“Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”
Although released in Europe in 1975 “Jeanne Dielman” Chantal Akerman’s feminist masterpiece was not shown in the USA until 1983. We, the audience, observe three days in 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. However, like many classic movies, it rewards us with a multitude of pleasures. The film’s everyday details of this loving and caring mother contrast with her life as a prostitute. She welcomes clients into her home with the same detached and mechanical demeanor we see in her other daily activities.
Jeanne has no back story
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.
There are a few brief scenes where she goes shopping and stops for a solitary cup of coffee. However, the film is mainly a closed-door affair that takes place in Jeanne’s apartment. Mostly in 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 begin to fascinate us. And they are all the more hypnotic because Delphine Seyrig (“Last Year at Marienbad”), does something amazing. Although she disappears into her role as Jeanne she is still an actress of style and great beauty. A great star.
An uneasy feeling about Jeanne.
By the second day, however, you begin to notice subtle changes in Jeanne’s rituals. Trivial things at first. For instance, the dropping of a newly washed spoon. After that, as the movie progresses, we realize that Jeanne is slowly losing her mind before our eyes. A sense of unease settles over us. Above all, we have a hunch that something terrible is going to happen, and it does.
“Jeanne Dielman” as New Queer Cinema
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 .
“Jeanne Dielman” was shot with an all woman crew. Akerman insisted on it., Cinematographer Babette Mangolte, does some astonishing work here. From her lighting, you can feel the hours go by. Fifty years before the Academy nominated its first two female cinematographers she was a pioneer and an innovator in lighting carefully designed interiors. She would eventually become a professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“Mrs. America’s” Haunting Final Scene.
Recently, on Hulu, “Jeanne Dielman” was the obvious inspiration for the closing scene of “Mrs. America”. Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafley, after hearing from Reagan himself that she will not be part of his cabinet, defeated, retreats to the kitchen. There, she robotically peels one apple after another after another. Right before our eyes, we are witnessing the renaissance of Jeanne Dielman. 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. Yet it is not.