To say that Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai de Commerce 1080 Bruxelles is not for everyone is simply to recognize that its downbeat subject, relentlessly slow pace, three-and-a-half hour running time and immersion in everyday detail are just about the negation of everything movies are supposed to provide. And yet, there is an irony in that characterization, for if Jeanne is not “for” everyone, it is certainly about the average middle-class viewer because it grounds a feminist invective in a milieu so completely realized that it is impossible to deny its familiarity. Forty years have not dented its accuracy.
Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a widow living with her son in a nondescript Brussels neighborhood. She supplements her income by turning tricks, and deals with the emotional complexities of her actions by suppressing her feelings to the point of self-alienation. For Jeanne, selling her body is just one more mechanical routine, sandwiched between cleanup chores and preparing dinner. She shows neither affection nor distaste toward her johns. They might as well be dirt in the tub in which she bathes and scrubs after each encounter.
The situation is similar to Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but where that film indicts the consumerism that forces the protagonist into prostitution, Akerman focuses on the deadening routines of Jeanne’s life. The cooking, cleaning, shopping, and dusting are shown in detail and in virtually real time, so that all those actions usually left out of a movie become, if not the subject, then at least the film’s foundation. Yet because Dielman is fiction, not a documentary, Akerman can select and refine, expose the mundane and, deliberately or not, make it unexpectedly fascinating.
When, for example, Jeanne makes a meat loaf, the camera sits on Seyrig as she folds the meat over, adds an egg, some flour, then continues to fold and shape the ingredients until they are thoroughly mixed and ready to cook. The camera never blinks, there are no cuts, we sit for several minutes as an everyday activity is revealed to us as if we have never seen it before, exposing an aspect of life that we unquestionably accept when embroiled in it. The results demonstrate how expectations of right behavior and roles are a form of oppression so intimately woven into the fabric of daily life that we take them for granted, do not see them and cannot recognize their cost. They also implicitly ask the question why such matters are usually absent?
The film’s unyielding technique builds a silent indictment, preparing us for the violent denouement. The ending is deeply disturbing, not just because of its shock value, but because of a lingering unease as to whether it is warranted. While Akerman does not explicitly blame the environment for Jeanne’s final actions, she also does not exactly sympathize with her either. That final ambivalence may be the best container for the powerful emotions the film reveals in the grout of domestic drudgery.