Director: Chantal Akerman
Screenplay: Chantal Akerman
Cast: Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman; Jan Decorte as Sylvain Dielman; Henri Storck as the first client; Jacques Doniol-Valcroze as the second client; Yves Bical as the third client
Synopsis: Consisting of three days within the life of Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), a widowed mother of a teenage son and housekeeper, we follow her everyday chores and interactions, as well as her secret interest in sleeping with various men in-between. Reaching Day Two, little mistakes begin to pile up and a sense her life is about to unravel is felt until Day Three...
Anticipating Jeanne Dielman..., all these years, it is a legendary film. A monumental work since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, as pertinent now as then. The major work of Chantal Akerman, whose career is not yet pushed into a place where the mainstream can access her work as easily as it should, but with the utter admiration as a director1. What was unexpected watching the film, however, is that its aura as a three hour and fifteen minute film which was challenging to view has lost its lustre. In the decades past there has been the seven plus hours of Satantango (1994), Lav Diaz's career where ten hours is a minimum length of his newest film, even a YouTube Garfield parody called Lasagne Cat whose epilogue is four hours and forty minutes long; not to mention Liu Jiayin's Oxhide II (2009), which is meant to be 132 minutes of her with her parents making dumplings for a film with a thematic connection to Jeanne Dielman's long food preparing scenes. Many other examples can be brought up which forces one to not view Jeanne Dielman... and its slow, deliberate pace as an endurance test anymore, which is arguably for the better in the long run. I can view it not as a challenge, but justifying its length as a necessary slow burn, each lengthy passage of mundane activity engaging until it builds to a quiet scream heard in the finale.
Day One is deceptive. Whilst Akerman would not expect this reaction from the viewer, the first passage of the film is much more interesting for me in what happens and aesthetically than what one presume. It is, in hindsight, a deceptive lure before the severity of what happens in Jeanne Dielman's life, but I confess to have been utterly engaged with sights of actress Seyrig doing ordinary chores. Seventies French decor is far more colourful than one would presume, and there is something inherently interesting for me of a long shot of her, facing the camera at the kitchen table, preparing food2. In fact there's a clear hypnotic nature to what takes place on Day One immediately. Akerman uses a very rigid style - repetition in the activities (washing, cooking, sewing) for many minutes over three plus hours, matched by the preciseness of how the world is depicted. Excluding scenes outside of Dielman's home, within the house the camera is usually at medium distance and height, head to waist with Dielman many times looking directly at the camera at tables. The fact I found the environments colourful, and the activities appealing, is not the usual reaction one would expect for this film, a document of a woman trapped and confined to a domesticated hell, but that's because when Day Two onwards begins, one becomes aware of something horrible about to happen in the midst of the environment. When the rigid structure eventually wears down on the viewer deliberately, the colourful household becomes mundane and lifeless, and Dielman starts making mistakes as simple as overcooking potatoes.
In terms of a film known as much as a format experiment, it's rewarding to know how necessary its length truly is. Whilst a minimal narrative in plotting, these three hours plus make up three single days in a woman's life fleshed out. The precise of Akerman's work, each move and cut to a new camera frame (even within the same room), brings more out of the work immensely, even at its length without sense of unnecessary excess to the ideas. You have obvious clues to events about to transpire or flesh out our protagonist, that Jeanne has been a widow for a long time or her interactions with her son. The biggest surprise for me, in a film which is undeniably Seyrig's film as the lead, is how important said son, played by Jan Decorte, is in context. He is not in most of the narrative, at school most of the length off-screen, but as the sole person consistently interacting with his mother, the conversations are interesting when they transition from the mundane to the serious. Frank talk of sex among other philosophical subjects that become an unexpectedly distinct edge to the back-story of these characters, alongside Dielman's various words on her husband and life that are pieces building up more than that seen onscreen.
Delphine Seyrig gives an incredible performance in the centre as well. Her prolific in abstract cinema3. Her performance emphasises that Jeanne Dielman... is as much a horror film as it is a drama. It does build up to a horrifying and sudden moment, but the set up towards it is effectively the most subtle of psychological horror as well, where the unloosening of her (through Seyrig's subtle performance) comes not from hallucinations or real unnatural entities but her rigid behaviour becoming unfixed and lost through increasing mistakes and moments of absent mindedness. It fact, whilst the idea of the film as merely an endurance test should be challenged for demeaning its profoundness, to merely call Jeanne Dielman... a "feminist masterpiece" without actually dealing with what the film is about is an insult to it as well. That, in spite of being a widowed woman, Dielman is still going through the motions of a married housewife of time passed, her anecdotes evoking a post-World War II period which feels severed, her actions a mechanical psychological survival process which starts to ebb away. That there is so much that is left intentionally opened is for the better, forcing a viewer to not merely expect a conventional reading of the film but ask and consider the thoughts that would be going through Dielman's head right into the final shot, a lengthy ten minute epilogue of her, sat in the darkened dining room, the cute ornaments in the background no longer seen as they were before, the agonisingly length of the moment before credits a depressurisation, an attempt to deal with the sudden event that came before for her.
Is Jeanne Dielman..., then, an abstract film? The issue out of Akerman's hands, that films have pushed boundaries in length and pace further, which has undercut that aspect of the film, but this is one of those rare, mercurial examples of a film so naturalistic in structure that it is inherently abstract in meaning. As I have continually reminded myself, back in 1975 the will would've been a seismic shock to witness at Cannes or at any cinema, even in a modern theatre having a hypnotic influence over a viewer. It emphasises what "Cinema of the Abstract" is as a choice phrase, that abstract is a contrast to the hegemony of conventional cinematic reality in motion images. That, (appropriately for cinema which is about contradictions and paradox among others), the realistic is as effecting as the surrealistic, the disruptions of real life activity opposite from "reality" in most cinema as jarring for many viewers of merely conventional, mainstream cinema. Jeanne Dielman... is inherently abstract as homogenised cinema does not include lengthy scenes of a woman preparing food or its languid but intricate structure, an audience used to fast cut Marvel superhero films forced to experience the lengthy act of knitting with the same sense of effect as an irrational moment would. As a result, it fits among such curious relatives I have written about as, whilst not necessarily of the same ilk, they challenge conventions as much as Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles challenges the central image of the meek, quiet housemother throughout itself.
Abstract Spectrum: Avant-Garde/Psychological/Realism
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
One of those moments, where you see a film of such a great reputation finally, and have to ingest and try to comprehend what you have seen. Jeanne Dielman... is not the "difficult" film I had been brought up with it to be, instead necessitating its length and style into what is far more horrifying and psychologically deeper than most horror films, envisioning domesticity as something even a male viewer can see as soul devouring as a result.
1) As of 2018, alongside Jeanne Dielman... being restored, a group called the Fondation Chantal Akerman have been founded to assist in exhibiting and showing her filmography. Hopefully this will also mean making the late director's catalogue much more accessible, especially for an Englishman like myself where few of her films (including Jeanne Dielman...) are available.
2) So much so my father, who kept peering in as I watched these scenes, thought I was watching a cooking documentary.
3) Freak Orlando (1981), Last Year of Marienbad (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Daughters of Darkness (1971), Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (1963), The Milky Way (1969) and Mr. Freedom (1969), enough there to give her a Hall of Fame entry on this blog if I ever created such a segment.