Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles ★★★★½

Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is largely unavailable in Britain (unless you know where to look), which is a shame because of how essential it is, both as a milestone in women's filmmaking and as an experience in own right. By showing us the minutiae of one woman's life, every detail as enacted, over the course of three hours and twenty minutes, we get something that transcends its presentation completely.

On the surface, this is a story without a story, in which the central character does absolutely nothing that makes for traditional narrative material. What she does do is go about her daily routine. As you can guess from the title, her name is Jeanne Dielman and she lives in Brussels. She's a widow with a teenage son, Sylvain, for whom she does everything from making delicious-looking (albeit samey) meals timed to the moment he gets back from school to polishing his shoes while he's asleep in the morning. She spends the day doing housework, shopping, cooking and looking after the unseen neighbour's baby. She sometimes writes to and gets letters from her sister in Canada, and every afternoon she does sex work.

However, look beneath the surface and this is something quite different. That something is revealed brilliantly in Delphine Seyrig's lead performance, slowly revealing to us that Jeanne isn't as simple as she seems. She's a woman who appears to rigidly adhere to a daily regimen (though as we're plonked into the middle of one of her days with no exposition we have no way of knowing this for sure), conforming to expectations of womanhood and motherhood (shown to be a thankless task - her son, while clearly loving, seems oblivious to the fact that his mother is doing him countless favours) and hiding the fact that she's a prostitute from the public eye. She is, in a word, repressed. Seyrig's performance consists of microscopic details that add up to a picture of composure, but as the film progresses these details shift, and she seems to lose her composure. She gives way eventually, in a manner that completely blindsides us. The final shot is one of the best I've ever seen, with Seyrig conveying what seems to be the entire emotional spectrum in the wake of her pivotal outburst.

For the duration of this impossibly lengthy film, Akerman keeps a tight grip on everything, and the fact that Seyrig's highly mannered performance is so successful is because of the atmosphere the director creates, which is one of disinterested, almost cold neutrality. There's no music, little dialogue, and she never once moves the camera, letting entire scenes play out in the space of one shot so as to create believability. When Jeanne prepares food like the breaded veal on day two, she does so in real time, giving us a true sense of how familiar she is with the ins and outs of how she lives. The unhurried pace and subdued tone help to bring out the meaning of the film - we observe and mentally record everything Jeanne does, so that when she deviates even slightly from her routine we know that it will have some kind of repercussion.

Jeanne Dielman is a masterpiece of minimalism, doing absolutely nothing more than putting the camera down, recording action (or the lack thereof) and cutting occasionally. Akerman knows that what she's communicating is something that can be learned from an ordinary interaction with an ordinary woman, so she presents it as such. By doing nothing, she tells us everything.

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