Gabrielė Liepa (b. 1993) is a film & literature graduate from Amsterdam University College. Gabrielė’s interests include literary and film history, and art films of the Cold War era.
The news earlier this month that Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles won the decennial Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll struck the cinefile community like lightning. Lists are what we do most of the time when we’re not busying ourselves watching films; and when something so unexpected happens, it is understandably a cause célèbre. But is it really all that surprising for Chantal Akerman to get her due almost 50 years after the film’s release? And the more interesting question is – what shift does its victory signal in the larger film criticism culture, and why? What is the appeal of Jeanne Dielman for the viewers and critics in 2022? Is it possible that its influence stretches far beyond our immediate understanding, and is enveloped by external forces that wreak havoc on the film industry?
Akerman released her film when she was only 24; in this regard, as Richard Brody wrote in her obituary in 2015, she beat even Welles and Godard in making a film that would shake up the old ways of cinema. I think it’s correct to compare the three youngsters (some throw in Eisenstein for good measure), as their approach to filmmaking disregarded convention in similarly brazen ways. I do think, though, that Akerman went further than any of them, since she disregarded the notion of entertainment, too, and that’s the most punk move any mainstream (as opposed to avant-garde) filmmaker could have done, especially so early in their career.
Of course, punk is not what you might think when you think of Jeanne Dielman, a film about a widowed housewife going about her daily chores. But even Marguerite Duras – who released the challenging India Song the same year, also starring Delphine Seyrig – gasped “This woman’s crazy!” during the Directors’ Fortnight screening at Cannes. So what is it about Jeanne Dielman that still provokes debate to this day?
Jeanne wakes up, shines her son’s shoes, makes breakfast for him, has none herself, does groceries, has lunch, keeps her accounts, babysits for a neighbour, does meal prep, receives clients as a sex worker, cooks dinner, eats it with her son, listens to the radio while knitting or reading the newspaper, goes to sleep, wakes up… ad infinitum. Every day her hours, even minutes are calculated; if she’s out, it’s only to do some errands. Her sole aimless pleasure of the day comes from having a coffee in a local cafe, but even then it’s always at the same time, by the same table, probably for the same duration.
During the course of three days, Jeanne’s carefully structured life unravels; her neurosis is revealed not in dramatic outbursts but in the very minute variations of her movements that increasingly become unoptimised, even mistimed and absent-minded. It is difficult for someone who hasn’t had the difficult pleasure of viewing the film to understand the tension that is experienced when watching Jeanne forget to turn off the lights. But it makes me break out in a cold sweat.
The mundanity that is committed to the screen is awe-inspiring. Everything about Jeanne and her apartment is ordinary. So ordinary it had never been shown on screen before, so ordinary nobody ever expected to see what they see when they see it. So ordinary it becomes ugly, oppressive, its colours sickly, rotten. It becomes alive, a space to be contended with.
The apartment, and especially the kitchen, is devouring Jeanne bit by bit, she seems to disappear into its walls, blending into them whenever she puts on her kitchen apron, and her assimilation feels inherently violent. I find the scenes in the kitchen to be mesmerising, but painful to watch. Of course, there is nothing ordinary about Jeanne herself, apart from her given role she enacts wholeheartedly: it’s a cynical and clever move on Akerman’s part to star none other than the avant-garde muse Delphine Seyrig who looks nothing like a common housewife. Her intention was to render this woman unmistakably visible, since this type of work renders women invisible (not only is the labour unacknowledged, it also disappears the women shackled to it). It takes someone as regal looking as Seyrig for us to remember there is a person behind this apron. Although what person she is, is impossible to tell.
One of the strongest statements Jeanne Dielman makes is that it flings our presumed entitlement to understand a character straight back at us. As viewers, we assume ourselves to possess the privilege to gaze into a character’s psyche, whether through close-ups or their utterances. How else are we to empathise with them? Jeanne’s existence on screen is unconventionally close to our own existence: we also peel potatoes, wash ourselves, stare into the distance… nevertheless, we cannot understand her. We really do not observe but experience her life, yet we get no privileged access to her personhood. We come to see her routine as a facade, but we don’t know what lurks behind it. She’s holding it together, but despite what? What are her thoughts, and does she ever even have the time to think?
Historically, women rarely possessed character in popular cinema and their existence mattered only in relation to men of action. So Jeanne, a woman of inaction, merely being, in solitude (yes, despite being a mother) is subversive enough; the fact that Akerman goes further and deprives us of identification and sympathy is audacious. We are left to wonder whether it is her fate of being pushed into a role of thankless, neverending caregiving that is breeding resentment. Is it the role of a widow – a role that’d pushed women into a ‘dignified’ social death through the ages but also one that compelled Jeanne to adopt her numbing sex work routine, having no other professions to speak of? Is it class rage, a sudden awakening to her own exploitation? Is it some sort of trauma? Or is it because she overcooked potatoes? Is it the potatoes?
