Movie 95: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

Manly Footwear: Comfortina asked if this movie, like so many we’ve already watched, was about a descent into madness. I said I couldn’t remember, I wasn’t even sure I’ve ever seen the whole thing, but probably—we then checked the list, and of the films we recognized, MANY were about people descending into madness. We talked about what this might mean, that the top 100 best movies, as assembled from various critic’s lists, seems to contain an inordinate number about people going insane. When we get closer to the end, we’ll do a proper count, but assuming we are correct and such is a dominant theme, several questions are begged: what is so compelling about watching movies where people lose their minds? Is it something especially compelling to critics? Do we assign value to the emotionally wrenching more than to the light-hearted work of art? Is this valuation cultural, or something that transcends culture?

I only have the vaguest replies to any of these questions, but I can confidently assert that Jeanne Dielman is powerful, hypnotic, and yes, wrenching depiction of a descent into madness. The descent here is slow, and also sudden: Chantal Akerman, the director, does things with pace and scene that challenge the way the typical movie-goer understands the act of watching a movie, and the result is hypnotic and very disturbing. Like this: Jeanne is the mother of a high school-age son, and also works as a prostitute, and she manages this life by making sure she is doing something every second, every day, and Akerman lets us see her doing them (making the bed, doing the dishes, eating soup) without editing, so that when she finds herself with a crack in her schedule and she is forced to reflect on her existence, and her body sags, and her face slackens, the viewer feels her starting to slip her moorings, because they have become so deeply invested in the way she spends her time.

An example: every time she leaves a room in her flat, she turns off the light, closes the door, and turns on the light in the next room. Every time. As she starts to lose herself, she forgets to turn off the light in the bathroom, and it is profoundly painful, more than any melodramatic sob could convey, because she ALWAYS TURNS OFF THE LIGHT, and then she also notices, and her hand shakes just a bit as she goes back and turns it off. Adding to the tension—and this is a nearly four hour movie that takes place largely in a single apartment, with very sparse dialog, yet the tension is constant—is the way everything is so loud, because no one talks much, there is no soundtrack, so the noise of a chair scraping across the floor seems amplified, every tiny noise seems amplified and quickly all the little domestic noises become their own soundtrack. At one point I told Comfortina that we were watching a musical, and I still think that, but the song have no words, and the instruments are sheets, and faucets, and light switches, and slurping.

So, within this very carefully staged series of scenes, the very carefully arranged life, chaos enters and Jeanne does, indeed, descend into madness—or, into a perfectly correct response to the world she has been struggling to exist within. I can’t decide, and shant spoil the ending, but I am not quite so ready to indict her as insane as I was when I started this reflection. There is something correct about her response, and the final scene only amplifies the ambiguity.

I don’t think the next movie, Last Year at Marienbad, is about a descent into madness, but it does seem designed to make the viewer go a bit crazy. After Jeanne Dielman, I just might need it.

Comfortina Footwear: From the opening scenes, the viewer can tell the feeling things are a little off in the world of Jeanne Dielman. Everything loudly in its place and the lights fastidiously snapped on and off as we move through the flat, following Jeanne.

The camera is intimate but removed and extremely unrelenting. As we watch Jeanne go through her day, it’s clear this is a long practiced routine: everything in its place. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, watching the neighbor’s baby, and turning tricks. They all seem lumped under the umbrella of woman’s work. Her one indulgence is coffee at a cafe and even that has a set cadence.

Her son appears and we quickly understand he’s only responsible for his studies and never offers to help his mother. Later, in a bed time conversation, he criticizes her decisions and her responses to his questions. “If I were a woman, I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with.” In the morning, he asks for money.

His father is dead and Jeanne doesn’t appear to work, other than prostitution. Surely the scholar should question where the money comes from. Without the money from the Johns who visit daily, their routines would be vastly different.

The second day offers see the same routine but with little bobbles here and there: a dropped spoon, a missed button, another person in her spot in the cafe, impatience with the neighbor’s baby, and almost leaving the towel on the bed. Another conversation with her son where he confesses to inventing nightmares to keep his parents apart

By the third day, the routine has spun completely out of control and the tone is oppressive, the viewer left wondering what the day will bring. It’s hard not to call out, trying to remind Jeanne to turn out the lights. The viewer is forced to realize she’s made the only decision that would have allowed her to maintain her domestic dream after her husband died without having to marry again, and most of us will ache for her.

When she took out the scissors for a mending project, the symbolism is straightforward: the death of Jeanne’s routine, of her albatross.

The final scenes are heartbreaking but also somehow exhilarating, I was ready to clap as the pattern had finally been broken, no matter how brutally.