There is something very subversive about watching a woman, in an old-fashioned housecoat, lovingly dusting the ornaments in her glass cabinet, preparing a fresh batch of coffee, anxiously peeling potatoes, glancing a hand across a bed quilt to straighten it, or sitting quietly at a kitchen table. When that woman is a classically trained actress, and when her actions are projected on screen for over three hours, these minute actions of everyday domestic life, which are almost always hidden from view in the cinema, take on the most acute sense of formal perfection. The ultimate violent dissolution of these actions in Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) make it one of the most insurrectionary films about women that I have ever seen, and certainly one of the most celebrated examples of cinema in the feminine, or indeed of cinema of any kind.
In 1977, the critic and scholar Marsha Kinder described Jeanne Dielman as “the best feature I have ever seen made by women” (1). Rightly, Kinder refers to “women” in the plural, not “woman” in the singular, since the film’s director, Chantal Akerman, was also joined in this formally and conceptually innovative chef-d’oeuvre by cinematographer Babette Mangolte, editor Patricia Camino, and an almost entirely female crew. Mangolte, with whom Akerman worked on many of her 1970s films – Hôtel Monterey (1972), La Chambre (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973), and News From Home (1976) – and Akerman’s less well-known film on Pina Bausch, Un jour Pina m’a demandé… (1983), is a prominent filmmaker in her own right, having also collaborated with artists such as the dancer Trish Brown and the performance artist Marina Abramovich.
But the most prominent and visually striking female presence onscreen in Jeanne Dielman is Delphine Seyrig, the much-esteemed actress who plays the role of the film’s eponymous protagonist, and was previously most well-known for her roles in the high formalist films of Alain Resnais (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), and Luis Buñuel (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972), as well as having worked in the US and Germany. A television interview with Seyrig and Akerman, broadcast shortly after Jeanne Dielman was released, shows a very young Akerman (she was only 24 when she made this, her second feature) speaking with great force and vivacity about her work. Her energetic performance is in sharp distinction to Seyrig’s powerfully graceful, reflective presence, which evidently shows restraint and admiration in equal measure. Footage of Seyrig and Akerman working together on set on Jeanne Dielman, filmed by the actor Sami Frey, further reveals these gentle tensions between two different generations of female artists. Seyrig, committed to women’s rights and women in film (2), and having practiced her own kinds of resistance and revolt through high formalist modes of performance, asks Akerman repeatedly for guidance and motivation, for signs of emotional connection between herself and the fictional woman Akerman has asked her to play. Akerman, almost mute, is vague, unspecific: not concerned with psychological depth, instead she is interested in the formal qualities of Seyrig’s gestures (3). For instance, she is interested in the way that Seyrig’s body embodies the bourgeois housewife, Jeanne Dielman, for a time, even when those embodying gestures are as simple as the act of brushing her hair. Akerman’s deceptive simplicity meets, and clashes – gently, productively – with Seyrig’s Strasberg-influenced method acting (4).
Jeanne Dielman is a film about what it is to be a woman: not only that, but a film about what it was to be a certain type of woman, trapped by the cultural and social norms of the Belgian – and by extension, the European – bourgeoisie in the 1970s, at a time when feminism was only beginning to become part of the social fabric of political and personal life. However, to say that this is a film exclusively about women might suggest that Jeanne Dielman is some sort of critical utopia, when this is far from being the case. The eponymous housewife, with her precise movements and economical, if not austere domesticity, is also a part-time prostitute, turning tricks in the afternoons to ensure that she and her son can maintain their precarious life in a psychologically oppressive Brussels, painted in the same drab “Flemish colour palette” as her primly decorated home (5).
All 201 minutes of the film unfurl at the same unhurried pace, revealing the minutiae of Jeanne’s daily routine over the course of approximately 48 hours. Her daily actions, and her scrupulous attention to the metronomic choreography of domestic life, quickly embed themselves as part of the visual and bodily logic of the film. I find myself equally as engrossed by the manner in which Jeanne scrupulously eschews waste of any kind, folding away barely-used tinfoil for instance, and compulsively switching on lights in each room as she enters, then off again as she exits, as by the way in which she conscientiously holds and folds the hat, coat and scarf of the middle-aged men who are her regular afternoon clients. This routine also reveals the intricate details of past and present suffering: her life as an orphaned young woman, the death of her husband six years ago, her indifference to marriage, and the judgement of a sister overseas who disapproves of her singledom. And as her routine, which seems always to have been just so, begins to fall apart, moment-by-moment, each loving act of care that Jeanne displays in her work also seems to be doubly tinged with fear, regret, anxiety and loss. Within this meticulous ethnography of feminine domestic labour, a phenomenology of affect unfolds.
