Jeanne Dielman at 40: A still-unmatched film about the realities of womanhood
It is a testament to how little has changed that Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles feels as revolutionary today as it did 40 years ago, when it debuted at Cannes in May of 1975. Directed by a woman and featuring an all-female crew, this rare three-and-a-half hour opus does not use its time to tell a complicated story. Instead, the film uses an exploration of the mundane to offer a rich examination of the complexity of the female experience, one that modern cinema still struggles to represent.
On the most basic level, Jeanne Dielman is the story of a single widow and mother who prostitutes herself to make ends meet and care for her teenage son. This is not done with explosive melodrama, or salacious sexuality, or tear-filled scenes. Jeanne's narrative arc is more like a flat line.
Jeanne Dielman removes almost all cinematic artifice to explore day-to-day existence, often in real time. Long silences are only rarely punctuated by conversation. As Jeanne, Delphine Seyrig controls the movement; the camera merely rests in the space as she walks, works, and lives her life. There is no musical score or moving camera to manipulate our reading of a moment. The viewer has no choice but to sit, watch, and feel the weight of her world.
By removing all narrative distractions, Akerman manages to capture the long, perpetual motion of womanhood. This wasn't always the plan; after writing a more conventional draft of the film in the early 1970s, Akerman "decided to eliminate subplots and subsidiary characters, focusing intensely on Jeanne in her apartment," Ivonne Margulies writes in an essay for Criterion. In doing so, the movie became a focused exploration of a single human being. From morning until night, the viewer is forced to see the mundane repetition of Jeanne's life — and how easily it might unravel.
Jeanne approaches everything, from her chores to the men she brings into her bedroom, with indifference. They are merely steps she must take each and every day. She sends her son to school; she cleans, shops, and prepares dinner. The food cooks on the stove while she sleeps with her customers. She approaches none of these tasks with either joy or reluctance; they're simply inevitabilities.
The only thing that changes is the amount of money in the tureen on the dining room table — an emblem of womanhood recontextualizing what it means for a mother to provide. This good china is filled by her time with johns, and depleted by her son's care. It is the price of her motherhood.
The quintessential mother, endlessly supplying for her child, begins to morph from a Donna Reed-like figure into a vision of sacrificial motherhood, silently bearing her pain. Jeanne’s son Sylvain doesn’t notice her many machinations — and just how much of her day is devoted to caring for him — until the well-oiled machine of motherhood begins to splinter. Even then, he doesn’t lift a hand; he patiently waits for Jeanne to right herself.
At the movie's turning point, a rare moment of curiosity breaks through. Sylvain asks Jeanne how she met his late father. "I didn't know if I wanted to marry, but that's what people did," she confides. When Sylvain declares that he could not sleep with someone he didn't love, Jeanne responds: "You don't know, you're not a woman."
Jeanne Dielman reveals a world that isn't based on the pursuit of happiness, but on how to exist in a structured society that doesn't allow for much choice. That she decided to marry his "ugly" father against the advice of her aunts is her moment of rebellion — a rare decision she was allowed to make.
But even this moment of reflection is enough to upset Jeanne's careful balance. She gets up too early the following morning, and though she earnestly tries to recapture her routine, every move disrupts the monotony that allowed her to avoid self-examination. Slowly, she morphs into someone who struggles with the very same tasks she recently handled with aplomb. Her defense mechanisms are peeled away, and ultimately, she is forced to face the mental and physical effect they have had on her.
If Jeanne Dielman has the feeling of authenticity, that's because it's based on Akerman's own observations of womanhood. "Jeanne has to organize her life, to not have any space, any time, so she won't be depressed or anxious," Akerman explained to The New York Times in 2009. "It came from what I saw as a kid — all those gestures of my mother. That's why the film is so precise."
Not every woman has a life like Jeanne's, but the film makes it abundantly clear that the womanhood we typically see on screen is not the whole story. You can't understand Jeanne's reality by her superficial activities. It's only by spending time in the space provided by the film that you can see what's underneath.
Jeanne Dielman invites every viewer to look behind the surface of their assumptions. What once seemed obvious suddenly becomes suspect: The put-together housewife might be the woman suppressing her agony. The happy grandmother might be sheltering a painful existence from the younger generations who surround her. The woman who attacks a seemingly innocent man might not be hot-headed; she might just be at her wit's end. Forty years since its premiere, the film has lost none of its insight or importance.