I recently learned that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had been chosen by Sight and Sound as the greatest film of all time.
I have seen a lot of movies of all kinds from popular blockbusters to experimental arthouse films, but I had never heard of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Googling, I learned that it is a 201-minute film by Belgian director Chantal Akerman, set mostly in a small apartment in Brussels, following the everyday routines a woman who takes care of her son and turns tricks when he’s at school in order to support them. Most of the film covers Jeanne’s sometimes obsessive-compulsive domestic chores, shot in real-time, most of them shot with a static camera capturing very lengthy cuts.
The soundtrack is all ambient sound – and much of it seems overloud – often brashly so. Somewhat unsettling is the constant clacking of the heels of Jeanne’s pumps on the wooden floor. Why does Jeanne wear these hard shoes all day long while doing chores? Doesn’t she have a pair of slippers? Rather irritating are the squeals of the cabinet doors and the loud mechanical operations of the old elevator. One of the loudest sounds – inordinately so – is the crinkling of the brown paper covering a package Jeanne opens with a pair of scissors just before the film’s climax.
The film encompasses three days, and superscript tells you when the first day and the second day end. The film starts on the first day in the kitchen as Jeanne makes dinner. She walks back and forth throughout the house, the heels of her uncomfortable-looking pumps constantly clacking.
WARNING: IN COMING TO TERMS WITH THIS FILM, I INCLUDE LOTS OF PLOT SUMMARY HERE AND A MAJOR SPOILER – SO BEWARE!
Jeanne is a sex worker making money to support herself and her son, but all we see of that is the man arriving and following her down to her bedroom door. Then the door opens. The job is done. They come out and go to the door. The man pays. Jeanne goes to the bedroom and takes the towel she has laid down to protect her bedspread and she puts it in the laundry basket. Nothing said. No emotion. She takes a bath, washes the tub.
Sylvain, her coldly taciturn and aloof son, as detached as Jeanne’s customer, comes home. She hangs up his coat and scarf. Can’t he do that for himself? Jeanne serves her son meals, pampers him, ties his scarf when he leaves for school the next day. He doesn’t say much, doesn’t seem very grateful. She serves him dinner. Always aloof, he says nothing, reads his book until she tells him no books at the table – her only admonishment amidst all her uncomplaining service to him. In the morning, she gives him money for the day and he asks for more. He comes off as a cold asshole.
On two nights, they eat real-time. The first night, it’s spoonful after spoonful after spoonful of soup until they are all done! Then it’s potatoes and stew. She washes the dishes. Later, they sit in the living room. He reads. She turns the pages of a slim newspaper, folds it, puts it away. She takes out knitting, knits a knot, puts it away. It all seems odd.
Realism or surrealism? She moves through her deliberately scripted, mundane routines like an automaton. She never hums or sings or listens to music or talks to herself. Her life and expressions are monotonously the same. Also, there is nothing quirky or interesting about what she does. It is all monotonous and mechanical.
On the surface, this is realism. On the other hand, none of it feels real. Is this allegory – feminist commentary about the lives of women?
On Day Two, Jeanne keeps going on – her heels forever clacking. Making the bed, folding clothes, washing the dishes, drying the dishes, everything done with OCD neatness and sameness.
But this day is different. Jeanne gets to go out! She goes to the post office. She is communicating with her sister in Canada. She goes to a café, sits at a corner table, and drinks coffee.
Then another thing happens differently. At home, the doorbell rings. Unseen, a mother passes a baby in a baby basket in to Jeanne with a simple “Bon jour.” Jeanne sets the baby down on the table and ignores it. The baby’s mom picks her up a short time later, talks extensively about buying meat for dinner, and leaves. When this baby exchange happens again for a short time on the third day, you wonder if the mother is turning tricks too!
Jeanne receives another client, and the sequence happens the same way as the previous day, all the same, but Day Two reveals more subtle differences. In the kitchen, she forgets something. She looks askance, seems irritated with herself. She does things more slowly. She doesn’t know where to place a hot pot. She carries it to the bathroom and back to the kitchen. She puts it in the sink and strains it. What was that all about? Oops! Only one potato! She has to go out and buy another bag.
Her life seems bleak. That evening, she once again glances at the newspaper for a very short time and then takes out her knitting, knits a few knots, and then stops and puts her knitting kit away. Does she have trouble concentrating? No book to read? The living-room is bare and bookless.
The most unusual moment in all this mundane monotony happens that night. There is very little dialogue in the whole movie, and Sylvain speaks very little until, out of the blue, he talks in a bland monotone about talking to his friend about sex, how his friend said a penis is like a sword, and how he hated his father thinking about him having sex with his mom and hurting her with his big sword,
On the third morning, she gets up and seems introspective. Will this day be different? In the kitchen, she kneads the ingredients for meat loaf for a long time! A very long time! Maybe she is thinking about how she is a slave to routines that serve her cold, aloof son and her cold, expressionless sex customers.
