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Theme Tuesday - Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Chantal Akerman is one of the most prominent female filmmakers of the 20th century, and a director that has been a glaring blind spot for me. During March, I seek to rectify that blind spot.

Akerman’s most famous and renowned film was one I saved deliberately for last. I wanted to be “prepared” for her vaunted masterpiece and to be completely on its wavelength from the very start. I realize that this may have been too optimistic on my part.

Jeanne Dielman is a single mother who makes money through prostitution. Akerman deliberately plays down any salacious elements of her “profession” (it doesn’t seem she would declare what she does on any tax forms) and instead focuses on her most mundane tasks such as preparing food, cleaning, going shopping, babysitting, etc. Many of these tasks take place in real time, and the viewer slowly starts to feel the weight of the mundanity of her existence.

All of this builds up to a conclusion that seems to come out of nowhere. Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne certainly does not give any outward signs of mental instability or spiritual despair however. The closest that we get is some slip ups in her routine - a crying baby, overcooked potatoes, disheveled hair. Because of the mundanity of the previous couple hours however, these differences seem like groundbreaking shifts in Jeanne’s world. It should be a cliche that people who are irritated by the smallest things feel that way because their lives are so mundane and small. It is a really difficult job for an actor to do “nothing” and Seyrig is the perfect blank slate that we need because this work is insistent on how it chooses to not telegraph its message.

While the scope of the film is small, the ambition certainly is not. This film works as a rebuke to the neorealist genre that supposedly captured real life, as a criticism of the objectification of women and how they are forced to compartmentalize their sensual and domestic sides, and as an ambitious portrait of an woman who is not extraordinary in the least. Even from my fractured viewing, I knew that I was watching something truly visionary and overwhelming. I know that I will have to watch it again (long as it is) and let myself be truly overwhelmed.

 

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