Belgium / France, 1975
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 27 January 2010
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
It all begins with potatoes. 1
For almost ninety minutes, we watch as Jeanne Dielman living her nondescript, near lifeless days at 23 Quai du Commerce. She wakes, gives money to her son as he leaves for his classes, dons a kitchen apron, prepares dinner, scrubs the plates and utensils, services a client, deposits the money in a tabletop pot, and waits for her son to arrive home. There are also errands to do - namely, the buying of meat and vegetables that will become dinner - and she rarely if ever speaks, even to her male visitors—just a quiet, almost meaninglessly habitual “Bon jour” as she takes their scarves and coats. They escape behind closed doors, and the scene cuts to minutes later when both emerge, the deed done with passive indifference on the part of both participants: we see her bid the men goodbye, tidy her bed, open the window of her bedroom, and continue with her day.
Her routine is disrupted ninety minutes in - almost halfway through the film - when she accidentally burns a pot of potatoes on the stove. Unsettled, she disposes of the wasted spuds and hurriedly leaves, now on a search for a replacement dinner. She rushes to a nearby store, where she buys the food that will erase what she’s done, and she arrives back at her apartment with just enough time to spare. When her son arrives, Jeanne wastes little time in telling him what happened. He responds, much like her male visitors, with indifference to her activities that day—and, it’s suggested, every day. For the remaining ninety minutes, we will watch as Jeanne slowly, quietly, comes undone.
On the surface, Jeanne Dielman seems like the prototypical cinematic housewife, meant to act as a critique of the bland lifelessness of domesticity—a postmodern Belgian June Cleaver, if you will. While there’s no denying the obvious soullessness to Dielman’s daily routine - subtlety, it seems, is not one of Akerman’s pillars of good filmmaking - it would be too easy to classify Jeanne Dielman as nothing more than a passive-aggressive feminist film—a purposefully long and tiresome experience (and experiment) that challenges the male-centric eyes of cinema to endure four hours of what many women endure for forty years.
One of the film’s most noteworthy scenes comes in the second half. A neighbor, who is preparing to meet a customer of her own, drops off her baby at Jeanne’s apartment. Jeanne takes the baby, sets its bassinette on the dining room table - where, it should be noted, she keeps her pot of money - and leaves, preferring instead to prepare dinner. She appears every once in a while to glance down at the child, then disappears again back into the kitchen. When the neighbor returns to recollect her child, the mood lacks any of the expected emotions: this is just another part of the daily routine, not just for Jeanne, but for all women in this building—and perhaps even all women, period. The casualness with which these two neighbors watch over one another in pursuit of “business” - this incident occurs twice throughout the film - is chilling.
Jeanne’s son is also a part of her routine, though his role in the machinery is much more questionable. Between peppering his mother with overt and often vulgar questions about her sexuality, which she dismisses with surprisingly little disgust, he sits in front of the television and sleeps on a pull-out bed which, in the morning, becomes a couch with one or two easy maneuvers. At dinner, both he and his mother slurp soup like wind-up toys; his inclination to read the daily newspaper bothers her, though he continues this habit day after day.
By the film’s third and final hour, Jeanne has moved closer towards the proverbial edge. Dinners have become increasingly difficult to prepare, not because her skills have been tested, but because the burned potatoes still seem to be lingering over her head. She has messed up, and her routine has been spoiled. Unlike our idea of the prototypical housewife - the desperate, starved woman who looks to be freed, à la Joan Allen’s character in Pleasantville - Jeanne is fiercely protective of her routine, which ultimately leads to the film’s closing scene, in which an unwanted (or, rather, foreign and unknown) burst of pleasure leads her to commit an act of desperation and violence.
But Jeanne is not the only one to fall apart. The first half of the film is composed of routine shots which follow Jeanne’s movements through her own home while simultaneously ignoring her: the camera remains motionless as she glides from room to room, stares at her from consistent locations in those rooms, and even cuts off her head as she welcomes her clients—another nod, it seems, to the lack of passion and awareness to this aspect of her routine. The crumbling of Jeanne’s routine also marks the crumbling of the camera’s routine, as highlighted by Ivone Margulies in her book on Akerman:
After the first link is established between Jeanne’s disheveled hair (the obscene) and the burned potatoes (the scene), there is no way back. The connection is signaled by the first major change in camera position: for the first time, the camera stands by the oven, facing the door [instead of the oven itself]. It lingers there for a few seconds before Jeanne opens the door. Distraught, she stops, leaves the kitchen, goes into the corridor, stops again, and returns. And as the camera reverts to its original position, filming from the door into the kitchen, Jeanne starts one of cinema’s greatest choreographies of displaced anxieties: she doesn’t know what to do with (the fact of) the burned potatoes.
This leads, once again, to the final scene, in which Jeanne is shot sitting at a mirror in horror while her suitor, visible in the reflection over her shoulders, lies in bed with a grin on his face—an expression of victory, as though he’s somehow conspired with that pot of burned potatoes to displace Jeanne’s routine. When she strikes out, it marks the first and only moment when Jeanne leaves the frame without leaving the scene—her violent outburst is visible in the mirror. She is there, and yet she is not there—a perfect visualization of her entire existence.