Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai de Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Studio: Criterion

May 15, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For the casual film fan, Jeanne Dielman is going to be a tough sell. Even for seasoned film nerds, it may be a daunting task or even seem like homework before finally popping it into your Blu-ray player. This is a nearly three-and-a-half hour French movie about a widow cooking potatoes. At least that would be the very flippant way of dismissing it without taking the time to actually consider the broader picture. Still, the length and the subject – or seeming lack thereof – will be a hurdle.

Which is a shame, because it breezes by in a seeming blink of an eye. The film takes place over the course of only a couple of days, and focuses very much on the titular Jeanne Dielman’s daily routine – think last year’s Jim Jarmusch film Paterson only with less talking or overt drama. Dielman is a widow who looks after her teenage son. He’s at school during the day, so she runs errands, cooks dinner, cleans the house, has sex for money with a client who comes to her home, has dinner when her son gets home in relative silence, and helps her son with his dictation. It’s focused so much on the routine, the physical nature of it, that the film could probably even be dialog-free, but then we’d miss out on mundane but loaded lines like, “I added less water than last week. Maybe that’s why it’s better.” Jeanne says this to her son and it says plenty more about the nature of her world. It explains how deep the routine runs – she makes the same meals every week – and combined with the lack of dialog between the two apart from that, it can either be seen as a ruptured relationship or one where she’s taken for granted. The rest of the film provides evidence for both interpretations. It also helps that the dialog is spare, because every time someone talks, the words carry meaning. It’s like every line matters ten-fold.

The easiest adjective to apply is ‘hypnotic,’ but that doesn’t feel quite right. Neither does ‘engrossing.’ But you’d be forgiven if they came to mind. Her life is unremarkable, and that is the point, and possibly why it works so perfectly. The second something happens to throw Jeanne off her schedule, the seams start showing. Day one, she’s perfectly composed as everything goes according to plan. Day two, her timing gets thrown and potatoes get overcooked and she has to go back out. She gets frazzled. Her son even remarks that her hair looks bad – this comes after he waltzes into the kitchen where Jeanne is making their dinner and hands her his coat so she can hang it up. He passed the closet on his way through the apartment. By this point, director Chantal Akerman has made clear the investment in time that Jeanne has made during the day – and presumably every day – that his possibly innocuous behavior is enraging. This is just past the 100 minute mark, and not a single frame that preceded it should be removed. For a film that seems lacking in tension on the surface, following Jeanne’s every move imbues it with greater meaning.

Much of the success of the film can be credited to the choice to keep the camera stationary and to linger past the expected end of a scene. The apartment is the primary setting, and while it’s tiny it is also Jeanne’s entire world. An interesting effect is achieved by establishing the space she firmly occupies. There are no quick cuts, and the camera never follows Jeanne room-to-room – the camera never moves at all – but by stretching out the static shots and then stringing them together, it’s like you can see her move through her apartment.

When Jeanne goes to the grocer, and then leaves, the camera stays a moment longer following the clerk to the back room. When Jeanne peels potatoes, we watch her peel the potatoes instead of watching her start to peel one before cutting to the meal. The scene is not in service of the end result, but in the process of her daily routine. The question perhaps becomes whether her routine has become a trap or a safety net. Possibly it’s both.

Jeanne Dielman has layers… like an onion to use an imperfect, but thematically appropriate, simile. And the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release helps contextualize the film as they so often do. Film scholar Ivone Margulies explores the film’s themes of sexual repression and anxiety as well as the expected domesticity of women at the time in her wonderful accompanying essay (one of my favourite companion features to Criterion discs). It also has several interview features with Akerman throughout the years following the release of the film, an on-set featurette showing the often combative relationship between Akerman and star Delphine Seyrig while making the film, and even Akerman’s first film Saute ma ville. As always, it’s a little piece of film school in a tiny package.

Akerman made a film with a distinct vision to it, which can be seen in the behind-the-scenes footage. Jeanne Dielman is not the prototypical French art film lampooned so often in Western pop culture. It’s simple while exploring deep, complicated feelings far beneath the surface. While saying it’s ‘entertaining’ may be putting too fine a point on it, it’s a process. It’s an exploration of a life that is both inclusive and voyeuristic. And what it reveals to the individual viewer may greatly differ. But it’s certainly worth the investment in time.


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