Are we little more than the sum of our daily tasks?
Chores seem to define the title character of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a middle-aged widower who lives in a small apartment with her college-age son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte). Her days consist of a series of mundane, meticulously performed activities: putting on the morning coffee, making the beds, folding napkins, preparing that evening’s dinner. Even when she welcomes a man into the apartment for sex in exchange for money, it’s treated as just another item on her daily to-do list: scheduled, accomplished without dallying, even squeezed in while the water boils for dinner in a winking nod to domestic multitasking.
Writer-director Chantal Akerman records three such days in the life of Jeanne, filming most of the action in real time with a stationary camera and no musical score. There is nothing, aesthetically, to distract from (or over-emphasize) the chores at hand. Even the lighting is determined by Jeanne’s routine; apparently energy-conscious, she turns lights on and off as she enters and exits each room. The only aesthetic flourish comes from shimmering blue lights that occasionally flicker through the windows at night, but even those are understood to be the headlights of passing cars.
Jeanne Dielman runs nearly three and a half hours; clearly the length is part of the monotonous point. But the movie is never less than compelling, as it allows us to come to know Jeanne’s routine almost as well as she does, to the point that we notice little details within it, or when a pattern unexpectedly changes. I love the moment one early morning where she pauses to sip her coffee and playfully crosses one leg over the other; these few seconds will be for herself.
Before long, we begin to wonder: is Jeanne supposed to stand in for all women in domestic situations or is she supposed to be this particular woman? Her biographical details are kept vague—at first I wasn’t even sure if Sylvain was her son or her husband—until a sudden, poignant monologue delivered to Sylvain before bedtime reveals something of her story. (“I really wanted a life of my own, and a child,” she says.) Seyrig’s performance—while remarkable—isn’t necessarily psychologically revealing, but more about the mastery of exacting gestures. Her best moment might be when she stops, while running errands, for a cup of coffee in a cafe and sits pensively facing the camera. Seyrig’s face goes blank, allowing us to cast our own feelings about her life (and maybe our own lives) onto her.
For these reasons Jeanne registers as more of a symbol—and indeed, Jeanne Dielman has come to stand as a landmark feminist work, a bold formal experiment that stares directly into the lonely domestic abyss to see if humanity can survive there. What the movie finds isn’t pretty. On the second day, Jeanne’s brisk efficiency gets thrown off course when she finds she’s short on potatoes. Leaving the apartment to pick some up disrupts the rest of her day, which she spends moving from room to room frantic and distracted. She calms a bit once dinner is served (though a bit late!), yet the next morning her movements have less purpose and she seems to be performing her tasks out of obligation. It will go on to be a dark day.
Ultimately, Jeanne Dielman registers not as a condemnation of domesticity, but a document of the exhaustion that comes from caring for others and never receiving care in return. Sylvain, though ostensibly in his 20s, still conducts himself as a needy little child, barely acknowledging his mother’s existence. Jeanne seems to have no one else of consequence in her life; her male clients are purely business, and a concerned letter from her sister offers little consolation considering it comes from an ocean away. When our tasks are always at the service of others—others who are unable to put any effort in of their own—our duties can come to define us. And we were made for more than that.