Home Video Hovel: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, by David Bax
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, when described, sounds more like an experiment than a film. Or, worse, it sounds like a parody of European arthouse pretensions. In reality, though, it’s more like ambient drone music or really good doom metal; long and repetitive, yes, but mesmerizing, engrossing, hypnotic and moving.
Delphine Seyrig plays the title character, a single mother raising a teenage son in a small apartment. Over nearly three and a half hours, Akerman follows Jeanne’s daily routine, shopping, cooking, laundering and, once a day, having sex with men in exchange for money. We see three days of this in meticulous detail, largely alike but with changes from day to day, some small and some large. Oh, yeah, and there’s no music.
Akerman’s film is a comment both on traditional feminine roles and on cinema itself. By taking so much time immersing us in the mechanics of Akerman’s routine, she re-calibrates us away from the sensationalism we expect from the movies. By never once yielding from her formal rigor–the lack of score, the unmoving camera–we come to find drama in places we have been trained not to look for it. Even the folding of a napkin comes to possess its own fluid beauty.
Akerman employs the same camera setups and angles throughout Jeanne’s day and from one day to the next. These shots are unchanging and yet they are changed, imbued by the knowledge and memory of what we’ve seen in them on each previous iteration. Jeanne Dielman, so dry and flat when glanced from a distance, becomes an intellectual playground, giving the viewer the space and time to contemplate whatever they think is important about Jeanne’s life–from what it means to her to raise a boy alongside her daily transactions with men to the blue light that flickers outside the dining and living room windows whenever the sun goes down–right up until the jarring, dark punchline of an ending sends you back out into the world, re-calibrated yet again.
Criterion’s 2K transfer brings new life to Jeanne Dielman, looking even more vibrant than the 35MM print I first saw at least fifteen years ago at the University of Chicago. Colors are clearly separated and a tactile level of film grain is retained. The mono French audio is also crisp, bringing clarity and immediacy to every footstep or clank of a pot in the sink.
Special features include a documentary shot during the making of the film, interviews from 2009 with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, a 1997 French TV special about Akerman, a 2007 interview with Akerman’s mother, a 1976 television interview with Akerman and Seyrig and, finally, Akerman’s first film, 1968’s Saute ma ville.