What is the first thing someone asks when hearing the title of a movie they have not seen? “What is it about?” or “What happens in it?” When asked this question about Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman I found myself at a loss. It is essentially a film in which nothing happens. The film is simply the daily routine of a middle aged, single mother that slowly spirals out of control. However, for a film almost completely devoid of action or dialog, it manages to be one of the most fascinating and gripping films ever produced.
The picture depicts three days in the life of a woman named Jeanne Dielman. She cooks, knits, bathes, eats with her peculiar son, and entertains her male guests, or a more accurate description, clients. The first day serves to set up the normality of Jeanne’s very overly rigid routine; day two holds the inciting incident and day three is the rising action and conclusion of the film. The pace of the film is deliberately glacial. Ackerman has an amazing sense of how screen time feels much longer than real time. She uses the technique to give the film a realistic tempo. For example when Jeanne is washing the dishes, or peeling potatoes she does so for a full one to two minutes, but to the viewer it feels as though a much longer span has passed. Every aspect of the movie is minimalistic. The use of dialog is extremely economical, and secondary to the viewers understanding. Even Ackerman’s cinematography is bare bones; there are no camera movements whatsoever, and in each shot the viewer is simply left to observe.
So why is this movie able to hold one’s attention for three hours and twenty minutes? The resounding answer is people’s voyeuristic tendencies. Jeanne Dielman is a film of voyeurism in the purest sense. It places the viewer in front of a fishbowl of a woman’s life. Ackerman is also brilliant at creating suspense from nothing. Throughout the film there is an ever-increasing sense that her finely balanced life is going to collapse, and ultimately it does. The suspense is another factor, which holds the audiences attention. There is an ever increasing need to know how it will end.
Jeanne Dielman is about a woman whose life has become so regimented and banal that it has lost all-purpose. Even her lovemaking is empty and mechanical, a chore not a pleasure. On the third day when she wakes up too early her day begins to fall apart. Jeanne starts to come to the realization that her life is empty. In the final moments when Jeanne’s client gives her presumably her first orgasms everything comes crashing down. She has been a hostage to the methodical nature of her existence, and finally snaps. The message is one of oppression and liberation, but it is also portrait of what can happen when oppression goes too far. Jeanne wishes to be in control at all times, but in the end she loses it in an explosion of violence. The final shot is one not easily forgotten as we watch for seven minutes Jeanne sitting at her kitchen table, her hands bloody, she is in a state of shock and horror, yet there is a sense of peace.
This film is one that is not easily summed up in a few brief words on a page. It is a visual work, and must be seen to be understood. There are several layers to the picture from female sexual repression, to the dangers of being a prisoner to ones own existence. Ackerman created a true masterpiece at only twenty-five years old, and she was never able to attain the same level of greatness again.