Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Criterion Collection Spine #484
(Foreign language film)
(Quest to Conquer the BFI/AFI Greatest Films of All Time Lists)
An epic film like no other, that invites us in to observe the simple lonely mundaneness of life for a stay at home mom, and what happens when her routine begins to crumble.
"Well, if I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn't deeply in love with ... How could you know? You're not a woman. Lights out?"
I don't think it would be possible to really appreciate this movie unless you know exactly what you were getting into up front. Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman is a 3 hour and 20 minute character study that focuses in on how of a widowed mother performs the everyday tasks of her domestic life. Including: waking up before sunrise to wake her grown son, thoroughly cleaning, preparing meals, bathing, and running errands. If all that sounds dull, well it kind of is. But it is also kind of remarkable how hypnotic and fascinating it is to get lost in these prolonged sequences of Jeanne going through her routine. It reminded me a lot of another example of extremely slow cinema that I watched recently, 'Sátántangó' that also presents a realistic portrait of life that includes all the in between moments that any other film would cut out. While I thought the lack of cutting in 'Sátántangó' was amusing, that same style in this film was filled with melancholy.
"What are you making for dinner? Wednesdays it's breaded veal with peas and carrots."
While I do my chores listening to a variety of film podcasts, Jeanne Dielman works in complete silence. One of the most fascinating scenes was when she made meatloaf, and watching her work and shape the meat felt like it went on forever. I found myself focusing in on the meat at first, but then after awhile I occasionally glanced up at Jeanne played by Delphine Seyrig. And it was amazing how subtle Seyrig's performance was over the 3 days that we follow her. At first she is very precise, but then we slowly see her begin to fray. And by day 3 I felt on edge wondering what slip ups she might make next.
Much like 'Sátántangó' I started watching this late in the evenings with the full intention of breaking it up over the course of a couple days. But each of the nights I did find it diffciult to want to turn off. But it was needed because watching her systematically do things like scrubbing a bathtub did get tiring, but I still felt locked in wondering how long it could possibly go on for.
Observations on Jeanne Dielman:
- Another intriguing element is the shot composition, since I think just about all these lengthy shots were locked in place. This was especially interesting when we got to see Jeanne from a distance through doorways in her apartment. And it was neat to see how often the most iconic shots of the film would pop up
- One of the most surprising aspects of the plot, was that in order to make a living she sees one client a day as a prostitute. We don't see much of this until the very end, besides the fact that she comes in and out of the room fully dressed, and puts the money from each encounter in a covered class bowl on the table
- The time she spends with her son is for the most part in complete silence. She even gets mad at him when he reads at the dinner table. Their conversations are limited to her asking him about the clothes she is making for him. And he asks her questions about sex, a topic she bascially deflects by framing it as an inconvinent part of life
- Another striking scene happens when her neighbor comes to chat, and I had the feeling Jeanne was as disinterested as I was about what the woman had to say. You could also tell the baby being dropped off for a short time was also something Jeanne was not used to dealing with, since she left the child alone for awhile. But then later on as Jeanne becomes more and more uncomfortable, we do catch her sharing details we would not expect her to share with a stranger
- It appears that what really sets Jeanne off on this path of becoming unraveled is when he sister in Canada writes to tell her that she is sad for Jeanne, and wishes she would remarry
- I took a special interest in hearing mention before watching the film that Jeanne had OCD, since that is a condition I have also struggled with. I did not find this obvious at first, but as the film went along I began to pick up on how this condition was impacting her. For example she insists on only having lights on in the apartment for the rooms that she is actually in. So we see her often walking around and constantly having to turn the lights on and off. Next, there are two scenes where she goes to a cafe. The first time she is there, she seems to be enjoying herself. But then the next time she is not able to sit at her favorite table, and her favorite server is not there. And we see how miserable she is because of this, to the point where she will not even drink the coffee she purchased
- She also becomes very annoyed and goes to every shop in town inorder to try and find a certain button. This is something I would probably find myself doing too
- Watching her becomes more tense after I recall that she overcooked some potatoes. And then we nervously watch as she kepts getting her jacket caught on things, and occasionally drops silverware or shoes that she is polishing. This really had me on edge when she began dusting some breakable figures
- Another unique element is trying to figure out what exactly she is doing at times. For instance, it took me a few moments to figure out what was going on with the kraft of coffee and the milk. And I slowly pieced it together as we watch her think about why exactly it does not taste right
- It was spoiled for me that Jeanne got violent at the end, and I think that actually enhanced my experience because I became so tense waiting for this eventual burst of violence to happen
- Towards the end we see her with a client, and at first she appears to want him off of her. Been then all of a sudden she appears to be getting some pleasure out of the experience. Then while she situates herself, he just lays there on the bed, which likely annoyed her. Then almost without warning she erupts and cuts his throat with some scissors. I thought there would have been more of a significant trigger for this. There is all the build up for how on edge she is, but it seems like that final push is left ambiguous
- Then what might be the longest final scene of a movie ever, we watch her sitting at the dining room table in complete silence, in the dark, with blood on her shirt after the murder. At this point she appears to be completely out of her groove, and we have no idea what will happen next because after seeing her exhaustively reflect for at least 5 minutes the film just ends ... which I did expect based on how much time was left
So why does a movie exists that is mostly just made up of long shots of a woman doing chores. Well I think Jeanne Dielman makes a significant statement about the lives of female homemakers, and how lonely that can be. And how the routines that are established within that loneliness can create a disconnect that makes it difficult to live normally if your routine is thrown off. I think it would have been really interesting to see a portion of the film with Jeanne with her husband, to see if he made her happy. Because the way she describes him to her son is not very flattering.
This is not a film for everyone, but if you come in expecting a movie with glacial pacing that pushes you to become invested in watching Jeanne's habits, and then looking to spot where she is becoming unhinged within the pattern of her life. Then I think cinephiles will find this to be a rewarding movie experience, that is worthy of getting checked off their classic films bucket list.
Thanks for reading.
Happy movie watching ... Cheers!