Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

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

And as I swept that floor I thought "Now I am a woman. This is an age-old action, this is what women have always done."

... The worker can unionize, go out on strike; mothers are divided from each other in homes, tied to their children by compassionate bonds; our wildcat strikes have most often taken the form of physical or mental breakdown.

— Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is ruthless in its clarity and simplicity. The hyper-specific title offers, perhaps, the film's only moment of deception, allowing the viewer to imagine that the tragedy they are watching play out happens to only one woman, at one address, in one city. The millions who see themselves in Jeanne, however, know the truth: that the title is Chantal Akerman's gift to her discomfited audience, a ripcord allowing those who wish to do so to escape the film's true meaning; who need to pretend that Jeanne Dielman could never be their mother, their wife, their neighbor and their lover.

Because Jeanne Dielman is all of us. Every woman who has ever clung to a routine as a means of exerting control. Any woman who has ever taken pleasure from the private rhythms she's wrung out of the structures imposed upon her life. Any woman who has ever fixed her face in a pleasant mask as she goes deaf with the effort of fighting back tears of rage at the most recent, tiny cut.

She is us and we are her, living with her every motion (every flick of a light switch, every efficient movement of a polish brush, every ritualized opening and closing of her bedroom window) and aching as she stumbles. Begging her, silently — in our heads; in our hearts — to take a breath and settle; to reset her rhythms and restore her hard-won order.

Wondering how many times she's had these moments (hours, days) of disorder; telling ourselves she will regain control this time, too, just like she has so many times in the past.

Begging, then wondering, then fearing.

Realizing that a reset is impossible; watching, heart in mouth, knowing she will do something that will reduce her to a cautionary tale. "Oh, you remember Jeanne — she didn't remarry, and look what happened to her." "Mmhmm. Left her son all on his own, too. The selfishness of a woman like that!"

(Feeling in ways that cannot be put into words the terrible shame of sharing an orgasm with the stranger in her bed.)

Understanding in our bones what she feels and why. Praying it won't be the baby (please don't hurt the baby); praying it won't be the man but knowing that it will be.

Chantal Akerman, ranked
52 Films by Women: watchlist | seen

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