JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (director/writer: Chantal Akerman; cinematographer: Babette Mangolte; editor: Patricia Canino; cast: Delphine Seyrig (Jeanne Dielman), Chantal Akerman (Neighbor, voice), Jan Decorte (Sylvain Dielman), Henri Storck (1st Caller), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (2nd Caller), Yves Bical (3rd Caller); Runtime: 225; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Corinne Jénart/Evelyne Paul; New Yorker; 1975-France/Belgium-in French with English subtitles)
“Neglected but critically acclaimed arthouse classic of both feminist and experimental filmmaking.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The 24-year-old Chantal Akerman (“Golden Eighties”/”News from Home”/”A Couch In New York”) directs this neglected but critically acclaimed arthouse classic of both feminist and experimental filmmaking. It’s very lengthy at 225 minutes, as it simulates real time in its filming. This limits its appeal to only those who have the patience and will power to sit through a lot of its mundane dullness, non-action sequences and a stationary camera. If you get by its unwatchable dull moments and engage the story with the full attention it deserves you will find that it focuses on feminist issues that are quietly conveyed through the titled character, who is played by the mesmerizing 42-year-old Delphine Seyrig who makes her middle-aged widow single mom and prostitute role shine despite portraying such a colorless and cheerless character. It’s a study in alienation and bleakness that is artfully conveyed with sparse dialogue in a minimalist style and without a need to twist your arm into accepting its viewpoint that women have fewer choices than men in society and, ho-hum, sex is just another part of their duties they regularly perform.
The story is set in a Brussels apartment of the bourgeois Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), living at 3 Quai De Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, who takes care of her obedient teenage son Sylvains (Jan Decorte) while in the afternoon, when he’s at school, entertains gentleman callers to help her earn an income. The camera follows her around during a three-day span, from Tuesday to Thursday.
It opens on Tuesday and in minute detail we follow her as she peels potatoes and cooks an elaborate meal, has a brief encounter with her john in her bedroom and then takes a long and thorough bath. When Sylvain returns from school, they have supper together and afterwards she reads aloud a letter from Canada her sister sent. Jeanne then helps her son with his homework assignment of reading aloud from Charles Baudelaire’s The Enemy. When she tucks Sylvain in for the night, we learn how she met his deceased dad during WWII.
During this time span Jeanne goes shopping, keeps a tidy flat, courteously interacts with her neighbors and continues to be a good parent to her son. After having sex with Thursday’s caller, Jeanne uses a pair of scissors to stab him to death. No reason why is ever established, and no attempt is made to disguise her crime.
The sober film is both startling and original; it’s an uncompromising and understated painful slice-of-life study of the marginalized, that is disturbing, monotonous and provocative. It’s not Hollywood glossy or artificial; it refuses to over-dramatize or add what it doesn’t have to, but presents the ‘everywoman’ female’s point of view in a more lucid and credible light than most other films that have tried tackling the same subject matter by just letting things flow in a natural and realistic way. Akerman’s jolting film lifts its documentary styled look into relevant melodrama and even gives it a Shakespearean-like bourgeois tragedy (though some might think the murder was forced and more theatrical than necessary to make its point about how women have so few choices in a patriarchal society). But by remaining true to itself and never letting go of the dehumanized and robotic lifestyle images it inundated us with, it coalesces with integrity as a great achievement in avant-garde filmmaking that gives voice in a unique way to the mostly inarticulate arguments of womanhood about the repressive nature of a patriarchal culture.
REVIEWED ON 8/6/2008 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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