Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

Man! Talk about radical duration! There’s really nothing like this in the movies, including Tarkovsky (more spatially expansive, way more poetical/symbolic/ impenetrable) or those Warhol features (more strategically meandering, more self-reflexively improvised or inert). Maybe Abbas Kiarostami qualifies a little bit, except that a bit of fresh air tends to blow through his super-long shots (ancient patterns that aren’t only oppressive, patience, maybe even a bit of optimism). Tarr? Michael Snow! We’re never going to get started here. There’s hardly anything like this in the movies.

This is very provocative stuff. It’s a really glacial type of provocation, mind you, vast for all of the enclosed space, barely moving to the naked, commercially inclined eye. Challenges! Fun ones too, believe it or not. As with most provocations Jeanne Dielman… demands a reaction, or maybe it offers us a number of optional reactions. You could run out screaming. The auteuse might not even mind. Forbear though. Why not start with some film appreciation, noting the practically awesome exactitude with which plot and process are enacted and covered. You could take the next logical step and notice how that exactitude corresponds to these processes, to the duties of domesticity. Note our protagonist’s almost terrifying efficiency. Martha! See what you think of Akerman’s thesis—more clearly stated in the literature than in the film, I think—which has it that domesticity is servile, mind numbing, demeaning unto degradation. It’s a gender burden, and its oppressiveness leads inevitably to that final, hours-down-the-road outbreak of violence. That would be fair to consider, and important.

For my part, though, I find a few productive tensions here, a few counter-provocative counter-options. This servility also looks, from another angle, like an absolute autonomy. Look at the world this woman has made, and how beautifully! Look at this comprehensive design (engineering, aesthetics, everything). The protagonist, so impressively essayed (modeled? walked through?) by Ms. Seyrig, seems to have a great deal of Fritz Lang about her. Is she subjugated by patriarchy, or control freakily oppressive in her own right? But totalitarian matriarchy is only one option among many. What would a Renoirian method result in?  Or, more gender-specifically/gender-appropriately, what would become of a method like Cynthia Scott’s? (This!!: All the richer: this viewer finds in Akerman’s film a withering critique as well as all sorts of bright alternatives.

Also, Jeanne Dielman… is pretty funny. There’s plenty of (extremely!) deadpan domestic comedy. Get a load of that son of hers! In the end, though, we should probably come back to the stated intent of the author. Comedy and mother-critique don’t quite sufficiently provide for or explain all of that off-screen space, all of that off-screen time. That isn’t even to mention the immeasurable years that preceded our entry into this space. (The bath, etc.) Here is tremendous concentration, tremendous density. Here’s where provocation starts to look like the rumblings of a revolution. Look at what’s expected of this woman (and millions like her). Look at what those expectations do to her (and millions…), and lead her to. In this light her occasional prostitution assumes a whole different, terrifying aspect (cf. Godard, 1967, I). Think, husbands, or should I say beware…

Well there you are, and it just goes to show; here’s another thing you could do as you watch and watch this really long movie. You can think and think! Really productively too. Static art can be paradoxically well suited for reflection, and intellectual exertion. It sure prodded me in that direction. And it’s interesting, certainly self-revealing to see where I end up. The final fireworks, even the elephant-in-the-room extra/domestic commerce, seems a little too emphatic for me. The stabbing may provide the climax—ahem— that we’ve been longing for, but I regret it. It makes this into something of a Polanski film, where the Dardennes, or Robert Bresson, are more to my taste. Their sensibilities certainly serve the notion that domesticity, or domestic femininity, are both difficult and divine. These hard things require that we interrogate our practices and attitudes, but they also, equally, deserve respect. More, they carry and contain a portentous, immanent weight. (Cf. Hans Christian Andersen, “Thumbelina”, “The Wild Swans”, “The Snow Queen”. Cf. Marian theology and iconography!) That’s pretty valid, I think. Not very feminist, I think.

Do I protest too much? The dialogue continues! Probably I should make my own movie. Even better, I should just be more and more consistently useful at home. Much obliged, Ms. Akerman…