Although Chantal Akerman herself refused to reduce her masterpiece to mere ideologies, she had to admit that “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975)–further will be addressed as “Jeanne Dielman”– is one of the most important works in feminist cinema. Dissecting a woman’s life, our shared experience, and studying them under cinematic microscope constitute audacity that only feminists dare to make.
For three hours and twenty minutes we are allowed to follow closely the three days of Jeanne Dielman, a widow with one son, a prostitute by day, and an efficient homemaker (Slant Magazine used this term and I liked it). Feminist film theorists claim that these occupations are women’s position in society which make Jeanne Dielman an embodiment of a second-class citizen, and is therefore easily identifiable to women.
Like dancing to an adagio cadence, Jeanne handles her days mechanically. She wakes up in the morning, makes some coffee and breakfast, cooks dinner in the afternoon, takes a weekly john into her bedroom, and by the time her john’s done, potato is cooked and it’s a perfect time for dinner after her son goes home from school. She’s there, with her elegant gait walking from a room to another room, doing chore after chore with precise timing, starting from turning on the lamp to turning it off when she leaves the room. She and her domestic queendom are inseparable on screen. The use of static camera that we thought had lost was revived in order to display her attachment to her domesticity. Like a conditioned woman, Jeanne identifies herself to her surroundings, never to herself as a human.
We’re made conditioned to Jeanne’s personal success on the first day conquering her domestic world that some minor screw-ups in the second and third days drive us to the edge of our seats. As personal attachment grows between us and Jeanne, we’re worried about the fact that she forgets to close the lid of the vase, and hell, was I frustrated over the overcooked potato that I nearly punched the screen. Little did we realise that the small internal scream invoked when she misses the minutiae of her ritual is the daily life of our mothers, our maids, and our sisters. Her life is a set of habits that need to be checked every day, so when in the end she takes a scissor and stabs her john after finishing with him we’ll be aghast and need time to recover as Jeanne sits alone that evening with blood flowing in her hand.
The same system that habituates her to domesticity also ritualises women to always accommodate men. As if showing her subconsciousness that always prioritises men, patriarchs in her life occupy a significant screen time, from her son to her clients. Meanwhile, two women who seem to have close relationship with her don’t even appear on screen. Her neighbour remains faceless to the end of the film despite interacting with Jeanne daily. Her sister’s festive life is narrated by Jeanne’s monotone voice when she reads her letters. Perhaps it’s too far-fetched to say that Jeanne only highlights male presence, but seeing how her labour goes into pampering her son and satisfying her johns, the importance of men in Jeanne’s life is just self-evident.
After going through several online forums discussing this film, I concluded that men generally find it a dreadful, boring film. I think this is what Akerman wanted to convey. “Jeanne Dielman” pictures women’s lives–which account for half of the population–unapologetically. This is the condition of womanhood girls are socialised into. Is it clean? Did I put too much water in my cooking? What about that spot that I missed while cleaning? Her obsessiveness with tidiness and hygiene isn’t OCD, it’s what we women are expected to be. Men may call it tedious, but women call it our lives.