“I could have made mashed potatoes, but we’re having that tomorrow.”
‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, a Belgian movie directed by Chantal Akerman in 1975, is a long study of three days in the life of a single mother. Over its three and a half hours, it follows the title character as she cooks meals, shops, knits, bathes and sleeps. To get money to care for her son, she works as a prostitute, meeting one man each day in the afternoon. The scenes are long and unbroken by cuts, there is little dialogue, the camera remains locked off, the sets are small and there is no musical score. Weirdly, despite the simplicity and challenging pace, this film is absorbing. The details of the domestic life of Dielman make the film completely immersive, so when things start to fall apart during the third day (as they do) you are completely swept away. It’s a film about order but also claustrophobic confinement: the way the flat is framed with static cameras and boxed-in sets mean that the audience is trapped with the characters, and Dielman’s routine chores mean that the audience is similarly trapped within her life. The cracks that appear in this order are subtle to start with: Dielman drops a spoon and is shown to be indecisive as to where to put a hot dish, she overcooks potatoes and is unable to calm a crying baby. But because we have already been absorbed by her routine, these moments feel incredibly ominous. I also found that I was waiting for her clients to arrive, the only infringement in her otherwise conventional day, but their visits (aside from the final, fateful one) are shown as simple extensions of the movie’s domesticity. It’s a film about boredom and confinement and the small breakdowns that people suffer from, but it’s also about women. Produced by an entirely female crew, the film is a critique of the onerous and, at times, soul-destroying life of housework and, in the end, an apocalyptic cautionary tale demonstrating the potentially extreme consequences of this boredom.
Would I recommend it? This is an amazing and entirely unique film, but it’s not for everyone – the film is glacially slow: we watch Dielman spend ten minutes making a meatloaf and five minutes peeling potatoes. Towards the end the camera spends an uncomfortable amount of time just focused on her sitting doing nothing. But this is the point, and the way the film draws you in, almost hypnotically. Watch with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ for a similar setting and a similar focus on female characters, but a different approach to creating a dramatic world through dialogue, set design and camera movements.