Here is an excerpt from my review of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at The Alternative Chronicle:
Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.
Washing the dishes. Cooking dinner. Preparing the dinner table. Buying groceries. And meeting with male clients in the late in the afternoon before her son arrives home from school. This is the life of Jeanne Dielman, the protagonist of feminist filmmaker Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. At three hours and twenty-five minutes it is appropriate to label the film as the housewife epic. It is a simple film narratively, but an utterly complex one thematically as Akerman subtlety deconstructs the idea that meaning for women is both found and fulfilled in the role of a homemaker. Jeanne Dielman lives in a small apartment inBrussels with her teenage son who is absent most of the day and only arrives home for only a few hours before his bed time. However even their time spent together is silent. The silence that pervades dinner, nightly walks, and preparation for bed is only disrupted by the boy’s strange questions and confessions about sex right before he falls asleep.
If this sounds difficult, it is. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is probably one of the most trying and laborious films one is ever likely to watch. Akerman takes her time as she follows Dielman’s daily activities, such as skinning potatoes or sending a letter, with lengthy single takes ranging anywhere from five seconds to eight minutes. In one of the films infamous scenes the audience watches her prepare meatloaf as she does the same hand motion of turning the meat loaf over.
And over again.
For minutes on end.
Despite the seemingly trite nature of the film, it is much more than just a test of endurance. Every frame is so carefully composed. Every scene builds upon the last. It is a film that demands the viewer’s full attention otherwise the experience is rendered pointless. There is not a wasted second or frame in Jeanne Dielman despite its extreme length. Chantal Akerman and her director of cinematography Babette Mangolte craft each frame carefully and with purpose. For example, each shot is divided into three distinct sections of color and objects. Take a look at just a couple of stills taken from the film below….
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