Chantal Ackerman broke new ground in non-traditional narrative filmmaking with this provocative fusion of formal experimentation and feminist polemic. Indeed, watching Jeanne Dielman through its 200 minute running time is really tracking an increasingly ironic relationship between form and content. The form in this case is remarkably spartan — a regulated system of (mostly) wide shots and flat, almost proscenium framing that, with sometimes painful deliberation, follows the eponymous character, a widow living with her son in a Brussels apartment, as she goes through her days, performing a series of quotidian tasks.
The film follows Jeanne over three days, and we watch her cook, clean, run errands, and tend to her teenage son (who, for my money, is an aloof, pathologically strange lad). Her life and home are orderly but alienated, never do her emotions overtake her, and we wonder if she’s simply switched that part of her brain off owing to grief and loneliness since her late husband’s death. The fact that she supports herself and her son by prostituting herself — she sees her clients during the day in her apartment while her son is at school — adds a significant quality of emotional denial, withdrawal, and self-loathing to her character that informs her overall temperament. But Jeanne is not immune to the consequences of her actions, she isn’t impervious to the breakdown that steals over her gradually over the film’s three-day time frame. Anomalies take shape as she unravels: She forgets to turn off light switches, drops a spoon while drying utensils, overcooks the potatoes, that kind of thing. Also, her manner turns more garrulous in inverse proportion to the coldness that marked her persona during the first half of the story.
It’s a structuralist approach to character development and how much you appreciate it depends on your enthusiasm for, well, Structuralist Cinema. You may not predict the final shock to her system — when her mind briefly, violently snaps back to life — but you may wonder if all the fastidiousness of Ackerman’s project was worth the build-up. Thirty-five years since her film’s release, Jeanne Dielman’s sense of feminist outrage feels somehow pat and simplistic, like the intellectualized vitriol of a too-young female filmmaker (Ackerman was 25 when she made this) against the injustices of a woman’s social and sexual imprisonment in a man’s world.
At the end of the day, Jeanne Dielman is more provocative and admirable for its style than its substance. While Dielman herself is a fascinating character — played with cool precision by Delphine Seyrig — her interior life is kept too buttoned-up; we spend too long guessing at what must surely be worlds of motives and counter-motives swirling beneath her placid surface, at a far more fascinating picture we can only imagine, and Ackerman’s film is too long for that kind of parlor game. Whether you rally around the film’s feminist premise has little to do with its value as art, experiment, narrative, or even entertainment (or a self-conscious form of anti-entertainment), and, in those departments, Jeanne Dielman can initially absorb, fascinate but, ultimately, ends up less than the sum of its parts.
Directed by: Chantal Ackerman
Written by: Chantal Ackerman
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Yves Bical