Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

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

As much as I would love to have an exciting life with so much happening on a given day, I often find myself more habituated and satisfied with the mundane and the repetitive stuff I do, even more often now that I'm living alone in Bengaluru and the repetitive includes going to and coming from the office, watching films and writing about them, thinking of what to order from Zomato or Swiggy etc etc where at least 5 of the 7 days of a week follow the same pattern. Even when it comes to working, I would usually love to know what exactly I will be doing the next day as with a sense of familiarity comes less anxiety and the slight disturbance to the methodical routine be it at home or work would take some time to get along and what if the work itself happens to be home or looking after the home in a much serious and inexplicably exhausting case of women? How many of the daily chores done by a woman are taken so granted of the time and the effort both irl as well as in Cinema that it took finally someone like Chantal Akerman to unleash them in all-honesty and all-real time?

While most of the establishing shots to film are usually wide or aerial in giving a sense of the place and time, the opening to Jeanne Dielman has a totally different one in the interior of the kitchen where Jeanne is preparing food for dinner and what follows is the immediate setup of entire visual plus colour plus sound palette of the film in terms of how we get to see the yellows of the kitchen and the greens of the bathroom, the shot of hallway that will recur throughout the film and then the sound of house bell after which Jeanne attends a client for giving us an idea of her sex worker profession and this another work is not treated as something wildly exciting and different than the work of cooking or washing that she was already doing and instead Chantal freezes Jeanne with no hint of emotion as to distinguish between both the works. Another recurring motif the film gets so spot on right here only is how Chantal treats the household chores in complete real-time as opposed to how she films the sex scenes (except the final one) off-the-screen with elliptical editing to give a clear cut difference in what the passage of time means to Jeanne wrt both the kinda works she is involved in daily.

"Cinema has shown an image of women from a male perspective that is completely fake. And even when they try to show a woman's daily life, they portray a fantasized daily life. I probably do too." - Have come across this quote of Chantal so many times on my filmstagram feed and now I get it even more after watching the film. Bound by the patriarchal culture and upbringing where a woman's daily chores are passed off as mundane and her being there for love or sex or to serve the needs or character development of men particularly in films and how she is viewed either as an object or a whore or a mother with no in-between for some men, Chantal's masterstroke here lies in how she treats Jeanne as all of them as per the male's identification of mother/whore/domesticwoman and yet pulls the rug under from our feet to spin a normalized identity on Jeanne's part through her rituals that are commonly passed off in time with a quick cut in most of the films. We get to observe 3 days in the life of Jeanne where each day is defined by the food she cooks in the film like how Tuesday is for potatoes, Wednesday is for breaded veal with peas and carrots and Thursday is for meat-loaf and also the intertitles mark with text "End of the first/second day" on-screen. Every other day seems to be the same as the previous including long takes with increasingly claustrophobic medium shots (I don't think I saw a single camera movement or close-up here and there are a few wide shots in the exteriors though) of her cooking, washing the utensils and her body in a bathtub, going out for buying food, symmetrical compositions of the corridor and the lift as she comes back, attending her client, etc.

Jeanne also has a work of babysitting her neighbour's kid and while we always get to see Jeanne's clients at the door, it's worth noting how the neighbour woman is rendered off-screen at the door in contrast when she comes to give the baby and she seems to be a stand-in for all those women there who are leading no different life from Jeanne when it comes to being limited to their world of household works, especially given the kinda convo they have on how the neighbour woman says she went to the butchers as her children required meat and there was a long line and how she always thinks of going earlier or later to avoid the line, but this time, she thought she'll listen to what other women order and get some ideas. Also striking is the title of the film that's named in full along with the neighbourhood of Jeanne as most of the time, places dictate the rules and lifestyle of people inhabiting them, particularly in the case of these women here as to how they or their jobs are perceived and limited by the immediate exteriors of the society.

