Criterion Review: JEANNE DIELMAN

Chantal Akerman’s breakthrough work ruminates on domestic ritual.

Chantal Akerman’s 1975 opus is a seminal feminist film, but I’d put off seeing Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles because of the viewing time required. Three hours and 45 minutes is an impressive length to devote to any movie. In my current broken-ankled state, I was far more amenable to carving out such a span of time.

In the French director’s film, Delphine Seyrig (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) is Dielman, a widowed mother caring for an adolescent son. Most of her time is spent closed within their flat — Akerman’s story immerses the viewer in three days of this woman’s life. She prepares meals, boils potatoes, runs errands, and sleeps with a customer each afternoon while her son is in school. Her distaste for this specific aspect of her work is obvious.

She otherwise finds calm in the procedure of her household ritual. There’s an order and process to Dielman’s day, a routine that keeps her in motion. Cinematographer Babette Mangolte spends long takes in the hallways and rooms of the flat as the character performs her daily chores. Dielman’s environment of muted color and woodtones is crisp and clear on the digitally restored print of Criterion’s new BluRay release.

She coddles her son, selecting his outfit for the day and shining his shoes each morning. He expects it as his due, given his gender and the times. The conversations between mother and child provide most of the dialogue in Jeanne Dielman; there are large quiet swaths of her routine, only interrupted by the splash of water in her bath or her washing dishes, or the click of light switches and shutting of doors.

Akerman’s film — made when she was 25 — celebrates the routine of “women’s work” while exploring the ramifications when Dielman loses her sense of control and order. Jeanne Dielmann dwells, sinking so well into the little moments that a pivotal, life-changing action is more shocking in its abruptness. This is a singular work with no comparison, worth carving out an afternoon or night to delve into.

Special features in this Criterion release include:

  • Behind-the-scenes documentary, Autour de “Jeanne Dielmann,” about the making of the film, directed by actor Sami Frey
  • 2009 interviews with cinematographer Babette Mangolte and filmmaker Chantal Akerman about the making of the film and its initial reception at Cannes
  • Excerpts of TV programs featuring Akerman and actress Seyrig
  • 2007 interview with Natalia Akerman, the director’s mother
  • Akerman’s first short film, Saute ma ville (1968)
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