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TCM Imports - December 2018
Remind Me

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Belgian director Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is an almost minute-by-minute account of the life of a Brussels widow and mother as she goes about the routine of her day: preparing dinner, peeling potatoes, making her bed, setting the table, knitting, preparing her teenage son Sylvain's (Jan Decorte) bed each night and polishing his shoes each morning. In one of the few gestures of emotional connection, Jeanne reads a letter aloud to her son, from her sister Fernande living in Canada and wonders if they shouldn't take her up on her offer to travel to see her.

The gestures are initially soothing and reassuring; evidence of a woman who has made caring for home and family her life's mission. Akerman's over three hour movie is a catalogue of the work involved in women's lives which assumes an almost ritualistic and noble importance in the film. The details of Jeanne Dielman's (Delphine Seyrig) routine, captured over a three day period by Akerman, are so ordinary in their minutiae it seems far from shocking when she brings a man into her bedroom one day and collects money from him at the end of their exchange.

Everything is perfunctory and orderly in Jeanne Dielman's world, evident in her exchanges with the cobbler and the postman and the young neighbor who leaves her baby with Jeanne while she runs her errands; as played by Akerman herself, she's a nervous, insecure woman who worries about what to serve her family for dinner. The only time Jeanne seems a creature of something other than endless chores and routine is when she pauses for a coffee in a cafe after shopping. Sitting alone in the cafe, she gazes off into space, lost for a moment in a private reverie. It is the first time you have the sense of something other than chores consuming her thoughts. You wonder what she's thinking, and that peek into the woman behind the efficient domestic appliance is a captivating indication of what is to come in this rigorous but engrossing film with a shocking denouement. As critic Michael Atkinson says, "It's a masterpiece that writes its own rules about how movies express themselves -- you can't compare it to other films, not even Akerman's."

Akerman establishes Jeanne's routine, only to show it disintegrating the next day. Suddenly her perfectly-coiffed hair is disheveled and she burns the potatoes, indications that the perfect order of Jeanne's life has begun to fray. Her son does not miss signs that all is not right in Jeanne's ordered and controlled world: the mussed hair, the button left undone, the breaks from routine that suddenly seem enormous, such as failing to turn the radio on as she knits one night.

It is clear from Akerman's close observation and accounting of her character's life that she truly lives for others: the son who she waits on hand and foot but who gives no indication that he sees his mother as more than a domestic machine, and the men who come to see her in the afternoon. In its unique and subtle way, the film hints, without didactism or literalism, at an imbalanced sexual economy in the world. There is the implication, in describing her marriage to Sylvain's father, that Jeanne made a mistake by trading her most valuable commodity: her good looks, for a husband whose economic hardship made him a bad match (and whose death has left her with little choice but to trade sex for money). And when Sylvain describes a conversation with his school friend about sex, it is clear her son is disgusted by the notion of his mother behaving sexually. There is the sense given in these and other moments, that Jeanne is seen as a projection of others' expectations and not a fully-formed person in her own right; this is certainly the case in her negotiations of sex for money with the clients who come to her home.

Jeanne Dielman's ritualistic, detailed behavior was inspired by Chantal Akerman's own upbringing in a religious Jewish household whose parents fled Poland to escape the Nazis. Akerman has called her film a love letter to her own mother. Akerman made the film when she was just 25 years old. After working on a more conventional script with subplots and ancillary characters, Akerman decided to cut away all extraneous detail and focus her film on the minutiae of her character's life, a decision that has earned Jeanne Dielman a place as a masterwork of international cinema.

Akerman's filmic consciousness was shaped by an epiphany she experienced after seeing Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965) that led her to her own experimental film investigations. While living in New York from 1971-1972 Akerman was further inspired by the work of avant garde filmmakers including Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage, and by trips to Anthology Film Archives. In New York Akerman also met her frequent cinematographer Babette Mangolte who has worked with Akerman on La Chambre (1972), Hotel Monterey (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973) and News from Home (1977). Mangolte has also collaborated with other avant garde filmmakers including Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer and Marcel Hanoun.

Akerman's experimental techniques include the extensive use of long takes, a stationary camera and an emphasis on extreme realism such as that in Jeanne Dielman in which whole scenes of Jeanne cooking dinner or washing the dishes are shot with her back to the camera. The gaze of the film itself is defined by a woman, its low camera angle that often cuts off the heads of characters dictated by Akerman's short stature.

When Akerman cast her in Jeanne Dielman star Delphine Seyrig already had a distinguished career in art house classics including Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). She would go on to appear in Marguerite Duras's India Song (1975) as well as several more films by Duras and Akerman. Fluent in German, French and English and progressively educated, Seyrig was an outspoken advocate of women's rights who in 1977 directed a film which translates to Be Pretty and Shut Up about sexism in filmmaking with testimony from Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Maria Schneider.

Director: Chantal Akerman
Producer: Guy Cavagnac, Alain Dahan, Corinne Jénart, Liliane de Kermadec, Evelyne Paul, Paul Vecchiali
Screenplay: Chantal Akerman
Cinematography: Babette Mangolte
Production Design: Philippe Graff
Cast: Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), Sylvain Dielman (Jan Decorte), First caller (Henri Storck), Second caller (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze), Third caller (Yves Bical).

by Felicia Feaster



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