“Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles”: A Plea for Women Everywhere to Live Their Own Damn Lives
This is perhaps one of the most iconic works in feminist cinema and, therefore, has been a super intimidating subject to write about… what hasn’t already been said? What perspective hasn’t been explored? Should I even attempt a fresh look or should I simply regurgitate what is known, and should be known, about this work?For the sake of keeping it simple, as I have a tendency to go on and on in explicit detail, I have chosen the ladder. Let’s get down to the basics:
Jeanne Dielman is about 20th century womanhood, living and being ruled by socially constructed routines, abiding by them, and loosing any sense of individuality or purpose while meeting those socially-enforced expectations. I would like to say this gender-specific code is dead; however, this sense of ‘womanly duty’ is still evident in 21st century female-identified living.
The story begins in the home of Jeanne as she goes through her morning routine in painstaking real time. Her motions are visually presented in a pace we normally do not see in our influencer-infused media era where morning routines are a dreamy, lush, sweeping look at interior design, beauty products we can buy, and overly narrated descriptions of their personal, influential rituals. With Chantal Akerman’s 3.5 hours long masterwork “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080, Bruxelles”, that is not the case… this shit is slow. However; Delphine Seyrig’s natural rhythm is so captivating that you can’t help but watch her, study her, find yourself looking for her thoughts. Through watching her actions over the course of the three fictional days represented in the film, we get a glimmer of her mentality, and a hint at the gender roles she lives and is ruled by.
Growing up, we watch and study our parents as they take care of us (or a younger sibling) in an un-curated, slow pace. And then, when we play as children, we mirror what mommy and daddy do in a game called “house.” Jeanne Dielman perfectly mirrors what ‘mommy’ or ‘wifey’ does. There’s no exaggeration or embellishment of the routines that guide her life — it’s plain, factual, procedural. We’re drawn into the authenticity of her experiences, we know these routines personally, and yet, we still find ourselves watching.
As we observe her daily program, we question her lifestyle. How can she live this way and be satisfied? Is this really all she does every day/how she spends her time? Is this who she is when she’s alone?
This is when we, as viewers, begin to question the era in which she lives. How individuality, personal choice, and the pursuit of happiness may not have been an option for Jeanne due to the times, and area, she grew up in. Women, generally speaking, often lack control of their lives and must simply respond and conform to the ways of people around them — which is not new news. Historically speaking and even in a contemporary setting, women are addressed via their male association. For example, when women are single they are ‘Miss’, when women are married they are ‘Mrs’, and when women are widowed they are ‘Ms.’ Some women achieve a ‘Dr.’ status, which is the only prefix that regards women as individual beings, unrelated and unassociated with anyone else — and must be earned. Men; however, are forever ‘Mr’, or ‘Dr.’ should they so choose. Think about it.
Let’s continue on with this thought: The only way women were able to earn, to live, or simply survive, historically speaking, was through and by the men they were associated with. Women transitioned from the hand of the father at the altar to the hand of her husband in the church— always led and guided by men. From the beginning of time through honestly today in some countries, male-association and unity was the only goal women strived for. And after they succeeded in marrying a man who would support them and that gentleman passed away (as women, traditionally, married men who were older), women would relish in their riches/single status in their later years or remarry again — for money.
For Jeanne, the question here is: what does one do when their husband is dead and it’s time to live your own, individual life? Is unlearning deep seeded social codes even possible?
Personal authenticity was never a part of Jeanne’s growth as an individual, as she was trained from a young age to support/service others and execute the social etiquette required of her ‘as a woman.’ Her natural needs were never explored, only stored. And now that she’s met all of her expectations and completed her tasks: to marry, to cook, to clean, to service her husband, to bare children, raise and educate them, lead them to a respectable, successful life… what is there left to do? In the silence, our thoughts are louder than ever. Here, Jeanne has the time, the funds, and absolutely no ability to articulate what has been silenced and suppressed for so long… and therefore cannot fix her interior problem, consciously. However; suppression, in due time, can be absolutely volatile.
We see the beginning of that break in her persona in the afternoon where Jeanne accepts a male visitor — several male visitors. The activity that follows, which we do not see visually in the beginning, is at first unexpected then makes perfect sense. Purely clinical, transactional, and unemotional, Jeanne has sex with a few regulars to bring in additional income — or perhaps meet some elementary human need. This ‘liberal activity’ totally juxtaposes itself from Jeanne’s previously established conservative, contained, simple homemaker lifestyle. It leaves you wondering — who is this woman?! This service could be solely for additional income (as she places all of her earrings from prostitution into a jar, which she later gives to her son as a monetary snack) and be the only way she could go bring in extra money. But, it could also be a gesture to exert a sense of control, liberty, or independent choice/rebellion into her own life… who’s to say.
On the surface, Jeanne is the epitome of a dutiful wife (even when her husband is dead), one who cooks, cleans, prepares, serves. One who, at a shallow read, lacks personality and simply satisfies everyone else’s needs — nurtures, even if coldly. However; Jeanne, in secret, ‘rebels’ against social norms in her own way. She’s very smart, through depressed and lonely, understanding what she is going to be capable of as a woman, and what she is not. Which leads her to killing a man, who may be innocent of the societal crimes that has inflicted and bullied her psyche, but who’s murder represents a larger message for the purpose of this film. She’s been living for others her entire life and never lived for herself. Even when she was given an opportunity to live her own, independent life as a single, widowed woman, she still found herself submitting to social expectations — even in the sanctity and silence of her own home. Social stigmas and expectations rule us, even in the quiet. We can’t help but obey. And without a healthy release/taste of rebellion, we often fall far too deep.