*This article contains SPOILERS for Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975).*
Jeanne takes her time.
We first see Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) in her kitchen, wearing a blue apron, lighting the burner under a large floral pot. The bell rings. She unbuttons her apron, hangs it up, washes and dries her hands, and turns off the light. She is in no hurry, leaving her visitor waiting as she completes her domestic rituals.
Jeanne is introduced as a tidy homemaker, but we also quickly learn that she is a prostitute, receiving a different middle-aged man in her bedroom daily, during the afternoon while her son is at school.
Jeanne tells her son, Sylvain, “Do not read while you eat.”
This is the first time we hear her voice.
Chantal Akerman said she wrote the film for Delphine Seyrig, knowing that the actress’ glamorous persona contrasted the character type of Jeanne Dielman.“ Just like men are blind to their wives doing dishes,” she said, “so it had to be someone we didn’t usually see do the dishes.” Only then could we really see Jeanne Dielman.
Jeanne only takes two potatoes for herself.
The rest are for Sylvain.
In response to declining birthrates after the First World War, Belgium passed the Contraception Act in 1923, which restricted abortion and the distribution of public information about contraception. It was not until 1973, two years before Jeanne Dielman’s release, that it was legal to publicly and freely educate women about contraception.
Jeanne has been a widow for 6 years.
She has no plans to remarry.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s changed the core demographic of prostitutes’ clientele. Rather than young men seeking out a rite of passage, clients were more likely married, middle-aged men looking for an experience to break up the tedium of everyday life.
Jeanne met her husband after the war, after “the Americans had left.”
His name was George. Her family thought he was ugly.
During the First and Second World Wars, more married women and widows in Europe engaged in prostitution. They would have been “unregistered” prostitutes, outside the system of regulation, taxation, and sanitation that was experienced by women working in brothels or out of hotels. Many supported children.
According to historian Alain Corbin, during World War 2 in France: “Out of 1,900 unregistered prostitutes treated at Lille, 1,142 were married; 758 of them had one or more children; unmarried mothers accounted for 145 of them.” Soldiers comprised the bulk of their clients across Europe.
Jeanne makes a bank deposit.
In the 19th century, theories of psychological pathology abounded as an explanation for prostitution. Surely, women chose prostitution because of some internal deviance, some psychological disorder, or some past trauma. The vestiges of these moralizing ideas persist in the public perception of sex workers to this day.
But contemporary research suggests that economics and independence are driving motivations for women who freely choose sex work. Labor historian Magaly Rodriguez Garcia points out that “it is clear that the sale of sex was and in many cases still is significantly more lucrative for women than most of the occupations available to them.” Moreover, sex work can offer more flexibility and independence than “respectable” jobs offered to women without education.
The day before, Jeanne remarked to her son that after the war she had a low-paying job as a billing clerk, and marriage promised “a life of her own” and “a child.”
Jeanne breads the filets.
In her book, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, film theorist Ivone Margulies writes about the corporeality of Jeanne Dielman. “A woman’s gestures are simultaneously recognized and made strange.” The strangeness of Jeanne Dielman is precisely because these gestures are so familiar, so familiar as to be invisible.“ Just like men are blind to their wives doing dishes….” Akerman had said. Domestic labor is so invisible that to focus on it – and only it – feels odd.
Jeanne sits alone in a café, drinking coffee.
Of the domestic gestures in the film, Akerman said, “I knew it all firsthand. It was in my blood.” She spent much of her life surrounded by numerous aunts, immersed in the ritualization of the quotidian.
She had to repeatedly rehearse these gestures with Seyrig, who was less familiar with the daily habits of homemaking. The movements that Akerman took for granted, that had formed the fabric of her childhood, had to be learned by the actress who grew up in a different cultural context.
Jeanne exits the bedroom with today’s male client.
Her hair is mussed.
Jeanne and her second client stand at the front door. He puts on his coat and scarf, and at the bottom of the frame is a small piece of lint, stuck in the camera’s gate during filming and ending up in the finished print. The lint was surely an accident, and with such a small budget – $120,000 supplied by a Belgian film grant – they would not reshoot. But Jeanne’s hair is mussed, and so the small bit of dirt is fitting.
Jeanne forgets to turn off the light.
In the 1970s in France, a couple could still be prosecuted under Article 330 for indecent exposure for failing to lock the door when having sex in a bedroom. In Belgium, according to sociologists Liesbet Stevens and Marc Hooghe, “Until 1965 recreational nudity was, even in the privacy of the home or in the relative seclusion of a club, qualified as indecent exposure.”
