this sudden act of violence, she sits quietly in the living room as day turns to night.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DE COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES has divided critics for years over its approach and its message. The film uses "real time" to make a feminist statement about patriarchal culture, but the technique obviously slows the narrative pace, and some viewers have dismissed JEANNE
DIELMAN as a drawn-out, self-indulgent exercise. But the repetition of the main character's acts not only makes its point about society's notion of "women's work," it also perfectly illustrates post-WWII existential despair (or a failed attempt to flee it).
Chantal Akerman was only 24 when she made this slice-of-life study of this bourgeois woman, and the director-writer shows great skill at maintaining a measured, deliberate pace, using steady long-shots without camera movement. Delphine Seyrig, perhaps best known for her 1960s work with Alain
Resnais, masterfully matches the fastidious style of her director with her performance. At 42, Seyrig might have seemed too young and beautiful to play such a colorless character, yet she pulls it off with the help of drab clothing and an unflattering hairstyle (cosmetically, there are echoes from
Seyrig's young matriarch in Resnais' MURIEL).
The stylistic allusions also include the seminal real-time style in Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962), and Jean-Luc Godard's exploration of documentary elements in fiction films. Akerman steeps the film in a a "realistic" tradition that dates back to the static takes of the Lumiere Bros, and
she also effectively relies on diegetic sounds to carry the film (e.g. the thump of Jeanne's shoes against the floor whenever she walks, her clicking off the lights before leaving rooms). Critic Andre Bazin, a champion of the deep-focus long-shot, would be proud of cinematographer Babette
Mangolte's painstakingly well-matched shots around the apartment set. The great number of these set-ups make the few medium shots seem like startling close-ups when they occur. The only minor flaw in this haunting film is the poor matching among some of the shots in the kitchen, where a chair
appears and disappears without reason.
Narratively, JEANNE DIELMAN might seem like a feminist re-interpretation of BELLE DE JOUR (1967), the classic French Bunuel film in which Catherine Deneuve plays a middle-class housewife who secretly spends her afternoons as a high-priced prostitute. But whereas Severine (Deneuve) enjoys her
transgressive sexual acts, Jeanne uses prostitution as an efficient means to her economic ends in a world where women's career choices are clearly limited. Significantly, no sexual activity is ever depicted in JEANNE DIELMAN, and the encounters with the men are never eroticized (Jeanne's head is
cut off by the camera angles during all her greetings to the men). The film seems to suggest that sex is just another chore to women--at least this Everywoman.
JEANNE DIELMAN succeeds where contemporaneous texts like DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970), A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), and even "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" fail, because it so insistently focuses and reframes the viewer to the female point of view without overdramatization or condescending
humor. Even lines of dialogue that would be otherwise innocuous take on heavy significance in this fly-on-the-wall observation. When a shoe store clerk asks Jeanne if her son is nice, for example, she unwittingly describes her subjugation by answering "I don't know what I'd do without him."
Another scene in which Jeanne passes a number of young schoolboys carrying briefcases suggests a bleak future for a society that values men over women. Jeanne's act of violence may be seen either as the director's revolutionary call-to-arms or merely a messy non-solution, since Jeanne is sure to
be punished for her transgression. The only major flaw in the entire film is the depiction of this climactic violent act, which, after such a realistic series of scenes, looks a little forced and theatrical. Otherwise, JEANNE DIELMAN is a towering achievement. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations,adult situations.)
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- Released: 1975
- Review: JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DE COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES qualifies as a neglected classic. The lengthy film, released in 1975, has achieved a cult status, but rarely gets screened. If anything, however, JEANNE DIELMAN seems as relevant as ever as a work of grea… (more)