It's the kind of film that cineastes discuss in whispers. It has an awkward title, and an awkward running time: 3 hours and 21 minutes. It has long been unavailable on video, and only those with access to the occasional special screenings -- or to bootleg DVDs -- have been able to see it in the past 34 years. Those who have seen it describe it with awe: nothing happens. Well, not exactly nothing. The main character is a housewife. She cleans the tub, washes the dishes, shines shoes, cooks dinner, goes shopping and sometimes sews. Oh, and she's a prostitute who sees one male client each afternoon, just before her teenage son gets home from school. But, of course, that's exactly when the film decides to cut away. The clients go into the bedroom. Cut. They come out again, fork over the cash and leave.
The film is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), written and directed by the Belgian-born Chantal Akerman when she was not quite 25. Today it makes its debut on an official Criterion Collection DVD, thereby erasing much of the myth surrounding it. I just finished watching all of it, and it's far more accessible than you might think, and far more cleverly constructed than it seems. The film takes place over the course of three days, and Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) receives her first male visitor in the first ten minutes. Say "housewife" and practically anyone will glaze over, but say "prostitute" and everyone perks up. So we watch, waiting to see just how Jeanne juggles this one strange aspect of her life. When will the next guy arrive? What does Jeanne do to prepare?
Akerman drops in other little mysteries, such as a fluttering blue light that flashes onto the wall of Jeanne's apartment (from a neon sign outside the window?), and a mysterious, nightly errand that Jeanne and her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) run every night. But the film's real narrative thrust comes through Jeanne's routine. During the first busy day, she never misses a beat, but about 90 minutes in, just after her second client leaves, things start to fall apart. She accidentally burns dinner, and her entire day is thrown off. She finds herself dropping things and eventually just sitting and staring off into space. I won't be giving anything away to say that the film ends with an act of violence, followed by the film's most openly emotional scene (its last). In one fell swoop Akerman created not only a landmark of experimental cinema, but also a landmark of feminist cinema, though the exact reason why is up for interpretation.
Me? I like the fact that she was brave enough to leave in all those things that other films cut out: basically the daily routine. Jeanne rarely speaks in the film, and she never rescues anyone, nor holds a gun, but we know volumes about who she is from the mundane way she spends her day. She's a much richer character than just about anyone seen onscreen in any cineplex today. Akerman never really equalled the impact of this film, though her subsequent films remain just as difficult to see. Some of them have been well-reviewed, like D'Est (1993) and La Captive (2000), and her English-language A Couch in New York (1996) is available on video, even though no one seems that crazy about it. I've only seen one other of her films, Tomorrow We Move (2004), at a film festival screening, and it left me indifferent. Even so, Akerman has a secure place in film history based on her bold, one-shot masterpiece.
Criterion's two-disc DVD set comes with lots of interviews, filmed in the 1970s, the 1990s and today, and a short film. There's no commentary track, since the entire feature is compressed onto a single disc. If you've seen and love things like Bela Tarr's Satantango, then this is for you.