Rule Breaker, Complexity in Monotony: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
I once read on the side of a building the phrase, “Create art not monotony” which I find problematic because one can also find art in monotony. Such is the case in Chantal Akerman’s, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I’ve never been so transfixed by someone methodically preparing veal before viewing Jeanne Dielman. Its hypnotic, mind blowing, life changing and kind of cryptic, yet I’m stubbornly at odds with it. On the surface, this is an art film where nothing appears to happen and this probably pissed off mainstream moviegoers back in its day while others praised it. Jeanne Dielman is a metronome and the rhythmic melody of her life is riveting. Now without going down the weary road of cross-eyed, mind boggling, womanhood ideologies, I can't help but feel this film is synonymous to a Marina Abramovic performance piece called House with the Ocean View. This might seem like a stretch to some, however its predominant subject matter is about creating a work that ritualizes simple everyday actions and how that manifests in a particular state of mind. This performance was created in 2012 which was after Jeanne Dielman but is certainly heavenly knowing works of this caliber appear to resonate even to this day specifically cultivated by female artists.
So in returning to my exploration of female filmmakers, this grandiose masterpiece by Belgium film director Chantal Akerman may be challenging to the average viewer. This is a piece saying something about something and that something is ambiguous. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles title is an address which is also a three hour and twenty-one-minute film that commands your undivided attention. It’s a film about the day to day routine of a single widow, Jeanne (played by the sensational Delphine Seyrig) raising her teenage son, Sylvain while being a full time homemaker and a secluded prostitute to provide a stable income. The story spans the length of three days where the subtlety of her routine morphs into something viscerally unexpected. As a viewer we learn in the first 10 minutes, that she's a prostitute without actually having to witness her having sex. It's alluded to and its brilliant, but also kicks off her daily routine from straightening the bed, giving herself a bath, scrubbing the bathtub after her bath, then preparing dinner, to having dinner with her son and as this whole regimen transpires we're left wondering what is this all leading up to?
Essentially, this film is about Jeanne's routine but also how that structured life falls apart. On one hand it’s about dominating every aspect of one’s life, filling in every detail of every minute of a person’s being with a task, a chore, which ultimately results in being distracted from the bigger question. Why does Jeanne need so much control? Is she someone who needs constant activity and distraction to sway her away from an emptiness and perhaps the existential shadow that lingers in her psyche? Maybe. It’s a profound depth I can’t quite juxtapose to any other filmmaker and given this is from a female perspective certainly accentuates the banality of domesticity. It makes the feminists’ label this a feminist film, because how repressing it is for women to be homemakers, slaving their entire existence catering to men. Perhaps. But the aura it leaves on me is that of a woman who is dead inside, struggling to live, yet intuitively provides, while being a mother who’s simply on her own. She has no interest in remarrying, finding love, or finding purpose within in a man’s eyes because given the time period this takes place in, most men viewed women as the domesticated homemaker even long after the war. She’s her own kind of independent woman disguised as a homemaker. It’s allusively intelligent however, the prostitution is some kind of metaphor which has hindered me from fully embracing this film. AND, I’ve been losing sleep over this because I can’t figure it out. Its been boggling me for weeks until the other night it hit me like a wave of unpredictable flash blacks, triggering something I didn’t necessarily subjectively want. Setting my personal absorption aside, the word vulnerability struck me down. Jeanne Dielman is not submissive to vulnerability which is why the ending has me confounded until I realized, Jeanne Dielman would rather destroy the things that make her vulnerable. You really see the struggle in her expression at the final seven-minute scene of the film, as she sits with herself in the dining room overcome with a reality she can no longer control. SPOILER ALERT!!! A man made her orgasm and she killed him. We'll never know the thoughts behind this character's actions but the mystery it provokes is tantalizing. A woman living in a detached state of mind can’t handle the onslaught of emotions provided by a heavy release of oxytocin which perhaps clashes against her rationality allowing her feel good endorphins temporarily possessing her to insanity. It’s a stretch, but its all I've got to explain this heavy climatic ending or simply I need to study more Akerman films. Probably the latter.
In an interview with Camera Obscura, Akerman stated, “I do think it’s a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never, shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman. They are the lowest in the hierarchy of film images. A kiss or a car crash comes higher, and I don’t think that’s accidental. It’s because these are women’s gestures that they count for so little.” I’m sure the last sentence resonates deeply for many feminists. However, I'm certainly obsessed with the ending and wish I could find a quote or an article where Akerman discusses that. The most astonishing shot of this whole film is what happens before the climax, how everything fits within a single frame and even all the action that takes place within that one shot is incredible. Its well worth the three plus hours.
My other thoughts pertaining to Jeanne being dead inside, as you briefly learn about her back story and the tragedy attached to it it seems overwhelming for any living being to endure. Surviving grief by shutting down or simply not participating in all that life has to offer in fear of enduring the same kind of grief all over again. It's a cycle, the dance that life is for most living beings. Contrary to Jeanne, she's detached, complacent, alone, but still thrives to live, be in control, and take care of her son. There’s always a reason to live right? Down to how she consistently keeps her composure from scene to scene given the absence to any kind of emotion is nonexistent in her world. I don't know if that means she's strong from within or extremely competent in guarding herself.
The complexity of Jeanne's life is disguised in simplicity and monotony for reasons the audience may never know except suspect there maybe a certain pain or grief or an inability to embrace her own humanity. Nonetheless, through her exterior she embraces the ability to care, giving meticulous attention to her duties, giving time to patient complacency certainly reveals quite a bit about her character. It's a delicate balance of being woven into the present moment knowing that whatever fear she holds within is always in the background of her life. Which makes me return to that ending, as it can be interpreted in various ways. So I end with my struggle in interpreting the ending of this film with two questions. Was it all a metaphor to undermine the oppression of women by destroying man's ability to repress women or was it simply a woman able to live a life independently without utilizing a man with the exception of using him for sex? And if that's the case, it certainly opens the field for deeper analyzation. Perhaps, I'll travel down that rabbit hole another day but for now my brain is overheating in this blazing July weather. Cheers for now!