The title Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles is a mouthful. It’s a title that makes me think the filmmaker Chantal Ackerman walked into a building, pointed to a random apartment, and decided whoever resided behind that door is whose story would be told (this is most likely not the case, but that’s just the initial impression I get). But the title does indicate who the film is about and the domain she inhabits. It begins in the kitchen, within a stationary camera angle, where a woman is moving in and out of the frame. Because the camera doesn’t move, at first you only see this figure from the shoulders down. She could be anybody. She’s doing chores and preparing dinner when the doorbell rings. She opens the door to receive a gentleman caller, who she leads down the hall to the bedroom. Cut to a bit later where they exit the room, the gentleman gives her money and leaves, and the woman places the money in a china bowl on a table and replaces the lid over the bowl. She then proceeds with her routine, including bathing herself and getting dinner ready for when her son comes home from school. She walks around the apartment, turning the lights on and then off as she enters and exits a room.
And so, over the course of the next three hours, this is what the viewer experiences with this movie. The film takes place over a three-day period, where we witness the character of Jeanne fill just about every minute of her day with chores and errands and very little dialogue spoken. There is a reason behind this, as the 201 minute running time allows the viewer to immerse themselves into Jeanne’s life. What little we do know about Jeanne comes out of a couple of brief dialogues she has with her son as she tucks him into bed at night. On the first night, he asks about his father and it’s revealed he had died six years prior and that Jeanne didn’t marry for love. So we understand that she is a widow, raising her son, and prostituting herself for an income. I get the sense that by making Jeanne earn a living through prostitution, it allows us to continually observe her within this apartment space.
During the middle of the second day, Jeanne finishes up with her afternoon gentleman caller. She puts her earnings in the bowl on the table, only this time she doesn’t replace the lid on it. I immediately felt something was off. I found myself thinking, wait a minute, this isn’t the Jeanne I’ve come to know over the past day, this isn’t like her. What’s going on? She checks on dinner only to discover the potatoes have overcooked. She picks up the pot and dumps the potatoes then runs to the store for more. As she peels a new batch, she slows down, a look of frustration crosses her face. That look you get when you’ve peeled too many potatoes and you wonder “is this what my life has boiled down to?”. I’d like to point out the great performance that actress Delphine Seyrig puts out here as subtle facial expressions reveal the changes that Jeanne is beginning to undergo. I’m not sure what initiates this shift in demeanor but I can’t help but wonder if the conversation with her son about his father may sparked something within her. By the morning of day three, Jeanne’s life of order, routine, and obligations is now unravelling even further which then leads to an out of nowhere ending.
What is the significance of the ending? Is it to simply draw the narrative to a close or to drastically bring the character to a “where do I go from here” moment? Overall, with the lengthy running time, there are parts that drag or a get a bit boring. But even a week after viewing this I’m still mesmerized by the images of Jeanne as she washes dishes and prepares dinner. After watching her make meatloaf I actually made meatloaf for dinner the next day. Even though this is not a food movie, just watching her perform the task of preparing some of the dinner dishes actually made me hungry. Even if the long running time of this film seems daunting, it’s still well worth a viewing.