This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
rotund’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
What a revelation this film was. It makes you question the way you perceive films, especially in this day and age where storytellers rush to tell bigger stories than their counterparts; but the bigger their stories get, the meaningless they become. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles tells a confined, yet bold and a thoughtful story.
The film revolves around a widowed housewife who lives with her son. She sleeps with men to make a living. She spends her life following strict routines. She wakes up early to shine her son’s shoes. Then she makes coffee and breakfast. Then she goes out to get some chores done. Then a neighbor drops her baby off. In the meantime she has lunch — but nothing fancy. It’s only for her after all. After lunch, she goes out again to do some shopping and stop by a cafe she frequents for a breather. When she’s back home, she prepares the day’s dinner. Then a door rings and she welcomes her customer for the day. After she sends the customer away, she heats the dinner up. Her son comes back from school. She sets the table and they eat dinner. There’s a specific meal planned for every day of the week. Tuesday night it’s soup, potatoes, and stew. This Tuesday meat tastes better because she used less water than last Tuesday. Wednesday night it’s soup again but this time with breaded veal, potatoes, peas, and carrots. Every night after dinner, she helps her son with his homework, then she knit him a sweater while listening to the radio. Then they go out for a walk. After they come back home, with a little bit of help from her son, she makes his bed. Before kissing his son good night, he shares what’s on his mind. Sometimes it cuts too deep. After she brushes her hair, she goes to sleep.
Jeanne Dielman’s life is repetitive and boring. The film is not entertaining, nor is it not supposed to be. She operates on autopilot because her life is comprised of performing the same tasks every day. The subtlety in her actions portray this superbly. When she overcooks the potatoes and goes out to get some more before dinner, she attempts to check the mailbox again on the way back because that’s what she always does. It's an instinct, instead of a deliberate act. On a tangential note: This film reminded me of Adam Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations in which Smith points out how mundane and repetitive tasks lead to a miserable labor force and in the end a society. This describes Jeanne Dielman. Her factory is her kitchen and she even has the outfit to go for it.
After seeing her routine just once, we immediately get accustomed to it. You notice even the slightest discrepancy in her actions. I was surprised by how quickly I familiarized myself with the routine and just like her I became anxious when the rhythm of her routine was disrupted simply because she woke up an hour early than she’s supposed to. This disruption leads to many other problems — small, yet significant, visible problems. With the most mundane things you can imagine, like hitting the milk bottle sitting on the table, Akerman is able to accomplish the same level of anxiety you’d normally feel watching a film directed by Hitchcock. The day Jeanne’s routine breaks off, Akerman communicates to us that something has gone awry by showing us the kitchen in a direction she hasn’t shown before. We immediately sense something is wrong and expect things to get worse. This feeling is exacerbated when we spend that extra hour with Jeanne. We can sense that she’s disturbed and so are we. How Akerman has accomplished creating this sense of urgency with a simple change of frame is truly miraculous.
It is quite evident that this film is Akerman's love letter to her mom as it has profound things to say about motherhood. In cinema, we rarely see people doing chores even though we spend most of our lives that way. Of course there’s a simple reason for this: most of us watch films to escape reality for a short amount of time. But the downside is that we stop to appreciate what it takes to do these things less and less. We take them for granted. Especially for people who do these things for us for the significant portion of our lives, like our mothers. Whether intentionally or not, we reduce them to this position of being in service for our needs. A woman is there to pleasure us and serve our needs. That’s not to say Jeanne doesn’t need to do these things for herself — as it’s evident by her crisis in her accidental free time, she needs these things to keep her busy. The problem is not the fact that she does these things, the problem is, as I referenced earlier with Adam Smith, is that these mundane tasks have become the whole purpose of her existence. Her family, the society she lives in, instilled in her this need to be in service of others and when the circumstances force her to be outside of her confined, relatively comfortable space, she’s completely lost.
Jeanne's story is seemingly the story of every women and Akerman repeats this point with her interactions with other women, namely her neighbor (incidentally, played by Akermen herself), and her sister. We don’t even get to see either of them, but the little time we spend with them feel so intimate and familiar.
What a work of art. I'll never forget this film.