Movies: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-04-23 12:00:00 No comments

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In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try if for four; If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually, one discovers that it is not boring but very interesting. — John Cage

Most movies are desperate to keep your attention. Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles does nothing more than invite us to sit and watch, for three hours and twenty minutes, a few days in the life of another human being. We might ask: Is that all? The very form of the movie is like a response: Isn't that enough? Are the lives of other people only interesting when "something happens"? And while some things do indeed happen in those three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, Belgian widow and mother of a teenaged son, the way they're staged and delivered is forced to make us question why we would want only those things to matter.

The routine duties of dinner, interrupted by a "client".

Dielman is played by Delphine Seyrig, she who was the austere beauty at the center of Last Year At Marienbad, the razor-smiled Countess Bathory of Daughters Of Darkness. Nothing in this movie hints at any of her more glamorous roles. In most shots Seyrig stands with her head slightly down, her russet hair half-covering her face — not coyly, but because she is trying to focus on her work. Seyrig is not afraid to look dowdy, but more than that she is not afraid to look uninteresting — two of the many cardinal sins women are supposed to avoid committing when a camera is pointed at them. Nothing in this film is done for our sake, certainly not by her, and that is what makes the movie so arresting as a whole.

Consider the opening sequence: Dielman in her kitchen, in the middle of making dinner. The doorbell rings. Dielman composes herself and goes out into the hall. There, she greets a white-haired, older man. She takes his overcoat and leads him into her bedroom. The light shifts to indicate a time cut. She leads him back outside into the hall, helps him back into his overcoat, and accepts some cash from him. "See you next week, then," he says. (The money gets stashed in the tureen on the dinner table.) That prostitution is her side gig is in theory supposed to be the most interesting thing about her, but the movie makes it the least interesting thing. Or, certainly, the one least worthy of our attention.

An evening with her son.

Most of the action takes place in the confines of Dielman's apartment, at the address in the film's title. The furniture has the weight and wear of decades. Its living room doubles as the bedroom for Dielman's wiry, taciturn son, Sylvain. At night the flickering blue lights of some sign from across the street strobe through it. Nothing about the place was designed to be gawked at through a lens. It's an apartment, not a movie set. By the end of the first hour, we have not only been in every room of the apartment, we have seen every one of those rooms from most every angle, and for minutes at a time. We are not merely being invited to watch these people, but to sit with them, to inhabit that space as they do, for minutes on end, for hours on end, where most movies hustle us into someone's life and back out again with undue haste.

I am fascinated by movies that have the patience to observe, rather than the need to strong-arm its subjects through a plot. Aki Kaurismäki's movies (The Match Factory Girl, Ariel) are like that; or Barbara Loden's 1970 film Wanda (also about a lone woman navigating modern life); or some of Takeshi Kitano's productions. Jeanne Dielman lets whatever we need to know about its characters emerge from the negative spaces instead of the positive ones. We are free to wonder if Sylvain knows about his mother's side job — and, if so, the significance of the shockingly frank monologue she gives to him at one point about her sexual feelings. But most of all we're invited to sit and watch Dielman do the work that is done every day, invisibly, behind so many other walls and closed doors: The washing-up. The meatloaf. The veal cutlet. The impromptu babysitting. The clients.

Two days' meals.

When I first heard about Jeanne Dielman I wondered if it was a Situationalist prank of sorts, like one of Andy Warhol's multi-hour films about some inanimate object. Then again, I got the impression Warhol was not simply being cheeky either. He wanted us to see, not just look, and so he would give us the substance of our everyday lives — a can of soup, the Empire State Building — at such magnification and duration that we had no choice but to see it as if for the first time. Akerman, likewise, wanted to honor to her own mother's tireless daily routine, and by proxy honor the work of everyone else like her, by giving us no choice but to sit with it. We forget too easily how so much of the substance of our lives is quiet and monotonous, and how by trying to pave it over, to stuff it with noise and activity, we teach ourselves to crave excitement improperly. The movie works like a meditation on the idea that making a meal, or taking an evening walk afterwards, or reading a letter from a sister, are all as fundamentally interesting as an adventure in another land or a mystery to be solved.

The last stretch of the movie hints at something under the surface will soon rise and break the monotony. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it does, and that it provides the film's single big shock. And then, just as swiftly, the movie denies us any catharsis that would arise from such a shock. The final shot, held for minutes on end, is nothing but Jeanne Dielman, sitting unmoving at her dining room table in the evening gloom, the lights from across the street playing across the wall. What monotony? That's all our idea. This is her life.

Out in the morning, out in the evening.

Tags: Chantal Akerman Delphine Seyrig movies review