There are great movies, and there are movies with the power to change the way we watch movies. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is among those rarest of works that is both.
Akerman died Oct. 5 at age 65, an apparent suicide. She made more than 40 films; shorts and features, fiction and documentaries, and works less easily categorized. Her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a month before she turned 25.
I first experienced Jeanne Dielman by way of the Criterion Collection restoration on a cool, rainy, early autumn night some years ago. Much is made of the movie’s length (it runs over three hours), and I had already endured a long, exhausting day when I pressed play; I wasn’t sure I would make it through the whole film, and I was certain I would need to stop an hour or so in to make dinner.
I was riveted; I didn’t move except to squirm on the couch. After it was over, I ate a late meal and watched it again.
In long, static shots we follow the daily routine of the title character, a middle-age, middle-class single mother who lives with her teenage son in a modest but tastefully appointed Brussels apartment. Jeanne cleans, shops and cooks with almost robotic purpose and precision. Then, late in the day, before her son returns and as dinner cooks, she welcomes a man to the tidy flat and has sex with him for money.
With a few tangents, this regimen is repeated over the course of three days.
Akerman was a master of composition, and the extended scenes, most of which occur in straight-ahead medium to medium-close shots, build tension and immerse us in the details (I haven’t seen the movie in at least five years, but I vividly recall the colors, décor and layout of the apartment; the faded yellow kitchen tiles, the swirling marbled greens of the bathtub, the rose-dotted tablecloth). “The ordinary becomes supercharged, and the protagonist’s routine so familiar that the viewer senses something amiss when she forgets to place the cover on the soup tureen where she keeps her earnings,” noted the critic J. Hoberman, an early champion of Jeanne Dielman, in his excellent Akerman tribute in The New York Times.
Akerman is often compared to Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni and other minimalist European filmmakers, but Jeanne Dielman draws as much from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Jeanne Dielman is pure cinema, and its influence can be felt in the works of modern filmmakers as diverse as Todd Haynes, Michael Haneke and Sofia Coppola.
Jeanne Dielman is Akerman’s film, yet it would not work without Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne. Seyrig was no stranger to elliptical art cinema (see also: Last Year at Marienbad and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), but her performance in Jeanne Dielman is one of remarkable control and subtlety. As we watch Jeanne fold laundry, scrub the bathtub, prepare veal cutlets and—in a surprisingly startling moment—drop a spoon, we see her unwind. Or so I thought at first.
But is she really unraveling? As we watch the erosion of her routine, are we also witnessing her break free of a system that has long held her hostage?
The film’s climax is shocking, if not unexpected given the slow simmer, but it is also (unsettlingly) something of a relief. You can read into it what you wish, but I will say that when I first saw Jeanne Dielman and reached the climactic moment, I found myself clutching a couch cushion with one hand, a couch-hogging dog with the other, and holding my breath until it was over.
Akerman was a sensitive artist, but she was fearless in her exploration of intimacy. In his lovely remembrance, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody described her work as “recklessly, freely personal.” Akerman acknowledged that much of Jeanne Dielman was drawn from her mother, a Holocaust survivor who for decades repressed the trauma of that great horror and lived a life of quiet domesticity (“My mother is the center of my oeuvre,” the filmmaker confessed in the documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman). Akerman’s relationship with her mother, who died in 2014, is also the subject of her final film, No Home Movie, which was booed at a press screening earlier this year at the Locarno International Film Festival. Akerman was reportedly devastated by the response, especially given the proximity to her mother’s death, and had recently been hospitalized for depression, that tragic, muted malady.
“Sleep tight,” Jeanne says to her son at the end of a day and in a matter-of-fact way that is weighted with so much more. You too, Ms. Akerman.