Some films feel slow without purpose—or without enough purpose. Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles is slow in a way that is positively excruciating and incredibly affecting. The film follows Jeanne, a widowed mother of a teen son, through three long, drudging, consecutive days. We see the same shot of Jeanne in the kitchen over and over—the camera is in essentially the same spot, watching her, straight on, as she goes about banal activities. She folds papers carefully, ably. She unfolds her reading glasses. She lights the stove again and again. She cooks, she cleans, she attends to her appearance. She sews, knits, folds clothes, and shines shoes. She sells what people will buy from her: childcare and sex. She goes through the motions—all of them. You will never be this sad watching a person make coffee—watching a person silently watching coffee drip—ever again. The camera adds to the oppressive feeling, and there’s something about the experience of watching the film that gives rise to those feelings in the viewer.
Jeanne’s life is so lonely. It’s not until an hour into the film that we actually see her leave her apartment. She doesn’t interact with anyone except her clients and the people she sees in shops. They barely speak to her. Her human contact consists of transactions. Her teen son makes comments about the violent nature of sex and notices small flaws in her appearance. Some of the money Jeanne makes she gives to her son.
Anyone who asks, “This is it? This is all?” gets an answer in the echoing absence of a response. Yes, how unbearable. This is all.
The nothing weighs. It weighs on the viewer like it weighs on Jeanne. What does she do for herself? She eats, but alone. Sometimes, she just sits. It’s The Feminine Mystique on film.
Sound heightens the tension. At first we hear the hum of the appliances in her kitchen. We hear the birds outside her window. They are free; she is not. A little later when she is walking outside we hear screaming children. They’re playing—more free than Jeanne. Their screams claw at us. Her doorbell screeches. Later still, the baby she watches wails. Jeanne soothes it, but who will soothe her?
The build up is slow and unbearable. Something’s got to give, and when it does Akerman allows the viewer much-needed time to sit with Jeanne and with what’s happened.
What a role to play! Delphine Seyrig’s performance is stunning. She shows the changes in Jeanne in such incredibly subtle ways—the angle of a brow, the tilt of her chin, the speed with which she performs an activity. Watching her is an education.
Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles is a dark, damning achievement. It fills the viewer with a dread that’s all the more difficult to shake because today, in 2017, Jeanne Dielman’s life still looks way too familiar.