There is nothing quite like the 1975 domestic drama Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. A three-hour epic, that follows the life of mother, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), as she goes about her day completing mundane tasks – such as peeling potatoes, and washing up. But as the film develops, the mundane slips away and out of her control.
As we are with Jeanne for such a long period of time, and we are in the close space, we become connected with her, empathizing with her even if we may not be mother ourselves. It is down to Babette Mangolte‘s cinematography which helps frame Seyrig in such away that creates a sense of intimacy, and isolation at the same time. For the first half-hour or so, she is sat at the kitchen table peeling potatoes with her head, shoulders and torso visible. Perhaps indicting how she is only ever perceived by men as a sexual object, or a domestic one. We can instantly feel for the character who is restrained and held back by her duties of a mother, and as a woman, the kitchen table is her prison.
Jeanne Dielman is an efficient homemaker, and she carries out her chores in an auto-pilot mode 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. We do not witness the sex session, something that would perhaps distract us from the real drama that is occurring, the internal drama that Jeanne is facing.
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, and then she gives herself a sponge bath. The camera doesn’t shy away from allowing us to see her naked, and for the first time we see how vulnerable she is. She gets dressed again. She switches off the light in the bathroom, and switches the light in the kitchen back on again. This goes on for three very intimate hours, presented in the film as a two-day cycle that begins and ends in the late afternoon. Being with one person for this period of time creates a sense of affinity, which many films often struggle to execute effectively and with impact.
Editing is used to great effect in the film’s second half, following Jeanne into the next day, as slowly her tightly organised system of doing thing begins to unravel. Things start off smaller, for example, 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 director Chantal Akerman herself) asks her to look after a baby which won’t stop crying. As her day starts to unravel, the film’s editing becomes less organised, and more disorienting, reflecting the emotional and mental state of Jeanne. The film’s ending is a blow to the senses, like a pan that has finally over boiled. Jeanne’s world has become well and truly unravelled to the point of no return. However, there remains a sense of ambiguoity, and there is a full conclusion, like life itself, there are no happy endings.
This is a true depiction and portrait of female domesticity coming undone. Of a woman who is both mother and whore, but struggles to commit to one role fully, unsure of who she is and what function she is suppose to serve. Jeanne Dielmann has become one of the landmarks in feminist film. It came at a time where the gender roles and traditions were being broken down. Although, to my great disappointment, the film was not a commercial hit. It did not receive a New York theatrical run until 1983.
Regardless, there is no denying the significant importance of Jeanne Dielmann. The film’s crew was composed almost exclusively of women, and had a 25-year-old female director who was working outside the dominant studio system. Jeanne Dielman is regarded to many female filmmakers as a model for female led films featuring stong, well developed female characters.
The film’s director, Akerman, may have been 25 when she made the film, but there is so much maturity and depth to her work, that it seems to have been made by someone wiser than their years. In an interview for the New York Times, she stated that when writing the screenplay, “A lot of it came unconsciously. When I wrote it, it ran like a river. Delphine Seyrig complained that there was so much detail she didn’t have to invent anything.” Akerman could draw a lot from viewing the world through a female gaze, even in the 70s women were still considered as somewhat second class citizens, and pressured into accepting a life of domesticity.
Even though feminists and women studies have adopted the film as part of their movement, Akerman has expressed that she never perceived the film as belonging to a particular movement. In her own words, she expressed her concern over labels, “All those labels are a bit annoying. To name something is a way to possess it. I think it makes the film smaller. And O.K., maybe they are right, but they are never right enough.”
Jeanne Dielmann isn’t like most films; it’s an experience like no other, where you become drawn into this world with its seemingly normal protagonist. This is a rare thing in cinema, as often we are aware we are watching a film, here we seem to be in the kitchen with Jeanne as she peels her potatoes, and we are unable to escape – we have become a part of her world.
Perhaps Akerman’s own words is the best way to describe the experience of watching the film, “In most movies you have crashes or accidents or things out of the ordinary, so the viewer is distracted from his own life,” she said. “This film is about his own life.”