Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelle (1975): Chantal Akerman’s Masterpiece, Starring Delphine Seyrig

The unique visual approach and minimalist style of Belgian pioneering filmmaker Chantal Akerman came to full fruition in 1975 in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelle, her acknowledged masterpiece, which continues to impress on many grounds–aesthetic, formal, feminist.

This long (198 minutes) film depicts three days in the life of a bourgeois widow (played by the great French actress Delphine Seyrig), who adheres to a regimented schedule of cleaning, cooking, and carrying for her strange teenage son.

To make ends meet, every day Jeanne takes in one male caller. She has a rigidly ritualized system of norms and behaviors, having lost her emotions and ability to reflect on the meaning of her habits.

On the third day, her schedule is interrupted, and she later experiences an orgasm with one of her male clients. Her response to these unfathomable alterations in her routines is to thrust a pair of scissors into the man’s throat.

Much of the film simply “records” ritualized routines in an ultra-minimal yet precise style; there’s little artifice an no melodrama.  For me, the conclusion is both gruesome and logical, though some reviewers thought otherwise.

The classic, made in 1975, has achieved a cult status but rarely gets screened due to its running time and slow pacing (by commercial standards).

Akerman’s feature qualifies as one of the few genuinely “feminist” movies that’s interesting both aesthetically and politically.  As several critics have pointed out, the film is relevant as a work of great formal achievement and a profound social statement.

Who’s Jeanne Dielman as a screen character? She’s an attractive middle-aged widow and mother living in Brussels in a small apartment with her teenage son Sylvain.  During the day, when Sylvain attends school, she busies herself with all kinds of household chores. Secretly, she makes extra money by prostituting herself to male visitors who come to her flat. On the surface, she seems to live a lonely life, barely speaking to her son, her customers, her neighbors.

On the first of three days, Jeanne starts cooking potatoes for dinner for herself and Sylvain, then greets a male “john” at the door. After a brief encounter in the bedroom, the man leaves and she takes a bath.  She resumes cooking the rest of dinner for Sylvain who comes home from school. Mother and son eat dinner in near silence. After dinner, Jeanne reads aloud a letter from her sister in Canada who says she is sending her a gift. Then Jeanne helps Sylvain correct his French accent while reading “The Enemy,” a poem by Baudelaire. The day ends with Jeanne putting Sylvain to bed and telling him how she had met his father in WWII.

The second day, Jeanne makes breakfast and polishes Sylvain’s shoes before sending him to school. She then tidies up the bedding and breakfast dishes before heading out to the post office and the shoe store. When she returns home, she takes in a neighbor’s baby while the neighbor goes to the market. Jeanne returns the baby to the neighbor, and goes out for a coffee break at her favorite cafe.

When Jeanne returns home, she prepares potatoes for dinner before meeting another john. Her appointment this time is longer, forcing her to throw out the overcooked potatoes.  She buys more potatoes and returns home in time to make dinner, which is ready only slightly later than on the previous night. After dinner, Jeanne and Sylvain listen to an opera on the radio. While saying good night to her son, he tells her of his childhood wish to see his father die.

On the third day, Jeanne becomes less meticulous and less careful with her domestic chores.  While polishing Sylvain’s shoes, she drops her shoe brush and then one of her dishes. Jeanne later goes out to the post office only to find out that it is closed.  Back home, she starts cooking meatloaf for dinner, and then sits by herself in the living room. With little to do, she begins dusting the figurines in her cabinet. She babysits briefly before going to the store to buy a button for Sylvain’s old coat. When visiting her favorite cafe for coffee, she is forced to sit in a new seat because another woman is occupying her usual spot. She pays and leaves without drinking her coffee.

Back home, Jeanne finds a mystery gift, a pink nightgown. She proceeds with her routine appointment but feels uncomfortable as the man holds her down on the bed. When the john finally allows Jeanne to get up, she picks up the scissors she had used to open her gift and returns to the bed to stab the man in the throat. After this sudden act of violence, she sits quietly in the living room.

“Jeanne Dielman” aims at making a feminist statement about the prevalent rigid patriarchal culture, which is held responsible for the creation of women who are victims of domesticity: Jeanne Dielman is a victim of fetishism who becomes a symbol of female repression and oppression.  The repetition of the character’s colorless acts makes its point about society’s notion of what is considered to be “women’s proper work,” while illustrating the resultant existential despair and inevitable anomie.

Jeanne relates to her part-time prostitution as an efficient means to her economic ends in a world where women’s occupational choices are limited. Significantly, no sexual activity is ever depicted in the film and the encounters with the men are never eroticized, suggesting that sex is just another chore for Jeanne–and by implication for most other women.

Ackerman was only 25, when she made the movie but already shows technical skills at maintaining a deliberate pace and use of steady medium or long shots, without much camera movement and reliance on the conventional codes of reverse shots, even in dialogue scenes.

Delphine Seyrig, then 42, and still better known for her work with Alain Resnais (“Muriel”) and Luis Bunuel, matches the fastidious style of her director with a hauntingly precise performance.

Cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s painstaking imagery contributes to the overall mood of quiet, persistent despair that builds up methodically up to the sudden and unexpected burst of violence.

Hard to believe, but, initially, the critical reception to picture was mixed. It was criticized by many mainstream reviewers as overly long, boring, meaningless, minimalist exercise.  Akerman’s defenders, however, were awed by her visual aesthetic and use of real time to emphasize the routine world of one ordinary woman.

Though made in 1975, the film received it first legitimate theatrical release in March 1983 at the estimable Film Forum.

Running time: 198 Minutes