Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is not an easy film to watch; with a run time of a little over three hours (although this pales in comparison to Sátántangó and Shoah, whose runtimes are seven and nine hours respectively) and a focus on long takes as well as a non-conventional narrative, “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is a film that becomes an exercise not only in itself—the film pushes the boundaries of not only feminist cinema but cinema as a whole (more on this later)—but an exercise to enter in a dialogue with the images Akerman presents on the screen.
The first aspect someone watching “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” for the first time will notice is Akerman’s focus on symmetry. An obvious and more contemporary comparison would be to Wes Anderson who also places a focus on symmetrical shots yet the key difference in Akerman’s work here is that unlike Anderson, Akerman plays with more muted colors and withholds the use of a soundtrack. Within the narrative of the film, that is, the life of a widowed mother performing household chores, shot in real time across three days, the use of muted colors and lack of distinct music emphasize the audience’s subjective view on the existentiality of Jeanne Dielman’s (Delphine Seyrig) life.
Watching Dielman perform chores in real time through long takes without music transforms an otherwise narrative film into a fictional documentary. Dielman’s life is elevated from images of fictitiousness to an objective reality, where Dielman transcends her cinematic character by having the ability to not simply be anyone but be any woman. Dielman makes chicken, writes letters, buys groceries and at one point is even heckled on the street by men.
In bridging the subject of symmetry and men within “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” there is also the element of control and order. When performing her chores Dielman works towards the aesthetic of the film, placing cups, plates, and other items in an evenly manner within the frame. When having dinner with her son, Sylvian Dielman (Jan Decorte), Dielman tells him not eat and read, and later urges him to eat fruit after dinner. Yet within Dielman’s home, order and control is not one-sided and there exists a push and pull aspect between Dielman herself and other forces.
Dielman prostitutes herself in order to make money, money which she gives to her son for school and various activities. The act of prostitution for Dielman, as later seen towards the end of the film, is one where Dielman sacrifices her control over order and in doing so shifts the power over to the strange men who enter her home although this exchange is not an empty one; Dielman’s temporary sacrifice of her body is one needed not simply for materialistic need but for survival for both her and her son, thus, Dielman is never in control as the welfare of her child is dependent upon her labor and she is then either controlled by her role as a prostitute or her role as a mother.