After nearly a half-year of involuntary confinement, of one day monotonously blending into the next with precious little change, of repeating the same limited routines with no hope of breaking out of the rut anytime soon, this week I finally saw the film that speaks to this moment far more than does any other. It was made 45 years ago, in Belgium, of all places, and it’s a landmark classic for the precious few who have seen it.
The film carries the ungainly full title of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and was written and directed Chantal Akerman, a Belgian writer-director who had made a few experimental films in her home country as well as in New York City and was just 25 when she made this art film blockbuster—the same age, her most ardent fans like to point out, as was Orson Welles when he summoned forth Citizen Kane.
Long celebrated by card-carrying high-art film buffs and feminists but utterly unknown to the general public, this daring work was fated never to amass a large following due to its 201-minute running time and its endless repetitions during which precious little actually “happens.” The “action” encompasses three days in the life of a very proper-looking 40-ish widow (the stunning and sophisticated Delphine Seyrig, doing her best to look primly ordinary) whose days are filled by the same monotonous routines: She fastidiously makes her bed, tidies up her small flat, briskly shops for daily needs in her Brussels neighborhood, prepares simple meals, shares uneventful dinners with her virtually mute teenage son, cleans the dishes, indulges in only the most minimal conversations with those she encounters and, as occurs elsewhere in the director’s oeuvre, earns some spare cash by turning tricks (also with virtually no words exchanged) with regulars at an appointed hour. She invites and seemingly seeks no further human exchange than this.
Even the slightest deviations from her constant brisk rounds through the apartment spark a degree of elevated interest in the viewer, so, yes, one could legitimately claim that the film is “boring” in the most conventional sense. As one watches mother and son sit there each night chewing their food while scarcely saying a word to one another, one wonders what’s wrong here and why they can’t even summon the energy, interest or imagination to inquire about the other’s life. But it doesn’t happen; no meaningful connections are made or even attempted.
So, yes, it’s easy to believe that Jeanne Dielman provoked plenty of impatient displeasure and walk-outs when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. And the film was not easy to see over the years; after its U.S. debut screening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 (I don’t know why it wasn’t in the New York Film Festival the year before), it wasn’t seen again in New York until a Film Forum run in 1983, the same year it played in Los Angeles and perhaps a few other cities.
Although increasingly celebrated over the years, the film was still not easy to see. Early on, I was simply never in the right city at the right time to see the film. At festivals in subsequent years I caught several of Akerman’s later features — she made an even dozen in all before her death, at 65, by suicide, in 2015 — and while there are stretches of beguiling invention and charm in some of them, by and large they felt slight and underwhelming; little about them stuck.
Thanks to Criterion, however, anyone can see now see Jeanne Dielman whenever they want, either in parts or all in one big gulp. In a way, I’m glad to have seen the film at this critical moment, as it’s doubtful the film could possibly have played quite the same way, nor quite as effectively, as it does currently.
Simply stated, Akerman’s film is about the mundane, the repetitive, being trapped. The dull quotidian aspects of life normally ignored or minimized in drama are herein pushed to the foreground and assume a rare centrality; nothing about the title character is supposed to be exceptional. To the contrary, every aspect of her existence has been compartmentalized; life could scarcely be more banal and ruled by self-imposed routine than is hers, and there is little likelihood that surprise or chance might intervene to turn her life upside down or inside out; she’s gone to great lengths to try to prevent such an inversion. Maybe she should have become a nun.
The most banal of events throws her off her stride: One morning she wakes up early and doesn’t know what to do with this extra time. As further fractures begin to appear in her regularized activities and movements, she becomes genuinely unsettled and soon begins to resemble an animal in a cage; it’s here that the surgical precision of the writer-director’s feminist critique of women’s circumscribed roles in the world begins to be felt. Sure, we’ve seen crack-up movies before, but those have almost always been rooted in melodrama. This one is about learned and accepted constriction, about societal norms and personal expectations so firmly fixed that balking at them feels like rebellion, sacrilege, an unimaginable eruption.
By fearlessly protracting her searing portrait of adamant domesticity and adherence to routine, Akerman achieved something special in both the cinematic and feminist lexicons. Specifically, it spoke to women’s roles in the world and an acceptance of limitations that finally hit the breaking point.
Consuming the film in one enormous gulp during the sixth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which I’ve remained adamantly housebound and far more limited in the range of my activities than any other time in my life, as well as more governed by the mundane and the repetitive, I more than once felt a twinge of “Jeanne Dielman, c’est moi.” What was designed as a specifically feminist statement suddenly seemed relevant in a far broader manner in the way it speaks to the limitations engineered by society and, in this case, by a plague that has altered everything for an unknown period of time. Suddenly we must all lead unnaturally limited, work-and-pleasure-restricted lives that, above all, call for a minimum of human contact — and, of course, not going to the movies. Like Jeanne Dielman, we’ve been forced to accept and obey heavy restrictions on our lifestyles and the size of our individual worlds, our access to the Internet notwithstanding. Potential danger, illness and tragedy lurk behind every dawn, all the more so if you attempt to pursue your normal life and interests, or let down your guard.
So you adjust, you pull back, you attempt to abide by society’s new demands as well as your own tolerance and endurance. Or you don’t. Jeanne Dielman thought she had found her own solution, no matter how self-abnegating it was, but one day she hit the wall. We all have our limits but hope and pray we don’t have to be put to the test of learning exactly where they are. Just one reason Akerman’s film is great is because it so tenaciously and acutely identifies the power of personal will as well as the strength of the malaise that can overtake even your mightiest efforts to fight it.