“A singular work in film history,” begins the description on back of the case of Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s astounding Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (France, 1975).
That is no hyperbole. Jeanne Dielman is a painstaking, excruciatingly exacting portrait of the life of a perfectly organized homemaker, an epic portrait of a quotidian life where every gesture through the 200-minute study becomes important and the slips in routine reverberate like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s astounding to realize that Akerman was only 25 when she put this uncompromising vision on the screen. It’s almost as astounding that this landmark work took so long for finally arrive on home video in U.S. Almost impossible to see for decades (it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1983 and was rarely revived in the years since), this singular work made its DVD debut in 2009, presented by Criterion in a magnificent two-disc special edition. Criterion has now remastered the film for its Blu-ray debut.
Middle-aged widow and single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives a carefully structured life with a clockwork routine. She wakes up before dawn, sees her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) off to school, cleans every last dish in her tiny and spotless kitchen, then continues on with the errands and duties of her day. One of those duties just happens to be servicing an afternoon client as a part-time prostitute. Jeanne is all business when the bell rings and she puts the pot on low simmer to welcome her client for the day. It’s creepily expressive the way Akerman frames her head out of the shot when she answers the door, matching Seyrig’s inexpressive formality with each man.
Chantal Akerman was 25 years old when she made Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a 200 minute movie where (as critics are so fond of saying) nothing happens, at least nothing that we are used to seeing on screen. Perhaps it takes the audacity of youth to create something so unprecedented, ambitious, aggressively defiant and demanding. After all, enfant artiste terrible Orson Welles was the same age when he made Citizen Kane. Jeanne Dielman is in many ways Akerman’s Kane, a shot across the bow of the filmmaking world and the film that continues to be hailed as her masterpiece. Criterion’s DVD release is an event, the American home video debut of a film rarely seen in any form in the U.S.
Akerman traces her interest in filmmaking back to a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou when she was fifteen years, while her philosophy and style was greatly influenced by the East Coast experimental filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow, whose films she watched during a long stay in New York City in the early seventies. You can see their echoes in her exacting direction and dedication to temporal integrity. But the film is also a reflection of her life (she grew up surrounded by women) and her frustration that such lives were never shown on screen, as if they had no value. After a career of self-financed shorts and features, she applied for funds for a more ambitious feature on the life of a housewife. As she worked on her screenplay, she pared away subplots and eliminated characters to focus on Jeanne’s life in her apartment. And to see her vision through, she put together a predominantly female crew, which was difficult in the mid-seventies when women had yet to enter many professions.