Jeanne Dielman: This Woman’s Work

In 1974, Chantal Akerman made Je Tu Il Elle, a film where the lead character performs mundane rituals and then goes out to have sex with another woman. The critical success of the film helped Akerman win a grant from the Belgian government. Now she could begin production on what would become her most lauded film. Je Tu Il Elle took an hour and a half to accomplish its goal, Jeanne Dielman required more than three hours from its audience.

Earning a cult reputation over the years, it was initially hailed as a ”feminist masterpiece” by some critics… but in many countries many years passed before it had a theatrical release.

Taking care of the household
We meet Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) over three days. She’s a housewife who lives in Brussels together with her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), a college student. There is no longer a man in her life. Most of Jeanne’s days are spent taking care of the household and preparing dinner for her son, who is entirely focused on his studies. In the afternoon, she also receives men who pay her for sex. On the second day, we start noticing little things about Jeanne and her household habits. She performs her routines the same way she usually does, but there are minor mishaps. Things are out of place, including her hairdo. Nothing big, but they’re noticeable, even to her absentminded son. On the third day, everything will change.

Close to her mother
It took the film eight years to have an American premiere in theaters. In my country, Sweden, Jeanne Dielman didn’t open in theaters until last fall, almost 45 years later. That hasn’t stopped Akerman’s work from being acknowledged as one of the most important feminist films ever made. The director remained exceptionally close to her mother and Jeanne is a symbol of her, expressing Akerman’s desire to give recognition to someone like her. The film meticulously captures every detail of the cooking, cleaning, dishwashing and errand-running that shapes Jeanne’s life, normally the kind of action we never see in movies because they’re so… dull. But we all have to do those chores, and watching what was considered a woman’s duty (at least in 1975) becomes a breath of fresh air, something unexpected.

Making the film three hours long also serves a purpose. Having to observe these mundane actions over and over makes Jeanne’s discreet changes all the more startling, leading to a very disturbing third day when nothing really seems to go her way and the household work takes on an absurd tinge. A revolution of sorts is about to happen, but it’s not without its complexity. After initially hiding what goes on behind closed doors as Jeanne receives her clients (in tune with society’s demand of women to keep their sexuality hidden?), Akerman spends the last moments of the film showing us everything, including a controversial orgasm.

Early on, Akerman made an interesting mistake, hiring an all-female crew without making sure they could all do their job. The shoot became a nightmare, and even a person like Chantal Akerman turned out to have a thing or two to learn about the meaning of feminism. Ultimately, Jeanne Dielman is statically filmed, with long takes, but original and effective as a comment on women’s lives, certainly in tune with sentiments at that time.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles 1975-Belgium-France. 202 min. Color. Produced by Guy Cavagnac, Alain Dahan, Liliane de Kermadec, Corinne Jénart, Evelyne Paul, Paul Vecchiali. Written and directed by Chantal Akerman. Cast: Delphine Seyrig (Jeanne Dielman), Jan Decorte (Sylvain Dielman), Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Bical.

Last word: “Everyone thought […] that ‘Jeanne Dielman’ was in real time, but the time was totally recomposed, to give the impression of real time. There I was with Delphine [Seyrig], and I told her, ‘When you put down the Wiener schnitzels like that, do it more slowly. When you take the sugar, move your arm forward more quickly.’ Only dealing with externals. When she asked why, I’d say, ‘Do it, and you’ll see why later.’ I didn’t want to manipulate her. I showed her afterward and said to her, ‘You see, I don’t want it to ‘look real,’ I don’t want it to look natural, but I want people to feel the time that it takes, which is not the time that it really takes.’ But I only saw that after Delphine did it. I hadn’t thought of it before.” (Akerman, Art Forum)

 

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