The Seemingly Empty Activities of Women

A woman puts salt into a pot and covers it. She takes a match and lights a fire under it. The doorbell rings. She takes off her apron and hangs it behind the kitchen door. She washes her hands; thoroughly. She dries them on a kitchen towel. She turns off the light. We hear her voice: “Hello” and a man’s voice: “Hello”. This is our introduction to Jeanne, who will accompany us for the next three hours and fifteen minutes of ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, Chantal Ackerman’s most famous film and an underrated masterpiece. Released in 1975, when Ackerman was only 24, and filmed by an almost all-female crew including cinematographer Babette Mangolte, the film is most commonly known by the name of its protagonist, Jeanne Dielman, interpreted by a majestic Delphine Seryig. 

There are many aspects of ‘Jeanne Dielman’ that make this film the striking, emotional rollercoaster it is known for. Although always refusing the label of “feminist filmmaker”, Chantal Ackerman’s whole filmography revolves around women’s lives. The close, profound relationship she had with her mother, a Polish holocaust-survivor, influenced her whole body of work and it can be seen in the attentive portrayal she made of Jeanne, an older single mother caught into obsessive every day routines of cooking, cleaning, shopping, all while having sex with men as a means to sustain herself and her son. 

Divided into three consecutive days, ‘Jeanne Dielman’ takes the viewer into the world of the protagonist following her every gesture, her every errand to buy food or find buttons, her every moment in the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom, the dinner table. The seemingly ever-serene, measured middle-class Jeanne moves through each activity with thorough, obsessive care. 

We soon understand that each of her days is painstakingly planned, organised down to the smallest detail, even her relationship with the men she has sex with. Jeanne finds solace and peace in such perfectionism, however, we notice something is wrong. As we follow her moving again and again through her house, a sense of tension starts building. A sense of uneasiness. Of obsession. Of captivity. There are no camera movements, only long, at times strenuous, static shots capturing in real time every detail of Jeanne cooking, washing herself, setting the table. Then, after a day and a half of perfect routine, it finally happens: the potatoes overcook. The knife falls to the ground. The vase where she puts the money from her ‘clients’ is left open. This is when the true magic of ‘Jeanne Dielman’ starts to unfold, because each missing button and window left open feels like a stab, a complete, utter, systematic loss of control. Jeanne’s world starts to collapse into itself, leading to the most unexpected and yet inescapable end. 

‘Jeanne Dielman’ is not an easy film to watch for many reasons, the strongest being that by enveloping the audience in Jeanne’s world to such extent, Ackerman forces us to truly see and feel the drama in her life. Women protagonists are hardly portrayed in films doing unflattering, seemingly empty activities, which are often the most truthful and revealing of the condition of women in society. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is a thought-provoking film that follows the screenwriting axiom that ‘every action must have meaning’ in the most truthful and shocking way. Each and every gesture of Jeanne, from cleaning shoes to grinding coffee, is astonishingly significant. This is perhaps the strongest provocation of this film: each moment in our lives has meaning, each is a reflection of our state of mind, and, like Jeanne’s, it reveals who we really are.

Words: Chiara Viale

Image: Babette Mangolte

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