2012 poll rank: #35 (tied with Metropolis, Psycho, and Satantango)
"Sight & Sound Sunday" has been an ongoing series for almost two years now. In that time span, we've covered almost all 52 films in the Sight & Sound poll's top 50 (extras thanks to ties), ranging from silent Soviet art films to French New Wave cornerstones to Japanese masterworks to Hollywood classics to glimpses of post-colonial cinema. And yet, in the 51st installment, we are finally covering Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, the only film to crack the top 50 that was directed by a woman.
Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman had, by 1975, established herself internationally with her debut Je, tu, il, elle the previous year. Having won acclaim for that film, she requested a larger budget from the Belgian government, and put together an all-female crew to work on the film. Though she would later state that having such a crew did not work out terribly well, it was still a remarkable achievement, especially at a time when feminism was gaining momentum throughout Europe. Akerman never considered herself a feminist, but her films suggest otherwise, as they confront the ideas of a woman's place in modern society and make a strong argument for progress.
This is certainly true of Jeanne Dielman. The film follows the titular character (Delphine Seyrig) across three days, detailing her routine in something approaching real-time. She cooks, cleans, and takes care of her teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), while in the afternoon, she prostitutes herself in order to take care of herself and her son. At first, the routine is presented as rote and uninteresting, but things start to change on the second day, building up to a third day that will bring a much more drastic change.
Akerman's film takes advantage of its enormous running time - 201 minutes - to present something extremely ordinary to a powerful effect. Jeanne's routine is a subtly great feminist argument, though the third act takes it to a quietly revolutionary level. Akerman achieves this through a use of long takes, a strong performance from Seyrig, and a repetitive narrative structure that blends slight changes with drastic ones.
More after the break.
In the previous column covering Bela Tarr's Satantango, the film's running time and use of long takes were described as creating an oppressive atmosphere similar to that of the authoritarian regime that had just ended in Hungary at the time. Akerman achieves a similar effect here through the same means, only her authoritarian regime isn't a specific government, but rather patriarchal society. Jeanne's routine is presented in every minute detail, as the audience is asked to watch her peel and boil potatoes, take a bath and then clean the tub, set the table for dinner, and other mundane housework. That Akerman's camera doesn't turn away from these activities gives them an air of oppression. Jeanne is trapped in a prison of domesticity, her womanhood being her only crime.
However, with the exception of the final day, Jeanne's interactions with her clients are not shown, merely suggested. This is a deliberate choice: sex, especially paid sex, is an act that is part of the domestic routine, but male pleasure is privileged over female pleasure. By not showing this particular part of Jeanne's routine onscreen, Akerman is able to highlight just how rote this act is for Jeanne. There's nothing pleasurable or titillating about Jeanne's sexuality. It's just another chore that she has to complete over the course of the day. In both day one and day two, Jeanne's meetings with her clients are presented exactly the same way: she greets them at the door, then leads them down the hallway to her bedroom. Akerman's camera rests in the same place both times, gazing down the hall with static disinterest. Even the sex, it is implied, is repetitive and probably pretty dull.
Akerman's repetitious directing makes the slight changes in Jeanne's routine seem all the more significant. But she's aided by Seyrig's remarkably measured performance as well. Seyrig was already an established actress when she was cast in Jeanne Dielman, having worked with filmmakers ranging from Alain Resnais (1961's Last Year at Marienbad) to Fred Zinnemann (1973's Day of the Jackal). But she had never quite played a character like Jeanne: like most actors who studied the craft at the Actors Studio in New York, her performances were often big and studied, a product of the "method" process. For this film, however, she had to scale down to a performance that was minimalist and deliberate. It was, in effect, a "small" performance.
This sense of anonymity and dullness is crucial to the third day. On this day, Jeanne's routine has subtly been changing, beginning with the potatoes she ruined the night before. But when that day's client comes over, something different happens. Akerman takes the camera into the bedroom so that the audience can see the act, and more importantly, witness her unexpected orgasm. In that moment, Jeanne is so shaken by this drastic change in her routine - she's not supposed to enjoy sex - that she fatally stabs the client in the neck with a pair of scissors. The violence feels random and extreme, a moment that feels tonally out of place in the rest of the film. However, Akerman's purpose is to highlight how dramatic this moment is for Jeanne. By having an orgasm, she broke from her oppressive daily regimen and experienced the joy of womanhood. In that moment, she became a human being with free will, importance, and confidence. If she didn't exactly become equal to her client, she at least got to share in the experience of sexual pleasure. Her orgasm was her rebellion against her domestic role, and against the patriarchy at-large.
It's in that third act that Akerman has betrayed her feminist intentions to the audience. Jeanne transformed from a symbol of patriarchal oppression into a liberated woman, even if she didn't recognize it as such (the film's final shot sees her sitting at the kitchen table, hands bloodied, presumably waiting for her son or contemplating her next move). By the film's end, the routine has been broken. Yet Akerman simply ends it there. There is no message about how to move forward, or a list of goals that need to be accomplished by the feminist movement. The audience and the movement, like Jeanne, are left thinking the same thought: what next?
On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Vertigo (1958)