Mesmerizing, jarring, introspective, evasive and meticulous are words that could and probably have been used to describe Chantal Akerman's 1975 character study Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The lengthy title lends itself to the rather lengthy film and while I will admit I found myself distracted throughout, it was not a result of the film being bad in the slightest, but more of my own personal state of mind and general tiredness. I am quite aware, and have read some of the articles, about the divisive nature surrounding this film. Many find it to be an excellent consideration of the female body as it occupies space in a very real and quantifiable way, while others find its deliberate staging within the domestic household and eventual twist to be somewhat exploitative and undermining of the feminist leanings it clearly takes. One thing is for certain when you consider this masterpiece by Akerman, and that is its importance to cinema both in its style and in its subject manner. Firstly, it is a film entirely dedicated to one individuals experience, and the camera rarely shies away from capturing even the most seemingly minute of details in the process. Second, it chooses its subject to wholly be that of a woman, never allowing the males who occupy her space to completely take over the scene or the space which she has created. It is as though Akerman has made a decided stand against all that is definably traditional in masculine filmmaking, while still managing to make a piece of engaging and entice film. Every drawn out shot and deep focus encounter is structurally sound and eerily symmetrical, making the moments when the character leaves home that much more unusual. The film is deserved of its continual emergence of lists of the most important films ever made and requires a heavy understanding of cinematic language and theory to truly engage within, yet, the images and story are so simplistically accessible that I would venture to say it simply playing at any major television retailer would prove to capture any passerby, it is simply that gripping and of its own existence that it is impossible to ignore.
The films intense focus is on that of Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) whose name viewers can only draw from a letter she receives, and that the title of the film suggest it to be such. Jeanne is a single woman who lives alone, spending much of her day washing clothing, preparing food and drinking coffee. She clearly focuses a heavy amount of her energy into preparing meals for her son who comes home in the evenings, only to completely avoid conversation with her in order to further reading his books and engage in his studies. Of course, Jeanne plays ignorant to his indifference and attempts to create small talk with him about his aunt in Canada or questions about thoughts on a sweater she is knitting for him. All seems mundane, if not a bit tragic, were it not for the revelation, at the opening of the film that Jeanne works as a prostitute during the day, seemingly servicing repeat customers ever week. Yet, this very real occurrence factors in rather minimally to the film, as much more time seems to be spent on considering Jeanne as she is shown taking care of the baby of an unseen woman dropping off her child, or waiting in lack drawn out shots for the elevator to arrive and subsequently reach the floor on which she resides. In fact, the most heavily focuses plot point of the narrative emerges when Jeanne is depicted trying to find a replacement button for a jacket she has received from her sister, whose living in Canada has meant a time difference in fashion trends and, therefore, a button that was neither in style or out of style within her Brussels neighborhood. This event is followed by yet more monotony, particularly Jeanne engaging in a extended sequence of her slowly drinking coffee. It is during one of her visits from a customer that her engagement in intercourse is finally shown, with a top down shot Jeanne's indifferent face turns frustrated as a man simply lays upon her. After the act is over, it is then cut to her dressing in the mirror as the man lays satisfied with his act, only to be stabbed, inexplicably, by Jeanne in the throat. His dead body writhes in pain and the film then goes to its closing shot of Jeanne simply sitting in the dark of her house, perhaps contemplating her actions or considering the future.
This has been aptly described as the "first masterpiece of the feminist history of cinema," and deservedly so because in its daunting runtime it manages to tackle essentially every major issue within the feminist movement of the era, mind you it is 1975, so issues of race and class certainly do not exist prominently within the feminist discourse. It does take Laura Mulvey's consideration of the "male gaze," which has been discussed already this month and many times in the past on the blog, and completely reconsiders its existence. The film, directly challenges its viewers, regardless of sex, to engage with the images in an unflinching manner, much like the way in which the events are depicted, never drawing any sort of pleasure or gratification from the experience, but instead a second by second cataloguing of Jeanne's experiences. In fact, the one scene in which she is nude, is done in such a stark and sterile manner that even this arguably objectifying moment is anything but, and instead, draws upon reality and nothing in the realm of idealism. The next major factor is the manner in which Akerman through her drawn out shots and stagnant deep-focus camera manages to show the layers of burden associated with domestic work, particularly in regards to its consumption of time and money. Jeanne spends perhaps two thirds of the film preparing or cooking food and in many instances it is not solely for her enjoyment and her son, detached in his reading, is never appreciative of the efforts his mother has undertaken, but only seems to see her as a source of money, of which, he never inquires to how she obtained, surely his discovery would lead to condemnation. Finally, if there is any question about the message of feminist empowerment and deconstruction of masculine privilege and space, the closing act by Jeanne ends such inquiries with its decided killing of the oppressive male figure, which surprisingly seems to be the least radical moment in the entire film.
Key Scene: The coffee scene is particularly stagnant, yet mesmerizing, but the film runs so smoothly together that to pick anything out is quite impossible.
This is a major moment in the history of film and well worth owning, while I would hope that Criterion would release a bluray in the future, I think it unlikely, therefore, a DVD copy will have to suffice in the meanwhile.