Chantal Akerman, Belgium, 1975, 201 min.
Due to the release of this film on Criterion DVD, I am publishing a review I wrote many years ago. It’s poorly written, but my viewpoints still stand.
This film focuses on three days in the life of its title character, Jeanne Dielman. She’s a Belgium housewife/single mother who takes gentleman callers into her flat to get her income. The film at over three hours, is told in a flat repetitive style that lends itself to the daily life of this particular housewife. The camera holds on the actress, Delphine Seyrig, as she performs menial tasks like cooking, cleaning, folding, sewing, etc. Most things are shown in their entirety, and after only a few minutes, one gets a real sense of how this woman lives.
The film opens midway through the first day, and we see Jeanne’s rituals slowly play out, very deliberately. She has a specific way and method she does things. It seems like she has been doing everything this way for years. She starts off cooking, and cleaning, turning the lights on and off as she leaves each room. Its all very systematic. Soon the doorbell rings and she lets in an older man. They proceed to the bedroom. The camera holds outside for a moment. At this point we know what’s happening inside, so we don’t need to see it. When they come out, he pays her and leaves. Other than the prostitution thing, she seems to be a normal, boring housewife (no offense intended).
The day goes on and we meet her teenaged son. He comes home, and dinner is served. They eat in silence, exchanging few words. In fact, the dinner scene is very effective. Jeanne eats her soup like a machine. Slowly sipping spoon after spoon until her bowl is empty. The only thing she says to her son is to stop reading at the table. He does and the meal continues.
The rest of her day consists of dishes, sewing, and saying goodnight to her son. She gets into bed, the lights go out, and a moment later the lights go on. She has slept the night and has risen early to prepare breakfast and do the other mundane things that need doing.
The next day is almost exactly the same. Its basically another hour of us watching her in her daily rituals. This repetition serves to solidify her systematic life in the viewers mind. Almost exactly the same things happen as did the previous day. This time, we get to see her morning errands when she goes out to the stores to buy food and sewing materials, stops for coffee, and arrives home in time for another gentleman caller. The dinner scene is repeated again, and Jeanne tells her son to stop reading at the table once more.
This time, however, she has trouble with the dinner. Something happened with the potatoes and it took her longer to cook them. Since we are so used to her systemic life, this little change comes as some sort of strange blow. It makes one feel uneasy. There is no real reaction from the two characters, but the awkwardness seems all that more apparent because of it.
There is some back story revealed about her husband during a creepy conversation she has with her son when she says goodnight to him, and this is something to note about because it may tie into the ending depending on how you look at it. He talks about how when he first learned about sex from a friend, he thought of how his father did it to his mother, and how he would have nightmares and scream for his father to stop. His friend had described the penis as a sword, and the son equated this with pain. He didn’t want to see his mother hurt by his father. After this strange conversation, she goes to bed and so ends day two.
Day three is where things start to change. Again, the acts she does are repetitive ad nauseam, but little things start to go wrong. She gets shoe polish on her sleeve, she forgets to button a button on her robe, the coffee she makes doesn’t come out right. Nothing major, but again all these little things seem very major in the life of Jeanne Dielman, so major that the audience probably feels it as well.
While she is out doing her errands, things deteriorate even more. She can’t find the button she needs to fix her sons jacket, her usual at seat the coffee shop is taken, and the waitress she always gets has gone home for the day. She feels so out of sorts that she even tries to reach out to a shopkeeper by telling her a bit about her life, which we know she would never normally do. When she gets home and has to baby sit her neighbors baby for a while, it won’t stop crying every time she tries to pick it up.
This is a good time to start talking about the sound design of this film. It has no music, but even on the horrible bootleg I was watching, the sound was loud, and accurate. The clicking of the silverware, the hissing of the stove… all these everyday noises are very very prominent. The above-mentioned baby sounds almost demonic. Its very unsettling and it shows how increasingly unsettled Jeanne herself is getting.
The climax of the film is given as much weight as some of the little things that go wrong in her day. It is such a huge moment, yet it is told in the way all those small moments are told. If you blink, you may miss it. But that is life. Most times the big events in ones life happen very quickly, and are surrounded by the dull boredom of our dally existence.
Suddenly we are in the midst of her having sex with one of her clients. Until this time, we could picture her quietly and unemotionally doing her job until its finished, just like most of her housework. This time, however, she appears to be getting pleasure out of the act, but not wanting to at the same time. She tries to push the man off of her, but he continues and it appears that they both orgasm. After this, she gets dressed while he dozes on the bed. Then, without warning, she takes a pair of her sewing scissors and stabs him in the neck, killing him. The final shot of the film consists of her sitting at the table. Not showing any emotion or doing anything. For once, at peace.
Over all, this film is probably more fun to read and write about than it is to watch. But its not supposed to be fun. Its supposed to make an impact. There are things you can only get from the film by watching it in its entirety. Is it feminist? A lot of people call it that. It is a commentary on the life of the quintessential housewife. The ending definitely has feminist overtones. One can look at it as the only way for a housewife to get out of this vicious cycle of repetitiveness. It is harsh… but its also true.