Jeanne burns the potatoes.
Jeanne wakes and buttons her robe.
She misses the second button.
Abortion became legal in France up to the 12th week of pregnancy in 1975, the year Jeanne Dielman was released. Abortion was not legal in Belgium until 1990 and is still very limited. Belgian women can only get a legal abortion up to 12 weeks except in extreme medical circumstances.
Jeanne starts her errands too early.
Rehabilitation programs for prostitutes were common in the 19th and early 20th century in Europe. These programs taught sex workers domestic and service trades with low pay. Prostitutes often rejected the rehabilitation and attempted to avoid it when possible, preferring the economic advantages of their own profession.
Jeanne folds the meatloaf for four minutes.
Akerman said of the duration of Jeanne Dielman, “I know that a minute onscreen feels like five.” We are so used to having duration cut out for us, left in the gaps of continuity editing, that it feels almost painful to sit and watch someone fold meatloaf onscreen for four minutes. (Before timing the meatloaf scene, I had guessed that it lasted ten minutes and was surprised to find that it was so short.)
Jeanne sits and stares.
The camera was placed at a lower height than is common in narrative filmmaking, at Akerman’s own height. This literally places the visual perspective of the film at the point of view of a petite woman.
The visual perspective of a short woman is still unusual in cinema.
Jeanne has an orgasm.
Akerman has said in interviews that Jeanne had her first orgasm ever with her second client, the one that mussed her hair and caused her to burn the potatoes. She posits that for Jeanne, the lack of orgasm actually helped her maintain the order of her life. “Her rituals keep her together.” Apparently Seryig had trouble understanding such a point of view, reasoning that once you’ve had one orgasm, wouldn’t you want more? Akerman responds, “But I think she never lived in that world.”
Jeanne looks at her wedding photo.
Adultery was illegal in Belgium until 1987, with women historically having stricter definitions than men for what constituted adultery and stricter punishments (men were allowed a “concubine” as long as they didn’t bring her into the home). In 1974, the year before Jeanne Dielman premiered, the Belgian parliament passed the Adultery Act, which standardized the definition and punishment of adultery equally for both genders, but maintained its criminalization.
Jeanne stabs her client with a pair of scissors.
In spring and summer of 1975, while Jeanne Dielman was playing at the Directors’ Fortnight and Cannes, prostitutes in France were occupying churches, agitating for public policies that would grant increased legal rights and enable better working conditions. Alain Corbin writes, “What they really wanted, it seems, was no longer to be regarded any differently from other women, not to have to put on two faces in the course of a day, not to have to be afraid when children looked at them.”
Throughout the 1970s, prostitutes’ rights movements swept across the U.S. and Europe, with sex workers requesting decriminalization of their labor and recognition of their humanity. In many cases, they were unsuccessful, as the 1980s saw a wave of conservatism in many countries that worked to undo some of the cultural liberalizations toward sexuality of the 1960s and 1970s.
Jeanne sits in the dark at her dining room table.
Light from outside flickers across her almost serene face.
Her hand and shirt are stained with blood.
We watch her sit for 6 minutes.
The IU Cinema screened Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on February 20, 2014. I was working as one of the graduate student projectionists at the time and had the opportunity to project Jeanne on 35mm (all 11 reels!). It’s one of my fondest memories as an IU Cinema projectionist.
This December IU Cinema hosts two highly acclaimed women directors.
First, the Kelly Reichardt: A Keen & Subtle Eye Film Series, which began on November 20 with her film Old Joy (2006), continues with Certain Women (2016), playing tonight and on December 3. On Friday December 2 at 3:00 p.m., Media School faculty Dr. Ryan Powell will interview Kelly Reichardt at the IU Cinema as part of the Jorgensen Lecture Series. That evening, Reichardt is scheduled to be present for screenings of River of Grass (1994) and Night Moves (2013). Finally, the series concludes on December 4 with Wendy and Lucy (2008).
The following week, Julie Dash: Daughters of the Dust 25th Anniversary Film Series opens with an evening of L.A. Rebellion Shorts (1975/1977/1982) on Thursday December 8. Julie Dash will also engage in an interview at the IU Cinema with a Media School faculty member, Dr. Terri Francis, as part of the Jorgensen Lecture Series on Friday December 9 at 3:00 p.m. That same evening, Julie Dash will present Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film directed by an African American woman to receive theatrical distribution in the U.S. Julie Dash is scheduled to be present for both screenings.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.