Belgium, France, 1975
Directed by Chantal Akerman
With Delphine Seyrig (Jeanne Dielman), Jan Decorte (Sylvain Dielman)
She simply does what everybody does at home: coming and going through corridors and rooms, attending to all the menial, banal chores that necessities, functions, habits, command, from cooking to bathing, from cleaning to doing the errands. Those are nearly automatic gestures and common sense attitudes, quotidian and basic moves, the mundane tasks of the home life and the body needs.
She does it more or less expertly, with dedication, as it is widely expected from a woman, especially the housewife kind looking after a child, in fact as a woman has been trained by other women. Observing her is just taking notice of her expert gestures, how they unfold, how long it takes for them to perform the task, a record of the thoughtless and concrete activity her home, her son, her life cause. In a way this is no longer about characterization and contextualization as movies would usually have it – Jeanne Dielman is not shot peeling off potatoes or rubbing clean her bathtub in a brief way to signal that she is also a housewife from a rather modest middle class. To linger on such chores and motions would just inject more credibility and precision to a character already introduced and grounded into a narrative, even a plot. This is no longer about displaying more liveliness or authenticity or informational background.
Her gestures and her chores are how she lives, like other women, in the most practical and ordinary manner and how her days and nights go by. They are shot because they signify, not simply to deepen a signification. It is from that viewpoint that director Chantal Akerman breaks somehow new grounds: through her long takes, carefully composed and emphasizing full motion and real ordinariness in part thanks to the choice of medium shots, she displays bluntly the tedious and mechanical action and actuality of living for a woman, and how repetitive it inevitably is. And it is obviously by design that her film is made with a crew largely made up of women and starring an actress fiercely and publicly committed to the feminist agenda and consciously playing against the type she and other avant-garde filmmakers have shaped for her.
If motions and movements take a lot of place, and if need be a lot of time, words are rarer and briefer. This is a quiet life and a quiet woman, who does not like to chat – unlike the neighbor whose baby she sits for a few moments every morning, the time, it seems, for the harried young lady to do her own errands (she has other kids and a ravenous husband) and does not even wish to have long conversation with her son, a lanky and dull teenager, Sylvain Dielman, who, anyway, is not keen on speaking a lot but would rather read endlessly, even when dinner is served. Jeanne Dielman is very polite with whoever she meets in the shops and the streets but remains distant, and even counts on having habits to avoid talking more than needed (notice how she enters a café where she is obviously a patron: she does not say hello, or anything, but thanks smilingly the waitress coming with the coffee she clearly drinks often in this place at this time of the afternoon – unsurprisingly, she would be stunned the day when another waitress welcomes her and asks what she wants, since it is a big change forced upon her). Part of her habits is to get out of her apartment, with her son in tow, at a precise time most evenings – but if the camera shows the Brussels streets it does not hint at where they could lead: who the Dielmans meet in the middle of the evening so assiduously remains unknown, a social life that however extant it is lurks in the dark periphery of home and shots.
The few lines bring some key elements about her life: she used to be married but is now alone, the husband, whom she has chosen a bit out of spite, a bit out of ennui, has died, she has a sister living in Canada, she does not seem interested in many things – and that matters: her monotonous gestures reflect a limited interior life more or less satisfied with what she daily experiences and deals with. She lives in a small world that is carefully organized and predictable and that is enough to her, even rewarding.
The apartment itself and the details of their lives hint strongly at a fairly modest way of life: they cannot afford much luxury to say the least, as demonstrated by their simple, frugal even, unimaginative meals. But the key consequence of the their trouble with money is swiftly exposed by the arrival and departure of a male visitor early in the film: it does not take much thinking to figure out part of Jeanne Dielman’s revenues comes from prostitution, though the film skips depicting the ordinary gestures of paid sex, focusing only on how men are welcome and how they pay and leave the place, with frames highlighting the arms of Jeanne Dielman extending to pick coats or give them back, underlining her situation as a servant of male lust.
The oddest habit she has, the most inept in fact, is to drop her earning in a soup tureen. On the second day of this three-day comprehensive survey of Jeanne Dielman’s life, she forgets to put back the lid after dropping the banknotes handed over by her unfriendly customer as she has forgotten to switch off a light. Her hair is oddly tousled and she looks a bit upset: it sounds like this carnal knowledge did not unfold as usual, at least on her terms, though what did occur would never be articulated. Making money with one’s body cannot be an entirely pleasant and easy task and it can take a toll. And it seems it is the case.
True, there are other unpleasant things spoiling the routine and marring the mood, like those potatoes that prove to be overcooked. But they just stoke a nascent displeasure her gestures slowly reflect, and even more her face where a permanent, faint, smile gives way to a more sullen mien. Switching on or off the lights and opening or closing doors and windows get more confused and erratic – the gestures and what they cause as changes in light and atmosphere do not fit a pattern that itself sustain a kind of reliable and enjoyable, habitual and comfortable order structuring and reflecting the tranquil, thoughtless, tepid life. They rather suggest a growing disorder, a pace getting out of tune, a life getting out of the groove. Jeanne Dielman looks more and more annoyed, exhausted, miffed, everything seems to go awry, from the coffee she fails to make properly to the buttons she cannot buy for her son’s coat.
When over this third day she welcomes another man, the film changes tack in dealing with that sordid part of Jeanne Dielman’s life: the camera does stand in the bedroom and sets out to record the sexual act. It is as it could have been reasonably feared an underwhelming and pitiful experience and it is not hard to feel how prostitution brings so little satisfaction, even to the client. Jeanne Dielman looks again wearied and lost and yet she is at one point seized by sheer surprise, she is upset by what she feels. And her gestures would change as a consequence: using a pair of scissors she neglected to put back in a drawer – another show of forgetting habits – she simply kills her client. The astonishing and harrowing act is followed by a last, seemingly endless long take on a crying woman sitting listless and splattered in blood in the living room, in the dark for once, exhausted, desperate, yet expressing something like relief.
The unpredictable, shocking, gory gesture turning the ordinary woman into a senseless murderer is perhaps simply the most spontaneous, vital, deeply felt gesture this woman has been able to carry out for a long time, tantamount to a shout or a statement, the terrible, irrevocable, but personal and human, if devious, action of a soul suddenly unable to bear with her self-inflicted but also socially endorsed way of life, that numbing but appeasing effort to reduce one’s identity and life to a pattern of banality. Jeanne Dielman first lives, shot in a carefully observational manner, shot at a glacial pace, still mesmerizing the audience, then flounders to live, in a stunning chronicle of gestures and events getting more and more preposterous and troubling, and eventually shatters her life. Exactly why is hard to grasp, with Akerman claiming the trouble is that she had orgasms, an unexpected and transformative pleasure, while her images, and the images the audience can have of prostitution and readily associate with her high angle shots, suggest rather a more traumatic outcome. But this fresh experience is clearly perceived by Jeanne Dielman as a threat, the ugly possibility to step in another realm of sensations causing even more trouble into her life’s pattern: the murder is a hasty, confused, dreadful reaction that brings of course more problems and challenges to this ordinary woman, forcing her, and the audience, to wonder what actually life could mean and bring to such an individual.