“Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”

Delphine Seyrig

Released in Europe in 1975 and then in the USA in 1983, Chantal Akerman’s film follows, for three days, the iterative daily life of a widowed woman and single mother. The duration of 3 hours and 21 minutes, requires a major commitment on the part of the viewer but, like many of the classic movies, it rewards us with a multitude of pleasures. The everyday details of this loving and caring mother contrast with her life as a prostitute who welcomes clients into her home with the same detached and mechanical demeanor we see in her other daily activities. There is no back story, and we never know how or why Jeanne arrived at this point in her life. No one speaks her name in the film, we only get a glimpse of it in a letter she reads to her son. Apart from a few brief scenes where she goes shopping and stops for a solitary cup of coffee, the film is a closed-door affair that takes place in Jeanne’s apartment, mainly her kitchen. In a series of long takes, the camera captures Jeanne in medium shot. We see her making coffee, washing dishes, making the bed, taking out the garbage and bathing after sex. As the viewer settles into the film, Jeanne’s routines and extreme obsessive behavior (she always turns off a light before leaving a room) begin to fascinate us. We enter her world of meticulous routines. The rituals take on a repetitive beauty. It is all the more fascinating through the acting of Delphine Seyrig (“Last Year at Marienbad”), an actress of style and great beauty.

Then, by the second day, you begin to notice subtle changes in Jeanne’s rituals. Trivial things at first, like dropping a newly washed spoon, and then, as the movie progresses , we realize that Jeanne is slowly losing her mind before our eyes. A sense of unease settles over us. A hunch that something terrible is going to happen, and it does.

Akerman, who committed suicide in 2015, was born in Brussels, to Holocaust survivors. Her mother, unlike her grandparents, survived Auschwitz,. They would be exceptionally close throughout their lives. The daily details of Jeanne’s life were influenced by those of her mother and her beloved aunt. The Jewish religious rituals of her childhood also played a role. That said, Akerman hated labels, whether they were “feminist,” “Jewish,” or “lesbian.” Although “Jeanne Dielman” predates Ruby Rich’s coining of the term “New Queer Cinema” in “Sight & Sound” in 1992, Akerman was considered by many to be a key representative of that movement .

Recently, on Hulu, “Jeanne Dielman”was the obvious inspiration for the closing scene of “Mrs. America” as Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafley, after hearing from Reagan himself that she will not be part of his cabinet, defeated, retreats to the kitchen where she robotically peels one apple after another after another. That Akerman’s feminist masterpiece should be used as the inspiration for the conclusion of a series about a woman who considered herself an antifeminist should be antithetical, and yet it is not.

“Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is available for streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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