When Chantal Akerman made “Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” in 1975 she was only 24 years old. The road to making the film began with contacts and one of them was French filmmaker Babette Mangolte , currently a professor of visual arts at UC San Diego who wound up being the cinematographer on this film . Akerman and Mangolte met in New York, a city that would later become the young Belgian director’s adopted home. Mangolte introduced Akerman to experimental filmmaking, a small and exclusive world she loved.
Success came early to Akerman whose film was selected for the Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight in 1975. Suddenly 50 international festivals wanted to screen it. It starred the brilliant French actress Delphine Seyrig as a housewife and widow who stays at home to take care of her teenage son. Once a week she solos as a prostitute for one of her regular clients. Of the film Akerman said that she wanted to value the rare subject of a housewife whose ritualistic work is at home. She has said that a woman almost certainly would have had to make it since a man barely pays attention to his wife’s work at home. To that extent Akerman does a meticulous study of the daily motions of Jeanne Dielman and as she later explains, the film was based on watching the routines of her mother at home, a survivor of Auschwitz whose parents died in the camp.
“Jeanne Dielman” is 200 minutes long and is a fascinating film which breaks down and compartmentalizes Jeanne’s various chores and activities such as putting coffee into a thermos, boiling potatoes, shining her son’s shoes, making up his bed or putting the money from her clients into a large covered dish in the living room. Each day the routines are shot and the procedures given extraordinary importance. This is especially because of Akerman’s framing of the kitchen and the hallway, an almost claustrophobic environment where we as spectators engage in Jeanne’s activities. We are forced to acknowledge how the order is exact and strictly kept in Jeanne’s schedule. We notice how Akerman is careful to present the one day when Jeanne has some time to think for a bit unlike previous days and the film changes its trajectory. This is the compelling force of the film that remains an enchanting narrative construction to this day. Chantal Akerman died in October last year at the age of 65. Her final film on her mother, “No Home Movie”, will be released this year.