Stephen Gillespie’s review published on Letterboxd:
This obnoxiously long essay was originally posted on my blog.
In Virginia Woolf’s outstanding work of literary non-fiction, A Room of One’s Own, she explores the supposed lack of ‘Great Female Artists’. She is not the only one to explore this, and it is also a very Euro – and white – centric argument that is rejected by many. Art Historian Griselda Pollock, for one, frequently critiques the notion that female artists are rare, pushing the compelling argument that a lack of focus on them does not mean they don’t exist, and to write them off again is to doubly silence them.
The notion of what is a ‘great artist’ is also deeply loaded, and is a canonical impulse that should be rejected. In the end, though, two things remain true:
1. When we look at canonical acclaim, women are rarely, if ever, afforded a platform.
2. Women have always been making art and will continue to. Therefore, our language around the inclusion of female art needs to be precise and careful. Even well meaning discourse plays into patriarchal hands.
To return to Virginia Woolf’s argument, though, she does make a compelling case. She considers the expectations thrown onto womanhood and how those social constructs limit them in a way that functions as artistic gatekeeping. Let us take it as read that great female artists exist, but let us also take it at as read that the system we live in – that being the patriarchy – makes female achievement far more unlikely.
Again, this is a Eurocentric argument but this does set the groundwork for a conversation about European cinema, specifically European arthouse cinema (for good or for ill, one of the most acclaimed parts of cinema as a whole). Chantal Akerman is one of the few female filmmakers of her generation that appears in canonical conversations, placed alongside Agnès Varda due to her gender but also frequently cited when discussing Rivette or even Godard (Pierrot Le Fou is, according to Akerman, the film that made her want to be a filmmaker).
Akerman is a nice comparison to Woolf. While Woolf sticks out as a key female, and feminist, figure in modernist literature, Akerman takes on the similar role in film. Her work can be linked with the revolutions modernism brought to literature: a focus on form as a means of expressing ideas; a reevaluation of what the medium can be and a spotlight on previously atypical figures. The key connection though is how Akerman’s opus, Jeanne Dielman, exists in conversation with Woolf’s thesis on the scope for femininity in art.
To be very reductionist, the crux of Woolf’s argument is that women are not given space in society. They take on social burdens, primarily domestic, and to create art you need space. You need the titular room of one’s own. To be able to express yourself is a privilege and the freedom men have to be expressive in society is built on privilege, power dynamics and is enabled by feminine labour. A micro example of this is shown in Jeanne Dielman, as her son – who is very unappreciative of his mother’s work – is able to just read as much as he wants. He is able to have an outlet only because his needs are met, by his mother. The background aspects that enable existence, invisible labour or labour so expected it becomes ignorable, underpin him. He has food served, clothes sorted out, a bed made and heating provided.
These aspects need to come from somewhere and, because of the grotesque patriarchal basis of Western European society (I am trying to be as specific as possible, as my sphere of knowledge only goes so far), it falls on women. The expectation is illustrated in the film by the son never showing an appreciation for his mother and by never really noting her impact. It never registers to him that he should do anything or that the state of affairs is anything outside of normal, or in need of change. His mother does what mothers should do, and this means he can read.
Jeanne does not read. At one point she is read to but she does not read herself (bar a letter from a sister). She has no hobbies per se, and there is nothing in her life aside from domesticity. It is a lovely encapsulation of Virginia Woolf’s thesis, she is in her own rooms but in no way does she have a room of her own. There is no space for Jeanne there is only space for her to facilitate others and to play the patriarchally ascribed feminine role.
This takes us back to Akerman, who – with this film – is playing in a male dominated space. Arthouse film is littered with lengthy works by noted ‘auteurs’: the over three hour club which are usually indulgent and maximalist works. Jeanne Dielman, the film, clocks in at almost three and a half hours, and therefore sits alongside the prestigious mammoths of cinema. It is not, however, indulgent or maximalist – it is a subversion of these things, using its length to comment against these other works. This is to be explained later though, for now is the time to focus on the Woolfian aspects of the work.
For this film, Akerman has created a room for women. The director and writer is a woman, Akerman, and the crew are purely female. This is women carving out their own space to make their own art, and it tells in the product. This is a vital feminist and feminine work, reflecting the experiences of the women who made it and profoundly inspired by Akerman’s own mother (Jeanne being, allegedly, an echo of her – or a construct to reflect the opportunities given to her). This film is also considered a great work, canons may be troubling things but Akerman’s work is a cemented part of the European arthouse canon – and of filmmaking in general.
What this shows is that women need a platform to make their works, as anybody does, and the fact that this film exists as a canonical outlier is emblematic that the room of one’s own is still not afforded to women. What establishes this further is the film itself, which exhibits a narrative about the scope of women in society – which seems very purposeful. The film is very aware of the positioning of those behind it, and of itself as a work of art. It’s very telling that when a woman is given (and when we are talking about the ability to make a film and have it distributed, given is the operative word) the scope to make a lengthy work, they will make it about the scope of women in general.
