This review won a writing competition run by The University of Edinburgh, the French Film Festival UK and the Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia. The prize is a trip to the Namur International French-language Film Festival 2013 (transport, accommodation and a Festival Film Pass included):
A Paradoxical Masterpiece
Never before had I witnessed an audience collectively gasp at a dropped spoon. Not until I watched Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a 3 hour 20 minute cinematic marathon that slowly swells with so much tension that the smallest motion can elicit a shocked response.
Jeanne Dielman is a beautiful 40-something widow who moves around her Belgian apartment accomplishing the daily domestic tasks of shopping, cooking, cleaning, sleeping with men for money, dusting… Yes, amidst all those mundane housewifely pursuits, Jeanne Dielman works as a prostitute.
The film covers three days in Jeanne’s life. To begin with, her actions are precise and economical. She prepares the evening meal, entertains a client, guides him out of the apartment and returns to the bedroom. She throws a towel (laid on the bed for the occasion) in the laundry basket and bathes in a methodical fashion. She then washes the bath and returns to the dinner that has been slowly cooking on the stove.
By this stage, our expectations of a film are already being dismantled. Akerman makes no attempt to cut out the boring bits. Events are filmed in real time so that the audience participates in the monotony and silent strain that Jeanne is experiencing. When Jeanne and her son consume a bowl of soup we witness every spoonful being sipped. When Jeanne peels a bag of potatoes we witness every flick of the peeler. The vast majority of shots are framed by the apartment walls, giving the film a claustrophobic feel from the start. The static camera and head-on shots add to this closed-in feeling, the lack of movement reflecting the stagnation of Jeanne’s life.
Jeanne’s control of her domain is evident in the way she switches lights on and off depending on which room she is in. This could be a matter of economy, a theory corroborated later when we watch her fill out a list of the products she has just purchased in a ledger, consulting her receipts as she writes. She buttons every button of her dressing-gown, makes sure her hair is perfectly coiffed and wakes up before her alarm rings. She won’t allow her son to read at the table and insists they take a walk around the block each evening after dinner. Everything is measured and scheduled to within an inch of its life.
Slowly, over the course of the next two days, Jeanne’s meticulously woven life begins to unravel. Her son tries to engage her in an unsettling conversation about sex; a client stays longer than expected, causing her to burn the potatoes; she misses a button of her dressing-gown; her hair becomes tousled; she drops a shoe polish brush; she lets the coffee go bad; she drops a spoon; the child she babysits won’t stop crying; she leaves lights on. Each of these is insignificant in itself, but seen accumulatively they stand as ominous portents of Jeanne’s mental collapse.
When Jeanne wakes up too early one morning, she finishes her daily tasks too soon and slumps into motionless silence. It’s clear that she has timetabled every hour of her day because, if she does not, she will sink into an uncontrollable depression.
Later, when a client brings her to orgasm, something in her mind snaps. Her last point of control – withholding her own pleasure, refusing to surrender to male power over her body – has been broken. She slowly dresses herself, takes a pair of scissors from the dressing-table and plunges them into the man’s neck. We then watch as she sits at her living-room table, the blue lights of the street-signs outside flashing in the darkening room. Five minutes of this pass and the film ends. The release and relief the audience feels is palpable.
By crafting a film comprised of large segments of thoroughly mundane domestic episodes leading up to this startling resolution, Akerman creates a work that is both strangely tedious and utterly mesmerising. The result is a paradoxical masterpiece.