August 27, 2009

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****

Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) has been notorious for so long, mainly because of its extreme unavailability on video, because of its lengthy running time, and having a reputation that seemingly nothing happens in it. But now that the film has been officially released on DVD, via Criterion no less, all those things should fall by the wayside as the film itself can now be seen for what it is: a masterpiece.

The film is simple as it unfolds: Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) prepares dinner, then greets a man at the door, collects his hat and scarf and leads him to the bedroom. She collects his hat and scarf and leads him to the bedroom. They re-emerge. She holds out her hand and he places money in it. He leaves, and she places the money in a ceramic pot. She continues to prepare dinner, for her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte). They eat in near silence, though Sylvain would rather read than eat. She reads a letter, he does homework, she knits. Occasionally, flashing blue lights -- perhaps from some neon advertising sign just outside the windows -- twitch and skitter all over the walls. After a while, mother and son go out for something, but we don't see where they go; we only see them return. But wherever they went or whatever they experienced doesn't appear to have changed their lives in the slightest.

Over the course of the rest of the film, Jeanne partakes in ordinary household actitivities, which Akerman shoots at four angles only: from the front, from behind, or from left or right profiles. There are no camera movements that I can remember. Using only cuts, Akerman often follows characters as they move from room to room, conscientiously flicking the lights on and off lights each time. There's very little dialogue and no non-diegetic music, and more often than not, entire scenes pass by in silence, except for the rustle of clothes or the clink of dishes.

While many people describe the film as "nothing happens," it's actually quite a bit more clever and deliberately constructed than one might think. It was a bit of genius on the part of Akerman to open so quickly on Jeanne's first client. Though she shows no sex of any kind, Jeanne's occupation as a prostitute is first and foremost on our minds the entire time. Hence, we wait throughout the entire next 24 hours to see not only how Jeanne balances her life, but we also wait for the next client to show up. (What does Jeanne do to prepare for him?) This waiting also serves as the film's driving force; it's not just boredom in a vacuum. There are other mysteries, such as the blue lights, and -- even more tantalizingly -- a second nighttime excursion taken by Jeanne and Sylvain. Sylvain asks if they still have to go. Jeanne replies "we're going." And they do, with the same cutting. Akerman never reveals their destination or activity.

Ingeniously, it's just after the second john visits that Jeanne's daily routine comes full circle, and begins to break down. Things begin to go wrong. Seyrig's performance is so flawless that she's nearly a total cipher (although I thought I saw her cracking a bit during the potato peeling scene). It can be assumed that Jeanne has organized her life so that every second is filled with some mundane activity, and the first time this system fails, she finds herself with time enough to think, to examine her life. We begin to discover, through bits of dialogue, more and more about Jeanne's past.

Another part of the film's genius is that we in the audience are the only ones who understand just what Jeanne does all day, entirely in the service of men, both in prepping meals for Sylvain and preparing herself for sex with her male visitors. None of these men see her all day, nor do they understand her world, nor do they seem to care. The film ends with the visits of her third male customer; and perhaps its longest shot, with Jeanne showing some emotion for perhaps the first time.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has been justly celebrated as both a groundbreaking experimental film and as a groundbreaking feminist film, and both descriptions apply, though the reasons why are still up for debate. Either way, it's very simply a great film for being brave enough to focus almost entirely on those things that ordinary films leave out, or take for granted.

Criterion has transferred the entire 201-minute work to one disc, with no other extras, and no commentary track, so as to preserve the quality. The fine transfer highlights the brilliant cinematography of Babette Mangolte, with its household golds and browns and intricate knickknacks. The second disc contains many interviews, including a brand-new one with both Akerman and Mangolte. There's also a full-length making-of featurette shot on the set, an excerpt from a 1997 Akerman television interview and a 1976 television interview with both Akerman and Seyrig. We also get an early Akerman short film, shot when she was a teenager.

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Posted by cphillips at August 27, 2009 1:16 PM

I loved this film when I saw it in a theater when it was first released. I can't wait to see it again because, although I have some vivid memories of it, I can't remember really enough. Thanks for the review!

Posted by: Joanna at August 30, 2009 11:29 AM

really great review, just watched it myself for the first time today. I loved it for all the subtleties, her purposely leaving a button undone until her son points it out, almost as if she wanted to see if he would notice...

Posted by: vivienne Strauss at October 6, 2009 8:47 PM
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