Combustible Celluloid Review - Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Chantal Akerman, Chantal Akerman, Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Bical, Chantal Akerman (voice)
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With: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Bical, Chantal Akerman (voice)
Written by: Chantal Akerman
Directed by: Chantal Akerman
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 201
Date: 05/14/1975

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Mother, Housewife, Prostitute

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has been notorious for so long, mainly because of its extreme unavailability on video, because of its lengthy running time, and because seemingly nothing happens in it. But now that it has been officially released, on a Criterion DVD no less, all those things become unimportant and the film itself can now be seen for what it is: a masterpiece.

Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) prepares dinner, and a man arrives at the door. She collects his hat and scarf and leads him to the bedroom. They re-emerge. She holds out her hand and he places money in it. He leaves, and she places the money in a ceramic pot. She continues to prepare dinner, for her son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte). They eat in near silence, though Sylvain would rather read than eat. She reads a letter from a distant aunt, he does his homework, and she knits. Occasionally, flashing blue lights -- perhaps from some neon advertising sign just outside the windows -- twitch and skitter all over the walls. After a while, mother and son go out for something, but we don't see where they go; we only see them return. But wherever they went or whatever they experienced doesn't appear to have changed their lives in the slightest.

Over the course of the rest of the film, Jeanne takes a bath, washes out the tub, makes beds, makes coffee, polishes shoes and washes dishes. Akerman shoots all these activities at four angles only, from the front, from behind, or from left or right profiles. There are no camera movements (that I can remember). Using only cuts, Akerman often follows characters as they move from room to room, conscientiously flicking the lights on and off lights each time. There's very little dialogue and no non-diegetic music, and more often than not, entire scenes pass by in silence, except for the rustle of clothes or the clink of dishes.

Many people describe the film as "nothing happens," but it's actually quite a bit cleverer and more deliberately constructed than one might think. It was a bit of genius on the part of Akerman to open so quickly on Jeanne's first client. Though she shows no sex of any kind, Jeanne's occupation as a prostitute is first and foremost on our minds the entire time. Hence, we wait throughout the entire next 24 hours to see not only how Jeanne balances her life, but we also wait for the next client to show up. (What does Jeanne do to prepare for him?) This waiting also serves as the film's driving force; it's not just boredom in a vacuum. There are other mysteries, such as the blue lights, and -- even more tantalizingly -- a second nighttime excursion taken by Jeanne and Sylvain. Sylvain asks if they still have to go. Jeanne replies "we're going." And they do, with the same cutting. Akerman never reveals their destination or activity.

Ingeniously, it's just after the second john visits that Jeanne's daily routine comes full circle, and begins to break down. Jeanne forgets to place the lid back on her money jar, and also burns her dinner; she wanders in and out of several rooms before she decides how best to deal with it the burnt food. On the third day, she seems to have eroded even further. She misses a button on her dressing gown and drops a spoon. In one sequence, she pours herself some coffee, but decides that it tastes funny. She samples the milk, decides that it's okay, and then makes more coffee. In other scenes, she simply sits and waits and thinks. About what, we can't know, since Seyrig's performance is so flawless that she's nearly a total cipher (although I thought I saw her cracking a bit during the potato peeling scene). It can be assumed that Jeanne has organized her life so that every second is filled with some mundane activity, and the first time this system fails, she finds herself with time enough to think, to examine her life.

We find out through bits of dialogue that Jeanne was once married and that her husband is dead. She wasn't that interested in sex, but wanted to have a child. Her son Sylvain is gangly and ugly and doesn't seem to fit his own clothes, and he comes across as ungrateful and perhaps even ignorant of his mother's diligence. Another part of the film's genius is that we in the audience are the only ones who understand just what Jeanne does all day, entirely in the service of men, both in prepping meals for Sylvain and preparing herself for sex with her male visitors. None of these men see her all day, nor do they understand her world, nor do they seem to care.

The film ends with the visits of her third male customer, and this time Akerman films them in the act, with Jeanne writhing away under the full weight of the passionless male. In his original review Jonathan Rosenbaum saw Jeanne as having an orgasm, but I saw her panicking, trying to push the dead weight off of her. Either scenario is possible, and either one fits. The movie's famous climax has been written about many times already, but I will refrain from mentioning it, just in case. Then we get the film's final scene, and perhaps its longest shot, with Jeanne showing some emotion for perhaps the first time. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has been justly celebrated as both a groundbreaking experimental film and as a groundbreaking feminist film, and both descriptions apply, though the reasons why are still up for debate. Either way, it's very simply a great film, if for no other reason than the fact that it's brave enough to focus almost entirely on those things that ordinary films leave out, or take for granted.

For its 2009 DVD release, Criterion has transferred the entire 201-minute film to one disc, with no other extras, and no commentary track, so as to preserve the quality. The fine transfer highlights the brilliant cinematography of Babette Mangolte, with its household golds and browns and intricate knickknacks. The second disc has lots of interviews, including a brand-new one with both Akerman and Mangolte. There's also a full-length making-of featurette shot on the set, an excerpt from a 1997 Akerman television interview and a 1976 television interview with both Akerman and Seyrig. We also get an early Akerman short film, shot when she was a teenager.

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