Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an over three-hour long film detailing three days in the life of a widowed single mother. The film's reputation exists largely on two factors: (1) Its status as a "feminist tract" (whatever that means exactly); and (2) A film in which "nothing happens". These two elements are strongly intertwined. Much of the feminism of the film comes from Akerman showing in long, monotonous detail the everyday chores that women perform in the home. It is the presence of these long scenes of cooking and dish-washing that make it seem like nothing is happening, and also gives the work its status as "hyper-realist". Seeing the film for the first time this week, I had to view the text through all of this context. What I was expecting was an experience that would be educational but not really surprising in any way. However, what I encountered was a film that is both rather obvious in its approach and subject matter, while also very difficult and open, so much so that this seems a large part of its project. The film definitely "feminist" but it is also very far from polemical. The key to this is Akerman's elliptical style.
Anyone familiar with European or even international art cinema since the 1970s will immediately recognize Akerman's influence on subsequent filmmakers. The director who came immediately to my mind, maybe because of my familiarity with and admiration of his work, is Michael Haneke. The most obvious comparison is with Haneke's first feature, The Seventh Continent (1989), but the overall stylistic similarity is there in most of Haneke's films, including the recent Cache (2005). The way in which Akerman handles space is especially rigorous, returning repeatedly to the same set-ups in order to situate our understanding of Jeanne's apartment, reminding one of a long take version of Ozu. Many of the shots represented above (Figures 1-7) are repeated many times over the course of the film. While this can be seen as simply increasing the monotony of the narrative, it had the opposite effect for me. It concentrated my attention and made my cognitive faculties sharper and more attuned, allowing for the concentration needed to stay engaged. It is here that I felt the overlap with Haneke was especially pointed.
The major feature of the narrative, despite its slow pace, is its ellipsis. This begins almost immediately. Following the opening shot (Figure 1), there is a buzz at the door and the first of what will be three male johns comes to the door. She leads him to the bedroom and closes the door. The hallway goes dark and the two come out of the bedroom seconds later (Figures 2-5). There is no noticeable cut, but yet any sexual encounter could not have occurred in this time. From the very beginning, Akerman is alluding to the repressed of the film, a repression that will eventually return at the conclusion. Two days later, Akerman eventually goes into the bedroom (Figure 12). We are shown the two having sex, and then Jeanne stabbing him in the neck. The last shot shows Jeanne sitting alone in the dark, the longest take of the film at almost six minutes. Prominent in the frame is the teapot where the money from her prostitution is kept (Figure 13).
The common description of the film's plot emphasizes that this last day disturbs the carefully controlled routine of Jeanne's life and leads to her murderous outburst. Key to this interpretation is viewing the sex scene as awakening Jeanne's sexual desire, as she (seemingly) orgasms during the rather uninspired intercourse. However, we do not know what goes on in these earlier sexual encounters. In fact, I would argue that the breakdown in Jeanne's routine goes back to the second day and her second client. Unlike the precise and controlled actions of the first day, after the second encounter Jeanne is noticeably more flustered, her hair disheveled (which her son later comments on). She falls behind on her routine, and is never able to take a shower. Watching this sequence, I interpreted that something traumatic or disturbing had occurred, simply because of the way Akerman varies the post-coital routine from the previous day.
Ultimately, because of Akerman's use of ellipsis, the viewer can only make guesses as to why Jeanne kills, at least in any concrete or specific way. The broader point seems that her actions are both necessary and perhaps inevitable. No matter how ordered and routine and dehumanizing a life may be, it cannot contain desire. This is why the ending seems liberating, despite the violence and despite the fact that Jeanne still seems like an automaton, even in her violence. The fact that Akerman shoots the murder as reflected through a mirror is equally telling (Figure 12). The shot set-up may be something refreshingly new, and thus a clue to the violence to come, but the composition is still distanced, remote, much like Jeanne herself.