Jacob Gehman’s review published on Letterboxd:
I don't even know how to react to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I have a paper full of notes (I never take notes while I watch films!) of things I wanted to make sure to address when writing this up, but after those last 10 minutes, they all seem moot. Maybe not moot, but crass? It would be crass to take isolated scenes and try to impart a larger meaning upon them after--after that.
But I'm going to be crass, because it might be a larger disservice to let Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai due Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles pass with merely a pat on the back.
Jeanne is a single mother. It's not explained whether her husband died, or if there was a divorce (although her makeup table has a picture of her with a man that is presumably her husband, so I'm leaning towards a death), but she prostitutes herself to make money to support herself and her son.
Covering three days, starting mid-day on the first, ending mid-day on the third, Jeanne Dielman (the movie--I'm not typing out the full title again. I'll use her full name when referring to the movie as a whole, just her first time when referring to the character) showcases the everyday in a way I've never seen before.
After that first half hour, the closest thing I could compare Jeanne Dielman to is minimalist composer Steve Reich (or Phillip Glass or Terry Riley--I actually decided to listen to Riley's In C while writing this--or whoever). Minimalism takes a musical idea, and repeats it, and repeats it. As that idea repeats, different instruments thread in and out, little flourishes are added, evolve, and while that original idea is never lost (not entirely), the minute changes allow the piece to take on an organic, living tone--the music has a heartbeat, one that feels different at the end than it felt in the beginning.
Jeanne Dielman is the closest thing I've seen on-screen to visually represent what minimalism in music does.
It's a film about routine: Jeanne has to balance entertaining men, cooking and cleaning, shopping, and looking after her son. To keep everything in its proper order she mechanically goes about her day. The idea of "mechanical" is key--most of the film is silent as she just does what she needs to do. The soundtrack is footsteps as she walks from the kitchen to the living room, doors opening and closing, even the dialogue is mechanical ("See you next week," with nary an ounce of inflection as she shows a regular customer out the door.) Her expression almost never changes--she's masked, refusing to allow her face to belie anything.
This facial mask is a sort of silence--director Chantal Akerman conveys a beastly isolation with it--and is matched by a general lack of dialogue. Oh, sure, there are some conversations, but they are few, relatively short, and often more awkward monologue than hearty back-and-forths. If you run every word uttered within Jeanne Dielman back-to-back, you probably wouldn't breach the 10 minute mark. Silence--broken by footstep--and loneliness.
This loneliness gets punctuated by the scenes of the every day that Jeanne Dielman shows. We take on the role of voyeur, a stationary presence simply observing as Jeanne goes about her day. The video camera is set up--assumedly on a tripod--and watches without moving as she washes dishes, kneads meatloaf, or makes the bed.
This is all done in real time--there is little truncation to the process that you would normally get with movie magic. Obviously, not everything unfolds in real time or the film would be 30+ hours long. But Jeanne Dielman avoids the homemaker idealization that so often occurs in cinema. There is no gloss to the process. This, perhaps, is what allows the film to be compelling throughout its nearly 3.5 hour runtime. You feel like you're in your mom's kitchen, watching her do her thing. It's showing things on film in a way you've never seen on film before--painting a portrait not just of Jeanne, but of in-the-home women everywhere.
It's all so mechanical, so time consuming and all encompassing. Everything that Jeanne does has a purpose. She brushes her hair and puts on makeup because a man is coming over. She goes shopping for food because her son expects a hearty meal. She reads a letter from her aunt out loud to her son because, well, that's just what you do. It's meticulous. Such that when she doesn't have something to do, she's apt to just sit and do nothing until she needs to do something.
There is, perhaps, one exception--one vice that she allows herself to engage in: Coffee. One of the most compelling moments in the whole film is a ten minute scene where she decides to take a moment to pour some coffee. She adds milk, tastes the coffee, and makes a bit of a face (one of the few moments where her face expresses something). She dumps the coffee, grabs a cup, and sniffs the milk and, upon it passing the sniff test--pours some in a cup to taste. Seems ok. Repour the coffee, add the milk, and this time put sugar in. Taste. Again, dumped. So she decides the coffee itself is the problem, dumps it, and goes through the process of making it fresh. It's some of the most intimate, compelling cinema you'll see and it lasts ten minutes. It's glorious.
Every moment feels revealing. It's like when you're in public and you watch someone who doesn't know they're being watched. It's that person, unfiltered. And despite the silence and Jeanne's stony face, we get to know her. We get to know her routine, such that as things start slipping towards the end, it feels like major deviations.
It takes effort to watch--even though the film carries its runtime with grace, it's still a 3+ hour movie with long, ponderous scenes. It's hard to find that many uninterrupted hours in a day (I split it into two sessions: two hours one day, an hour and 21 minutes the next). But it's worth it.