We see her first major expression of dissatisfaction when she pours coffee from a thermos into a glass and adds milk. She doesn’t like the taste. She dumps it. She tastes the milk. It seems okay. She makes café au lait again and adds two lumps of sugar – two lumps that she places side by side on the table and scrutinizes. Still, it’s not good. She dumps the coffee. She grinds fresh coffee, boils water, makes drip coffee. She moves around the apartment, clack, clack, clack.
When the shocking climax comes, it’s almost as if she’s driven insane by her OCD routines and clacking of her heels. Her whole life is doing things – mostly in the kitchen.
After making fresh coffee, she sits in the living room and stares. Then she jumps up and goes to the dining room cabinet and dusts things.
The baby is delivered to her apartment again, and now the most discordant thing happens. The baby fusses and cries when she picks her up and the sound of the baby’s crying is sharp, screeching, the volume disturbingly loud. She leaves the screeching baby, goes into the kitchen to eat something, and the doorbell rings. She ignores the ring for a while. Then she gets up and brings the baby to the door.
She goes out again, this time in search of a button for a coat for Sylvain given to her by her sister. She goes to a number of shops, but fails to find the right button. Is Jeanne’s world crumbling? When she goes to her café this time, someone is sitting at her favorite table and she is taken aback. When she gets her coffee, she doesn’t drink it, pays, and leaves.
At the entrance to her apartment building, she finds a package by her mailbox. She takes it upstairs. She takes the package into her bedroom where the towel on the bed awaits her afternoon sex client. She tries to untie the string, but can’t, so she gets scissors from the kitchen and cuts the sting and opens the box to find a blouse.
When the doorbell rings, announcing her daily client, she puts the package under the bed, the crinkling of the brown paper excessively loud, and she puts the scissors on her dressing table.
We see Jeanne lying under her customer. There is nothing sexy about the whole thing. He is hardly moving, coming very slowly to a climax, and now we see the first dramatic change in Jeanne’s temperament. She’s feeling uneasy. She wants this to be over. She twists the bedspread with her hand. She is trapped. She struggles and the guy comes.
When she is putting on her blouse, the man lies on his back, making no move to leave. Jeanne goes to her dressing table, picks up the pair of scissors, and stabs him in the neck. He gasps and dies – too quickly for a stab to the neck – the whole thing staged very unrealistically – no choking, slow, blood-spurting death.
Finally – cut to the film’s last and perhaps longest cut, shot with a static camera. In dim light, Jeanne sits at the dining room table. She doesn’t seem distressed – as though she hasn’t just killed someone. Shouldn’t she be realizing that her life is ruined? Will Sylvain notice when he comes home? Most likely, he won’t notice anything is wrong as long as she hangs up his coat and scarf and makes dinner. Not worried, she just sits in the dining room, blood on her hand, blood on her blouse, staring and thinking for a very long time, though it isn’t clear what she’s thinking about. She seems spent, at peace, fulfilled. She’s not upset. We hear the traffic noises accentuated. Street lights are reflected in the glass of the china cabinet.
The choice of this film as the greatest film of all time seems reactionary. The white, male filmmakers have ruled top positions on many greatest-films lists for too long. Here’s a film by a female filmmaker that is one of the first feminist films. People might scoff at the choice of this film for the eminent top ranking. When I learned that the film is largely everyday routine for 201 minutes, I was certainly wondering at the choice, so I had to see the movie in order to judge it.
Do I think it’s the greatest film of all time? It’s certainly interesting – more interesting than I thought it could be – and thought-provoking, but not the greatest film for me. It’s a good, clever, artistic film and provides a lot to talk about. I am totally sympathetic with Jeanne’s plight, her slavery and entrapment, her service to men, and it got me thinking about the oppressive nature of daily routine, especially when you think about doing those routines over and over and over again. I found her world somewhat compelling – what Jeanne does is inherently boring but you are compelled to watch.
Still, I never felt much of an emotional connection with Jeanne. She doesn’t reveal much of herself; she doesn’t invite an alliance of feelings. She simply does things until she reaches critical mass and breaks out of routine in a shocking way that seems excessive and out of character. I had been exposed to THE big spoiler before I watched, but knowing what was going to happen probably compelled me to have patience and watch the whole thing, and it allowed me to trace the signs that seem to lead to her dramatic act. I wonder how I would have reacted to the ending if I hadn’t known what was coming. I might have thought it was absurd, especially since it happens without any sort of realism. It is an inherently dramatic act that is portrayed without drama. Her violent act comes off as bland and routine as making meat loaf.