I’ve been meaning to check out the filmography of Belgian director Chantal Akerman for quite a while now, so tonight, I popped in Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is widely considered to be her magnum opus.
I can’t remember the last time I saw such an intimate and richly detailed character study. Three times we witness the meticulous ballet that is the eponymous single mother’s daily routine—grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, sharing tensely quiet meals with her teenage son, trading sex for money—and with each repetition, it unravels just a little bit more. Every mundane obstacle that interrupts the rhythm of her life—from dropping a spoon to nearly knocking over a bottle of milk to placing a dish on the drying rack without first rinsing it off—is another blow to her already fragile psyche. Akerman’s static camera and multi-layered framing further emphasize her protagonist’s feelings of loneliness, isolation, entrapment, and suffocation, lending the story’s abruptly violent conclusion a sense of inevitability.
The three-and-a-half hour running time is occasionally a struggle—I’m still not entirely convinced that I really needed to see every second of our heroine’s bath—but Akerman’s immaculate visual style and Delphine Seyrig’s riveting performance ultimately make Jeanne Dielman a deeply rewarding cinematic experience.
[Originally written May 13, 2017.]