Sunday 5 December 2021

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)


Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Some movies on the List have a reputation that precedes them, for better or worse, and “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, or just “Jeanne Dielman” is one of those and not for the better.

Not only does this movie have a title of impressive length, it also boast a running time of 200 minutes and a pacing that may be the slowest I ever experienced. The dialogue may actually be shorter than “2001, a Space Odyssey”. To call this boring or dull would be the understatement of the year.

And yet, I did find something in it.

We, the audience, is a fly on the wall, witnessing the daily life of Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig). She lives in an apartment with her teenage son, and this is literally her life. She runs this home with military precision. Dusting, cooking, shopping, washing, eating. Everything is done precisely, completely and with a sense for the detail. Every move is practiced and correct. Tools in the kitchen each have their specific place, she wears correct protection for her cloth when she cleans, the bathtub is scrubbed after use and shoes a polished every morning. Everything is in order and correct.

Much of this is recorded in real-time, which makes it almost overwhelming in its locked and confined pattern. The one oddity is that to maintain this home she prostitutes herself. Each man has his day. He comes, does his thing and leaves. Done. Jeanne Dielman makes it look like just another house-wifey thing to do.

Halfway through the movie Dielman starts to crack. Imperceptibly at first, forgetting a few things, getting distracted. Then it seems like she is thrown off track and cannot get back in the pattern. It is as if the life she has lived so far does not do it for her anymore and in her own way she rebels against it.

This is supposed to be a feministic movie and I can understand why. Jeanne Dielman is locked in her role. Doing it to perfection brings some contentment and purpose to her, but it is also a prison and a submission, to conventions and to men, symbolized by her prostitution. It is an empty life though, as represented by the completely meaningless conversation she has with her neighbor and once she is shaken she fails to re-find any meaning.

I also appreciate the tortured slowness of the movie. Without spending this much time with the domestic chores we would not to the same extent have understood how much of a meaningless prison it is. This is not domestic bliss, but a regimen to maintain the domestic ideal. Nothing is done for the joy of it, but because it is the right thing to do.

That does not mean I enjoyed the movie. It is painfully slow, and I had to chop it up to get through it and even then I was getting nuts looking at her peeling potatoes for 5-10 minutes. This is as far from a date movie you can possibly get unless you want you date to run away screaming, but as an intellectual exercise it is a very smart movie, and it completely hits home with its message. I am actually happy to have watched it, but I do not think I would want go through watching it again.

I think there are way worse movies on the List. In fact, I think this movie deserves a better reputation.


  1. I had a very similar response to the film. I would even say I loved it, and would probably watch it again. It is not a pleasurable experience, its not meant to be. It does perfectly capture how utterly boring life would have been for a large number of women throughout history, neglected and ignored, assumed to be ignorant (and being rendered so because of a lack of education and opportunity). Akerman made it as an exploration of the lives of women her mother's age, and the amount of denial they lived with. The film made me feel glad I live now, not in the past.

    I agree with you about there being much, much worse films out there. While I do understand people not enjoying the film, I don't see how anyone could argue its "bad" or one of the worse films ever made. The incredible amount of detail and the way such details evolve over the film shows a great deal of thought and craft. It does demand a lot from the audience, but I was willing to be hypnotised by it. I don't know anyone personally I'd recommend it to, but its certainly a classic of feminist filmmaking.

    1. I think appreciation of this movie very much depend on how you approach it. If you see it to be entertained, well, then you will most likely be disappointed. As an intellectual exercise however, it is sublime.
      I have never envied the life of the housewife and never really understood how that can be a fulfilling life, but I think this movie goes further and consider not just the housewife role, but the expectation of women of that generation, of what the success criteria was, and how truly limited and empty that role is.

  2. I let the reputation and running time dissuade me from watching this. Possibly a mistake on my part!

    1. This is a unique experience. Not a very pleasurable one, but an interesting one nonetheless. I think it was worth watching.

  3. I understand everything you said about how the structure of the movie leads you down the path to understanding what happens to her but by the end I could not have cared less about that.

    I just hated it utterly! I also broke it up to get through but it made it no less painful. The only "artistic" picture I got less out of was the wretched Last Year in Marienbad (the world's longest French perfume ad) and at least that was only a little over an hour and a half!

    Hell I could have watched How the West Was Won again rather than this, enjoyed it and had a half hour to spare. Ugh.

    1. I understand what you mean and I have, a little too often, been in that situation. I dislike movies that tries to serve an artistic point that I do not get, either because I am too stupid or simply do not care. Especially when the movies makes no sense without this understanding. Godard comes to mind.
      "Jeanne Dielman" is not a fun movie to watch. It is intensely boring, but for once I actually understand what it is trying to do and I sympathize with it and that does give it points. It is not obsure or weird like Last Year in Marienbad or high brow intellectual (to the same extent) as Tarkovski's movies.

  4. I'm with Joel on this one: I hate it. I hate pretty much everything about it. Maybe it's great or has something to say, but I didn't find it and I won't watch it again to see if I missed it.

    I'm with Joel on Marienbad as well--the film that turned my blog from PG-13 to R-rated.

    1. Steve, you hatred for LYiM is famous. I sometimes take it out to read it just to blow off steam.

      I guess I just want to repeat what I wrote to Joel.