Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

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

Film #23: Around the World in 30 Days (March 2018 Challenge)

Country: Belgium

This is the longest film I’ve seen in quite some time. Years, maybe. And I could’ve watched three more hours of Delphine Seyrig going about her day. Polishing those shoes, grinding those coffee beans, laying out that sex towel, peeling those potatoes, answering that door, putting the money in that porcelain jar, scrubbing that tub, daintily spooning that soup, knitting that sweater... every little thing magnified into a hypnotizing orchestra of movements, sounds, gestures and feelings, all of them revealing in increments the fastidious physical and mental routine of a woman who wakes up each day to make the lives of men better than her own. For, in truth, she does not benefit by what she does, other than to keep herself fed and her body active. There are no surprises, no magical memories, no pampered moments of relaxation—no anything. From sunrise to sunset, she is the Provider. The Giver, not the Taker. A woman whose agency rests solely in the benefits of the male order she sees to satisfy, and which dissolves as soon as she has no task to accomplish that would further their cause. Can you imagine such a living?

If not, well, here it is. In all its melancholic monotony. Except, “monotony” is not imbued with the negative connotations you’d expect. Chantal Akerman transforms it into something eminently more cinematic, telling Jeanne’s story with tight precision and careful variations that echo with haunting import whenever the viewer catches them. When Jeanne drops the brush on the third morning, for instance, I think my heart almost stopped. You’re lulled into her particular rhythms in such a way that, when they begin to unravel, the reverberations have a thunderous effect on you. And that’s why the film is such a landmark achievement in women’s cinema. Akerman succeeds in making a woman’s daily life mythic in scope on the screen, in the same way that Virginia Woolf did so in her novels. She builds it in such a way, and with such astounding finesse, that it holds you in its grip for a running time that probably intimidated you beforehand. You ask yourself, “How can I possibly watch three hours devoted to a woman puttering around silently in her apartment, making food and doing chores?” Then you press play, the first hour passes, and soon you never want the film to conclude, because it’s like you’re watching every female life in the history of the world in that confined space. Every woman rendered invisible when the men went to work, now in plain sight, toiling and suffering with quiet determination.

A towering, incontrovertible masterpiece.