Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

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

”You missed a button.”

After seeing the dreadful Welcome to Marwen last night, I needed to cleanse my palette with some real cinema. Fortunately TCM is nice enough to air some amazing films if you look for them and have a DVR so you don't have to stay up til 2am to watch their “imports” collection, and this one has been waiting for me for a couple weeks for a long rainy afternoon just like what we have today in slower lower Delaware.

In so doing, I have quite the comparison to make with the laughably misogynist animated dolls of Marwencol and the legendary but criminally underseen film here and its mesmerizing glimpse into womanhood.

And such it is for Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the French-language Belgian masterpiece of feminist arthouse film impeccably directed by Chantal Akerman and exquisitely shot by Babette Mangolte, starring Delphine Seyrig as the titular woman.

It demands your patience. It demands your attention. And it demands your intrigue. Twenty minutes into the film, fewer than twenty words have been spoken. Then suddenly, she reads an entire letter from Canada out loud to her teenage son in one unbroken seemingly breathless monotone take. And immediately after, we are reading Charles Baudelaire’s poetry. And then… silence, only expunged by Fur Elise. So it goes for the middle-aged protagonist, and one mundane task after another is presented in static wide takes... until things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Is the taciturn routine and enigmatic existence of Jeanne -- a contented widow as far as we know -- as Betty Friedan put it, “the problem that has no name”? Perhaps. The banality of Jeanne’s day-to-day life, so meticulously documented here for three days (and shot over the course of 72 hours in real time as well), screams with a clenched domestic anxiety. Is this mundanity for the sake of mundanity? When you, dear viewer, relinquish your senses to Jeanne Dielman and pick up the subtle changes on day two, and the quiet urgency on day three, maybe you can come to a conclusion.

You'd think, or maybe just presume, that spending three days (and over three hours in film) with one woman would be voyeuristic. In Jeanne Dielman, this is far from the truth. No point-of-view shots, no close-ups, no tracking shots, no tricks (well, not that kind of “trick”). You watch her wash dishes, prepare dinner, make the bed, and glibly entertain male clients in quiet afternoons of prostitution. Either she is already in frame, or she walks into and out of it. Or stands washing dishes, peeling potatoes, fretting over a detail that somehow is misplaced. Did your eyes wander? Can you view a woman standing at a sink for minutes on end as the faucet running drowns out other sounds? Where did your mind wander to? Akerman lends you these opportunities, and make of them what you will, but don't miss a beat when the time comes for recognition. Attention must be paid.

Who knows how long Jeanne had kept up this charade. It hardly matters. In this present darkness, a masterful piece of art helps us bear witness to, as film critic Ivone Margulies said, “a pervasive disquiet,” ever building to a resolution of one form or another. So it goes, in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and time gently passes with anxious distemperment, watchful waiting, and a palpable climax.

Added to Chantal Akerman ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.

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