The news broke last month. Sight and Sound, the British Film Institute’s magazine, published its famous once-a-decade list of the hundred best films. And Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had bumped Hitchcock’s Vertigo from the top spot.
“Such a sudden shake-up,” the BFI marveled. (Jeanne Dielman, made in 1975, was not even on the list of one hundred until 2012.) A.O. Scott called the news “a welcome jolt to the critical system.” Yet the plot summary boils down to three hours of quiet domesticity, a few hinted episodes of sex work, and a surprise at the end. Clearly, somebody at The Common Reader had to watch the film and report back.
A little nervous about three hours of housework in the hands of my male colleagues, I volunteered. Then I remembered that I loathe housework, no doubt more fiercely than they do. Three times, I tried to settle down and rent the film on Apple TV. Three times, I bailed. I tried to think of things I could do at the same time: mending, correspondence, peeling potatoes for soup. Then I realized the damned film was in French and I would have to read the subtitles.
In the end, it took a long cold walk, a fire, and a glass of wine for me to face Jeanne Dielman. But the film’s color (a Flemish palette, I read later), its shifting light, its utter precision and hypnotic quiet pulled me in. Moving at a pace so slow it makes you realize just how long it takes to live, director Chantal Akerman avoids fancy cuts and angles, refusing to be a voyeur. Rather than peeping, you are simply there with Jeanne, and her tidy routine sinks into your consciousness.
Soon, Jeanne will be the one peeling potatoes—with such grim vigor, I will wonder if she wishes she were slitting her wrists instead. At the start, though, all is calm. You watch her set a pan of yet more potatoes on the stove, then turn off the kitchen light and answer the doorbell. (Frugal of necessity, she does a lot of switch-flipping in this film, giving us a chiaroscuro of light and dark, mundane chores and mystery.) She ushers a man inside, politely takes his coat and scarf, and leads him to her bedroom. When they re-emerge, she is again clad in her gray cardigan, neatly buttoned white blouse, and dark skirt. She fetches his coat and scarf and stands in front of him, hands folded like a schoolgirl. With a nervous cough, he pulls out his wallet, hands her money, says he will see her next week. It is all bloodless and tidy, and the potatoes are ready now. They have been boiling in the dark kitchen.
Jeanne whisks a towel off the bedspread, places it in the hamper, and bathes. Briskly, not sensuously. Afterward, she scrubs the tub hard, washing away the act. Back in her skirt, blouse, and cardigan, she sets the table. Her teenage son Sylvain comes home from school, and they sit down to a silent dinner, broken only by her request that he not read at the table. Jeanne has lovely table manners, barely letting her lips touch the soup spoon. Sylvain stares, glum, at his empty bowl, while she brings the next course and asks the eternal female question: “Is it good?” Yes, he says without enthusiasm. She confides that she added less water than last week, maybe that’s why it’s better. And at that, my heart breaks. The eager divulging of some detail of preparation, the desperate desire to please, the servitude that gets tangled up with love.
She takes away his plate, nearly full, and refolds their napkins. The table is clear and sad now, and Sylvain is doing his homework as she tries to wipe beneath his books. She reads him a letter from her sister Fernande (he clearly has no interest) and we learn that her husband has been dead for six years. Does her son know how she, this woman who will spend the rest of her evening knitting him a beige sweater, is supporting them? Does he wonder at the wet towels every day, the cash stuffing the soup tureen?
That is the huge question, second only to how a woman this prim got into sex work in the first place. Both will remain unanswered. What Akerman attends to is domestic detail, letting the camera linger as we watch Jeanne wash every dish, knife, and fork, yet leaving the sex and the psychology to the imagination. To my surprise, this concreteness, this mundane quiet, infuses a palpable sense of drama. I find myself waiting, vigilant, curious. Each slight gesture, each pressing or tremble in her lips, feels laden with meaning. Why are they suddenly moving all the furniture? Oh, to pull out the kid’s sofa bed. Where do they go every weeknight, and why does Sylvain ask about Tuesday? Oh, because the trash will be picked up the next morning. And they probably just go for a walk. Ah, but why is she lingering on the sidewalk, is she meeting someone for an assignation? Nope, just waiting for a shop to open. I am relieved when she buys more yarn because she said the night before that she was running out—this is how women track one another’s lives, through the trivia we chat and fuss about. Meanwhile, that hidden, unspoken part of her life gathers power.
Jeanne has the resoluteness of a woman going on alone, brisk about her tasks, seldom idle. I saw it in my widowed mmotherom. None of the softness of being desired; instead, a determined energy, because she alone is responsible for everything. Granted, this widow is desired every afternoon, but transactionally, without love or languor or a willing surrender of control. Criterion calls her “an obsessive compulsive” and other write-ups echo the diagnosis, but I suspect her immaculate housekeeping and meatloaf-every-Wednesday routines have more to do with repression, shame, pride, and grim necessity. She has to stay tightly wrapped, lest all the sadness and resentment and rage spill over and mess up her scheduled obligations.
We see that happen, just a bit, midway through the film. The potatoes burn. Dinner is late. Her control flickers, then steadies again. Then the coffee is bitter, and she tries everything to fix it, finally brews a fresh pot. There is a tenacity to her need for things to be just so, and an existential slump when an idle moment finally comes and she cannot figure out what to do with herself. That is the right phrase: what to do with her self.
Jeanne shows only a touch of vanity, and it is only the pro forma sort, part of women’s midcentury training: brush your hair every night, blot your lipstick with a tissue. Her strongest emotion is her fierce love for her son, yet she barely speaks to him as she waits on him, kisses him, oversees his life. When a neighbor drops off her baby for Jeanne to watch, she tries soothing his tears, but her efforts feel as stiff and asynchronous as her relationship with her own son, and the baby only wails harder.
This is a brave film, filled with such relentless silence that the coffee grinder’s sudden noise feels like a truck crashing through the window. She has made her world a Flemish still life, and domestic objects take on an almost surreal importance. The kettle’s whistle feels more animated than she and her son are. When Sylvain finally launches into a refreshing torrent of speech, curious about sex and her relationship with his father, she shuts it down, informing him that “Making love is merely a detail.”
Back in 1976, Le Monde hailed Jeanne Dielman as “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema.” Today, that seems a little wry. Three hours and twenty-one minutes of housework, a little invisible sex work, and a surprising, violent ending comprise our first masterpiece? Yet it is one. Spoilers are abroad, but you will find none here. The ending is quiet, shocking, powerful, devastating, a dark reward for three hours and twenty-one minutes locked inside this woman’s life. Here is the oddest bit of all, though: in the last frame, in spite of what has happened, she looks, for the first time, relaxed.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.