Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Written & Directed by Chantal Akerman
Our lives are made up of rituals. We wake up, get dressed, clean ourselves, make food, and overall prepare for our day. This is just the opening of a single morning. There is comfort in ritual; repetition provides security because we can easily predict what happens next. The disruption of these rituals can upend all peace we feel, throwing us into a realm of conflict and volatile emotion. From a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s relatively common to compress and delete chunks of time that don’t flow into a structured narrative. You don’t often see a character going through every step of that morning routine on film; only the pieces the director or screenwriter has decided provide shorthand to understand a character or jumpstart a plot. Chantal Akerman threw all of this out the window to present an almost four-hour picture that, by focusing on tedium, illuminates a kind of life often discounted in the medium.
Single mother Jeanne Dielman spends her days in a regimented series of actions. We follow her over three days as she cooks and cleans, constantly moving and never devoting much time to herself. She cares for her teenage son, who attends school all day and comes home in the evening. They eat dinner and take a walk only to return and get ready for sleep. Folded into the daytime routine are Jeanne’s visits from male clients whom she has sex with, seemingly the only financial subsistence she has. The sexual encounters are also highly ritualized, with barely a sound coming from the bedroom. However, something happens that disrupts the flow on the second day, and Jeanne starts making silly mistakes. It all leads to her complete fracturing and a moment that sends ripples through the rest of the disciplined film.
Akerman has created a cinematic experience that refuses to dramatize the mundane and instead forces the viewer to sit and watch what we often see as unimportant. As a feminist, she spent a lot of time thinking about her mother and domesticity, coming to see beauty in the routines and how they are sacrificial acts of love for her child. The result is a picture that finds heroic nobility in the parts of a life cut from almost every film. As an audience, we learn how to read these scenes, pick up on subtle gestures and see when Jeanne breaks and reflects on her state of being.
This time spent on domestic action accentuates the brief glimpses of Jeanne’s sex work. It’s not until the end that the camera stays in the room with Jeanne and her client. Then, we see them go down a hallway, the door closes, and time passes until they emerge and money changes hands. Akerman has stated that historically women’s work comes out of oppression; they are usually lower in the hierarchy than men; thus, their labor is devalued in these systems. However, Akerman posits that out of oppression comes beautiful art that is often more interesting than what the top rung of the hierarchy ever produces.
In the film, Jeanne is spoken to in long-winded monologues, once by her son and another time by her neighborhood. These monologues appear to comment on Jeanne without ever talking about her. For example, her son brings up his Oedipal feelings as a child resentment against his father when he first learned what sex was. Her neighbor opines being unable to decide what to feed her family. These sudden explosions of speech never feel natural but very intentionally rehearsed, pushing against the flow of the routine but lacking authenticity in their presentation.
Akerman’s creative process led her to question the “hierarchy of images.” Why do we find some filmed images more interesting than others? Why is the image of a fire preferred over a table set for dinner? A couple having sex over a woman sitting enjoying a cup of coffee? We don’t really think about this consciously, but it is incredibly worth thinking about. Propagandized media is rife through Western culture, and it actively chooses and deletes images based on their perceived effectiveness. The images we are “passively” presented with push a preferred way of life that people in power desire to make a reality. Domestic labor is rarely romanticized because it ultimately does not produce wealth for those in power.
Domestic work is essential but hard to turn into effective propaganda based on the melodramatic standards of Western media. Instead, a particular image of the “working class” is manufactured, equating to “white, moderately or poorly educated, male.” Society is conditioned to read this shorthand without realizing it so that when discussions of the working class come up in policy discussion, it is never extended to people outside of those adjectives. It’s disturbing to see talks about the working class excluding jobs like teachers (often associated with women) or caregivers (also primarily associated with women). “Working class” is even spoken as a separate demographic despite so much labor in the States relying on Black, Hispanic, and immigrant people. This doesn’t even touch on how invisible disabled people are in the media and are never considered working class, despite the fact they are very much. If progress is ever to be made, then our society must become more actively aware of the forms propaganda takes and how the absence of specific images causes large portions of the population to have themselves and their needs rendered invisible.