She’s very good about shutting off the lights when she leaves a room. She coats the cutlets in flour right on the tabletop. Her adolescent son sleeps on the foldout in the living room; he asks her difficult questions while never looking at her. She has different housecoats for different tasks. She works at home, which is to say she invites her clients into her own ordinary-looking bedroom. As we sit and observe and listen to and immerse ourselves in all three hours and 21 minutes of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the feature debut of Belgian director Chantal Akerman, made when she was a mere 25 years old, we’re struck by overwhelming recognition. The title Belgian widow, so wholly and richly inhabited by Delphine Seyrig, is a double-archetype, at once the mother and the whore. Yet, through the careful exhibition of select banal domestic routines, playing out in real time, she’s fleshed out to the point of transcendence. Over the course of three days Jeanne’s routines will start to break down and these detours will prove traumatic, leading to a violent catharsis. Identification is rewarded with catastrophe. Jeanne Dielman is one of the most persuasive feminist gestures in cinema history, cool and formalist in its style, deeply compassionate and finally shattering in its effect. It’s now on DVD from the Criterion Collection.
To call Akerman’s approach anthropological would not be accurate. The compositions are rigorously squared, or rather, like Jeanne, contained. The camera is stationary, never tempted to follow its subject even when she exits the frame, confident, we presume, that it knows she’ll be back. There’s no attempt to create the illusion of spying or catching something by chance. Everything has been meticulously arranged. This fierce control over the mise-en-scène, as exacting as Hitchcock, is essential to the cumulative effect. As Ivone Margulies writes in the superb—and superbly illustrated—essay that accompanies Criterion’s deluxe edition, “Jeanne Dielman works like a time bomb.” Exactitude, the anxiety of waiting and watching, impatience giving way to fascination with minutia, the revelation of seeing an aberration from routine and its effect on a character we’ve gradually come to feel that we know in a way that we never know people in the movies: all of these are intrinsic to Akerman’s achievement.
It would be a cynical error to think you can “get the idea” without actually watching Jeanne Dielman. Duration, something filmmakers typically, and for perfectly good reason, disguise with editing, scoring and spectacle, has an intensely physical effect. It interesting to note that all the directors who’ve marked my viewing experience most deeply through the use of extended shot or scene duration—Tarkovsky, Cassavetes, Dreyer, and, now that I’ve finally seen her work, Akerman—are so utterly different from each other with regards to tone, sensibility, subject matter, politics, et cetera. Yet what they all have in common is that after I’ve come out the other end of one of their films I’m consumed by an unshakable sense of having been somewhere and through something, a whole gamut of emotions, suspicions and ideas having emerged and receded along the way. These films extend a pretty loaded sort of invitation, and I don’t hold it against anyone if they might not be eager to take it up often, if at all. But if you love film and all the ways that it can reflect on our lives you need to know that this sort of work does something tremendous—something that only films can do. And the effect is unforgettable.