This film follows Jeanne Dielman. The title is an address, a befitting follow-up to her name as she exists like a fixture, or like a building. Jeanne is more service than person, existing only to do chores and roles, making the wordy title actually very relevant. In it we have all there is to say about her: she is Jeanne, this is her address. The house is synonymous with her. At one point in the film she attempts to write a letter back to her sister, phatic stuff about every day life – an update. But, she can’t think of anything. There’s nothing to say and nothing to her existence bar what we see in the film.
This is a three and a half hour character study in which we learn little to nothing about the main character. This is not because she is a hollow or empty person, it is because she has been hollowed out by a society that dehumanises women. The film uses a huge cinematic scope to express the most constrained scope to the viewer, juxtaposing cinematic expectations and confronting the viewer with a deeply uncinematic reality. Think of it as the anti-La Dolce Vita, in which scope is used for glorious maximalism to show the grand scale of cinema. This is more life is grim, life is repetitive and life is crushing, and cinema is going to show you it.
The film itself is made up of a succession of static camera set ups. The action, so to speak, is precisely blocked so as to take place within these frames but it never feels contrived. Jeanne will leave the frame and return, will reach through it or be cut off by it. This presents her as incidental in her own film, the backgrounds and mis-en-scene is as important as her – the 23, Quai de Commerce 1080 Bruxelles is as much of a featured character as Jeanne Dielman, and this tells you almost everything you need to know.
These static frames also convey restriction, and are anti cinematic. There is no movement or flair, it is just life – and not even life bending to facilitate cinema. Life happens in front of the camera and this shows how restricted Jeanne’s life is. This is one of those brilliant films that will make you watch something in its entirety – no matter how long that thing is. Think Cherry the sloth from Rivers’ Now, At Last!, the pie from Lowery’s A Ghost Story or the horse being put away in Tarr and Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse. Cinema is so often used for omission but there is something deeply powerful about having to see the whole of something, on having to reflect on process and reality in a medium so often built around escaping from this.
Of course, the mundanity matches Jeanne’s existence. She does not have a room of her own and is defined by looping repetitions. This is pushed further by the structure, which chronicles three days in her life. We see the same routines at length in the same passive way and it is hugely impactful. There is a riveting element to the film, partly because it is so atypical – but also because it makes you focus on what is so easy to ignore.
Watching the dehumanising process humanises the struggle and creates such empathy. And while a three hour plus film of pure, banal repetition is a hard sell, the time is part of it. It needs to be this long to have impact. It also robs the viewer of a cinematic experience, as alluded to earlier, and in doing so gives clear critique of what cinema usually includes and usually omits. Making us watch Jeanne is its own comment on cinematic gatekeeping, an exposé of the lives that are deemed to be cinematic.
The further brilliance of this film, and it is truly an astonishing work, is in how it escalates. There is a similarity here, a base level one and a formal one, to Haneke’s The Seventh Continent. Jeanne Dielman does build up to a key event, and a shocking event. But even that is shown as incidental and framed in the same monotonous way. Even the degradation and trauma of this character is barely allowed to exist, and is definitely not cinematic.
This film does chronicle the toll that repetition takes on Jeanne, mirroring the audience as we become inured to it. The shows are subtle though, and never cathartic. This allows the film to be both exposé and presentation; both critique and reflection. Jeanne may realise her existence is Sisyphean but there’s nothing she can do with that realisation. She has to live it as much as we have to watch it.
Which brings us to the final question, who is this film for? This is an important question about any film, but especially those that claim to spotlight suppressed identities. Fundamentally, this is not a film for Jeanne. This is not a film for oppressed, working class women (it also worthy of note that the normalisation of sex work is a huge strength of the film – as is how it recognises how patriarchal forces can take advantage of this profession). This is a film for pretentious film folk, for the type of people who will watch a three and a half hour Belgian movie.
This film wants to confront its audience and, specifically wants to confront them with their privilege. There is a power imbalance between the observed and the observer here and the film is very cognisant of this. Which returns us to the work of Woolf: to be able to watch a three and a half hour work of cinema is to have some room of one’s own. Jeanne could never watch this film, as the film itself shows. There is no room in her life for it. In watching it, we are already experience a life she could never have and are actively exercising our privilege, or the privilege of the presumed audience. The separation between audience and character is very purposeful and the room the film gives us, hence why it is so slow and mundane, is the room Jeanne will never have. It is also the room to reflect.
The film ends perfectly. Jeanne sits and stares – Akerman knows the audience can do nothing but stare back. So we all sit and stare at each other and wait for the end. And in that ending Akerman and her crew prove their final point: we can leave, we can get up and continue. When the film ends for Jeanne, the empty stare doesn’t stop. That’s all she has and all she ever will have.