Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

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

Chantal Akerman was a Belgian director whose filmography consisted of experimental narrative films and intimate personal documentaries. For Akerman –– a Jewish woman who was also queer –– identity was always an important dimension of her work. In 1975, Akerman would release her magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of feminist and arthouse cinema. The nearly three-and-a-half-hour film follows the lonely housewife Jeanne Dielman, played by French star Delphine Seyrig, as she performs her daily household routine in an almost ritual fashion. Taking place over the course of three days, we witness the minutiae of her restrained existence and the slow unraveling of her sanity in a confounding study of time and domestic anxiety.

Akerman deliberately chooses not to sensationalize Jeanne’s routine. Each of her daily tasks –– doing chores, grocery shopping, eating dinner with her son –– is given the bandwidth to play out in real-time, often captured using long takes and from a static camera position. The effect is compounded as the "same" events repeat over three days. The film’s repetitiveness and lack of narrative momentum is a form of violence, not a physical one, but a temporal one. Lulled by the rhythms and the expected behaviors of her life, each of Jeanne's gestures and movements is indistinctly imprinted in our minds. And when something in her routine is disrupted, we feel deeply unsettled.

The mode of presentation reflects the absence of agency and meaning in her life, from which we gradually begin to recognize the Jeanne Dielman in our own lives: the invisible woman who we have always undervalued and ignored. She prepares our meals, washes our clothes, and cleans our house. She’s not seen as a real person, but rather an extension of the background.

There is a sense of calmness and tranquility to Jeanne's existence. Within the four walls of her apartment, she retains a modicum of control. But we sense her growing frustration towards the smallness of her life and the emotional toll of being a mother to a despondent son. We recognize the fragility of her life; the routine she so carefully set up could also be her undoing. On one hand, we want her to break free from this lonely domestic abyss. But on the other, we don’t know if she can survive outside of it.

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