Economic storytelling is often a cause for praise in cinema. The ability to immerse audiences into livelihoods other than their own, with lean and promptly rewarding plot developments and conflict resolutions is pretty much the convention in popular film, perhaps more than ever before. “The less throwaway moments, the better,” we’re programmed to think. Long epics intimidate audiences nowadays, and the consequent result of fewer screening slots put off exhibitors. There are thankfully no shortage of daring, independent filmmakers that challenge and don’t subscribe to this school: Kelly Reichardt, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mia Hansen-Love, Todd Haynes and Kenneth Lonergan, just to name a contemporary and recently productive few. These filmmakers and the like-minded artists reward patience, and savor the details nesting in the in-between moments usually erased from traditional filmmaking. They convey and manipulate the passage of time in ways that don’t wipe away the so-called commonplace from their stories.
Chantal Akerman’s seminal, unclassifiable Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) –currently showing at New York’s Film Forum with a pristine restoration (which I luckily got to see)- is a film made up of those in-between, throwaway moments we are usually robbed out of in popular cinema. It is, in a way, a predecessor for many storytellers who experiment with the pace of the everyday. It decisively defies all aforementioned norms around “economy”, and writes its own destiny about what’s necessary, crucial and even vital to show and repeat. While it is certainly not the first film to focus on presumably mundane moments of ordinary life, it is among the most influential of its kind in the way it extorts meaning and derives anxiety from a woman’s daily chores that include everything from making the bed to haphazardly peeling potatoes.
By design, the title of Akerman’s film underwhelms with its monotonous length, while deliberately invoking curiosity about the said woman with an insignificant address. The same scheme is also present in this nearly 3.5-hour-long masterpiece. Methodically calibrated to be hypnotic at every turn, Jeanne Dielman submerges the audience deep into the daily tasks of a single mother who runs a meticulous one-bedroom home in Brussels, takes care of her teenage son and works as a prostitute (with just one client a day) to make ends meet. As we watch her take on and complete her duties in compulsive detail, the lingering effect –contrary to what one would expect- is not boredom. Instead, it’s an impending, brewing sense of apprehension and danger. Thanks to Akerman’s perceptive eye and unflinching sense of structure, we slowly grow surer that Jeanne Dielman of an ordinary address is anything but ordinary, as the ill-fated finale of the film approaches over the course of the three days the story is set.
The first day, which we dive into head on, introduces order as she starts boiling some potatoes, welcomes a Client, has sex with him behind closed doors (the only piece of the action we don’t see), removes potatoes from the stove, airs out her bedroom, washes herself and continues with the dinner preparations. Opening cupboards, taking out plates, dishing them up, spreading a nylon tablecloth on the dining table, welcoming her son, making his bed and going to bed are all spelled out to the last detail and unfold in snippets of real time. Imagine you are observing a mechanical rolling ball clock minute by minute, where every perfectly precise movement makes the next one possible. That’s Jeanne Dielman’s Day 1 on screen in a nutshell. On the second day, her order is disturbed ever so slightly, noticed even by her usually distracted son (reading a book at the dinner table, in absence of an iPhone.) In one scene, she walks around the apartment –expertly compartmentalized on camera- with a pan of food, not knowing what to do with it. Buttons gets missed, hair gets disheveled. But we first notice the disturbance of order when she forgets to put the lid on a china dish in which she deposits her prostitution money. Little clues sprinkled across her second day serve as the antithesis of the “perfect” (or normal) day we have previously seen, until things go even further off the rails on her third day.
While this was not my first time watching Jeanne Dielman, experiencing it in a theater setting and sitting next to someone who has not seen it before was a first. The last time I watched it end to end was well over a decade ago, before attention spans shrunk and expectations to be instantly gratified rose as much as they did today. While its personal impact on me was just as substantial back then, I don’t think I appreciated its rebelliousness in asking the audience for the kind of attention they are not used to giving quite as much. In today’s standards, I am in awe of its boldness and its growing power and relevance even more. Whether we like it or not, we indulge in distractions and warmly welcome interruptions more than ever before these days. Even if we’re well mannered enough to tuck away our cell phones in a theater, most of us multitask while consuming entertainment at home. We don’t necessarily pay attention to the soothing routine of every day tasks. There is always a shortcut to achieving something: foods are pre-peeled, triple washed, portioned and packed conveniently. We even invented shortcuts for shortcuts. Why hail a cab when you can order one on your phone? Stepping out of this world and walking into Akerman’s, I thought, here she is, audaciously asking us to carefully observe as her protagonist (played captivatingly by Delphine Seyrig in a mostly dialogue-free performance, that relies on enormous attention to emotional detail) made a meatloaf or had coffee. Watching it today, I discovered a renewed level of authority in it: Jeanne Dielman had not lost anything from its relevance. With the accelerating speed of the every day, it had immensely grown in significance within its superbly maintained, enduring pace.
Akerman, who soul-crushingly took her own life last fall (after completing her personal, tender masterpiece No Home Movie,) was only 25 when she made Jeanne Dielman, disrupted the rules of storytelling and became a part of the cinematic cannon and feminist film history (as much as she reportedly denied “isms” on principle) by turning the lens on a woman quietly suffering in the aftershock of a patriarchal life. Her unprecedented achievement at a young age immediately brings Orson Welles –another precocious genius- and his canonical Citizen Kane (1941) to mind. Told through a few days of journalistic investigation, while covering a lifetime in two short hours, Citizen Kane (currently 2nd place on the Sight & Sound poll of greatest movies of all time) also defied the rules of storytelling and time management. Now, consider a scene in it where Susan Alexander Kane puts together a puzzle during long, lonely hours, days and weeks. In a couple of short minutes, Welles makes sure we get the extent of her isolation. Akerman’s version of it would look something like Susan Alexander putting every single piece of the puzzle into their place in real time, feeling and lifting the weight of each passing minute, and sharing her growing restlessness and confusion with an increasingly perturbed audience. Such contrast is perhaps the best way to differentiate the experience of Jeanne Dielman from all else, currently (and puzzlingly) 36th place on the Sight & Sound poll .