Available for free on MUBI (until 14 June 2018).
Over the weekend, I posted about the MUBI Film Schools Program, which allows any user in South Africa to stream selected films for free, and to which any South African can sign up for free. My first experience of it was, as I wrote, a major event; the second, which this post is about, was a great wonder. Its full title is Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; it was written and directed by the queer Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and released in 1975; and it’s rightly heralded as a revelatory breakthrough of feminism in cinema, in that not only is it a great and momentous film made by a woman, but it takes a woman’s view of a woman — of women and the lives of women — as its subject, and puts forward vast and pointed ideas about that woman, about that woman’s view, about those women’s lives, and about the political circumstances and imperatives of those lives that could not have been done so strongly and so exquisitely not only by any man, but by any other filmmaker in history. Akerman — who tragically committed suicide in 2015, at the age of 65 — shot the film with an entirely female crew, which would have worked out alright, except that she didn’t get to choose any of them. Working off a government grant (of about US$120,000), she was assigned a crew, and, though she didn’t appreciate the directive, she managed to deliver one of the crucial works of movie history at the age of twenty-four years.
Jeanne Dielman follows its petite bourgeois title character through three days of her life, as she performs her routine domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and tidying up. (The rest of the title is the address of her Brussels apartment, where she lives with her son.) It also depicts her work that she takes on to support herself and her son, namely prostitution. While he’s away at school, she discreetly accepts gentleman callers who arrive soon after she’s placed her food on the stove and leave a little while later, as she prepares to set out dinner. Her daily activities (excluding her sex with callers, but including a nude shot of her cleaning herself in the bath) are shown in real time and very long takes, all in pretty much the same framing, with the camera entirely stationary throughout each scene and at table-top height, at an equal distance from the subject at all times (and the subject is just about always Jeanne Dielman). An interruption to her routine is introduced on the second day, and the startlingly spiralling and abstracted psychological after-effects of it throw that very routine and its vast web of implications into harrowing relief.