Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

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

Ranked 1st (215 critic-vote, 46 director-vote) in 2022 Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time Poll
Added to: My 250 Favorite Films of All Time

"The Mother and the Whore"

Before watching Chantal Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, I had learnt two things from what I read on cinema: the film itself is one of the best films ever made, and it's one of the best film ever made by a female filmmaker. If the first statement is true, and I believe it should be, then the later statement would certainly be true as well since Akerman is first and foremost a woman. This particular emphasis should be made constantly insofar as the filmmaking industry is male-dominated. In the 2012 Sight and Sound Poll of The Greatest Film Ever Made, Jeanne Dielman is ranked 36th, not a bad position considering its long running time and repulsive formalism to the causal viewer, but it's the highest rank in the poll for any female filmmakers. Only seven other women get the honour to be among the Top 250, including Claire Denis, Maya Deren, Vera Chytilova, Agnes Varda, Barbara Loden, Jane Campion and Forugh Farrokhzad. And they each get one film included in the poll only.

By simple calculation, merely 3.2% of the so-called best films are constituted by the gender of women. It's a horrendous figure considering the quality of arts is not discerned by differences of gender. The discussion of the fundamental problem of unbalanced gender involvement is not the major issue in this short passage, my intention is to find the means to appreciate this particular film differently from watching those testosterone-injected films made by, for instance, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. Watching Jeanne Dielman does not get the same pleasure or enjoyment as I get from watching Raging Bull or Kill Bill, the titular character in Akerman's film does not get beaten by misogynistic males or seek outrageous revenge in the form of feministic power. Jeanne Dielman, a domestic housewife and a widow with an adolescent son, is probably ubiquitous as any mother in the world, albeit she earns money by prostitution. Akerman elides the scene of prostitution, even though it's the first thing Dielman does when the film commences. All we get is the moment of Dielman, played by Delphine Seyrig, welcoming her client at the doorway and leading him to the bedroom. The scene is then abruptly cut to the same shot of frame only with dimmer lighting, suggesting a passage of time.

The film follows Dielman closely for three days consecutively, the start of each day is headlined as The First, The Second and The Third Day, thus reinforcing the importance of passing of time. And each day we witness the overly ritualised domestic chores performed by Dielman, from making the bed to coffee, from preparing meat to peeling potatoes, from having dinner with her son in the dinning room to taking a bath and cleaning it up afterwards, the majority is shot in one single or multiple long shot without disruption of time. Those scenes would be changed from firstly a documentary observation to anthropological deduction, and finally to a hypnotic mediation. The camera is immobilised, formally capturing the character in the full duration of a task or simply of a character’s waiting, or rigidly staying in the same frame even though the character left the place as it is reminiscing the pre-existence. As a result, the flow of time is palpable, unlike conventional dramas in which editing is used to reduce time into a singularity and ultimately offers escapism. Akerman claimed that her choice of formalistic style is "to avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces, . . . cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful.” The style is so rigorously followed that any minute change of editing or character's behaviour would be suggestive of something as unsettled and dramatic as the murder.

The overboiled pot of potatoes on the second day, after Dielman spent the time offscreen with her client in the bedroom, is the first sign of the world crumbling in Dielman's perspective. The scenes with her holding the pot and going from kitchen to corridor without the idea of what to do signify the disruption of her fixed and religiously followed schedule. The extra time she gained from waking up earlier before the alarm goes off on the third day offers nothing pleasurable except moments of nothingness, she simply sits on the sofa while the camera lingers with her together. What is she thinking, or more precisely was she "thinking" at all? The realisation of nothingness beyond the mundane is a terrible thought. Dielman is the opposite of cheerfulness, she speaks in a monotone, even when she reads out the letter sent by her sister or has an intimate conversation with her son before bed. She is so introverted that her internalised emotion would one day be overfilled and erupt in the most horrible way, and the last twenty minutes of the film is about that shocking moment.

The performance by Delphine Seyrig is all about restriction and constraint, it's devoid of any explicit elements albeit the shocking twist at the end. But Seyrig is more than merely a vessel, the intangible frustration is consequential with a slight difference in her body language. Moment by moment, from the bad-tasted coffee to her usual seat in the cafe being occupied, they build up to the final derailment of the day of being a single mother. The part of prostitution is far from exploitation, the prostitution scene inside the bedroom would only be revealed at the end of the film, foretelling a different outcome from any preceding days. The focus of household chores in an extended linear narrative is a celebration of the role of the mother as well as an account of the respective hardship. Jeanne Dielman is hailed as one of the greatest feminist works, its boldness and insistence on the ferociously rigid form encompassing the austere mundaneness of a single mother and a reclusive woman are both challenging and fascinating, on the other hand, without being analytical, the film simply makes you want to have a coffee and hug your mother.

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