'Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles' Will Not Break For You
My Experience of Seeing Akerman's Masterpiece at the Gene Siskel Film Center
Up until July of 2022, I’d never seen Chantal Akerman’s masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It wasn’t a lack of awareness or desire that withheld me from watching Akerman’s methodical, yet arresting film. Rather I was guided by a need to find the right moment. Running at 202 minutes, I knew if I ever did sit down to view this Belgium-set film, like Dr Zhivago, I’d need the rest of the day to marinate on its vision.
In actuality, however, I didn’t need a day to think over Jeanne Dielman. I needed several.
For every minute, over the next course of the next week, a new scene would spring to mind. With each hour, a new observation took hold of my memory.
If you’ve never seen Jeanne Dielman, the quick rundown, without spoilers, involves a widowed mother (Delphine Seyrig) living with her apathetic teenage son (Jan Decorte). Over several days, we see her roll through her housework — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping — which she has down to a science, until, she doesn’t. The interruption of her well-honed rhythm causes an eruption that, initially, on first viewing, shocked me. Yet makes all the more sense once you reconsider the signs. Most importantly, in this narrative about a seemingly unassuming mother, a portrait Akerman crafted as a tribute to her mom, we gain an appreciation for the tireless and imperative work many women do on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter that, at one point, we spent minutes watching Dielman merely kneading beef for meatloaf. Because to her, there is not “merely” a task. At that moment, kneading beef is as important to her as saving the day is to an action hero.
That Akerman is unafraid to raise these chores to the level of high drama is the magic and the empathy behind this deliberately paced masterpiece.
I’m therefore glad that I took the opportunity to take in Akerman’s uncompromising vision before the noise surrounding it claiming the #1 spot on the Sight & Sound list could cloud the experience. Of course, some, particularly Paul Schrader, decried the film’s placement on the list as unbefitting (a charge that isn’t only shortsighted, but whose reasoning is plainly wrong and biogted).
A few days ago, as part of the theater’s 50th anniversary celebration, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago played Jeanne Dielman to a nearly packed house. I have no doubt the film’s placement on the Sight & Sound list drew many in, at least to see what the commotion was all about. And while sitting in the theater, watching the movie, I got the sense that for many, this was their first encounter with this Akerman work. The experience of seeing the film with that audience was, to put in a single word… fascinating.
For one, when Marya and I arrived, we sat by a guy to our right who was cruising for hookups on Grindr. To the left of us was an elderly couple. And in the row in front of us was a group of younger, college-aged viewers. You’d think being in a theater, without a cellphone in sight, would fully engage an audience. But it was quite the opposite. The audience was so agitated, even I found difficulty in paying attention. Within the first twenty minutes, the guy to my left was already fidgeting around — putting on and taking off his hat, readjusting in his chair, and sighing — the elderly husband forming the couple sitting to our left had fallen asleep, and a young woman in front of us was also restless.
An hour into the movie, the guy to my left got up to concessions and came back with a coffee and a can of coke. He downed both within five minutes and then became fidgety again (no surprise, there). I spent much of my time hoping the movie would break him so he’d just leave and subtract at least one distraction from my viewing. When he put on his coat and scarf, it appeared my wish would be granted. But, under circumstances I still cannot fathom, he instead fell asleep.
Halfway through the movie, the young women in front of us gave up the ghost and left. She was the only walkout. Judging by the symphony of people readjusting in their seats, however, it seemed like everyone else tried to gut through it.
Everyone except the elderly man to our left. The movie did break him. After a solid hour of sleep, he awoke. A tactical error on his part (that first hour, in my opinion is imperative. It’s where you get a sense of what a normal day is like for Dielman, while providing you a guide to spot how her routine unravels). For the rest of the film, there were multiple instances of this elderly guy leaning forward, with his head in his hands, as though he were on the verge of painful tears. As Dielman walked from one room to another, he loudly stopped his feet to the sound of her heels. At one point, he even took off his shoe to scratch his foot. It was torture for him watching the movie, it was torture to watch him watching the movie.
After awhile, however, these distractions actually caused me to appreciate the movie more. Because Akerman doesn’t hurry for the audience. She doesn’t cut a chore short; she doesn’t delineate these tasks by importance. To Dielman, they’re all critical. And the time Akerman dedicates to them only further imbues them with significance. She demands that you give yourself over to this rhythm, her rhythm. And if you do so, a world of pathos and empathy awaits. For those who did, after the screening, they gathered in the lobby, analyzing and discussing the nuance and detail Akerman leans upon.
The experience only further instilled in me the belief that Akerman deserves her perch atop the Sight & Sound poll. Because Jeanne Dielman might break you; but you will not break Jeanne Dielman. Akerman is too unflinching, too dedicated to her craft, and too committed to subtract one second from her film to entertain your convenience when the protagonist at the heart of her transfixing narrative, by virtue of her role as a mother, is often not granted the same assurance.
You can still stream Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on Criterion Channel as part of their Sight & Sound programmaning, which includes other selection that were included on the list.