It’s often the sign of an exceptional film when you leave the theater (or your couch) with the peculiar sensation that the art you just experienced has irrevocably disrupted your prior conception of reality. Of course, such a feeling is only temporary, but the very best works of cinema are the ones where that indescribable emotion lingers for hours, even days, afterward. To me, it’s a melancholy and almost exhausted feeling, one that – experienced at its purest distillation – often hinders me from devoting my entire emotional energy to just about anything else for the remainder of my day. For as many films as I have seen (which, in the grand scheme of things, is probably not that many compared to some), I have only experienced this afterglow effect maybe a handful of times. I want to clarify that this is not the same as being simply moved by a film; no, feeling sadness or terror or joy as the result of watching a movie is merely the indicator of a good film, and even many movies I otherwise consider masterpieces fail to provide this almost divine artistic connection. This effect I’m describing is far more disorienting and more difficult to pin down than one or two quantifiable emotions, perhaps most akin to existential dread than anything else.
I’m spending so much time and effort trying to convey such a difficult-to-define impression because, as you may have guessed by now, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles evoked this reaction from me. To those that have only read the description of this film’s plot, it may seem surprising that such a lengthy, austere work centered around a single mother essentially doing housework for three days proved to be so emotionally affecting to me. To most casual moviegoers, such a film probably sounds pretentious, boring, and something to avoid at all costs. Even amongst cinephiles, Chantal Akerman’s 201-minute magnum opus has somewhat of an infamous reputation for its uncompromising length and formality. As I write this, the most popular review of the film on Letterboxd describes it as “a boring, frustrating, painful experience of a movie that is also kind of brilliant”. While I strongly disagree with the first three of those adjectives, I will concede that Jeanne Dielman is certainly not for everyone.
Among a great many other things, Jeanne Dielman is a film about the act of time passing – hence its completely deserved albeit daunting 3 hours and 21 minute runtime. We watch, over the course of three days that Akerman magnificently compresses into three hour-long segments while preserving the breadth of their length, the film’s titular single mother (played exquisitely by Delphine Seyrig) simply go about her day, every minute of which is apparently accounted for by a variety of chores and errands. Every day, she wakes her teenage son up for school, prepares their dinner, cleans various parts of the house, and prostitutes herself for financial support (perhaps the only aspect of her life that does not belong to the predictably mundane host of other tasks she performs throughout the day; however, Akerman brilliantly treats this semi-surprising flourish as just another chore Jeanne has to do).
Slowly over these three days, we begin to lean in with a strange sense of apprehension and dread. Chantal Akerman writes every moment of the film with such a striking attention to detail that we become intimately connected to every task of Jeanne’s routine – so much so that when tiny slip-ups begin to cascade into further otherwise miniscule mistakes, they feel catastrophic rather than inconvenient. These innocuous errors bear so much dramatic weight within the film because they represent a wrench thrown into the rhythm of Jeanne’s well-oiled machine of a routine. Akerman’s decision to keep the camera static at just about every moment of the film draws the viewer’s attention to the flurry of activity going on within each and every shot, imbuing a sense of confident momentum to the film only for it to become suddenly disturbed when just one of its elements falls out of line, shattering a continuum of fluid motion. So when Jeanne drops a spoon, or overcooks a pot of potatoes, or wakes up slightly earlier than normal, these disturbances have nothing less than a disastrous effect on her psyche.
Much has been discussed about Jeanne Dielman with respect to its underlying feminist themes and status as one of the greatest feminist films ever made, but as I don’t feel qualified to discuss this (admittedly very critical) topic with the depth it deserves, I want to instead examine the film through the unique prism of 2020. I first watched this movie in mid-March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its early stages of terrifying rapid escalation. We were only a few months into quarantine then, but I nevertheless remember being struck by how exceedingly well the film captures the feeling of indoor claustrophobia, and more interestingly the habits and rituals we adapt to distract ourselves from that crushing isolation and the occasional bout of anxiety. Oddly enough, I found the film strangely comforting, despite the devastating conclusions it draws on the subject of being trapped in the sterile environment of one’s own home indefinitely. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how shockingly little control we have over our physical circumstances, we will always try to maintain an illusion that we do. It’s no wonder, then, that a film about that individual agency unwinding at the seams, about a character so determined to quell the deafening noise of her own unease that she occupies every second of her day with distraction, resonated so strongly with me at this horrifically confusing point in time.