Chantal Ackerman's 1975 depiction of a few days in the life of a French widow, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has been recently issued on DVD by Criterion Collection. The audience, as with many Criterion titles, will be quite limited. This is a work off extreme minimalism. The camera remains static as it captures the daily routine of the title character. As she goes about her mostly mundane activities, there is no score or narration. The dialogue, in French with optional English subtitles, is sparse. The film's running time of 201 minutes may try the patience of even the most open-minded viewer.
Then again, if given a fair chance, the viewer may get sucked in by the nearly hypnotic non-events that the movie so methodically details. Something about the utter lack of tension and drama in Jeanne Dielman's life manages to effectively stop the clock. This widow, and mother to a high school aged boy, happens to be a prostitute. She doesn't leave her house, rather every day a different gentleman arrives at her front door. She takes each customer into her bedroom and all the business is conducted behind a closed door. The viewer doesn't know, or really need to know, the details. Jeanne sets out a small towel on her bed, apparently to protect the sheets. All we are privy to is the sight of her going back to take the towel off her bed, eliminating any offending evidence. These activities occur while her son is at school.
There is no discernible emotion in any of the duties Jeanne performs throughout her day. Setting up the hide-a-bed in the living room for her son is approached with the same boredom as entertaining a john. Ackerman takes her time in staging these events, but nothing is given any particular emphasis over the other. Everything Jeanne is shown doing seems more or less like busy work. For the first hour or so I didn't notice the time passing, even though not much of any obvious significance was happening on screen. I have to admit, however, that as the running time dragged on I started getting increasingly restless. The main motivation to continue watching was the thought that something of consequence must inevitably happen. Eventually, quite late in the game, something fairly monumental does happen. Revealing the climax would be dirty pool, as it is arguably the only true payoff for spending three hours watching Jeanne Dielman live her crushingly routine life.
Whether or not the life-altering decisions that Jeanne ends up making are worth the investment of so much time is certainly open to debate. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is, if nothing else, noteworthy for forcing the viewer to feel something while watching. There is irony in watching a lengthy movie in which almost nothing interesting happens, but in the end leaves its viewers with so much to dissect and talk about. Watching someone live an inane life filled with humdrum tasks that must be repeated day in and day out only served to remind me of how many people are trapped in the same sort of joyless prison. Jeanne Dielman makes the choice to change her situation, but I kept wondering if it was truly necessary for her be living her life that way to begin with. No one was forcing her to prostitute herself. No one was forcing her to wait on her son so devotedly, despite the fact that he is old enough to more or less take care of himself.
The Criterion Collection has done an exemplary job of bringing Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles to DVD. The cinematography was, intentionally I suppose, not very interesting as the film is staged with so little movement. But the picture and sound are more than adequate, especially considering the film's age. The two-disc set really shines in the area of special features. Autour de "Jeanne Dielman" is a vintage documentary, running over an hour, that offers a look at the making of the film. Among a generous selection of interviews, there are talks with director Chantal Ackerman as well as Delphine Seyrig, the actress who portrays Jeanne Dielman. Saute ma ville, Ackerman's very first film, is also presented as an extra. Fans of Jeanne Dielman will no doubt be delighted by the host of supplemental features. For those who can't make it through the three-hour-plus movie, the second disc will be useless.