How much violence does it take to maintain the status quo, any status quo?
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a revolutionary film on the most intimate scale possible. Running for almost three and a half hours, Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic from the 1970s is about as long as a film can get and still have a wide theatrical release. But it was made for just over 100,000 dollars. It has two main characters and a few extras. It’s set almost entirely in a small apartment in a drab, working-class neighborhood in Brussels.
Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig, lives with her son Sylvain. Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, appears to be about 18 or 19. He’s a sullen bookworm. There’s no sign of a husband or father. We find out later that he died years earlier. Jeanne is an attractive, well-dressed woman in her early forties who sleeps with exactly one man every day, entertaining her client from 4:30 to 5:00 in the bedroom while dinner is cooking in the kitchen. We get an idea of Jeanne’s character after she pockets the money from a John, and puts it in a glass teapot she keeps on the table in the dining room. She goes into the bathroom, pours herself a bath, and cleans up. Then she disinfects the tub, scrubbing out any reminder of how she earns her keep and supports her son.
Jeanne Dielman is an obsessive compulsive. Everything about her life is so well-ordered, so circumscribed by repetitive behavior that the film, which takes place over three almost identical days, becomes a map of her soul. Tiny details of her behavior, insignificant variations in how she acts from day to day bring us inside of her troubled mind as surely as if we were a trusted confessor. On the first day everything is perfect. Jeanne sleeps with her John, washes up, and cooks dinner for her son. But even on the first day some things seem out of joint. Jeanne serves herself exactly the right portion of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, but gives her son twice as much as he can eat. We know immediately that they have an unequal relationship, that she desires his approval. We also realize that Sylvain, while he may be a sullen, unpleasant little killjoy also feels smothered by his mother’s attention. He’s probably close to 20-years-old yet she still buttons his coat before he leaves for school in the morning.
“You missed a button,” he says.
With one brushstroke, therefore, Chantal Akerman has painted a picture of a mother and son in a dysfunctional relationship. He’s both dominated and dominating. She’s both controlling and self-sacrificing.
On the second day, things begin to unravel. Jeanne burns the potatoes. She drops a spoon. She watches a screaming baby for her neighbor. Sound becomes as important as repetitive behavior. A dropped kitchen utensil, a loud child, a door slamming, Akerman so effectively mixes the audio levels that we, the audience, take on Dielman’s hypersensitivity to stray noises. We become unhappy. We wonder why her son doesn’t show her more attention. We begin to feel her weary dread at having to sleep with yet another man to earn her keep. How long can a woman her age go on as a prostitute? Does she have a backup plan. Did her husband leave her a pension. How exactly did her husband die anyway? We don’t learn much more than that he was a Canadian who served with the army in World War II.
“Getting married was just something everybody did,” she tells Sylvain.
On the third day, we wonder if Jeanne Dielman has ever done anything on her own initiative. Then we realize that she does everything on he own initiative. Like a great artist, she has isolated herself from the rest of humanity to work on her creation. That creation is a prison, for herself. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute she has hammered out the bars of her psychological cage, walling herself off, not only from the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, her unfulfilled life, the fact that she sleeps with a new, and almost always unappealing man every day, but from the very possibility of happiness or change. We also learn what she was so afraid of, the violence inside herself.
Back in 2011, when I was involved with Occupy Wall Street, I began to understand why a system as unjust as American capitalism doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The American ruling class has hundreds of thousands of militarized police, the biggest military the world has ever seen, and a well-developed system of propaganda and spying, but none of that would matter if working class Americans didn’t repress themselves. I decided that the only thing Americans value is their routine. It’s neither right nor left, but it does have political consequences. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, failed because people who supported gay marriage were able to paint them as troublemakers who wanted to get into other peoples’ private business. Occupy Wall Street failed because it threatened to make Americans think about class and revolution, to make them face up to how their 9 to 5 lives are never going to get their kids seven figure jobs on Wall Street. Indeed, the most damning accusation the media could make about Occupy Wall Street was not that it was a movement of socialists, but that it disrupted routine, that rat race people run with such dedicated tunnel vision. Like Jeanne Dielman, Americans have built a cage of misery they will defend to the death against anybody who tries to liberate them.
On the evening of the third day of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jean Dielman, the kind of nice, unprepossessing middle-aged woman you would trust without a moment’s hesitation, commits an act of violence so sudden, so shocking, and so arbitrary it upends everything that came in the first three hours of the movie. We realize that Chantal Akerman has played a trick on us. By staging her tragic drama inside a drab apartment in working class Brussells, by focusing on so many insignificant details of a seemingly ordinary mother and son, she has somehow made us watch 3 hours of a horror movie without realizing we were watching a horror movie at all. The first three hours of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles have so much authority, paint the inside of Jeanne’s mind in such deceptively mundane realism, we have been fooled into thinking we were watching our lives, which, in a sense, we were. Jeanne’s victim, and liberator, her final trick, may not deserve his fate, but that’s what revolutions are like, messy, violent, arbitrary. Jeanne, not quite ready for her freedom, acts in the most unexpected way we can imagine, exactly the way we would have expected her to act.
The final ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles feel more like 10 hours. Jeanne is doomed. But if you sit patiently through the three and a half hours of her movie, Chantal Akerman will so completely fuck your sense of time that, in some odd way, she gives you the keys to open the door of your own cage. Whether or not you decide to walk out is entirely up to you.