Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

52 films by women 2018: 37/52.

Here's an unexpected comparison point. The same day I watched Chantal Akerman's 195-minute signature film, I was also reading Andrew Hankinson's true-crime novel You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat]. The comparison seems perverse; Moat, after all, went on a rampage after finding out his abused ex-girlfriend had a new partner, while Akerman's film is a landmark of feminist cinema. Yet Akerman and Hankinson share a common method. They explore their lead characters' inner lives by accumulating apparently trivial details, eschewing any attempt to imagine their thoughts. In the process, they create a portrait of how an individual interacts with society.

Recording Akerman's techniques risks making them sound trite. The link between housework and other traditionally female labour and emotional repression has been drawn thousands of times. What Akerman wants to do is make you feel it. It is very easy to imagine a telling of Jeanne Dielman's story that makes you feel other things - the core story, about a housewife who turns to murder as a result of her secret double life, is the stuff of pure pulp. The length and banality of the film, most of which consists of Delphine Seyrig doing housework and eating meals, dissolves the sensational elements like water on Antacid. The murder may come at the end, but it's not an ending. It's just another incident in Dielman's everyday life, a point reinforced by the hauntingly unresolvable final shot.

Hankinson had the benefit of several lengthy, self-pitying manifestos issued by his subject, but Akerman leaves the whys up to us. Before she kills her last client, Jeanne seems to experience pleasure for the first time in the film. Does she kill him because she suddenly feels alive and empowered to do so? Or is she now so broken down by her joyless life that she reacts with guilt and irrational violence to a moment of happiness? I can see the case for both readings, and many more besides. Delphine Seyrig's performance is wilfully blank, which shouldn't be mistaken for bad acting. I've often heard directors and acting teachers say the worst piece of direction you can give an actor is "Act normal!", because as soon as you start consciously thinking about how to act normal you start to act weirdly. But here is Seyrig, acting normal for over three hours, and doing it magnificently.

I have trouble with the concept of slow cinema when it's used for punitive, rather than transcendental, effect - the "surveillance cam" rather than the "mandala", in Paul Schrader's terminology. I also prefer to watch it in a theatre with no distractions. Watching this incredibly austere film on my laptop, I found myself weirdly entranced - mesmerised enough to wonder what had happened during a surprise cut to black in the second hour. Perhaps it's the domestic scale of the drama that made it such an unexpectedly warm, engaging companion. Or perhaps it's the lack of macho art-cinema showboating in Akerman's concept. She said she chose the static camera positions so the audience could understand where she was looking at it from. Not to force them into looking at it a particular way, or to set up her view as absolute, but to acknowledge her subjectivity. Would Michael Haneke ever say that?

As for the rating, I can imagine the experience of watching this in one sitting will stay with me for a very, very long time indeed - but even if it didn't, this is a film that cannot be made any more like itself. It has a unique idea and it explores it so thoroughly that nothing more needs to be said by the end of it, and there just aren't enough films that achieve such a completeness.

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