By Noel Vera
DVD Review
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Directed by Chantal Akerman

THE LATE Chantal Akerman’s best-known work and popularly acknowledged masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is the character study of a creature in her native habitat, the apartment over which she presides and maintains and operates with almost surgical precision.

Akerman shoots Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig, internationally famous for starring in the films of Alain Resnais and Luis Bunuel) in rigorously worked-out shots, mainly static camera positions that peer into doorways and down hallways, usually at right angles to one another.

The lighting is mostly diffused, the lenses perched at around waist height or slightly higher to give Jeanne a slight magnitude (Akerman’s rigor recalls Ozu’s in her refusal to see her characters conventionally as in most films, including and especially Hollywood productions). First we see of Jeanne she’s in the kitchen, readying a potted dish; the doorbell rings and she takes off her blue-gray coat (later we realize the coat is to keep her clean in the kitchen, so when her clients arrive she shrugs the coat off and receives him in her most attractive if modest blouse).

Mind you, she takes off coat and washes her hands efficiently but not hurriedly. Jeanne does things on her schedule and her pace; the client waits patiently outside.

Akerman next pulls off a neat Bressonian trick (or a trick Bresson’s pulled time and time again in his own films): the camera seems angled to watch Jeanne and her client walk down the hallway into her bedroom; cut to the same angle on the same hallway in dim evening (they’ve been at it for a while); Jeanne switches on the light, reaches offscreen for her client’s coat, and we realize that the camera has also been angled to capture the coat’s exchange from one pair of hands to another (if the frame cuts off their faces that’s because the faces aren’t the real focus anyway).

And so it goes for about three and a half hours — we watch Jeanne go through her daily routine over and over, the only real variation being the dinner she cooks for her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte). In an interview Akerman calls Jeanne’s occasional prostitution “a metaphor” — presumably for marriage, which brings up the question: why focus on a widow? Wouldn’t following a married couple be as — I don’t know, effective or evocative, definitely more typical? Only guessing at this point, but if Jeanne’s husband were alive it would perhaps take time away from her story, as the husband would necessarily share not just her time but bedroom.

You do see the metaphor: these men use Jeanne as efficiently as she uses their money, and their mutually profitable relationship is just a step away from conventional marriage — the prostituting aspects of marriage implied rather than depicted directly. Leaving Jeanne free also allows us to see what she could do in a semi-independent situation, without a job yet without the full burden and benefit of a mother/housewife, a sort of middle case if you like between two extremes; if Jeanne lives in a cage it’s a cage mostly of her own making.


And in that cage is Sylvain, Jeanne’s true master. Sylvain rules over Jeanne’s day like a benevolent dictator, decreeing (without once explicitly demanding) that she spend most of her day shopping and preparing his dinner; forcing her to walk from one dress store to another to look for a match for the missing button on his coat. A son can be every bit as tyrannical as a husband, the film seems to say, perhaps even more so; biological and not just societal imperatives compel her to cater to his wishes (as a writer — beautiful woman, ferociously smart, irresistibly independent-minded — once told me: children you love, but not by choice).

I’d mentioned the word “cage” and after the first hour we realize this is exactly what we’re seeing: a cage. The apartment over which Jeanne reigns is in reality a cage, the right-angled shots showing her one way then another emphasizing her confinement within a rectangular space, the doorways and window frames establishing rigid outlines that compartmentalize her reddish-brown curls (about the only thing about her that’s not linear, or practical, or unyielding).

Jeanne keeps different aspects of her life determinedly apart; she positions a towel at the exact center of her bed atop the bedspread to capture any fugitive secretions, afterwards tosses said towel in the laundry hamper. Even her multitasking is carefully coordinated and executed: she prepares slow-cooked meals — boiled potatoes, stews and meat loafs — that after attending to her clients are ready to serve (A viewer wondered aloud: “If Jeanne did a cookbook what would it be like?” “Short,” a wit replied. Probably, but I’m also thinking it would be mostly comfort foods, family meals easy to make and less surprising than satisfying — recipes of which I imagine can easily be found in magazines like Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day).

All that falls apart on the second day. Akerman in an interview reveals that Jeanne had had an orgasm with her second client; not obvious, but she’d spent too much time with him and overcooked her potatoes. The consequences are cataclysmic: she forgets to switch off the lights to rooms she’s just left (where before she switches them on and off like a veteran stage manager in a theatrical farce), she can’t seem to decide whether to dump the potatoes in the toilet or kitchen trash, and — horrors! — ends up being late with dinner. Later her son in bed tells her an increasingly unsettling anecdote about orgasms and human sexuality, as if her anxieties about what’s happened were displaced from her to the people and objects around her, over which she exercises less and less control. No, the orgasm’s not obvious, but something has definitely happened to upset her sense of equilibrium.

On the final day (skip this paragraph if you plan to watch!) it happens: Jeanne has her second orgasm (first onscreen), reacts violently (fatally for the client), and you ask: why? Again a guess: the orgasm was the last straw for Jeanne. What you and I might view as a horrifying prison — horrifying because it’s not so far removed from life as really lived, as you and I live it — Jeanne may perhaps have viewed as a proper life, not spectacular but comfortable. Change is bad; change throws her off-balance, makes her unsure of what to do with herself (she wakes up an hour too early and you can see the tension on her face trying to deal with the extra 60 minutes in her day). Change in the form of an orgasm — a thrill of pleasure beyond anything she must have imagined in her no-exit life — is something she must have been ashamed to experience, to the point that she pulls the bedsheet on her face to hide the fact from her partner. Change means uncertainty means the possibility of waking up to full awareness of her situation — and that she’d rather stab to death with a pair of scissors than allow to come to fruition.

I’d compare Jeanne’s tragedy to that of Ginjiro Takeuchi in the film of yet another master, Akira Kurosawa. Takeuchi has known little more than squalor and pain, and the humiliation of being watched like a roach on a garbage heap by Gondo on his hilltop mansion — that he is familiar with, that he can stand. But the possibility of redemption, and of a heaven beyond that redemption is intolerable; that possibility unnerves him to the point of panic. I can only suggest Jeanne must have felt something similar towards the end.

All of Chantal Akerman’s films are being shown on Hulu, in tribute.