On the second day, Jeanne lets the potatoes cook too long and she also misses putting the lid on the bowl in which she places the money earned from her customers. "Your hair's become a mess", remarks her son Sylvain in a strangely suspecting tone as if to make me wonder whether he thought his mother has savoured the sex this time by any chance through that messy hair or we are not sure if he knows any bit of how routinely dull his mother perceives that profession as nothing but one of the household chores and one wonders what if he saw so much money in the bowl on that day which could've led him to this remark? Another earlier remark of Sylvain is "Well, if I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn't deeply in love with", to which Jeanne gives it back the right way by saying, "How could you know? You're not a woman." - The film has only a handful of dialogues and some are as sharp and hard-hitting as they can get like the above line that too without making any event out of it. All of this culminates finally in giving raise to a strong undercurrent of the Oedipus Complex when Sylvain reveals how his father used to describe sex with his mother to him and how he hated his father and wanted to die for the same reason!

One of the most relatable scenes in the film for me has to be how Jeanne wakes up early on a day and keeps checking the clock as to how time usually seems to be moving slowly on such days. As a result of such disruption at the start of the day itself, what follows includes several disruptions to her routine that I didn't realize how fatal they would be until the climatic act, like be it how she drops a spoon, or, misplaces a button and scissors, or, gets disappointed at how the lady at the shop says it's practically impossible to match the button as that style no longer exists. So now, Jeanne gets a rare free time in her day contrary to how she lines up her tasks so formally and rigidly as to complete the day without allowing any free time for introspection or other thoughts and now I got one of the most quietly sensational shot transitions in all of Cinema... it's ridiculous how effective it was on a visual and psychological level because up until this point, the first two sex scenes followed a shot pattern of bell ringing while Jeanne is in the kitchen -> Jeanne going to the door and taking the client inside with the latter giving her the hat and coat -> sex off-screen -> corridor shot with lights about to go off in suggesting the passage of time and the sexual act with the undressing before and the dressing after completely happening off-screen too -> "See you, next week/Thursday" from the client.

But bangggggg, in the last sex scene of the film, firstly Jeanne is not in her kitchen but is busy in her room while unwrapping the gift of dress sent by her sister in Canada with scissors and places the scissors on the dressing table and after she goes out, the ring of the bell is not heard and her receiving the client is not shown for the first time in the film, we immediately cut to a mirror shot of Jeanne in the same bedroom taking off her white top and the cough of client hints his presence already in the room and then we cut to a rare overhead shot in the film where we see Jeanne's expressions in wide range for the first time in the film with the sex being now shown on-screen as she tries to push away the man on top of her and succumbs to an orgasm finally and then we cut back to the same mirror shot where she puts her top back on and does something with the previously placed scissors there à la the Chekhov Gun way that paved the way to one of the greatest shockers of all-time in all my experiences of Cinema thus far!

And even more shocking has to be the nearly 6-minute long take that follows with Jeanne sitting at the table in blood-soaked white and doing no sort of household activity for the first time in the film as she just lingers along in thoughts with a brilliant shot of her reflection down in the table where nothing is heard except for the sound of wind or traffic from outside and nothing moves in the frame except for the exterior lights flashing or flickering on the glass cupboard backside, something of a visual device or alert that's used earlier in the film as well. And throughout these 6 minutes is Delphine Seyrig delivering one of the goated performances ever where her slow looking around in-front and the subsequent less enigmatic smile than the one she gave during the sex and the hanging of her head down where we're not sure of whether it's in the contentment of what she had done or disgust of her really having an orgasm earlier or did she really have one in the first place or what effect the previous night discussion and the subsequent disruption of her methodic routine had on her before the camera gets tired and calls it a day in stopping from lingering on her... thank you so much Chantal Akerman for a film-experience like none other and now I don't feel sorry for procrastinating on watching this for a long time as I was waiting for the right mood to set aside solid 4 hours for the film on a lazy Saturday and glad I allowed such time with the right mood in savouring an out-and-out historical masterpiece like this!

M S Krishna Prateek liked these reviews

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