The monstrosity of monotony: ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels’ by Chantal Akerman creates horror in supposedly mundane

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Paradise Films/Courtesy

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Editor’s note: The Daily Californian typically is invited to film screenings by a publicity contact. On occasion, writers attend screenings at local theaters of their own volition, pay for a ticket and choose to write about the film in retrospect. 

With a runtime of three hours and 18 minutes, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels,” written and directed by Chantal Akerman, who passed away in 2015, is a simultaneously mind-numbing and rewarding art film. It is a study in the mundane, and while scenes of the film can be excruciatingly boring — making it tedious to watch at times — Akerman’s ability to draw attention to the horror that lurks under the facade of ordinary life makes for a chilling experience that is as haunting today as it was when it first premiered in 1975 at the Cannes Film Festival. “Jeanne Dielman” screened at BAMPFA on Sept. 24.

Widowed housewife and mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is a fan of routine. Every day, she does groceries, cooks for her son, cleans and sleeps with men for some extra money. Playing the interesting role of both mother and prostitute, she approaches these tasks with a demeanor that ranges from indifference to disillusionment. The film follows Dielman’s life for three days, during which her routine completely crumbles in a way that is irreversible and extreme.

Akerman puts the audience into a kind of trance by emphasizing the monotony of Jeanne Dielman’s life. The film literally contains shots of Dielman making an entire meatloaf, peeling potatoes, taking a (completely unsexy) bath, cleaning and doing errands, all with a placid expression on her face that reflects the mundanity of the tasks themselves perfectly. Dielman is meticulous and brisk in her routine; she turns the lights off every time she leaves a room, she puts everything she touches back in its place, and she checks the mail every time she reenters her apartment.

The way “Jeanne Dielman” is filmed successfully makes the viewer an observer, and thereby vigilant in their watching, which is key to the advancement of the plot of the film. There are little to no point of view shots or close ups. The camera watches Dielman both in and out of the house with wide shots capturing every detail, which makes subtle changes to her daily routine in the second and third day both glaringly obvious and ominous.

Although “Jeanne Dielman” is technically classified as an “Art Film,” at times it creates more anxiety than some horror classics. Akerman’s film touches upon the terror of an entire culture by replacing the classic jump scares and supernatural elements with, believe it or not, real life.

Because the film has very little dialogue and no musical score, the viewer’s sole focus is on Jeanne Dielman. As the film approaches the second day, small digressions from Dielman’s routine (as small as forgetting to button a button on her coat) create an anxiety in the pit of the viewer’s stomach that only grows as Dielman begins to slip up in her routine more and more. These deviations are also darkly humorous; rising actions of the film include Dielman forgetting to brush her hair or dropping a spoon on the floor.

There are many moments that are filled with intense feeling, which is surprising given the lack of dialogue and music as well as the tedium that encompasses the entire film. Akerman focuses the viewer on Jeanne Dielman alone, which allows them to sympathize and align themselves with her. It is depressing to feel our protagonist’s isolation from the rest of the world. Dielman completes her housework alone and her main interaction is with her older son who is only around in the evenings.

Although Dielman does occasionally talk to a store clerk or her neighbor, meaningful lines of dialogue are few and far between. A feeling of disillusionment really starts to become palpable when Dielman’s routine starts to unravel. One scene that is particularly striking is after Dielman burns potatoes for dinner on day two, and she must re-peel them. As she skins them slowly with a slight frown on her face alone in the kitchen, it is so easy for the viewer to literally feel the loneliness and frustration emanating off of this woman who seems to be stuck in a life that is paradoxically filled with emptiness. Scenes like these are the ones which evoke terror. How many housewives have felt or still feel the same sense of isolation as Jeanne Dielman?

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Paradise Films/Courtesy

Although Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” may put some viewers to sleep, there is a reason why it is known as Akerman’s most famous film as well as “the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema,” according to The New York Times. Akerman’s hard-hitting depiction of the plight of the housewife strikes a chord with the viewer even though it has been over four decades since “Jeanne Dielman’s” first screening. “Jeanne Dielman” evokes thrills and chills and drags the viewer along with the protagonist into a spiral of monotony that ultimately leads to madness.

See “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” by Chantal Akerman at the BAMPFA on Oct. 27.

Contact Roshni Rawal at [email protected].