As a general rule, films are supposed to compress time. If a woman buys a bag of brown potatoes at the store and later scoops a few soft, white potatoes out of a pot of water, it will be understood that in between those two shots she peeled and boiled potatoes. What makes Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles classic is that it doesn’t compress time, at least not in the way we’ve come to expect. Jeanne peels that bag of potatoes one strip at a time, taking care to cut out the eyes, soak them in water, and light the stove. It’s a technique that can elicit boredom and frustration, which happens to be what Jeanne feels, too.
Jeanne doesn’t just peel and boil potatoes. She also makes coffee, folds clothes, dusts knickknacks, shines her son’s shoes, and has sex with a different man every afternoon for money. As part of a rigorous, exacting routine, Jeanne goes about her sex-work with the same listless attitude that attends her housework. Aside from a couple of conversations with her son at night and the perfunctory exchanges with shopkeepers or johns, Jeanne doesn’t speak to anyone. The story observes Jeanne’s schedule for three days while elapsing three and a half hours of film. It’s easy to deduce mathematically that plenty of time has been compressed, but Jeanne Dielman clearly intends and succeeds in seeming to last for days.
Why watch a quiet, single mother through the minutia of her days? Why pay attention while she combs her hair for minutes at a time? Why listen to the sound of her high heels as they echo off the floor of her otherwise quiet apartment? When these questions become silently apparent is when Jeanne Dielman starts to succeed. The film engages in an enthralling feminist subtext set in motion by writer/director Chantal Ackerman’s inspired story, Babette Mangolte’s deceptively simple, static cinematography, and the brilliantly subtle physical acting of Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne.
By attending to Jeanne’s routine so closely, the film can focus on the toll it takes on Jeanne and the minor ways that it begins to unravel. Jeanne forgets one of the buttons on her coat, she drops a spoon, she leaves the lid off from her china pot, and she forgets to turn on the lights. These slight infractions to her onerous, compulsive routine build to a riveting tension in the third day.
Fans of Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker known for The Piano Teacher and Caché, will recognize Jeanne Dielman as a predecessor to his excruciatingly tense and socially critical films. More than 30 years later, though, Jeanne Dielman is still a film in its own class: a boring, frustrating, enthralling, and wildly unique work of art.