Directed by: Chantal Akerman
Distributed by: Janus Films
Written by Jeff Sparks
Most of those who have seen “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” have a strong opinion of it. Previously the film was simply known as “that boring three-and-a-half-hour-long arthouse movie about the lady cleaning her house.” That was until the film claimed the number one spot on Sight and Sound’s poll of the best films of all time. Critics and fans everywhere broke out in appraisal and disgust alike. Many thought that such an uneventful film shouldn’t be on the list at all while others praised the film as deserving of the top spot. Some like me agree that the film is masterful but are skeptical of its placement. While the film is impeccably designed and acted, its structure has little resemblance to others. I was entranced by the unusual nature of the film during my viewing. It wasn’t until days later that I found myself still thinking about it when I finally formed my interpretation of it. “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” above all relies on the viewer’s individual experience to what they are witnessing. Despite the controversy, the film has engraved itself a notable place in cinematic history.
Called by some “the most boring movie ever made,” it stars Delphine Seyrig as the titular character. Jeanne is a widowed housewife who keeps herself busy by doing daily chores in her apartment. Her days consist of doing things like making the beds, cooking breakfast, cleaning her son’s shoes, washing dishes, prepping dinner, and other things of that nature. Sometimes she’ll do something exciting like going for a walk to the bank or the grocery store where we see her make a transaction or buy some potatoes. The part that Jeanne seems to look forward to is when she stops by a local diner for a cup of coffee where she says hello to her favorite waitress. Writer and director Chantal Akerman shows each of Jeanne’s activities nearly in their entirety with little to no cuts or breaks. Many of the scenes play out in real time. When Jeanne washes the dishes we see her washing all of them, not just one or two like you would expect from any other movie. The same with when she cooks dinner, makes a cup of coffee, or even takes a bath. Everything is seen in its entirety or close to its entirety. The camera that captures her offers little flair. While the framing is interesting and often meaningful, the shots themselves are static and repetitive. When you watch her making mashed potatoes in the kitchen one night the camera is in the same exact spot when you see her making soup the next night.
While on paper it sounds boring, the film is actually very engaging. I’m not going to tell you that every scene is great. There are certainly parts that go on for a bit too long, but that’s part of the point. As you might assume the context of most scenes are dull but that is also part of the point. Having the viewer experience Jeanne’s day-to-day life is integral to the experience that Akerman is delivering. When you see her doing these mundane tasks you’re supposed to feel bored. Do you think Jeanne is having a fun time? Part of the viewing experience is sharing Jeanne’s personal experience. By the end of the film, you feel like you know her. You feel for her, you want to be her friend, you want to give her a hand and then the film shocks you with its violent ending that makes you rethink the past 202 minutes. Besides making you feel compassionate towards Jeanne, I believe Akerman also wanted this film to make you look at women in a different way. For a long time, women were relegated to limited roles, often housewives or secretaries. Jeanne’s daily routine is comprised of Akerman’s childhood memories of her mother and aunt. Akerman and Seyrig rejected that lifestyle, becoming artists instead. Not many women could do that at the time and this film serves as a reminder.
“Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” 202 minutes will have a different effect on each viewer but it engaged me in a way that I never thought would work. Each shot is purposeful, slowly building Jeanne’s story until it reaches a boiling point at its climactic conclusion. The longer the film goes on the more there is to think about as you watch Jeanne go through her routines. Throughout the three days of her life that the film portrays her routine becomes unraveled as her thoughts eat away at her over time. My favorite example of Akerman and Seyrig’s masterful work is the two scenes that take place in the diner. When Jeanne is in her apartment she is often large or prominent in the frame. Here she is in full control. When she ventures out into the world she often appears small or off to the side. She doesn’t feel natural here. She feels her place is at home with her family. But since her husband’s passing, she feels less in control since more tasks are up to her now to support herself and her son. When Jeanne goes to the diner on the second day she sits at her usual booth and greets her familiar waitress. In the booth she’s small on the screen, small but still centered. She has her coffee, her favorite booth, and a waitress that she knows. That is all that Jeanne needs to have a nice break from her long day. But on her erratic third day, her booth is already occupied and her waitress isn’t working. She begrudgingly sits at the next booth over. Akerman keeps the framing in the same spot as before so now Jeanne is not only small but she’s also off-center. This simple decision with the camera embodies Jeanne’s uncomfortability that she feels at this point of the film. Her schedule is completely messed up and now she can’t even enjoy her coffee break.
Jeanne takes just a couple of sips and abruptly leaves. This eventually leads to the part of her day where she decides to make herself a cup of coffee at home. As soon as she takes her first sip Seyrig gives a quick look that shows Jeanne’s immediate dissatisfaction with it. After pouring her cup out she checks the freshness of the milk and gives it another try, this time with two cubes of sugar. Again she pours out not only her cup but also the entire pot. Her next attempt sees her make a whole new batch. She inserts the coffee beans into the pot and adds a bit of hot water. Then a bit more. Then more and more, little by little. She wants to get it just right. As she holds the jug of hot water she looks down at the pot of coffee like she’s a scientist trying to find the solution to an experiment. Finally, she gives up and sits in a chair in the living room with a tired look on her face, unsure of what to do next. After a few moments, we see her get up and dust off a couple of items from the display case behind the dinner table. The lens of the camera doesn’t always give us a good look at her face but in these few minutes it’s evident that Seyrig’s performance isn’t just her physical movements but it’s also prominent in her eyes as well.
Nothing has gone right for her. With her day ruined and extra time on her hands she’s forced to reflect on her own life in an extended scene where she quietly sits by herself in the living room. Later in the day is when it’s revealed that Jeanne makes money by prostitution. During her session with that day’s client, she reluctantly orgasms. Afterward, she abruptly stabs the man to death and sits in the kitchen in the dark, occasionally illuminated by headlights flashing through the window. Everyone has their own interpretation of the film. Mine is this. Jeanne’s everyday chores are a distraction from her own existence. The long shots make you understand the passage of time that consumes her life. It’s all a nothingness of thankless chores. Her ungrateful son barely wants to interact with her and when he does she shuts him down. Jeanne never wanted a family. She had other dreams but society made her feel that her place was to be a wife and a mother so she gave up her dreams to do what was expected of her. In the final shot, she isn’t trying to get rid of the evidence or make a run for it because she has finally realized that her life is over. Not only because she’s going to prison but because it’s been over since she got married and had a child. As for why she kills the man, the unexpected orgasm is surprise enjoyment that she doesn’t want to feel. She believes that her dreary life as a housewife and mother is to please others, not herself. So when she orgasms it reminds her of the life that she could have had which releases an abrupt fit of rage that’s been buried deep within her.
There are many interpretations of “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” because it’s one of the most detailed films ever made. In every scene Jeanne’s cryptic actions make you wonder what is going through our often silent protagonist’s mind. Delphine Seyrig was heavily invested in the role. Seyrig often challenged Akerman to long discussions about her directional choices and the motivations of the character. Someone unfamiliar with this type of actor may think that she was being hard to deal with, but that’s not true at all. Seyrig’s frequent questioning and occasional snarky comment were just evidence of her level of dedication to the art form. Her frustrations were an expected result of working on a film of this meticulous magnitude. Based on the behind-the-scenes footage, it appears that the veteran actor Seyrig added much to the film in her long conversations with the rookie director Akerman. Their work together created a film where every detail matters. “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” earns its place as an all-time great film. It may not be number one, but masterful direction and meticulous acting make it a truly one-of-a-kind creation in the history of cinema.
“Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” Trailer