WARNING: The following piece was written without regard to the presence of "spoilers."
We see the interior of a quiet apartment. It is lit with the waning diffuseness of a grey afternoon, and there is a woman moving about its hallways with a steadiness of purpose. The camera which affords us this look into her living space is fixated at an angle perpendicular to the front door, gazing at eye level down the main hallway toward a closed door. The woman greets the man who walks in the front door with indifferent familiarity, with silence. She takes his coat, hangs it on a hook somewhere beyond the purview of the frame, and they both continue quietly toward the far door, completing the introduction to an encounter they have engaged in many times before. The camera remains motionless as they close the door, and we never see what happens once it shuts. Instead, there is an abrupt but sublimely smooth cut to another shot, the camera positioned in precisely the same place, the hallways of the house now shrouded in the evening dark. The man and woman emerge from the room, and still without a word she guides him to the front door, where he puts on his coat. The camera shifts position slightly so we may see them regard each other for a brief moment before he makes his way out. The woman turns away from the door and moves toward the dining room. She turns on a light, deposits some money apparently given to her by the man into a tureen placed on the dining room table and then heads to the bathroom, where we see the bath she gives to herself taken in real time. She then moves to the kitchen to begin making dinner for two, the camera never emphasizing anything more than her presence in whatever room she happens to be in, and of course the details of decoration and evidence of humanity within each of those rooms. We will see the preparation of the evening’s meal, the arrival of the woman’s son, their near-silent dinner together, the woman’s post meal clean-up, the two of them leaving the apartment together for some unknown purpose, their return, the unfolding of a hideaway bed on which the boy sleeps, and the woman’s methodical preparation for her own sleep.
This is the second half of the first of three days presented to us as a glimpse into the ritualistic routine of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), whose strictly determined movements within the walls of 23 Quai du Commerce, in the city of Brussels, Belgium, represent a psychological pattern of self-defense that will slowly be compromised over the next day and a half. The order in the physical space of the apartment is Jeanne’s entire world-- each chore, each errand, each neighborly visit, each meal a detached attempt to maintain civil contact with the structure of society, each clockwork sexual encounter, necessary to supplement a modest lifestyle after the death of her husband, adding to her disassociation from the messiness and demands of human response. That apartment, as we shall see, is the real fortress of solitude, and Jeanne's soul, housed in the actress's placidly rendered shell, occupies yet another. (Seyrig is astonishing in a meticulously observed performance that requires the utmost attention-- each gesture, each reaction, each non-reaction becomes another essay in miniature which illuminates with genuine feeling what could have become a simple conceptual exercise in fleshing out Jeanne's exile into suspended animation.)
In its own way, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) is as stylized an examination of the emerging fissure’s in one woman’s icily-composed outer shell as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Polanski imposes the disintegrating perspective of his main character, Carole (Catherine Deneuve), upon the film itself, warping and shattering the frame into shards of the protagonist’s twisted reality as the demons of her mind close in on her, forcing us to see the world as she experiences it. Akerman, on the other hand, steers the visual language of psychological representation in precisely the opposite direction, using long takes, a determined, precisely controlled camera usually placed at a fixed height and distance, and a painterly sense of graphic continuity to suggest the stasis and emotional confinement of this singularly dampened woman, whose attachment to the rituals of her mundane existence are both her slim tether to reality and the means by which she slips away from it. The director, who was only 25 years old when she made this masterpiece, is preternaturally confident in her design, in which she employs influences as disparate as Warhol and Godard to allow the audience not just to imagine the fragile disassociation of the title character but to experience it temporally, not as real-time but in such a way that we understand profoundly the implications of Jeanne’s freeze-dried condition, of which we only see what amounts to two days in a cycle that has been moving inexorably toward implosion, smooth on the surface, gears grinding underneath, for years.
