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The brilliance of Jeanne Dielman's feminist film '23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles'

Released in 1975, Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles will forever remain one of the cornerstones of both feminist and arthouse cinema. The film follows a widowed single mother, portrayed by Delphine Seyrig, who performs a rigid schedule of housework whilst also having sex with men in exchange for money to support herself and her son. The camera sits still for lengthy amounts of time as Jeanne is filmed peeling potatoes, washing dishes, and cleaning, filmed in real time.

However, by the second and third day, her routine slowly and subtly unravels. She drops a freshly cleaned spoon and overcooks her potatoes. Yet the camera remains static, still, unbothered by these events that prove to be catastrophic to obsessive-compulsive Jeanne. Time is everything for her, despite the monotony of her life that doesn’t require her to do more than cook, clean, and have sex. It becomes clear that the widow does not know what to do with her time when she has not rigidly scheduled it. In one scene, Jeanne is seen sitting on an armchair and her anxiety radiates through the screen. Her apartment is her whole world where everything is performed to perfection – at least until these few days that we have the privilege of viewing.

In an interview, Akerman stated that the experimental La région centrale, directed by Michael Snow, a film that depicts uninhabited mountain landscapes over the course of three hours, “Opened [her] mind to the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film”. With interruption to her time-planned routine, the threads that uphold Jeanne’s sanity start to come loose, and the smallest of disturbances slowly builds into something far more sinister, something that we don’t expect from the quiet, cardigan-clad mother.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild proposed the concept of the “second shift” back in 1989, exploring the idea that not only are women expected to perform paid jobs, but also unpaid emotional and physical labour at home. Generally speaking, women are expected to do most of the housework and childcare, leading them to perform a significantly higher amount of work in comparison to their husbands. As a result, women are denied the same amount of leisure time as men, not even able to escape labour in their domestic sphere.

For Jeanne, a widow, she must take on the role of sole breadwinner in the house. As well as this, she must carry out all of the housework and emotional labour that comes with having a teenage son, who takes his mother for granted and picks up on the most minor of misdoings (“you missed a button”). Akerman depicts the importance of time as a model of freedom, portraying stasis, monotony, and routine, all of which confine Jeanne to her home where she is lonely, bored, and preoccupied with the most mundane activities that life has to offer.

Jeanne Dielman depicts this in multiple ways. First of all, the film’s intimidating length – three hours and 20 minutes. The hours pass with uncertainty. Every moment is a chance for drama, for intensity, yet Akerman withholds from it for the majority of the film, instead, it lingers under the surface, bubbling. The camera never moves. It remains still, focused upon the room that Jeanne is operating in. If she needs to get something out of shot, the camera will retain its gaze on the kitchen, reassuring us that she will come back soon. The kitchen becomes a character of its own – sad yellow titles lined with greying grout, a bottle of washing up liquid, a few miscellaneous dishes laid in the wide sink basin. The audience has to preoccupy themselves like a child until Jeanne returns.

The film ends with a momentous climax, in which Jeanne literally climaxes after having sex with a client. She gets dressed with total composure before picking up a pair of scissors and killing the man. It seems as though every minor inconvenience, every line of dialogue, her son’s dependency on her, and the commodification of her body, has led up to this one defining moment. Something gigantic happens in her life, and finally in the film, yet she returns to the dinner table and sits, silently, for seven minutes, a single streak of blood staining her white shirt. Quite frankly, Jeanne is exhausted, and after an explosive moment of release, the audience is expected to theorise just what may become of Jeanne’s life from this point on.

Akerman avoids any cinematic techniques that could disturb the film’s realism, that includes close-ups, point of view shots, or quick cutting of images. Furthermore, Akerman has directly stated that she is “never voyeuristic” and abstains from cutting Jeanne “in pieces,” as is typical of male directors that focus their camera on female body parts rather than the woman as a whole. We never see Jeanne partake in sex work until the scene where she kills the client, which Ivone Margulies describes as interrupting “the perfect homology between literalness and fiction in the earlier domestic scenes”.

In long, drawn-out takes, Akerman wants the viewer to feel the full weight of Jeanne’s everyday tasks, which is why we feel a sense of reward when after three hours, a man is stabbed. The life of a lonely, repressed woman can only be depicted best by utilising time – a reflection of the idea that Jeanne’s life is strictly chained to routine – a robotic, metronomic rhythm. Without the requirement to take on the physical and emotional weight of sex work as well as housework and motherhood all by herself, she’d have time to live without constraint.

Akerman’s feminist classic brings to the centre the patriarchal oppression that women face in their day to day lives, highlighting the extensive and banal reproductive labour expected of women. However, the film also showcases the patriarchal erasure of reproductive labour such as the sexual labour that women must perform by hiding all but one sex scene from the viewer. Jeanne Dielman highlights what the patriarchy tries to keep invisible, and will remain one of cinema’s most ground-breaking and thought-provoking works of art. It is both unnerving and laborious, forcing the audience to follow the patriarchal capitalist induced labour-filled life that drains Jeanne to her very core.