We don’t usually have so many questions – dialogue takes care of that. The conversations in Jeanne Dielman are sparse, but, paradoxically, all the more telling because they, too, refuse to explain anything. I’d go as far as to suggest they mock the ability of communication to reveal. It is not what things are said but the way they are said that matters. It is the way that taciturn Jeanne randomly, almost frantically, outpours an unsolicited history of a coat she’s mending to an attendant of a fabric store that hits me with the realisation that she is so, so lonely. Of course! Friendship doesn’t exist in Jeanne’s life and her only sister lives on the other side of the globe. The neighbour whose baby Jeanne watches over (whose off-screen presence is played by Akerman herself) gives a similarly wordy, epic account of her visit to the butcher’s. It shows that there is nothing extraordinary about Jeanne’s pain: there’s a whole universe out there, full of alienated housewives trapped in mundanity.
All conversations in the film feel claustrophobic – we expect them to fill in the context, but as Jeanne herself says to her son, “There’s no point talking about these things.” For her, it seems that there’s no point thinking about these things, either.
Her dance of routine acts as an invisible prison and, simultaneously, as the only way to maintain normalcy and fend off malaise. In her memoir My Mother Laughs, Akerman wrote that she hated the word ‘normal’, hated it above everything else, and in this film she amplified normalcy to reveal its macabre, insane absurdity. For Jeanne, routine is a drug; she’s self-medicating. We realise the seismic shift in her psyche when she wakes up too early and suddenly has more time than accounted for; her routine gets all mixed up, the dance loses its rhythm, she falls out of step. Time that she has managed so well up to this point escapes her, overpowers her. There is a scene in which Jeanne moves to the living room and just sits there transfixed, not sure how to go on, and her shallow breathing is enough to convey the anxiety that is melting her brain. What a dissonance between the way she sits there and us, the viewers, relaxing in our chairs and observing her break down from a safe distance, although you couldn’t really tell just by looking.
Whilst Jeanne’s repetitive chores seem like an infinite trap system, the meaning of her ‘imprisonment’ is as ambiguous as she is. In an interview with Criterion, Akerman said that such a strict routine held no negative connotations for her – growing up in Brussels, in her Polish Jewish family, a rigid system of behaviour in the household was transposed from Jewish rituals, enabling a life after the Shoah. Especially for Natalia, Akerman’s mother, who lived through the Holocaust but lost her parents. In My Mother Laughs, Chantal speaks in Natalia’s voice:
“You never know what might happen and I know that better than most because what happened to me and who would have thought up such a thing. Well, someone must have thought up such a thing or it wouldn’t have happened and besides it was so well organised. It’d all been thought through and considered. That’s why I sometimes say that thought isn’t always the best solution, even if it is final.”
I wonder if Chantal imagines here what went inside her mother’s head, since she herself never spoke about Auschwitz. Although Jeanne is a gentile, it is difficult to ignore the parallels between the two women, widowed early and determined to live in the present, not the past.
The present ‘as is’ is one of the strongest features of the film. Yes, the present is featured, it predominates the film. In Jeanne Dielman, time and space become such powerful forces they command as much attention as Jeanne herself. Nowadays ‘slow’ cinema hardly seems like revolutionary filmmaking and more a subculture niche, a badge of honour for ‘serious’ cinephile tastes. But it truly was a risky move on Akerman’s part, taking inspiration from the structuralist avant-garde films and merging them with a ‘mainstream’ narrative cinema. It’s a miracle it worked, given how many filmmaking conventions she took up on herself to oppose. To show such an ordinary life, an inscrutable life, on screen, and in real time, requires the viewer to engage with the film in a different way; it makes us self-conscious, it heightens our attention instead of numbing it.
Static shots with consistent framing leave us no choice but to be present, to be aware of being present, to really sense the rhythm of Jeanne’s time. She is continuously, unbearably stuck in the present – such an obvious thing! But the intangible concept of time is imprinted on the screen and we can no longer escape this awareness and its horror. That no matter what horrors may take place in this hostile world, time will march onwards, unburdened.
In the recent weeks, there have been many theories proposed as to why Akerman’s film was voted the greatest of all time. Naturally, the increased quantity and diversity of critics in the poll show that, with enforced democracy, dissensus makes an appearance, which is a positive. However, some have complained the surprising results are inorganic; I think the previous voting body was inorganic. Well, that’s it for my dignified take on what it means to ask a specific segment of the film subculture to proclaim universal opinions.
I would also like to think that this is a pushback to Hollywood’s current business rabidity, and to social media’s insistence that we only really need a fraction of our attention spans to exist ever so happily in this fast-paced world. Best of all, the Internet has given us access to film watching that allows us to continuously educate ourselves on cult classics and films previously fallen to obscurity but now re-discovered. And, of course, Akerman’s influence on the current arthouse sensibilities is undeniable, and she is finally given her due. The cannon is changing, and it’s only more exciting for it.
But all of this says nothing about Jeanne Dielman itself. I don’t think Akerman’s experiment only speaks to women, or caregivers, or neurotic people, or other outliers of the hegemonic norm. We have all been made into Jeanne these last years. Who knows how long it will take us to recover from lockdown isolation, homes turned to prisons, our jobs, routines—things that keep us from thinking – being suddenly thrown out of the window. Being those with time on their hands, those to whom nothing happens. And yet, now we march onwards with frenzy. We are eager to ignore our ennui, drown out our angst, forget so much suffering. We are eager to get back to ‘normal’.
But if anything, Akerman shows us what this ‘normal’ is: waltzing through our daily lives as the world is collapsing around us, not thinking about the past and certainly not thinking about the future.