Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles ★★★★

Film 1/30 - March Around the World 2020 - Belgium

It’s an unusually beautiful summer’s day here in Wellington, and perversely I’ve steeled myself to stay in and finally watch Chantal Akerman’s classic of feminist cinema, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. Am I resentful? Not at all. After all the film is long but the day is longer, and the film is much more likely than the day to stay in my mind for ever. 

But it is a hard watch. The film tells the story of Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) over the course of three days, mostly spent inside her humble apartment, which she shares with her teenage son. Much of the film is silently observational, following Jeanne as she carries out her domestic routines. These unsurprisingly cover the everyday tasks of dressing, preparing food, cleaning, shopping, reading, knitting, and so on. I say unsurprisingly, but these are the things that are often not seen in films, at least not with the level of patient focus that Akerman affords them. I must confess I struggled to pay attention during some of these, particularly by the second day, which closely reflected the slow routines of the first. 

One time, while my mind was drifting, I thought of the wider avant-grade movement of the seventies and eighties and in particular Morton Feldman’s extended compositions. Feldman’s pieces were notable for their extended duration (sometimes well over three hours), their intimate minimalism, and their gentle dissonances. In other words, quite similar to Jeanne Dielman. Feldman’s music works by demanding your close attention to the subtle harmonics and repeating patterns, and to their gradual, tiny variations. The tension is gained from the narrow focus they demand, and from the surprises when you realise something has changed. Again, this is quite similar to Akerman’s film. I’d say that both Feldman’s music and Akerman’s film are an acquired taste. They are demanding in that they are boring, but within their still waters, there are extraordinary depths. 

By Jeanne’s third day it is clear that things have slightly changed. She still goes about her routine, but some things are not quite right. Her calm control over everything is slightly amiss, and it draws you in. Every tiny act is filled with micro-tensions and a deepening, intangible mystery. Is Jeanne okay? What is Akerman doing? The boredom turns to fascination and it becomes strangely gripping. 

There is a lot to think about in this film. The expectations placed on women, in a man’s world, to be both mother and whore. The inexorable passing of time and how we spend it. The role of routine and the need for control and their relationship to anxiety. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. I will need to see the film again to start digesting them more fully. But for now, I’m just happy to have finally acquainted myself with Akerman’s film. My experience of watching its hyper-extended austerity is one that will stay and grow with me long after the sun has set on this glorious summer’s day.


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