Director: Chantal Akerman
Writer: Chantal Akerman
DP: Babette Mangolte
Editor: Patricia Canino
Producer: Corinne Jénart, Evelyne Paul
Starring: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 3 hrs. 20 min.
The camera in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is low, and the image on the screen always seems slightly cut off by the edges of the frame. This is limiting for us, the audience, but not for the titular character, who is free to walk out of the frame and out of our sight without the camera following her. The film shows us a character's daily life in an uncommon level of detail, but it doesn't feel voyeuristic; the ways Akerman uses the camera, as well as the film's prodigious length, take power away from the audience. There is no pleasure derived from the sense that we're seeing something not intended for our eyes.
This is all more important than the plot, which can be summarized as follows: A woman named Jeanne Dielman does errands, cares for a friend's baby, and cooks dinner for her son, adhering to a strict routine. She makes money through prostitution, taking one client each day. The film takes place over the course of three days in Jeanne's life, and on the third day she breaks from her routine.
The camera in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles does not linger on characters, but the daily processes the characters execute. It quickly becomes clear how much work it takes to keep everything in Jeanne's apartment in its correct place. Her household is a perfectly composed space, each object placed in an assigned position. As she carries out quotidian processes, she disrupts the composition, but then sets everything back just so. Despite how prosaic it all is, it's somewhat satisfying; to see things arise from a series of carefully executed steps and to see a character exercise such control over her environment comes with small, brief moments of gratification.
Jeanne lives in her own self-contained world, each aspect of which is under her control. She is mostly silent throughout the first two days, focused on her task. Occasionally we overhear background characters talking, or listen to a friend of Jeanne's go on about how difficult her day was, but Jeanne remains detached, as if she were above their problems. While this sense of her superiority may be owed in part to the low height of the camera and her freedom to move through a space larger than that contained by the frame, it must also be owed to Delphine Seyrig's performance. For most of the first two days depicted in the film, she doesn't reveal anything about Jeanne's mindset, but after Jeanne breaks from her routine, her body language changes to be more defensive, and she hesitates just a little before doing anything.
Jeanne says she likes what she does. She says that she's always wanted to manage a household and take care of a child. Perhaps most importantly, she says that she never cared whether she would live such a life with a husband; she would be perfectly content, if not better off, doing it on her own, as she does in this film. When she says this, she towers over the audience: she is speaking to her son, who is lying down, and the camera is at his eye level while Jeanne stands behind him. Also, the camera makes us accompany her son in this scene, and he cannot see Jeanne, though Jeanne can see him. She's in control here; we needn't doubt the honesty of her words.
However, it's extremely important to consider the other implications of the aforementioned fact that the camera lingers on processes over characters. It is only within a framework dominated by these processes that we perceive Jeanne's control over her surroundings, and when she's not executing them, she seems uncertain as to how to fill her time: one of the few moments in which Seyrig actually emotes is when Jeanne stops for a moment to have coffee, and she seems uneasy. She has almost godlike power over her chosen environment, yet many people have read the film as a picture of a woman confined to an assigned role. It is true that many current cultures have stereotypes and tendencies to expect women to do domestic work and not to take employment, which is how Jeanne lives her life.
There must, after all, be a reason for her vision of an ideal life. The film depicts the exchange between the individual and culture, the simultaneous consonance and dissonance between nature and nurture. In many scenes we can inexplicably see the faint reflection of flashing light on the walls of Jeanne's house, some glowing object shining through her window and just barely; intangibly altering the otherwise perfectly controlled aesthetic of Jeanne's home, keeping it from being completely insular.
Near the end of the second day, something changes. It is not stated exactly what, but something happens involving her client for that day (implied by her hair and demeanor, distinctly different from her meeting with the client of the first day, and the first two constants to be altered). This seems to cause her some distress; her mannerisms change slightly. She begins to make mistakes in her rigorous routine. The mistakes are never more than slight; she overcooks some potatoes, she drops a brush, she forgets to put the lid back on an open container. But despite how minor these errors are, they are truly disturbing. By the time they happen we're familiar with the details of Jeanne's environment and the work it takes to maintain them, so small changes all carry life-altering potential. The first parts of the film may imply some kind of power in how Jeanne lives her life, but the later parts suggest that she might not have complete control over that power, and that's disturbing.
Why did some sexual encounter cause Jeanne such distress? It could be any one of a number of reasons. Maybe it's because she sees sex as something that is done to her rather than something she does jointly with another person - and if she does, it's certainly an idea she inherited from some kind of cultural influence. We do know that, to her, it's transactional; she exchanges sex for money. Whatever it is, it's clear that something is bothering her, and that she blames it on her clients.
Really, we don't know what Jeanne is thinking, but it's better not to know. The fact that we don't know makes the film feel more alive. What we do know is that she's trapped in a catch-22: money is an absolute necessity for the lifestyle that satisfies her, but her method of getting it is in conflict with that lifestyle. We also get hints that breaks in that lifestyle are at least a little upsetting to her, and that that lifestyle revolves around processes which control her environment. Jeanne attempts to regain control. When she goes shopping the next day, she shares her personal stories with the people she does business with, dropping the detached silence we saw on the second day; by inserting more of herself into her interactions with shopkeepers, she distracts from the interdependence inherent in a financial transaction.
I don't know if the film has a solution for this catch-22. It stems from such a complex web of factors, and it's apparent that Akerman is capturing it through film because words simply can't explain it adequately. Should Jeanne change? Should the whole around her change? Are these things even remotely possible? Or are these questions too simplistic?
The end of the film does not provide the answer to this question, but it is certainly not unclear; it's jolting and dark, insisting that something - even if no one knows exactly what - has to change. In a final attempt to curb her distress, Jeanne decides to exercise her own will for something truly outrageous. Whether she regains control because of this is left ambiguous.
Ben Sachs said (which I heard secondhand in Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review of Rocco and His Brothers) that one of the most subversive things a film can do is to show the characters at work. This is what Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles does. And it is certainly subversive; I can only speak from experience, but this film can change the way you look at the world. It shows that every object was placed in its position as the result of some physical process. Consequently, it shows that the mundane, everyday life of any given person comprises an astronomical number of seemingly insignificant details, and that those things are not static - because of basic human needs, they require work to keep them intact; most disturbing of all, that work is no guarantee that we won't lose control of them. Perhaps three and a half hours sounds long, but the history implied behind every gesture and action in this film spans a much longer period than that. The film is also proof of just how much cinema operates on a purely formal level. You could film a person going about their daily life in any number of ways, but they wouldn't be the same as this; it's Akerman's deliberate construction that determines the tone and focus of what the film depicts, and those in turn inform the ideas it contains.