Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte
My Rating: 9/10
In Short: Silent but Deadly
The last shot of Chantal Akerman’s disturbing minimalist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman depicts the titular character sitting at the dinner table with bloodstained hands after murdering a man who paid to have sex with her. I can’t remember how long the shot lasts, I lost track of time, but all I remember was that it seemed like a very long time. She just sat there, not moving, not speaking; she was completely and utterly frozen, and if she blinked then I didn’t see it. Then the film ends.
The purpose of this shot, I believe, is so that the audience can reflect on what has happened, and the whole movie. It is beautifully crafted and the placement of the camera is perfect. If anyone sees this film and is looking for answers, I believe they can be seen in actress Delphine Seyrig’s face in this scene. It’s not quite serene, but not bothered or disturbed. The expression is neutral, but impossible to describe. It is one of the great acting performances I have ever seen.
Jeanne Dielman is a 200 minute film which chronicles three days in the life of a widowed housewife who is a part-time prostitute. You might think that the subject of the film is the prostitution, but au contraire. Sex is never shown, except in the film’s climax, and when Jeanne receives her first two of three respective clients in the film, we see her enter the bedroom with them but the camera cuts away, showing us nothing. One might doubt that she was even having sex with them if not for the final scene.
Despite its theme of prostitution, the film is nothing like say, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour or Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The film is not concerned with sex, but simply with the routine of Jeanne Dielman, and if sex happens to be a part of that, then director Chantal Akerman sees it as less interesting than the more trivial aspects of Dielman’s life. Namely, the housework.
Throughout the three days, we see Jeanne do all of her housework, and it mostly unfolds in real time. There are very few cuts except when necessary, and I don’t think the camera ever moves. Which is rare, for a film, to have a camera which never moves. It just sits there, static, observing the repetitive and perfectly timed routine of this somewhat lifeless woman.
The only signs of life the audience are ever given are through conversations with her son, but these are rare and when they do occur, are quite colourless and emotionless. There is one scene when her son comes home from school and they have dinner. There is a long silence while they eat but eventually someone speaks. This is on the first day. The exact scene is repeated at the same time on the second day, action for action, and move for move. You would almost think it was the same scene inserted into two different parts of the movie but in fact it is not.
The film’s three days have three distinctly different feels, even if visually there is very little differing. The first day, everything goes exactly as it should. All jobs are completed on time and everything is a success. The second day, there are some flaws, the biggest of which is Jeanne burning the potatoes she was cooking for dinner and having to go out and buy some new ones. The third day, and arguably the most eventful one, sees Jeanne run into problems with almost everything she attempts to do, culminating in the film’s famous denouement.
The use of the static camera is perfect, and worthy of applause. From Yasujiro Ozu to Michael Haneke and here to Chantal Akerman, it has become a staple of foreign cinema; in this case, minimalist cinema, and one could fairly argue, avant-garde cinema. There are several long takes, some more memorable than others, and the majority of them (especially the most interesting, thought-provoking ones) occur within the third day.
Take for example my favourite shot in the film, which sees Jeanne knead a meatloaf incessantly. It lasts a long time, and all she is doing is rolling and kneading this meat with her hands, a look of frustration and determination hidden beneath her neutral exterior. It’s a very powerful scene. Perhaps even more powerful is a not-too-later scene which sees Jeanne, after getting fed up with the insane off-balance disorder of her day, simply sit in a chair and stare into space. Never moving once. The camera is far away from her and observes the whole room, which is very fastidiously organised.
But none of these scenes are as powerful as the film’s ripping conclusion, which sees Jeanne stab one of her clients with a pair of scissors, casually, coolly and very unexpectedly. Then the film sinks into it’s final shot, which I mentioned earlier, in which a bloodstained Jeanne sits at the dinner table blankly.
The film is so brilliantly organised, every single shot carefully calculated, and there are some brilliant, tiny things Akerman uses to make each scene unique and special. There are some points in which the colour of the film seems to have faded a tiny, tiny bit, almost inconspicuously, but if you rewind the film and compare the two shots, you see that indeed the colour has faded. Perhaps the most notable and noticeable effect is the use of swirling lights in the dining room. Every time we are in the dining room, we see these swirling blue lights, presumably coming from outside, which never cease. They are particularly taunting in the final scene, where one could interpret them as the inevitable harbinger of the police cars coming to take Jeanne away.
This is a film I have now watched twice, and I can safely say it is one of the best minimalist works of all time, and an essential foreign film. It has been released by the Criterion Collection, which makes viewing it much easier since prior to that it was not available on home video. If you come across a copy or find something or whatever, I highly recommend seeing it. It is a film to be analysed thoroughly and puzzled over for years to come. For those who have seen it, I recommend reading this article by Jayne Loader.
I leave you now with one of the most peaceful scenes of the movie; so serenely beautiful and yet so darkly foreboding. It makes very little sense and has much less effect when seen on its own and not with the rest of the film, but I recommend you watch it anyway.