Jeanne Dielman… is a movie that has probably been quoted, consciously or subconsciously, by every filmmaker since 1976 who has pushed against the momentum toward faster pacing and voluminous exposition. Its absolute mastery of time and space has paved the way of influence for directors as diverse as David Lynch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Lee Chang-dong, Richard Linklater and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name just a few whose names and work crossed my mind while I was immersed in Akerman’s movie. The Warhol influence on Akerman is, of course, fundamental, but she shows a command of purpose and probing humanity that never much entered into Warhol’s experiments with temporal endurance. In fact, the movie’s length—it runs three hours and 20 minutes—is integral to its ultimate power. Surely a shorter movie (perhaps even an actual short) could have been made that would have conveyed the same information and made the same “point” about Jeanne’s crippling stasis, but it’s easy to imagine such a film coming off as more an intellectual exercise, empathy at arm’s length. But Jeanne Dielman… represents both an intellectual and an emotional commitment for audiences who choose to give themselves over to it, and even those willing to pay for a ticket (or buy the Criterion DVD) may find their patience amply tested. (There was plenty of uncomfortable giggling, sighing, rustling, and an indifference to cell phones ringing in the auditorium where I saw it last week.)
The astonishing thing about Akerman’s film is the degree to which we’re made to feel the crushing weight of Jeanne’s mundane day-to-day existence because of the passage of time, and each ripple in the routine registers like a psychic earthquake. (Again, it’s worth mentioning that only certain segments or shots are presented in real time—this is not a Rope-style masking of a basically theatrical presentation through means of cinematic trickery.) Whereas much of the language of cinema is predicated on the breaking down of experience, and then the piecing of it back together through judicious editing of image and sound, Akerman takes the experience in the opposite direction, experimenting with what the stretching of the boundaries of endurance can mean for the material and the audience. Its form is crucial to finding a way for us to understand what Jeanne experiences in a way that can go beyond simple platitudes or false empathy. When the film circled back to the afternoon of the second day and I realized the previous day’s-worth of existence, which had taken about 90 minutes to unfold, was about to play out again, I felt a sense of stifling horror, as much for Jeanne and her entrapment in a repeating pattern of certain emotional erosion as for my own uncertainty about whether I could sit through it all again.
Jeanne Dielman… is rooted in the specific pain of a woman for whom life has calcified beyond vitality and the unpredictability of human response, yet the movie is not a feminist tract. Akerman doesn’t use Jeanne’s prostitution and the unfeeling routines of her johns, or even the closed-off countenance of her bookish son, as easy points scored against the hegemony and oppression of a male-dominated society. (The director knows she doesn't have to underline these elements for them to register.) Instead, Akerman’s long wind-up sets us up for a profound shock. Cracks in Jeanne’s routines have become increasingly apparent—the slipping of a shoe brush, her sudden inability to comfort or adequately deal with an infant left daily in her care, the table she occupies in a local café suddenly taken by another customer. But it is our first glimpse behind the bedroom door during an apparently routine trick that sets the stage for Akerman’s blow to our collective gut. Jeanne’s unexpected awakening to sexual response, her tumultuous and (as it turns out) life-shattering orgasm underneath a passionless customer turns out to be the impetus not for fulfillment or self-awareness, as it might be (and has been) in similar tales of feminist awakening, but instead for complete psychic breakdown.
The movie retains its mysteries too—where do Jeanne and her son go at night, every night? And what is Jeanne’s relationship with her sister, who writes to her from Canada with concern for Jeanne’s situation and her state of mind, but with whom Jeanne struggles to write back a simple letter of response? It is Akerman’s approach to these unexplained elements of the film’s story, and the glancing attention to Jeanne’s life as a child living through the piecemeal survival of World War II, an existence whose ascetic qualities she clearly adapted as an adult, that adds to the richness, the fully felt tragedy which elevates Jeanne Dielman… beyond the status of experimental stunt and into the realm of film art. Akerman’s techniques might be seen as distancing, but the absorption one experiences into the mindscape of this tortured, inarticulate woman Jeanne Dielman is something to be reckoned with. Part of that reckoning is wrestling with the emotional residue the movie leaves behind; another is dealing with the implications and the incontrovertible evidence of a repressed, muffled soul sitting peacefully in a kitchen peeling potatoes, Jeanne's (and Seyrig's) face a rictus of affectless absence which suddenly gives way to the pleasure of mindless ritual, and soon to the siren call of madness.
For further reading, here’s Sam Adams’ excellent interview with Chantal Akerman and Sean Axmaker’s assessment of the movie on the occasion of its 2009 DVD release.