No one in their right mind is going to suggest you watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at a party. The ploddingly slow hyper-realistic film is the work of Chantal Akerman, who was only 25 years old when she made this film. It gives us a long look at the daily routine of a woman bound by small household rituals, and yet there's something almost sinister, something more that we come to expect as each small movement brings order, so each day brings us closer to something of an end. And to what end might Jeanne herself be moving?
There's nearly three and a half hours of quiet contemplation over the course of several days as Jeanne Dielman (portrayed meticulously by Delphine Seyrig) goes about her ordinary life. She cooks, she cleans and mends, brushes her hair and provides for her grown son, as well as engages in acts of prostitution presumably in order to fund her carefully contained life. The film is shot entirely without close up or anything other than static shots which prove frustrating once the realization sets in that this isn't going to be a fast-paced film filled with various characters and witty dialogue. After an hour, you want to turn it off. You want to look away, you see what it is that you are looking at, the eye roves over the wallpaper and furniture, but you can't quite focus. There is very little talking in the film, and what there is reveals deeper problems between the seemingly quiet Jeanne and her moody son, Sylvain. The mind wanders and comes back, attempting to wait out the tedium.
Most of the time voyeurism can be disguised through quick cuts or in the guise of a larger plot, but when everything except the basic image is stripped away, we become painfully aware of how often we spy on others. In the brilliant essay written by Ivone Margulies that accompanies the two-disc set, we learn that the camera is set at the height perspective of the director herself, and the viewer takes her place as we simply view all that occurs in the Dielman home. It becomes embarrassing, once the realization sets in that this too is voyeurism, though the director Chantal Akerman vehemently denied it. It is simply watching of the most mundane sort, which quickly shames the viewer as one realizes the desire for "something to happen" is wrought through the expectations that reality television has bequeathed.
We sit, we watch her wash the dishes, and we think of our own dishes that should be washed. We watch her make coffee and think about the coffee we too would like to drink, all of this occurring in 1975, years before reality television became a mainstay and we allowed our lives to be lived in the virtual realm. Now, instead of gathering for dinner with our families, we gather around the television to watch other, different families with different problems eat their dinners. A strange context to watch this film through, when none of it existed at the time the film was made.
One of the most enjoyable components of the Criterion approach to preserving film is the expansive supplemental materials, and this release does not disappoint. Much like a sweeping survey of the great books of Western literature, Criterion is presenting a multitude of films, and should one pique the interest of a viewer, the work of further discovery is made simple. There's the movie, elegantly packaged, and then there are essays and television interviews and a great deal to further the cinematic education of the audience. Jeanne Dielman is properly packaged and presented with care, featuring interviews with the director and cinematographer, television spots, and a feature-length documentary on the film itself. Jeanne Dielman is a film worth seeing as an exploration of one's own attitudes toward reality and voyeurism. Will you feel chastened? Angered? I felt all the while that lingering sense of suburban discomfort folding itself into the edges, cautioning me to pay attention lest I miss something.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is available now as part of The Criterion Collection.