Women in Film Feature #6 – Jeanne Dielman (1975)

JeanneDielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Directed by: Chantal Akerman
Written by: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Henri Storck, Yves Biscal

On October 5, 2015, the world lost one of its all-time greatest arthouse directors; one who changed the landscape of filmmaking for women worldwide.  Her name was Chantal Akerman, and her suicide marked the end of an era for international and arthouse cinema.  Her prolific body of work is full of brilliantly inventive films that most people have never seen or heard of, or just haven’t been released to the public in any form.  Chantal Akerman is famous for her documentation of the mundane, for her painfully long takes, and the detached yet incredibly personal nature of most of her films.  Often blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Akerman had an incredible eye for realism and for the beauty in the little things; something that many established directors seem to forget about as their films becoming bigger and louder.  As modern female directors take on ambitious and award-winning films, they can all thank Chantal Akerman and her incredible body of work for paving the way in the industry.  Her contributions and influence on the medium are innumerable, and much of her work is ripe for rediscovery by a whole new generation.

Chantal Akerman’s most famous film came incredibly early on in her career, after just a handful of shorts, and a feature length film that went unfinished by the director.  1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was Akerman’s first shot at working with a “big” budget, working with just $120,000 in grants at her disposal.  Director Chantal Akerman opted to shoot the film with a cast and crew composed of mostly women, a feat that hadn’t been attempted at the time. While she struggled with finding working women for certain technical positions, she ultimately prevailed and proved leagues of naysayers wrong.  The incredibly ambitious project ran for 201 minutes (or a little over 3 ½ hours) when finished, making its mundane and repetitive premise even more effective. The film opened at the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, and was met with mixed reactions by the unsuspecting crowd.  Luckily for Akerman, the film quickly became a tremendous financial and critical success, and at just 25 years old she was instantly recognized as one of the most progressive and unique filmmakers of the time. Jeanne Dielman was praised by critics for its ability to hold the attention of audiences, despite the film’s incredibly long run-time and the film’s slow and repetitive nature, as well as for the minimalistic, calm and reserved lead performance by Delphine Seyrig.  Jeanne Dielman was incredibly successful among feminist critics of the time, who recognized the picture for its use of an all-female crew, and for being so open and honest about the subservience of the housewife. Though the film wasn’t released in the United States until the early 1980’s, its influence has been felt by some of the country’s most ambitious filmmakers, most notably Palme d’Or winning director Gus Van Sant.

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Delphine Seyrig as the titular Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking 1975 film.

The story told in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles seems simple at first glance, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye.  We follow the titular Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) in real time through three seemingly normal days.  On the first day, Jeanne cooks, cleans, and interacts as much as she possibly can with her disconnected teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte).  Jeanne’s schedule is incredibly well-rehearsed, and seems almost ritualistic.  Not a single minute is wasted, and never once does she seem unfocused or unproductive. During the afternoons, she is visited by men who pay her for sex.  These visits help to pay Jeanne and Sylvain’s comfortable life, and seem nearly as ritualistic and rehearsed as her chores are.  The men stay for a short while, and when they’re finally gone Jeanne quickly returns to her routine of cleaning and preparing dinner for her son.  Jeanne’s meditative and ritualistic life begins to slowly unravel on the second day, after she wakes up unexpectedly early and is expected to fill an extra hour of her day.  Not knowing what to do with the time, Jeanne sits and broods, giving into the anxiety and darkness that she so desperately tries to escape with her methodical regimented schedule.  This extra hour unnerves Jeanne, and causes her to make small mistakes like drop a clean spoon and overcook the potatoes she has been preparing for dinner.  These imbalances in Jeanne’s perfectly planned life slowly begin to eat away at her, and eventually cause her to lash out in the film’s quietly explosive final moments.

Jeanne Dielman is a film that I’ve been dreading having to dive into for years now. I’ve always been curious and interested in the experimental aspects of it, but so turned on by its slow nature and ridiculously long running time.  Those reasons, and the fact that it paved the way for so many females in the film industry, are exactly why I chose to finally cover Jeanne Dielman.  Though it wasn’t quite love at first sight, I can say with every bit of certainty that the film is a masterwork in pacing, and in never quite letting the audience get ahead of the story being told. Chantal Akerman’s camera pauses for long stretches as Jeanne Dielman goes about her daily rituals and perfectly rehearsed habits, and it’s very haunting to watch unfold.  The subtle and deliberate pacing of the film never once lost my attention, and always had me trying to understand Jeanne Dielman as a character. She has completely given into the complacency of being a mother, and seemingly has no hobbies or interests outside of cooking, cleaning, and having loveless and passionless sex.  She doesn’t say a great deal, and yet somehow still manages to be completely enthralling because of Delphine Seyrig’s incredible performance. Seyrig’s titular Jeanne Dielman is perfect and believable in every single way.  The way Seyrig does small things like perfectly flattening the sheets on her son’s bed or clean out the bathtub, makes it seem as if the actions have been performed thousands of times before.  When something goes wrong in Jeanne’s routine, you can tell just by the look on Delphine Seyrig’s always emotionless face.  It’s not showy or large in any way, but I can safely say it’s one of the best and most dedicated performances I’ve ever seen from anybody on film.  If the lead performance wasn’t compelling, Chantal Akerman’s film simply wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.  She absolutely made the right choice in casting a veteran actress like Seyrig, and perfectly compliments the incredible performance with the most meditative direction, writing, and pacing I’ve ever seen.  Though Jeanne Dielman is a long film, it never feels played out or tedious – aside from the banality that Akerman wants the audience to feel through the use of repetition.  When things start to get more interesting in the second day, the film starts to feel claustrophobic and ultimately feels soaked in dread.  This all comes to a perfect crescendo in the final moments of the film, and Akerman’s direction makes the moment we’ve been waiting more than three hours for feel like just another insipid moment in Jeanne’s life.  It’s beautiful.

still-of-delphine-seyrig-in-jeanne-dielman,-23-commerce-quay,-1080-brussels-(1975)-large-picture

Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) and her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

While I can safely say that few people reading this are going to enjoy any aspect of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the influence it has had on modern filmmaking is undeniable.  Chantal Akerman’s exercise in patience and deliberate pacing paved the way for countless generations of award-winning female filmmakers and other behind-the-line roles.  The lead performance by Delphine Seyrig is undeniably great in its focused and meditative nature, and make this a can’t miss experience.  It may be a while before I revisit Jeanne Dielman, but I can promise you that I’ll never forget my first experience with the film, and with the work of Chantal Akerman.  Though it isn’t for everybody out there, Jeanne Dielman comes highly recommended.  

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