“A singular work in film history,” begins the description on back of the case of Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s astounding Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (France, 1975).
That is no hyperbole. Jeanne Dielman is a painstaking, excruciatingly exacting portrait of the life of a perfectly organized homemaker, an epic portrait of a quotidian life where every gesture through the 200-minute study becomes important and the slips in routine reverberate like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s astounding to realize that Akerman was only 25 when she put this uncompromising vision on the screen. It’s almost as astounding that this landmark work took so long for finally arrive on home video in U.S. Almost impossible to see for decades (it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1983 and was rarely revived in the years since), this singular work made its DVD debut in 2009, presented by Criterion in a magnificent two-disc special edition. Criterion has now remastered the film for its Blu-ray debut.
Middle-aged widow and single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives a carefully structured life with a clockwork routine. She wakes up before dawn, sees her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) off to school, cleans every last dish in her tiny and spotless kitchen, then continues on with the errands and duties of her day. One of those duties just happens to be servicing an afternoon client as a part-time prostitute. Jeanne is all business when the bell rings and she puts the pot on low simmer to welcome her client for the day. It’s creepily expressive the way Akerman frames her head out of the shot when she answers the door, matching Seyrig’s inexpressive formality with each man.
Where Akerman observes Jeanne performing her tasks—cooking, cleaning, doing dishes, bathing —with unblinking attention, her camera remains outside the bedroom door. It’s a radical challenge to expectations. Convention would dictate that this is where the drama is. Akerman defies convention and jumps over the entire event in a cut, picking up with Jeanne leading her client out with all the impersonal efficiency of a secretary accompanying a visitor from a business meeting. There’s nothing titillating about it, it’s merely commerce, a necessary but distasteful part of her routine. She returns to the stove with the same dispassionate, unhurried deliberation, removes the simmering dish from the burner and puts it in a warmer for dinner. Her timing is impeccable and every reminder of her visitor is swept away by the time Sylvain returns home in time for the equally ordered evening routine. With no personal life to speak of outside the apartment (her adult interactions are limited to impersonal conversations with a neighbor and small talk with shopkeepers), her life revolves around serving her son, yet even here she is curiously removed. Her body language is a mix of mother hen affection and headmistress efficiency, but her voice remains distant, an emotionless monotone, whether she’s helping him with his homework or telling him the story of how she met his late father.
This is the daily life of Jeanne Dielman and Ackerman observes it in exacting detail, in long takes and full frame compositions from an unmoving and unblinking camera. Cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who worked with the young director on numerous films, brings Akerman’s vision to the screen with crisp, precise images that are at once mundanely simple and bristling with tension. Against the Spartan backdrop of her cramped apartment—small, clean, austere, a living space stripped of clutter or personal touches—her every gesture becomes a part of the film’s drama and tension. It’s unaccountably entrancing, compelling, almost thrilling. The stillness, the silence, the spareness of the space, it all focuses the viewer on the smallest details of the activities and the exactness of the routine. It’s all so seemingly simple and direct, yet there is a beautiful play of rhythms in the editing and the performance that gives the routine the movements of a visual symphony. As we become attuned to that routine, Akerman jars us with the first skipped note.
Delphine Seyrig offers a fully defined portrait of a woman who rarely lets her feelings show through the impenetrable mask of impersonal politeness she applies every morning along with her impeccably applied make-up and perfectly coiffed hairdo; there’s nary a hair out of place or a smudge on her crisply elegant wardrobe by the end of her day. Her measured, confident performance suggests the familiarity of routine turned instinct, yet she communicates a world of character through her carriage, her body language and the rhythm of her movement, and she shows the cracks in her façade with the subtlest of shifts. When the mask drops, she reveals a devastating absence and a panic to put it back in place and protect herself from the chaos of emotion and involvement.
Some ninety minutes into the film, Jeanne leaves the bedroom almost imperceptibly disheveled, her perfect hair out of place, her walk not as sure, and forgets to return the lid to the tureen where she keeps the household money. It’s a major disruption in her clockwork perfection and the first suggestion that her orderly routine is about to dramatically unravel. “The ritual is what holds her life together,” Akerman explains in an interview on the Criterion DVD. Akerman doesn’t draw our attention to the slips in Jeanne’s routine; there are no close-ups to telling clues or musical stings to alert us (in fact, there is no music at all apart from a little classical listening during the prescribed radio time in the evening). It’s the increasingly jarring hiccups to the rhythm of the film and the confidence exuded by Seyrig’s Jeanne that draws our attention to such breaks, a testament to the precision of her filmmaking and the brilliance of her conception.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is an epic portrait of a life that has rarely been seen on screen: three days in the routine of a homemaker in just under three and a half hours. The rhythms of the routine, the integrity of time within the long takes and exactingly sculpted sequences, the slow unraveling of the confidence and perfection of her timetable is an essential part of the experience of the film. While this is obviously not real time, Akerman makes a point of observing her activities—the very details that other films ignore—without cutting away or compressing the time, focusing our attention on the most minute details of her activity by paring away everything else. Even the soundtrack is pared down to the percussion of her activity (footsteps on the floor, the clank of dishes, the whistle of the kettle) while the exterior buzz of the apartment building elevator and the low rumble and faraway horns of traffic on the street below provides the ambient backbeat. This is the business of housewifery in exacting detail, but it is also portrait of a woman who has defined herself by her routine, carefully removing any emotional connection to the world. Both formally exacting and highly stylized, it’s both a bold redefinition of “realism” and a radical, unprecedented approach to presenting the lives of women on screen.
Criterion remasters the film for Blu-ray from a new 2K restoration by the Royal Belgian Film Archive, supervised by director of photography Babette Mangolte, and it includes the wealth of illuminating supplements that first appeared on the DVD. Delphine Seyrig champions Akerman’s vision when the two are interviewed on French TV in 1976 (it’s almost comic how the interviewer turns away from the unknown young director, who barely gets a word in after an obligatory introduction, and focuses solely on movie star Seyrig). Akerman gets her turn in a new 20-minute interview shot for the DVD in April 2009, where she remembers the origins of the film and reflects on working with Seyrig on the set. “I was writing from instinct and having to reach to explain why,” she recalls. There’s also a new interview with cinematographer Babette Mangolte discussing her collaborations with Akerman, excerpts from the 1997 program Chantan Akerman on Chantal Akerman (an episode of the long-running Cinema des Notre Temps series) with the director reflecting on her career and philosophy, Akerman’s 2007 interview with her mother Natalia Akerman, and the 1968 short Saute me ville, Akerman’s debut film, plus a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ivone Margulies.
But the most illuminating is Autour de “Jeanne Dielman”, a priceless 69-minute documentary shot on the set of the film on B&W videotape by actor Sami Frey but released years later in 2004. It’s riveting to watch the communication between the 25-year-old Akerman and veteran star Seyrig, the young artist going on instinct and guts, the actress trying to find her way into the character and into the film, each speaking a different language. Seyrig is fully supportive of the vision, but she demands to be directed in ways she understand and asks: “How can I play her if I don’t know all her secrets?” For Akerman, there are no secrets, which in some ways that is the secret that Akerman has to reach to explain. Meanwhile, she acts out, in exacting detail, her vision of the character. As the two artists struggle to communicate, the vision comes to life.