Chantal Akerman has given countless interviews. In most of these, even the most recent ones, she is still asked about Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, her canonical 1975 film that she made when she was only 25. Her responses have shifted over the course of decades, and at times you can sense her irritation at the continual fascination with her youth; in a 2010 interview, she snapped back to a question about watching Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, long cited as a life-changing experience for Akerman: “Oh, I have said that a hundred times. Forget about it. You know all about that. I have told that story one million times.”
Hailed as a feminist masterpiece when it was first released, Jeanne Dielman nevertheless remains less known than the work of Akerman’s male contemporaries; it’s simultaneously overtheorized and underappreciated. The trouble with writing about Jeanne Dielman, and why such a large body of critical work has accrued around it, is that it is so easy to impute a particular politics to it through a structuralist-feminist lens. The film’s minimalist aesthetics seduce readings of Jeanne’s inner subjectivity. By rendering housework visible and forcing viewers to endure its unforgiving pace, the film performs a critique of patriarchal bourgeois society. When Jeanne washes the dishes, Akerman positions the camera directly behind her as she rinses and dries each plate in real time. By the second plate, our attentions wander. The grid pattern of Jeanne’s pale blue apron dress is repeated in the pastel yellow tiles of her kitchen, and in the towel, too, hanging next to the sink. The lines of the kitchen’s architecture form a literal box around Jeanne. Repressed too long, she rapidly descends into madness after the first small rupture in her routine.
But Akerman herself has rejected this interpretation. She’s right; it’s too easy, too neat. It doesn’t speak, for one, to the irreducible tension evident in Akerman’s long, static takes: the painterly lighting, palette, and assemblage of objects contained within Akerman’s low, mathematical, and frankly suffocating framing. There’s genuine love and care in these compositions, for Akerman and for Jeanne, but they also feel ready to burst.
The trouble with watching the film, on the other hand, is its length and quotidian subject matter. Jeanne Dielman is “boredom” in real time, but the question remains whose boredom it is. Is she bored, or are we? And are we bored because Jeanne’s life is boring, or because the filmmaker refuses to render it in cinematic time? As a middle-class Belgian widow, Jeanne is wholly devoted to maintaining her household and taking care of her teenage son, Sylvain. Her days are largely structured around preparing dinner. On Wednesdays, it’s beef stew; veal with peas and carrots on Thursday; meatloaf to cap off the week. Over three days—and around three and a half hours in a theater—we watch Jeanne bread the cutlets, peel the potatoes, and knead a lump of ground meat, back and forth, back and forth, with exacting precision and patience. She’s done this, it’s clear, for as long as she’s been a mother, maybe longer. In between making meals, Jeanne runs errands, babysits for a neighbor, sits in a café, prostitutes herself to different men, takes baths, helps Sylvain with his homework, knits, and prepares for bed.
One of these routine activities is ostensibly not like the others, but Akerman’s formal consistency from shot to shot would make you think otherwise. For the first three hours or so, the only strong indication we get of what’s really going on is the business-like transaction of a single bill as Jeanne and her customer stand by the door. Otherwise, we get a view of a closed bedroom door, and a darkened hallway. Before bed one night, Sylvain asks his mother if she would ever remarry. Jeanne responds pragmatically: “No. Get used to someone else?” But Sylvain has something grander in mind, offering, “If I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with.” Jeanne is skeptical. “But how could you know?” she poses. “You’re not a woman.”
On the second day, something shifts. Standing at the door after finishing up with a client, Jeanne, we notice, looks off. There’s a lock of hair out of place. She forgets to replace the lid on the porcelain bowl where she keeps her earnings, and when she returns to the kitchen, the potatoes have burned. In any other framework, these accumulating dysfunctions would be near-imperceptible; in Akerman’s, they’re seismic. On the third day, she wakes up too early. She alternately sits and paces and throws out a pot of coffee just to make a new one; her anxiety about filling up the extra hours is palpable. When, after an orgasm with her third customer, she abruptly stabs him in the throat with a pair of scissors, it doesn’t surprise. Before, we weren’t allowed to see these encounters; now that we are, it’s boring and off-putting. Even the stabbing is boring, as if an extension of Jeanne’s routine. There’s no struggle; the man lies down to rest, and we follow Jeanne’s back as she approaches him. A brief, guttural sound signifies what’s happened. There’s barely any blood, let alone a sense of liberation. The film ends with Jeanne sitting at her dining room table, in the dark, for several brutally long minutes.
Given this final take—sitting, not murdering or fleeing from the apartment—I have to think, if there’s revenge in Jeanne Dielman, it doesn’t seem to be in the violence of this single act. Instead, it’s in the way the film stages the encounter between the spectator and Jeanne. Going to the movies is a voluntary submission to its ritual: no talking, no cell phones, no indiscreet fidgeting. Like Akerman behind the camera, we face Jeanne at eye-level. We’re punished—paying attention for so long is exhausting, confining—and rewarded—it’s the only way we’d be permitted into Jeanne’s rituals, to the private rhythms of one woman’s livelihood. We understand, intuitively, why she kills him; we understand, in our bodies, why it makes sense.
I think again of Jeanne’s hands, sculpting the meatloaf, and I remember Sunday mornings. My mother is kneading dough for scallion pancakes, stretching and squeezing until the surface is taut, with that same unwavering attention. It’s easy to reject the preoccupations of a generation of women that we’ve been conditioned to view as tragic, a generation whose oppressive structures must be revealed and then broken. But maybe the more radical act is simply staying with another, uncomfortably, slowly, becoming familiar.