chavel’s review published on Letterboxd:
I live in a full household now, but I’ve had days in my past when I had my own apartment to myself. I’d have a day here and there where at the end of it, I’d say to myself, “Huh, I hardly talked to anybody today.” Or a succession of days would go by and I’d say, “Hey, I’ve hardly had any interaction with humans this week and maybe I should go out and get a day job like everybody else.” When I’d finally talk to somebody after an interaction drought, perhaps I was so keen for that moment that I’d talk superfluously about matters that were not pertinent.
Here is a 3 hour and 21 minute art film notoriously known for not much in it happening (that’s true and untrue at the same time). I had for years doubly avoided Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (in French with English subtitles) because I knew nothing of the actress and they made her look too dowdy in the poster art. The actress is Delphine Seyrig who takes on arguably a seemingly nothing role and subtly does credible, stirring things with it whether it’s her OCD with on/off light-switches or her blathering on about coat buttons (no matter the opinion on the film, I dare anybody to say that she’s not great). Seyrig’s Jeanne is not frumpy after all, and while her hair is 40’s perm domesticated, she still has some curb appeal. As it turns out, her job – her only one it seems – is prostituting for various johns that come by in the evening before her son arrives home. Everything else about her day is dutiful towards house upkeep.
I won’t lie: For many, you have to fight boredom as it forces you to observe the very mundane tasks of Jeanne’s domesticated day. (The serious patience required to make it through the end, albeit, is worth it.) The film, by Belgium filmmaker Chantal Akerman who determined all this as a feminist work, wants to bring out the psychologist in you, and as long as you are willing to look with a scrutinizing eye then you might find the film worth the challenge. I’m sure it’s obvious enough for me to say that you are here to watch for the veneer in this older woman to crack. Yet everything is done with such long takes, which forces you have to look within the tiniest details for character slips.
Jeanne lives on the upper floors of a good size apartment, but once you spend enough time in there it also becomes sort of a life trap. By nightfall, some buggy blue lights from neighborhood stores flash through the window. She has at first some arbitrary conversation with her grown son (Jan Decorte), but there is a short burst of dialogue before bedtime that’s somewhat loaded about the son’s view on past sexual confusion. Do her son’s words bother Jeanne? I’d say so. But she must be internalizing it, so her face reveals nothing. Or maybe her face reveals the hint of something. Again, such details are subtle.
Before the end of the second day, Akerman puts us through such a very long segment of Jeanne making dinner – practically in real time – and you’re perhaps begging for some edits. But at the 1 hour and 55 minute mark comes the slyest of jump cuts: We’ve just spent a tedious ordeal watching Jeanne prepare a very mom favorite meal for her grown son (Jan Decorte), and we think just as much time will be spent by us watching them eat it. But no. The meal is placed on the table and then it cuts to her son reading at the table. The cut suggests commonplace ingratitude by her son, like many sons do, of not acknowledging with any appreciation with just how much time mom spent making the meal.
I was sometimes bewildered by Akerman’s static and remote choices of camera set-ups, and I just barely picked up one moment where Jeanne seems desperate for her daily coffee only to forget to enjoy it even though she’s paid for it. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ends up resolving itself just like many, many others have in a hundred-plus years of cinema (a scene has a thrust to the heart that I just don’t buy, SEE Comment Thread). Some dubious choices by Akerman aside, there’s nonetheless a Rorschach method to the madness.
NOTE: I have downgraded this from 3.5 stars to 3 stars since nothing has bugged me more in recent months than the unreality of the penultimate scene; I could no longer just accept it.