Nonetheless, it is not the case that we can necessarily “identify” with, or fully understand Jeanne Dielman. After all, the film’s semi-distanced camerawork never allows Jeanne to be seen outside of the context of her daily activities. As Akerman said herself, the film’s frame adheres to a strict ethics of looking: “To avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces… cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful” (6). In fact, only once in the entire film is the camera permitted to enter into Jeanne’s bedroom in the course of one of her afternoon visits. That brief instant, where so little is seen, shows just one transitory moment where Jeanne is not in control: we see – or think we see, for the frame cuts off both Jeanne and the client from the waist down – an orgasm. That shuddering, fleeting glimpse into a world of unruly pleasure, so diametrically opposed to the impassive, undramatic, satisfyingly ritualistic gestures of domestic life, marks the culmination of a life unravelling. This unravelling takes place at a pace so minimal, so almost imperceptible, that the film’s violent penultimate scene seems no more shocking than the burnt potatoes that earlier marked the metaphorical grains of sand entering into the clockwork mechanism of bourgeois femininity.
Dialogue is sparse, limited predominantly to the quiet, softly chattering conversations between Jeanne and the shop-owners she visits to mend shoes, find a button, to obtain a new ball of wool. The longest and most poetic exchanges take place between Jeanne and her son, who reveals his Oedipal jealousy and fear of Jeanne’s sex life with his father, now long dead. And yet, the unspoken within the film is also one of its most potent elements. Silence is not silence: it is inflected with the ticking of an alarm clock which never rings, the click of Jeanne’s modestly heeled shoes down the corridor, the shrill screech of the doorbell, the murmur of traffic in the street beyond the apartment.
Within this film, exquisitely framed, is housed both the rumbling thunder of repression, and the intimate machine of everyday love – a love that speaks of care, and a care that speaks of the fear of unravelling, perhaps even the fear of time itself. There will never be another Jeanne Dielman, in all its exquisite, drab, metronomic, agonising glory. Its perfect depiction of the horror of the everyday world – a world predominantly conducted behind closed doors, and rarely projected large on the big screen – is spellbinding. It has lost none of its punch, its viciousness, or its complex interplay of love and despair woven into the very fabric of the quotidian, in the years that have passed since 1975.
- Marsha Kinder, “Reflections on Jeanne Dielman”, Film Quarterly vol. 30, no. 4, Summer 1977, pp. 2-8.
- Seyrig regularly campaigned for women’s rights, having been one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343 Bitches”, a list of 343 women who publicly declared themselves to have had an abortion that was published by Simone de Beauvoir in the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur on 5 April 1971. She also co-founded the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir in 1982, dedicated to women’s rights and women’s filmmaking.
- Both the interview and the on-set footage can be found on the DVD special edition of Jeanne Dielman, The Criterion Collection, New York, 2009.
- In the late 1950s, Seyrig trained in New York at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, most well-known for his mode of “method acting”. See Michel Beauchamp and Mari-Claude Loiselle, “Entretien avec Delphine Seyrig: Vertige du jeu”, 24 images no. 44-45, 1989, p. 91.
- Ivone Margulies, “A Matter of Time: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Jeanne Dielman, The Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1215-a-matter-of-time-jeanne-dielman-23-quai-du-commerce-1080-bruxelles. See also Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1996, p. 5.
- Chantal Akerman, “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman”, Camera Obscura no. 2, 1977, p. 119. See also Marion Schmid, Chantal Akerman, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, p. 48.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975 Belgium/France 201 mins)
Prod Co: Ministère de la Culture Française de Belgique/Paradise Films/Unité Trois Prod: Evelyne Paul, Corinne Jenart Dir, Scr: Chantal Akerman Phot: Babette Mangolte Ed: Patricia Canino Art Dir: Philippe Graff
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Vical